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Winterhawks hitting stride

Portland has shaken off a slow start to the season and is returning to winning form

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA: JON HOUSE - Oliver Bjorkstrand (pictured) and Chase DeLeo lead the Winterhawks attack with 30 points apiece early this season. For fans of the Portland Winterhawks, following a winning product has been a way of life. The four-time defending Western Conference champions have spoiled their faithful with dominance and trophies, so when they struggled early in the season, fans were in foreign territory.

Winterhawks followers don’t need to hit the panic button just yet.

After opening the year without a consistent lineup, Portland has figured things out since the calendar turned over to November. The Winterhawaks have put together a three-game winning streak against two of the top clubs in the conference in the last week and they appear to be returning to familiar form.

“The continuity has been the biggest difference for us,” Portland coach Jamie Kompon said. “We have guys at pro camps anywhere from 10 days to six weeks early on, so having everybody back has been huge for us.”

The depleted Winterhawks started the year with six straight losses and won just five times in its first 17 contests. Portland then upset the Kelowna Rockets on November 1. Since then, it has been a tough out for everyone in the league. Portland is 7-3 in the month.

Last weekend brought with it the first indicator that the team is really starting to turn the corner. The Winterhawks went up to British Columbia and downed first-place Kelowna on its own ice on back-to-back days. The Rockets have lost just five times in 26 tries this season, and three of those have come at the hands of the Winterhawks.

Portland followed up its two-game sweep of Kelowna with a 4-2 victory against third-place Victoria on Tuesday, bringing the team to .500 (12-12-0-3) for the first time this season.

The Winterhawks’ recent surge has been fueled by a few players who have been instrumental to the success of the franchise during its champion run. Center Nic Petan, rightwing Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase De Leo know what it feels like to raise a trophy, and they have really come on strong of late.

In Portland’s win over the Rockets on Saturday, De Leo and Bjorkstrand each found the net and Petan recorded an assist. On Tuesday, Petan added two more assists while Bjorkstrand put up a two-goal night.

“Our work ethic has really improved and everyone is doing their jobs,” Petan said. “When we are all doing what we are supposed to be doing, things naturally go a lot better.”

The play of the veterans on the ice has been essential, but they have also felt a responsibility to step up as leaders off the ice. Last month, Petan was named team captain. Bjorkstrand and De Leo were made assistant captains.

“We knew coming in that we weren’t going to have the all-star team we’ve had in the past,” Petan said. “It’s all about being mature and figuring out how to be successful with what we have. As captains, I think we have each taken a little more upon ourselves, but it is good for us.”

Few teams in the league can rival Portland’s captains in terms of winning experience. That could prove invaluable as the season progresses.

With the win over Victoria, the Winterhawks pulled even with Spokane for third place in the U.S. Division of the Western Conference with 27 points. Tri-City sits just one point ahead of Portland and Spokane and division-leader Everett is within striking distance at 33 points. If Portland’s captains can stay healthy, the Winterhawks could be back on top sooner than later.

“Things are finally starting to roll for us,” Petan said. “We just have to keep improving and keep it going.”

US Division standings (through Nov. 25)

Team Pts.
Everett Silvertips
Tri-City Americans
Spokane Chiefs
Portland Winterhawks
Seattle Thunderbirds

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