Hawks role players star, too
The likes of Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Johansen get most of the accolades, but it takes more than star forwards to win in the Western Hockey League playoffs.
Somebody has to suck it up, play a defensive role and be more concerned with preventing goals than scoring them.
Taylor Peters, one of a handful of Hawk role players, knows his place on the team's third forward line, which also includes Riley Boychuk and either Tayler Jordan or Brendan Leipsic. Their primary job: play defense and control the action with a power cycle in the offensive zone. Scoring is a bonus.
"We bring energy and do a good job of inspiring everybody and a good job of shutting down the other team's top forwards," says Peters, an 18-year-old player from Delta, British Columbia.
Peters says coach Mike Johnston 'is big on us being sound defensively and punishing their defensemen."
"Their" defensemen now refers to Spokane, which dispatched Tri-City 4 games to 2 to force a best-of-seven series against the Winterhawks for the WHL Western Conference championship.
The series between the West's top two teams starts with games at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Sunday, both at the Rose Garden.
Johnston has gained confidence in his third-liners. With just as much confidence in the defensive abilities of his first and second lines, he has rolled three lines and even four through the Winterhawks' first two WHL playoff series.
In fact, Johnston doesn't profess to having a "checking" line. With Boychuk, who had 18 goals and 17 assists during the regular season, and Leipsic, who had 16 and 17, the third line can score. Boychuk has four goals and five assists in 10 playoff games.
"We've always been a team that likes to play with depth, play a third and fourth line with players who serve roles," Johnston says, noting the penalty-kill work of Jordan and Peters and Boychuk's penalty-kill and 5-on-3 power play.
"It's very important that they're 'plus' players and can contribute," Johnston says.
Indeed, none of the four players (Boychuk, Leipsic, Jordan and Peters) are 'minus' players in plus-minus rating. And Seth Swenson, a rookie who saw action in 60 regular-season games, has a zero rating. Anything better than minus-1 is considered good - as with most defensive third lines, those guys are often facing the other team's best forwards.
Leipsic was plus-13, Boychuk and Peters plus-5 and Jordan plus-2 going into the playoffs.
"Sometimes they'll play against the other team's top guys, but we haven't used as much of a pure checking line as last year," Johnston says. "Johansen, Peters and (Craig) Cunningham all are good two-way centermen. I feel comfortable with those guys against anybody" leading the defensive play.
A force on the ice
With the 6-3 Peters, 6-5 Boychuk and 6-6 Jordan on the ice, not many teams at any level present as much pure size to face an opponent. Somehow, the 5-8, 160-pound Leipsic fits in, in large part because of his ferocious and fearless play.
"I definitely bring that height average down," Leipsic quips.
Johnston never saw Marty Standish, a popular smaller player for the Hawks in the late 1990s. But he has heard the comparisons between Standish and Leipsic, a 16-year-old rookie from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Leipsic earned more playing time this season after an injury to Oliver Gabriel, and he has impressed. Not a game seemingly goes by without Leipsic leveling a tremendous hit on oft-bigger player. He put Vancouver's Brendan Gallagher out with a concussion.
"He's got some serious talent," Boychuk says. "He has really good wheels, can crush guys with his speed and jumps at the end (of the check) to hammer guys. He hits hard and doesn't back down. He'll be a force to be reckoned with."
Peters jokes that if Jordan leveled a player the way Leipsic does, he would probably get a penalty. "He plays like he's 6-foot-5," Peters says, of Leipsic. "He's the kind of guy who can get away with stuff. (Being shorter) is a blessing in disguise; he can be a little more on the edge."
Leipsic played youth football, which fueled his love for contact. Johnston notes that, like a defensive back in football, Leipsic generates force by "coming up into a hit, using his legs and generating power through speed, technique and size.' The result: More powerful hits.
"It came naturally, to be honest,' Leipsic says. 'I've always liked to play physical. Maybe guys underestimate me. ... I don't care about my size or how big the other guy is."
Leipsic also has some skill, and Johnston sees him being one of the top six forwards on the team next season.
No small role
Boychuk, a 19-year-old from Abbotsford, British Columbia, who was drafted last year by Buffalo, has improved to where Johnston calls him "pro ready." Although he played with Johansen and Niederreiter, with Brad Ross suspended against Kelowna, Boychuk understands his future lies as a defensive forward.
"From a selfish standpoint, yeah, everyone wants to put up points and goals," he says. "But you've got to think team first and play the role to make the team successful."
Peters, too, would be a defensive/checking forward as a pro. It's an "unsung role" to be a third-liner, he says, but "teammates and coaches realize that and respect it."
"They say the best offense is a good defense," Peters adds.
Jordan, 20 and from Wynyard, Saskatchewan, doesn't know whether he'll play pro hockey. He floats between the third and fourth lines for Portland, while serving on penalty kills. He is the tallest Hawk forward but skates pretty well.
"It's a good way to stay on a great team like this," he says, of his role. "There's no small role."
Depth has been forged on the forward lines, despite the loss of Gabriel and the trade of Spencer Bennett and Teal Burns. Swenson sees time, and late additions Pearce Eviston and Matthew Ius have appeared in the playoffs. Youngsters Chase De Leo, Taylor Leier and Nic Petan remain with the team.
"Swenson we've used throughout the year," Johnston says. "Eviston and Ius I'm becoming more comfortable with."