After watching his bloodied linemate helped from the ice, Chase De Leo did all he could to make one of his best friends feel a little better — help the Portland Winterhawks make the semi-final at the MasterCard Memorial Cup.
De Leo gave Portland the lead for good in the third and the Winterhawks scored three times in the period to defeat the Saskatoon Blades 4-2 in the tournament’s final round-robin game.
With the score tied 1-1 after two, De Leo jammed a loose puck past Blades goalie Andrey Makarov at 4:08 as Portland (2-1) now moves on to Friday’s semi-final.
After the game, thoughts on the Portland side quickly turned to Winterhawks right-winger Taylor Leier, who suffered what appeared to be a blow to the head on a hit from Blades defenceman Dalton Thrower just inside the Saskatoon blue-line in the first period.
A bloodied Leier, who is from Saskatoon, stayed facedown for a few minutes before being helped off the ice and did not return. The was no penalty on the play, but the Canadian Hockey League said in a release after the game that it was reviewing the incident.
“You don’t want to see a teammate go down, especially one of my best friends and linemates. It’s a scary thing,” said De Leo, who now has two goals at the tournament. “It’s not something you want to see and obviously the boys are going to get some energy and motivation to battle back for him.”
Not surprisingly, Winterhawks coach Travis Green and Blades counterpart Lorne Molleken had different interpretations of the hit.
“It’s pretty obvious where the shot comes. It hits him in the head and there is a jump to it as well. The video is pretty obvious,” Green said. “We lost one of our better players to a hit that I thought should have been a major.”
Molleken, meanwhile, called the hit “unfortunate” but added that he thought Thrower caught Leier in the chest with his shoulder.
Winterhawks players disagreed.
“When you see a teammate go down like that you’re not going to stand by and watch but at this point in the tournament and how big of a game it was, we can’t take any stupid penalties,” said Portland forward Ty Rattie, who scored his fourth goal. “(Leier) got his head hit. It was a hit to the head.”
The host Blades (1-2), who were swept out of the Western Hockey League playoffs in the first round and have never won a Memorial Cup, now have a tough task with three games in four nights.
A win on Wednesday would have meant a bye to the final, but Saskatoon now faces a Thursday tiebreaker game against the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights (1-2).
“Going through adversity is nothing new for this team. We’ve had our ups and downs this year and we’re looking forward to proving ourselves again and taking the long way around,” said Saskatoon overage forward Josh Nicholls, who had a goal and an assist. “This a typical Blades way of doing things — taking that long way. Hopefully we get the job done and take three straight.”
The winner of the Saskatoon-London game will meet Portland in Friday’s semi. With the Winterhawks’ victory, the Halifax Mooseheads (2-1) clinched a berth directly into Sunday’s final to decide the CHL champion.
Derrick Pouliot and Brenden Leipsic had the other goals for Portland (2-1), which got 29 saves from Mac Carruth. Nicolas Petan added two assists for the WHL champions.
Shane McColgan also scored for Saskatoon, while Makarov stopped 30 shots in taking the loss.
“It was a big win,” Green said. “I thought their team came out hard like we expected early, tried to be physical on us and we withheld and I thought we slowly took over the game.”
After De Leo scored to give Portland the lead in the third, Leipsic added an insurance goal for Portland at 6:27, ripping a shot from the slot into the top corner past Makarov.
Rattie made it 4-1 with his fourth of the tournament at 10:16, beating Makarov to the glove side off the rush.
“We knew it was going to be hard and to get three quick bingos like that was big for the boys,” Rattie said. “(It) gave us a little bit more confidence and a little bit more leeway on defence.”
Nicholls scored at 16:27 to cut the deficit to two, but the Blades would get no closer.
“Portland did a good job against us in a lot of areas but these teams are all skilled teams and when we get into that game it’s going to be difficult on us so we have to play a simplified game,” Molleken said. “We have to play a north game and make sure our forecheck is good but tonight we let Carruth handle far too many pucks.”
Following a scoreless first period, the teams traded goals in the second. Pouliot opened the scoring at 6:44 after jumping on a Blades turnover and firing a shot from the sideboards that fooled Makarov through the five-hole.
Saskatoon got a 5-on-3 power play later in the period and didn’t generate much of anything until McColgan, who hit the post moments earlier, fired a shot past Carruth that deflected in off a Winterhawks player in front with a second left on the second penalty to tie the score at 11:20.
Portland had a golden opportunity to retake the lead when Blades left-winger Michael Ferland took a double minor for high sticking with just over four minutes remaining in the period. Winterhawks defenceman Seth Jones, the No. 1 ranked North American skater according to NHL Central Scouting ahead of June’s draft, had a good chance off the rush but fired wide as the Blades weathered the storm and were saluted off the ice by a standing ovation from the crowd of 9,239 at the Credit Union Centre.
Coming off Sunday’s emotional 5-2 victory over Halifax, the Blades said prior to the game that their focus would be to get on the body early and they did just that, hitting the Winterhawks at every opportunity in the first period — including Thrower’s crushing blow on Leier.
The Blades, who have had their share of doubters this season, don’t have much time to refocus ahead of Thursday’s tiebreaker.
“Things are just going to increase in tempo here. It all counts now because lose and you’re done. There is no tomorrow anymore so we’ve really got to strap up and put our work boots on,” defenceman Duncan Siemens. “We’re a hard-nosed team. We have some skill up front but the majority of team is meat and potatoes. We’ve got to go to those hard areas and score those greasy goals.”
Notes: The Winterhawks have won two Memorial Cups (1983, 1998). The Blades have never won a CHL title. ... Former NHL tough guy and Blades alumni Joe Kocur was in attendance.