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Winterhawks formidable again, but title chase will be a battle

The Winterhawks were so good last season, winning 50 regular-season games and reaching the Western Hockey League finals, they made it look easy - almost too easy.

But it's not easy, and Portland's junior hockey club has some work to do in reaching that level or beyond this season.

Mike Johnston has done a beautiful job re-establishing a program that had sunk to eyesore level only a few years ago, and the Hawks' general manager/coach has a nice nucleus or returnees that could again challenge for WHL supremacy.

So Sunday's 4-0 loss to Tri-City at Memorial Coliseum - Portland's third loss in three matchups with the Americans this season - isn't a death knell.

Playing its third game in three nights, Portland outshot the visitors 43-22 - including 21-5 in a whirlwind third period that almost unbelievably reaped no goals.

Tri-City is an excellent team, and goaltender Ty Rimmer stood on his head Sunday night, leaving the Hawks and a sparse crowd of 2,400 feeling a little cheated.

The Americans won five of nine matchups with the Hawks last season, and perhaps the locals were fortunate they missed Tri-City in the playoffs enroute to the finals.

It's going to be a three-team battle between Tri-City, Portland and Spokane for the U.S. Division title this season. The Hawks are going to have to do it without a pair of 19-year-old forwards - Nino Neiderreiter and Ryan Johansen - who were instrumental to their success a year ago.

Neiderreiter and Johansen seem likely to stick with their NHL clubs - the New York Islanders and Columbus. Also probably gone are defensemen Brett Ponich and Taylor Aronson and forwards Riley Boychuk and Oliver Gabriel, all 20-year-olds eligible to return but currently playing in the minor professional American Hockey League.

The WHL limit for 20-year-olds is three per club. Portland is going with two - defenseman William Wrenn and center Charles Wells.

'Any of them could come back,' Johnston said, 'but once they start playing in the American League, you doubt if they'll be back. We've left a spot open just in case.'

The remaining cast remains formidable, and Tri-City coach Jim Hiller is smart enough to downplay his team's early dominance.

'We've gotten some good goaltending against them, and it's early,' Hiller said. 'It's a long season. We understand that.'

Portland has managed only one goal in its last two games against Tri-City, and frustration mounted as the Hawks peppered Rimmer with shot after shot Sunday night without lighting the lamp.

The Hawks, 4-4 after eight games, have averaged only 3.3 goals per game. Do they have enough offense to get the job done this season?

'It hasn't been the case so far, but I believe we do,' Johnston says. Lack of scoring 'has been a big factor so far. Our forwards don't carry the play as much as they did last year and don't finish as much. We have to be better at finishing, for sure.

'Part of it is getting scramble goals. We have to dig harder around the net. They don't have to be pretty goals, but those are the ones we have to score.'

Sven Bartschi - the WHL West rookie of the year last season with 34 goals and 51 assists - and Ty Rattie will be among those who must carry the load this campaign.

'We have enough guys on our team to score,' Bartschi said. 'It's up to me and Rats to be the same way Nino and Ryan were last year. We haven't scored that many goals so far, but we'll keep working.'

If Hiller thinks offense will be a problem for the Hawks this season, he's not saying.

'There's still plenty of firepower there,' the Tri-City coach said. 'They had 40-plus shots tonight. They have some good young players who are offensive players.

'They're an excellent team. You better be on your toes defensively when you play them, because they can score.'

The Americans made the most of their 22 shots, getting the puck past Portland goalie Mac Carruth three times, then tallying an empty-net goal in the final minute.

'We didn't have a lot of chances, but we have some guys who can finish,' Hiller said. 'You saw that tonight.'

Playing the third game in three nights 'affected us a little bit, but you look at the shots,' Johnston said. 'We had jump in the third period. We did a lot of good things, but (the Americans) capitalized on their chances, and their goalie was really good.'

Portland and Tri-City play seven more times in the regular season, so there is time for the Hawks to turn things around in the rivalry.

'We're still finding our team game,' Johnston said. 'We aren't sharp yet. We're getting better, but we have to do a lot better than that.

'We've lost three to Tri-City; that's a problem there. We can't let a team in our division have that lead on us in a series. We're going to have to scramble to get back in against them. They're a good team - probably the favorite in our division.'

Carruth is a solid goalie who has been through the WHL wars. Portland's defense looks strong with veterans such as Wrenn, Joe Morrow, Troy Rutkowski, Derrick Poulliot and Tyler Wotherspoon.

What will be crucial is the development of young forwards such as Chase De Leo, Brendan Leipsic and Taylor Leier. And veteran Brad Ross will be counted upon for a big year.

As Hiller said, it's a long season. But the Americans have already put the Hawks in a bit of an early hole.

'We want to beat them,' Bartschi promised. 'They're in our division. It's always a tough battle against them. Three in a row is not a very good result. It just makes us want it more.

'Next time, we're going to be pretty motivated against them.'

One thing is for sure. It won't be easy. In the world of sports, it never is.