|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
- The Edmonton Oil Kings are now in the same position they were last year -- trailing the Portland Winterhawks two games to one in the Western Hockey League Championship Series.
Michael St. Croix scored his team-leading 11th goal and 23rd point of the post-season and Laurent Brossoit made 24 saves, but it wasn't enough against a determined Winterhawks squad. First-period goals by Taylor Leier, Ty Rattie and Oliver Bjorkstrand put the Oil Kings in a hole, while goaltender Mac Carruth sealed the deal with 38 saves.
"We weren't ready to play and we didn't come out with a lot of urgency. From the moment you walk into the arena, you have to be ready to play and we weren't," said Head Coach Derek Laxdal. "But our players know how they have to respond. We challenged them after the game and we'll have another meeting tomorrow.
"We're not going to get outworked in our own building and we're not going to lose tomorrow night."
Portland opened the scoring at 4:39 as Leier collected his 10th goal of the post-season. On a bit of a broken play in the slot, the 19-year-old corralled a quick centering pass and sailed a shot through the wickets of Brossoit.
The Winterhawks made it a 2-0 game on their very next shot less than four minutes later. Covering the point as Cody Corbett pinched deep, Stephane Legault couldn't keep the puck in at the blue line, resulting in a 2-on-1 back the other way.
With Ashton Sautner back on defence and covering the pass to perfection, Rattie whistled a laser beam past Brossoit.
On another odd-man rush late in the period, Edmonton product Troy Rutkowski worked a give-and-go with Bjorkstrand that resulted in a breakaway for the Great Dane. Deking to his backhand, the winger roofed a shot up and over Brossoit's right pad.
The Oil Kings had the only power-play chance of the period as Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Derrick Pouliot was sent off for high-sticking, but nothing came of it.
It's a reoccurring storyline, but Edmonton has now failed to score on 25 straight opportunities with the man-advantage.
Holding a slim 10-8 edge in shots, the Winterhawks led 3-0 after one period of play.
"If we could throw that period out of the window, we'd be in the game," said Laxdal. "Plain and simple, we weren't ready to go."
Turning it up a notch in the second, the Oil Kings made a game of it at 9:13 as St. Croix tallied his team-leading 11th goal and 23rd point of the playoffs. Twenty-year-olds TJ Foster and Dylan Wruck tic, tac and toed before the puck found the stick of St. Croix burning down the slot. Finishing off one of the prettiest three-way passing plays of the season, the pivot one-touched it into the open cage behind Carruth.
"One of our game plans is to shoot from everywhere," said St. Croix. "We've been a lot of shots on from the goal line pucks that are at (Carruth's) feet and he seems to lose it. We have to get to the net and bury some of our rebounds. We had some good shots, but we need to bear down and get some more higher-quality chances."
Penalties to Oilers prospect Mitch Moroz (high-sticking), Brandon Baddock (kneeing) and Corbett (high-sticking) gave the Winterhawks three separate power-play chances in the second, but the Oil Kings' PK was exceptional, limiting the visitors to only a handful of chances as the infractions expired without any further damage done.
Still, offence didn't come easy. Led by Seth Jones, Tyler Wotherspoon, Pouliot and Rutkowski, the Winterhawks defence came up big.
"They're not as tough as Calgary, who boxed us out pretty well, but it isn't easy," said Foster. "They're very smart with the puck. They knock pucks down and turn it back the other way on the transition pretty quick. When we do get pucks through, we have to get it upstairs.
"(Carruth) takes away the lower half of the net very well, so we have to get it up."
The Oil Kings and Winterhawks each registered 11 shots in the middle frame.
"Yeah, I did," Laxdal said when asked if he liked his team's response in Periods 2 and 3, "but we have to bring that earlier in the game. We want to go back to Portland tied 2-2 and not down 3-1. We were in this position against Calgary and responded well. We have to have a response and in order to do that, we have to bottle up that pushback we had in the third period."
Late in the third period, Bjorkstrand and Brendan Leipsic raced up ice on a clear-cut 2-on-1 rush. Channeling his inner Bill Ranford, however, Brossoit came up with a sensational sliding glove save to deny the Winterhawks an insurance marker.
At the other end, Carruth was equally as sound. Facing 20 shots in the third, including a glorious chance late as Curtis Lazar cut into the slot, the Chicago Blackhawks prospect stopped them all.
"We got a couple chances and a couple looks, but we didn't bury them," said Laxdal. "We've got to come out with some urgency and tie this series up 2-2 tomorrow night."
Game 4 of the WHL Championship Series goes tomorrow night (Wednesday) at 7:00p.m. at Rexall Place.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick