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Struggling Hawks regain confidence but still need wins

Portland gets WHL playoff spot in spite of disappointing season

Five wins in the last 30 games, and the Portland Winter Hawks really believe they can win playoff games?

'We have a little of our confidence back,' captain Richie Regehr says. 'We know we have to still get over the hump; we still need to get the wins. Working hard can only satisfy you for so long. When you're working hard and not getting the wins, it's not easy to keep upbeat.'

The Winter Hawks squeezed into the Western Hockey League playoffs through the back door, using a recent Tri-City overtime loss and their own point-garnering overtime loss Wednesday at Kootenay.

The Hawks (19-37-8-5) will open a first-round, best-of-seven series against Spokane with games March 21 and 23 at the Rose Garden. Portland plays at Seattle tonight, plays host to the Thunderbirds on Saturday and Kamloops on Sunday in the regular-season finale.

Sixty-nine games ago, the Winter Hawks seemingly sported one of the WHL's best defenses and more feeble offenses. The grind-it-out offense didn't turn out to be as pathetic as people predicted, and the defense hasn't really lived up to its billing.

Coach Mike Williamson put some defensemen who could pass and shoot the puck Ñ Regehr, Braydon Coburn, Joey Hope Ñ into position to help the offense. Regehr led the team in scoring for many weeks, and his 16 goals and 44 assists ranks among the best for WHL defensemen. Hope, now injured, even played some at forward.

Somewhere along the line, however, the defensemen got lax on their main mission: to help goalies Krister Toews and Lanny Ramage keep pucks out of the net. Toews and Ramage have been good, great and inconsistent Ñ pick a night Ñ but many times the defense made turnovers or got bulled over or outmuscled in front of the net.

Spokane won the season series with Portland 6-3-1. If they meet in the playoffs, as expected, the Hawks' defensemen had better stick to defending, or the more potent Chiefs will take advantage of them.

'Guys have looked at offense before defense, which has taken a back seat,' Regehr says. 'I think our defense is great Ñ nothing I'd change. But I don't think we've done as well as people have expected.'

Williamson explains that the defensemen 'sometimes had to make higher-risk plays than we would have liked; we had to create something at the other end.'

Defense gets the job done in 3-2 and 2-1 playoff games. Defensemen can't take chances. It's typical playoff hockey. 'Can't sell the farm to get something if you want to have success,' Williamson says.

Defense doesn't only mean defensemen, either. Portland, not blessed with gifted point producers, must rely on the likes of Chad Wolkowski, Brad Priestlay, Craig Valette, Danny LaPointe and Cody McLeod to check tightly.

The complexion of Portland's defense has changed since the club dealt an underachieving Patrick Wellar in October for Wolkowski, a potent forward who has been bothered by concussions. Surprise rookie Michael Funk has seen ice time with Wellar's departure and with Czech David Turon injured and not playing for Portland until January. Like most Europeans, Turon needed an adjustment period to North American life, too.

'If David had not been hurt, we might not have pushed (Funk),' Williamson says. 'We also had hoped David would be further along. He's not at the level we had hoped, but he's starting to come along.'

A handful of injuries have kept Hope out of the lineup, and Williamson also experimented with playing him up front because of his offensive skills. Through it all, Hope has been inconsistent and has the worst plus-minus rating (minus-24) on the team. Veteran Dustin Bauer, expected to see limited playing time, has been a constant. He and Matt Fetzner need to be key playoff contributors as long as Coburn (ankle) and Hope (shoulder) remain sidelined.

Coburn, once projected as a top-three pick in next summer's NHL draft, has seen his stock slip to where he might be a mid-first rounder. Scouts question his toughness, and he hasn't lit the lamp too often (three goals, 16 assists).

The Winter Hawks' penalty kill has been steady and the power play pretty good at times. Toews, who seems to be distancing himself from Ramage, can be stellar, as recent outings against Vancouver and Red Deer proved, but Spokane's Barry Brust has been great lately. If the turnovers and shoddy play in the defensive end are cleaned up, the Hawks can compete with Spokane.

But, the Winter Hawks are fearful that all of the injured players will not be healthy by next week. Spokane also has its injury problems, as Tim Krymusa and Jeff Lucky are questionable for the series, Brad Schell is out and Doug Lynch is probably out.

Contact Jason Vondersmith at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .