'Halfway there'

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:47 AM ET

If last night's game was any indication of what's to come, this series is over.

Done like the NHL.

Following two solid efforts in Lethbridge where Calgary split the series, a 4-0 Hitmen whitewash in front of a Sea of Black illustrated the type of dominance WHL observers figured the Hitmen were capable of all year.

More importantly, it put the hosts up 2-1 in the series, giving added momentum to a team that may soon have every reason to start believing they have the depth, firepower and goaltending to do some damage this spring.

Riley Merkley is one of the believers.

"The last 10 games, I thought we hit our stride. Even the first game of the series (a 2-1 Lethbridge win), I thought we could've won," said Merkley, who kickstarted a two-goal-in-25-seconds flourish seven minutes into the first.

"I thought we came out early and, with the crowd, we out-hustled them and got on top. If we bring that kind of effort from the start, we'll be successful."

Chasing Aaron Sorochan, the East Conference's finalist for goaltender of the year, with three goals on eight shots, the Hitmen fired up a crowd of 16,291 exuberant fans relishing a somewhat muted return of playoff hockey.

Down the hall, the Hurricanes dealt with the reality they are now the definitive underdogs in a series they were slight favourites to win.

For the first time all year, the team held a players-only meeting while coach Lindsay Hofford shook his head outside.

"The meeting is not really a normal thing because I haven't seen them play like this," said Hofford, whose club was one of the league's most potent this year.

"It all comes down to one word -- passion. You have to play for the team."

Last night they didn't, although he was quick to give the Hitmen full marks for their effort.

In the end -- or the beginning, as the case was -- it came down to early goaltending problems which has Hofford contemplating a change to backup Scott Bolland, a Calgary product.

"We'll see," said Hofford, when asked if he'd put league minutes leader Sorochan back in for Game 4 tonight.

"I think he's got it in him to bounce back."

As for his top line, which was outscored by Hitmen goalie Justin Pogge, who had an assist, Hofford smirked when asked what he would do to try getting them back on track.

"Get on my knees and pray for them to come back," said Hofford of Colton Yellow Horn, Kyle Pess and Jonathan Filewich.

After scoring the two opening goals, the Hitmen shut down one of the most potent offences in the Dub, using a relatively inexperienced defence that had some locals nervous heading into the playoffs.

Not only did they give Pogge an opportunity to stop every one of the 21 shots he faced, they even contributed offensively.

Defenceman Jeff Schultz, a huge 6-ft. 6-in. disappointment this season after being drafted 27th overall by Washington, chipped in with a big first-period goal 25 seconds after Merkley opened the scoring.

From there, the team -- harangued all year long for blowing third-period leads -- got a pair of goals from its top line as Andrew Ladd padded totals that find him with three goals after three games.

After eight games this season in which these two teams were separated by a goal, Hitmen head coach Kelly Kisio predictably balked when asked what he'd say to someone who suggested the series was all but over if the Hitmen kept up their intensity.

"I'd say they're full of..." he smirked.

"Nothing is over until you know who sings. We're only halfway there."

Funny, that's the same way you could've described Lethbridge's effort last night.

WANNA GO?

We have a pair of lower-bowl tickets for tonight's Game 4 between the Hitmen and the visiting 'Canes to give away to one lucky reader. If you can attend, log onto www.calgarysun.com, hit the contest link and click on Hitmen Playoff Contest. We'll pick a winner at random for tonight's game and contact the lucky reader by 3 p.m. Winners will need to pick up the prizes at the Sun offices.


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