An early 2-0 deficit clearly wasn’t part of the game plan for the Kelowna Rockets.
But thanks to a resilient final 40 minutes—including a three-goal second period—the B.C. Division champs now own a 1-0 lead over the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL’s Western Conference final.
Rourke Chartier’s goal on a breakaway at 15:56 of the second period stood up as the game winner, as the Rockets edged the Portland Winterhawks 3-2 in the best-of-seven series opener in front of 5,871 fans Friday night at Prospera Place.
The Winterhawks, who have beaten the Rockets in the post-season in three of the last four years, jumped out to a 1-0 lead just 35 seconds into the game on Oliver Bjrokstrand’s 11th goal of the playoffs.
Adam Henry scored at the 18-minute mark to push Portland’s lead to two.
But early in the second period, with the Rockets killing off a Josh Morrissey penalty, captain Madison Bowey beat Hawks netminder Adin Hill for a short-handed goal at 1:38. Forty-six seconds later, Justin Kirkland connected for his first playoff goal and the tide had turned in the Rockets’ favour.
“Our first period was pretty flat,” said Bowey, whose Rockets were ousted in five games by the Winterhawks in last year’s conference finale. “We came out with a much better effort and carried it on for a full 40 minutes.
“We just wanted to stay positive, I know last year the same thing happened, we went down three goals to these guys early on,” added Bowey. “So our mindset was just to get a good kill to start the second and we actually got a shorthanded goal there. It was huge to get that momentum and we didn’t look back from there.”
Chartier’s team-leading eighth playoff goal came on a flip-pass from Tyson Baillie as the 19-year-old centre snuck in behind the Portland defense, then rang a shot off the crossbar and in past Hill to put Kelowna ahead to stay.
Chartier said the Rockets, who have now won nine of 10 playoff games, are facing their toughest test yet in the skilled, high-tempo Winterhawks.
“Every team brings something different and that’s a real high-paced team, they can really skate,” Chartier said. “I thought the first period was adjusting to that, now we know what to expect here and we expect even a better effort from them tomorrow, so we’re going to have to be at our best.”
The Rockets couldn’t add an insurance goal but kept the Winterhawks’ largely at bay in the third period, outshooting Portland 18-7 and 46-32 overall.
Head coach Dan Lambert liked the way his team nailed down the win.
“I thought our guys did a good job of keeping their feet moving, obviously it would have been nice to get a fourth or fifth goal but that just didn’t happen.
“But it was certainly the finish that we needed and that we wanted,” he said.
Game 2 goes Saturday, 7 p.m. at Prospera Place.