PORTLAND - After jumping to a 3-0 lead, the Portland Winterhawks hoped their second-round WHL playoff series against the Kamloops Blazers wouldn't come down to a Game 7.
The Winterhawks, who failed in their first three attempts to close out the series, get one final opportunity to put the Blazers away tonight when the two longtime rivals clash at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The winner advances to the Western Conference final against the winner of tonight's other Game 7 showdown between the Spokane Chiefs and Tri-City Americans in Kennewick, Wash.
"Probably since these guys were kids, they've dreamed about playing in Game 7s," Winterhawks general manager and head coach Mike Johnston said. "There couldn't be anything more exciting than a Game 7. They're just the best - the atmosphere, the intensity, the do-or-die situation . . .
"You're looking for your big players to rise up in those moments. The scenario is set and it's going to be exciting on home ice."
The Blazers clearly have momentum on their side, having survived three consecutive elimination games, including Game 6 on Monday when they rallied from a 5-2 deficit entering the third period and won 7-6 in Kamloops.
Blazers defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer scored the game-winning goal with 20.6 seconds to play, putting the Blazers in position to become only the second team in WHL history to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games.
Spokane rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the opening round of the 1995-96 West Division playoffs, knocking off the Winterhawks 4-3 in overtime in Game 7 at the Spokane Arena.
Johnston said he has little concern about where this series ranks from a historical perspective.
"Not when it comes to moments like this," Johnston said. "I don't think (history) is a factor is these types of games. It's about handling the moment, handling the situation, being ready, and key guys rising up."
After three consecutive losses, are the Winterhawks under more pressure than they were when they had a 3-0 series lead?
"Not so much," said left-winger Brad Ross, who has a series-leading eight goals and four assists for Portland. "We've had a couple leads and we haven't played so well with them, but it all comes down to this next game. We're just focusing on Game 7 right now."
Said Portland right-winger Ty Rattie: "I know I'm going to be battling with 19 guys that won't back down. We're confident. We've forgotten about the last three games and we're coming into this one like it's a Game 1 - winner takes all."
This marks the 11th time in franchise history that Portland has gone to Game 7 in a best-of-seven series. In the previous 10, the Winterhawks are 4-6, including a 2-2 mark at home.
The Winterhawks have six players - Mac Carruth, Oliver Gabriel, Joe Morrow, Troy Rutkowski, Rattie and Ross - who saw action in Game 7 against Spokane in the opening round of the 2009-10 playoffs. Rattie scored the game-winner at 17:29 of overtime for his first career playoff goal, and Carruth stopped 26 of 30 shots in goal, pacing the Winterhawks to a 5-4 victory in Spokane.
"With that type of experience, you expect that it will be a key . . . something that will keep us focused in the game tomorrow night," Johnston said. "Lately, I don't know if there's anything that Kamloops has figured out in our lineup or things they can take advantage of.
"At the same time, they've played well, and I think we've played well, too. It's been a hard-fought, even series and a real battle."
Notes: Rattie had two assists in Monday's loss to extend his point streak to 10 games. He leads the WHL playoffs in goals (13) and points (23). . . . Kamloops LW Brendan Ranford is the leading scorer in the series for the Blazers with four goals and seven assists, while RW Jordan DePape has four goals and five assists. . . . Carruth surrendered seven goals on 43 shots in Game 6, including three goals on shots from the point. "I think Mac has been good in the series," Johnston said. "You come out of games like Monday's game and you can over-examine things. But I look at the goals and there's nothing that was his fault. It's funny how sometimes point shots hit a shin pad and bounce to the left or to the right, and sometimes they find their way through. Monday night was one of those nights where they found their way through."