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Cunningham adds to Portlands arsenal

Hawks hope his experience will boost them in playoffs
by: Christopher Onstott Tayler Peters of the Portland Winterhawks advances the puck in a victory last week over the Vancouver Giants. The playoffs start this weekend for the Hawks, who had the best regular-season record in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference.

Ryan Johansen stands outside the Portland Winterhawks' locker room, doing a media interview, and Craig Cunningham steps up and stares at him, mockingly waiting - for about 15 seconds.

Johansen starts to smile and, aware of his 20-year-old teammate staring at him, breaks into a very complimentary line of quotes that make Cunningham sound like the second coming.

'Craig Cunningham has been huge for us against Everett,' Johansen says. 'If he keeps dominating against Everett, we should be pretty good. And, I'm dead serious. He's a playoff player. He always rises to these challenges.'

Satisfied with Johansen's heap of praise, Cunningham chuckles and walks off. Johansen continues on about Cunningham, a vital acquisition midseason from Vancouver for his vast experience, leadership, skill as a scorer and two-way player and faceoff player, and, of course, playoff success.

'It was a huge trade when it happened,' says Johansen, who, along with Nino Niederreiter, provides Portland with the most heralded players in the Western Hockey League playoffs - Johansen going No. 4 to Columbus and Niederreiter No. 5 to New York Islanders in last summer's NHL entry draft.

'I knew right from the moment we made that trade that this team was capable of making a big run in the playoffs. We're not looking ahead, but we should definitely be good contenders for the Memorial Cup.'

After finishing 50-19-0-3 in the regular season for the best record in the U.S. Division and Western Conference, the Hawks begin their journey against Everett in a best-of-seven series, starting Saturday and Sunday in the Rose Garden. Portland went 9-1 against Everett during the regular season.

Cunningham has been as good as advertised in Portland, after 4 1/2 seasons of enjoying success with the Vancouver Giants. He was part of a Memorial Cup-winning team in 2006-07 and went on to play on three other division winners. So, with Portland, it's now five division titles in five years for Cunningham as a junior player.

The 5-10, 181-pound Cunningham, a fourth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2010, immediately joined a line with Swiss standout Sven Bartschi and second-year playmaker Ty Rattie, and excelled. He had 17 goals and 25 assists goals for 42 points in 35 games - one of six Portland players to average a point a game - and 27 goals and 60 assists and 87 points overall. The numbers were slightly down from his 97 points in 2009-2010, but Cunningham was happy with his fifth and final WHL regular season.

Portland General Manager/ coach Mike Johnston says he evaluated three premier centers to possibly acquire and, when Vancouver finally decided to part with Cunningham and go into rebuilding mode, the Hawks jumped at the chance to get him. On Dec. 28, Portland gave up Spencer Bennett, Teal Burns, first- and sixth-round bantam draft picks in 2011 and a second-round pick in 2012 for Cunningham.

'Vancouver did me a huge favor to trade me to a great place,' Cunningham says. 'The potential in the room is unbelievable, it's such a good team here.

'This team is, by far, the most skilled team I've played for,' he adds. 'There are so many guys here. Anytime you can have two top-five (NHL) picks in the same room, it's pretty special. But sometimes in the playoffs it comes down to skill and how hard you want to work.'

Johnston couldn't be happier with Cunningham's contributions, with both his play and intangibles of experience and leadership.

'You look at what he's accomplished in our league,' Johnston says. 'He's won division titles all five years in the league; I don't think that's ever been done in the history of the league. It's an elite group, if anything.

'He's a winner, and every organization wants winners. He plays the game the right way, practices the right way. He doesn't cut corners in anything he does. He's very professional. He's been well-coached and well-schooled in Vancouver.'

Rattie, one of four highly rated Hawks prospects for this year's NHL draft, says playing with Cunningham has helped improve his game.

'He's been huge,' Rattie says. 'He took me under his wing, mentored me, told me to keep my head in the game, get ready for every game. It's been a big learning process for me this year.'

As far as Cunningham, Rattie has learned through his teammate's example. 'He's a very hard worker, that's his best trait,' he adds. 'He's willing to do anything.'

