|Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club
- The Edmonton Oil Kings are in the deepest of holes.
Following a 2-1 loss to the Portland Winterhawks in Game 4 of the Western Hockey League Championship Series, the Oil Kings are heading back to Oregon's Rose City on the brink of elimination.
Goals by Brendan Leipsic and Edmonton native Troy Rutkowski were enough to lift the Winterhawks to a 2-1 win and 3-1 series lead Wednesday night at Rexall Place.
Oilers prospect Mitch Moroz scored the only goal for the Oil Kings, while Laurent Brossoit made 19 saves in the losing effort.
"Our kids aren't going to quit," said Head Coach Derek Laxdal. "Our backs are against the wall. Our goal is to get this thing back to Edmonton on Sunday and we've got to perform well and get a win in Portland. It takes a bit of the pressure off us now because we're in a win-or-go-home situation.
"Our guys fought hard in the second and third periods to get the game to 2-1. We put a lot of pressure on and got a lot of good looks, but we couldn't connect. We haven't had much puck luck in the series."
"We're in a good position," countered Winterhawks Acting Head Coach, Travis Green, "but we have been here before. We've talked a lot about it this year. We play, we analyze our game, we own it and we move on. I like the group that we have and how balanced they are emotionally. We've never gotten ahead of ourselves and it's going to happen now.
"It takes four to win a series. We're going to get their best game on Friday (Game 5) and we have to play better. We know it's going to get harder yet. We have to win one more."
Allowing only eight shots on goal in Periods 2 and 3, the Oil Kings were the better team for most of the night. But it wasn't enough. Once again, a slow start proved costly.
Coming out with some urgency (at least, to start), the Oil Kings played their best period of the series in the opening 20 minutes, but couldn't get the goal they so desperately needed.
Curtis Lazar, Edgars Kulda and Stephane Legault, in particular, were all over the ice, but Winterhawks goaltender Mac Carruth stood his ground. The Chicago Blackhawks prospect stopped 29 shots on the night and has now allowed only two goals in the last three games.
With momentum shifting to the visitors, Brossoit was equally as strong at the other end. With Keegan Lowe pinching in deep, the Winterhawks sprung back the other way on a 3-on-1. Sliding across, post-to-post in Gumby-like fashion, Brossoit robbed top draft-eligible prospect Seth Jones with an incredible right pad save.
Holding a slim 13-11 edge in shots, the Winterhawks led 1-0 after one period of play, however.
Leipsic scored his ninth of the post-season with less than three minutes to play in the period. Orchestrating the goal as he burned Ashton Sautner wide, Nick Petan centered a pass that was knocked down in the slot by the backchecking Oil Kings defence. Racing to the scene, Leipsic outmuscled Oilers prospect Martin Gernat and easily deposited the puck into the open cage behind Brossoit.
The Winterhawks extended their lead to two at 9:54 of the second period. As Dylan Wruck was off serving a high-sticking minor, Rutkowski stepped into the slot and gunned a wrist shot over Brossoit's right shoulder.
While the Winterhawks were busy scoring goals with the man-advantage, the Oil Kings couldn't get theirs going -- again. Going 0-for-4 on the night, the club has now failed to score on 29 straight opportunities.
"We've tried everything," said Laxdal. "We need to go back to the basics. I think the pressure's getting to them a bit. I hoping they can relax now. We're asking our players to shoot the puck and for some reason they won't. If you want to be successful on the power-play, you have to shoot the puck.
"Plain and simple.
"For us to get back here on Sunday for Game 6, our power-play has to work on Friday."
Just as a power-play (Adam De Champlain, roughing) expired 2:45 into the third, the Oil Kings made a game of it. Showing some nice hand-eye, Moroz batted the puck out of midair and into the net past Carruth, netting his second goal of the playoffs.
The goal required video review to determine whether or not the puck was hit with a high stick, but after a lengthy look-see, it was deemed good and the 8,400 in attendance at Rexall Place erupted in celebration.
"I've had a few goals called back this year," laughed Moroz. "I think that was the fourth or fifth time I've had one go to review. But after watching the replay, I knew it was a good call. Corbs (Corbett) made a good play and I parked myself in front and tried to get a stick on it. It was really nice for it to go in."
Moments later, the Oil Kings came oh-so close to tying it up, but Carruth made a pair of sensational saves off TJ Foster and Michael St. Croix down low, preserving his team's lead late into the third.
Edmonton kept pressing.
Legault and Lazar soon found themselves rushing up on a 2-on-1, but the pass across didn't connect. If it had, Lazar would have had the entire 6x4' to shoot for.
"We're throwing a lot of pucks on goal, but we're hitting him in the chest," he said "He has great rebound control and when he does let one out, their defencemen are pretty quick in getting back and taking the opportunities away from us. As forwards, it's up to us to fight through those checks and get our sticks on them."
"He made a number of great saves tonight," added Laxdal. "He's responded very well after Game 1. Give him credit for bouncing back like that."
Trailing by one late in the game, the Oil Kings couldn't get Brossoit out for an extra-attacker. A high-sticking penalty to Henrik Samuelsson with 56 seconds left erased any opportunity to do so and, as a result, the Winterhawks cruised to the buzzer.
"We're going to take two minutes to digest it, but when we all walk out of that dressing room, we need to hold our heads high," said Laxdal. "We won 51 games in the regular season and we need to win another here in the playoffs.
"See you Sunday."
Game 5 is set for Friday night at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregan (8:00p.m. MT puck drop).
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick