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Hawks will make playoffs, Hodge says

But their coach worries about the team's inconsistency

The Portland Winter Hawks remember how underdog Seattle bit them in the butt in last year's Western Hockey League playoffs.

Now they want to do the biting.

Clearly, Seattle in the U.S. Division and Kelowna and Kootenay in the B.C. Division are the teams to beat this year in the WHL's Western Conference. Given the 'parity' in the West, however, the Winter Hawks like their chances of winning at least one playoff round, General Manager Ken Hodge says.

'We can be very dangerous in the playoffs,' Hodge says. 'We have some experienced goaltenders; we've all seen Lanny (Ramage) play very big in clutch situations. We're expecting some of that again.

'The defense is very good, and we're very involved offensively right now. We're not confident about our team, but we feel comfortable we're going in the right direction.'

The Hawks are 15-20-5-4 for 36 points, third in the U.S. Division behind Seattle and Spokane and ahead of Tri-City's 29 points. Prince George in the B.C. Division has 33 points. The team with the fewest points will not make the playoffs.

Coach Mike Williamson worries about his team's consistency. The Hawks battled and lost 3-2 in overtime Friday at Prince George, then let a lead slip away and tied the Cougars 4-4 on Saturday. One night the Hawks play great, the next night subpar.

'We've harped on consistency all season,' Williamson says.

The solution?

'We've got to get back to taking pride in our own end (defensively). We've got to get back to playing simple and solid,' Williamson says. 'We push our young players to realize how important it is. Our team relies on our defense; when they don't play well, we don't win.'

The Hawks, who are at Kelowna on Wednesday and play Seattle on Friday in the Rose Garden, did not figure that defense would be the concern. Offensively, the team has bought into an aggressive go-to-the-net philosophy because it lacks natural goal scorers. Acquiring forward Chad Wolkowski has helped, and gritty front-liners Craig Valette and Brad Priestlay have been lighting the lamp.

For the first time since 1980-81, a defenseman could lead the Hawks in scoring. Jim Benning had 139 points in 1980-81. This season, captain Richie Regehr leads the team with 41 points on 12 goals and 29 assists. Valette has 40 points, including 25 goals. Wolkowski has 34 points and Priestlay 33.

Regehr and defenseman Joey Hope (31 points) give Portland an added offensive element.

'What happened was, we had no choice but to rely on our defense early, out of necessity,' Williamson says. 'We opened thing up, and guys felt more comfortable offensively and our priorities changed.

'And with guys being in and out of the lineup, we've been inconsistent.'

Defenseman David Turon returned to the lineup in the Prince George games. Williamson wishes that Turon, who recovered from a broken collarbone and played in the World Junior Championships, would have been available earlier.

'He has to learn in a hurry,' Williamson says. 'He's got a ways to go. But he's a great player and a great competitor. I think he took for granted he'd come in and it'd be easy. I think he was caught off-guard about how good players are in this league.'

Turon excelled for the Czech Republic in the recent junior tournament.

'It was quite a collection of high-quality players he played against,' Hodge says. 'He played in a very manly fashion.'

Hodge made one deal before the trading deadline, sending Matt Girling to Prince George for Bryn Brucks. Hodge would like to have added another forward and kicks himself for trading defenseman Patrick Wellar to the Calgary Hitmen for Wolkowski.

Calgary would have taken a draft pick for Wolkowski earlier, but Hodge turned down the offer. Had Hodge saved Wellar, he could have traded him for a forward later in the season.

The GM says the physical Brucks will add to next year's depth.

'We're not good for the next two years, but we're better now that we've added a player like Brucks,' Hodge says. 'Quite honestly, we've been disappointed in the progress some younger players have made Ñ Aaron Roberge, Brian Woolger, C.J. Jackson. If they get to where we think they should get, we'll be all right.'

There wasn't much market for goalies, either, Hodge says. So, the Hawks kept the 20-year-old Ramage and 19-year-old Krister Toews. A younger goalie, Scott Bowles, was waiting for the chance to join the Winter Hawks had Hodge dealt one of the veterans.

The Hawks like their chances against Seattle, Spokane and Tri-City. Nobody in the division made significant moves at the trade deadline. 'Everybody was buying, and not too many were selling,' Hodge says.

So, nobody got significantly better than Portland.