An exciting group

Until Johansen's late surge, Bartschi, Rattie and Cunningham stood as the Winterhawks' top three scorers - skating on the designated second line behind Johansen, Niederreiter and Brad Ross. Johansen finished with 40 goals and 52 assists for 92 points, ahead of Cunningham, Bartschi (85 points) and Rattie (79 points).

'Unreal offensive abilities with those three,' Johansen says. 'Bartschi has been huge, with an unbelievable shot. Craig has playoff experience and is a good two-way player and faceoff guy. Ty has unbelievable deception with the puck, plus a good head and vision.'

Cunningham didn't feel as though he needed to take command of Portland's locker room. He has respect for captain Brett Ponich, as well as for Johansen and Niederreiter. He wanted to help younger players, such as Brendan Leipsic, 16, and 'it's been fun playing with two draft-eligible, touted guys (in Rattie and Bartschi). It's almost stupid how talented they are. I can show them work ethic; if they work hard every night, the possibilities are endless for those guys.'

What does the future hold for Cunningham? The Bruins have to sign him before June 1 or he becomes a free agent. Cunningham hopes something gets done before the WHL playoffs end. He's a tad nervous.

'But there are a lot of options out there,' he says. 'I feel I have the ability to play pro hockey.'

Says Johnston, a former NHL assistant: 'At the NHL level, he's not going to be a top-two line guy. He has to prove he can do all the things we've talked about - checking, two-way play, penalty kill.'

For now, Cunningham hopes to lead Portland to the Memorial Cup. He remembers the glorious 2007 year in Vancouver under coach Don Hay, and how intensity and excitement rose with each playoff win. Vancouver played host to the Cup, and won it all on home ice.

'It's such a long road,' he says, of the march to the Memorial Cup tournament. 'It doesn't happen overnight. There are ups and downs, especially when you're the favorite.

'But it's an exciting group we have here, and the playoffs are the most fun part of the year. Every time you touch the ice, it makes a difference between winning and losing.'


Winterhawks, player by player

(With comments from General Manager/coach Mike Johnston)

Player Age Height/Weight Comment

FORWARDS

Sven Bartschi 18 5-10/185 Swiss import is "a real dynamic player"

Riley Boychuk 19 6-5/220 "One of the better forwards in the league"

Craig Cunningham 20 5-10/181 "A good two-way center"

Pearce Eviston 18 6-1/192 "Going to give us depth in the playoffs"

Oliver Gabriel 19 6-2/203 Injured, but has "a lot of power in his game"

Matthew Ius 20 6-2/210 From BCHL, gritty and "gives us depth"

Ryan Johansen 18 6-3/196 "Had a breakout year, offensively"

Tayler Jordan 20 6-6/203 "A big leader on the team"

Brendan Leipsic 16 5-8/155 Energy guy, "time went up with Gabriel out"

Nino Niederreiter 18 6-2/203 "Playing his best hockey down the stretch"

Taylor Peters 18 6-3/212 Checking center "has very good skills"

Ty Rattie 17 6-0/170 "Can break open games with the plays he makes"

Brad Ross 18 6-1/175 Playing with speed, "he's really effective"

Seth Swenson 17 6-1/205 Big forward "improved this year"

Jason Trott 18 6-1/184 "Got in more games than anticipated"

Nic Petan 15 5-8/140 Top bantam pick "might play in playoffs"

DEFENSE

Taylor Aronson 19 6-1/201 "Very good, smart, positional player"

Josh Hanson 16 6-2/189 Prospect "has great size, reach and offense"

Joe Morrow 18 6-1/198 "Really taken off in past two months"

Brett Ponich 19 6-7/225 Injured (knee), "probably 4-5 weeks away from playing"

Derrick Pouliot 16 6-0/192 "Really emerged in second half"

Troy Rutkowski 18 6-2/195 Like Morrow, "he does things offensively"

Tyler Wotherspoon 17 6-2/203 "Solid defensive defenseman, physical"

William Wrenn 19 6-1/210 "Replaced Ponich, good shutdown defenseman"

GOALIES

Mac Carruth 18 6-3/174 Had recent injury, but "technical, very quick, very competitive"

Keith Hamilton 18 6-1/180 "More calm, poised, positional this year - good strengths"