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Winterhawks take stock after five games

Just as every game so far has been unique, the Portland Winterhawks - while still very good - figure to sport a different look this season.

The strength of the team, at least on paper and for now, has shifted from a forward line led by two first-round NHL draft picks to a solid corps of future pros on defense.

"Our defense is probably the best in the league," coach/General Manager Mike Johnston says.

The Hawks take a 3-2-0-0 Western Hockey League record into a busy weekend, with three games in three nights (Friday at Everett, then Saturday and Sunday against Prince Albert and Tri-City, both at Memorial Coliseum).

The Winterhawks have scored 19 goals and allowed 17 (10 in two games to Tri-City, both losses; Tri-City also is 3-2-0-0).

Defenseman Joe Morrow returned from Pittsburgh Penguins camp in time for his first practice with the Hawks on Wednesday, and he will join the other mainstays on the back line: Troy Rutkowski, William Wrenn, Derrick Pouliot and Josh Hanson. Another key D-man, Ty Wotherspoon, could be back in a week or two from offseason surgery.

"It's an experienced defensive group," Johnston says. "They have been with the organization longer than most of the forwards and are very strong players - four of them have been drafted, Pouliot will be a high pick this year, and we expect Hanson to be, too."

And, behind them is returning goaltender Mac Carruth, a seventh-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 who is with Portland for a third season. This will be his second go-round as the club's primary keeper.

Carruth is allowing 2.56 goals per game in five appearances (rookie teammate Brendan Burke gave up four goals in 22 minutes in his only game).

The Hawks foresee more consistency - and times of dominance - from Carruth.

"Last year, Mac was much more consistent than when he came in as a 17-year-old," Johnston says, "and this year he may have to win a game here or there on his own, if we aren't so sharp as a team. That's a goaltender's next step, to steal a game every once in a while.

"He had a good training camp and good camp with Chicago. He knows the league well enough, he feels comfortable. Confidence-wise, he's going to be ready to have a good season."

Along with supporting Carruth, the Winterhawk defensemen can be an integral part of the attack. It's part of the Johnston way, and suits the talents of Rutkowski (10 goals in the 2010-11 regular season), Morrow (nine goals last season) and others.

"We try to project the number of goals our team can produce, and we're expecting 35 to 40 goals from the back end," Johnston says, "and I think we can definitely achieve that. We have guys with the ability to move the puck and join the rush."

Not that the Hawks don't have scoring potential up front - Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi, Brad Ross and Brendan Leipsic figure to produce big numbers. But the Hawks probably will have to replace the combined 81 goals of Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter, who are likely to stick with their NHL clubs (Columbus and the New York Islanders).

"That's more than a goal a game," Johnston says. "We're either going to have to be better defensively, or get scoring from different places, or be in tighter checking games."

As the team's goal differential after five games might suggest, the Hawks could be in a lot of close games this season.

"Usually at the start of the year in particular, games are close," Johnston says.

Ross (nine points in five games), Rattie (six goals, eight points in four games) and Pouliot (six assists, seven points in five games) have carried the offense for the defending Western Conference champions. Bartschi only has two games under his belt since returning from the Calgary Flames' camp.

"Our experienced forwards - Ross, Rattie, Bartschi, Taylor Peters - are the core of that group, and they'll be really key players," Johnston says, "and then we have a lot of really inexperienced guys, like (Chase) De Leo, (Nic) Petan, (Joey) Baker. So if our team is inconsistent at times, that's probably how our forward play will be."

Veteran forward Riley Boychuk has signed with the Buffalo Sabres, Johnston says, and is set to play with their affiliate American Hockey League club in Rochester, N.Y., leaving the Hawks without another seasoned big man on the front line.

"Our scoring will be spread out, but certainly the key there will be Bartschi, Rattie and Ross, and Leipsic, too," Johnston says. "And our team won't be as big as we were overall, so that does change your style a little. I'm hoping and expecting that we'll be a little quicker, a little more skilled, and certainly our defense will be strong."

This weekend, Johnston says, the Winterhawks finally will have "everybody back that we expected back" from NHL camps, and so it's time to begin settling into better team play.

"Certainly, our team play has to improve," Johnston says, "and it will as we get more practice time and set our lines and power-play units."

One standout area so far has been the penalty kill, which is 15 for 16.

"Our special teams have been great," Johnston says.

This will be the second time in three weeks that the Hawks have three games in three consecutive nights.

"That's tough for any team, but we wanted to make sure this year that we got in as many three-in-threes early as we could," Johnston says. "We wanted to allow our schedule to spread out later in the year. It's demanding right now, but if you want to be a good team, you've got to be prepared to play every night.

"You get to see what your team is made of."