On Wednesday night, when the Winterhawks play host to Prince George, Mac Carruth will get a chance to etch his name in the Portland record books.
Carruth has 105 career victories in goal, matching the franchise record set by Darrell May from 1978-82. With his next victory, Carruth will stand alone among goaltenders in the Winterhawks 37-year history.
Its special, Carruth says. The record has stood for quite a few seasons.
Its a long season. Im probably going to get another win out of it. The way our teams going now, it will probably happen pretty quickly.
Carruth knows his record is to be shared with teammates. Goaltender victories are dependent upon them. The Hawks have reached the Western Hockey League finals the past two seasons and are riding an 11-game win streak while boasting a league-best record of 34-5-1-0.
I feel lucky to be part of some exceptional teams, Carruth says. Some exceptional players have come through here. (Ryan) Johansen and (Nino) Neiderreiter are going to be household names in the NHL in a couple of years, and (Sven) Bartschi is probably the most skilled guy Ive played with. To play with that caliber of teammate has been a treat.
And this year, we have as good a chance as anybody else to win it all.
Carruths coaches know what the record means.
Its a huge accomplishment, says Travis Green, Portlands interim head coach while Mike Johnston sits out a WHL-imposed season-long suspension. It says a lot about where he is as a goalie. Whenever you can break a record that has been around that long, its nice to get that recognition.
Not many goalies in the history of the league can say they have been to back-to-back finals. Mac has had a really good career for us, and I know where his mind is. He wants to finish on a strong note.
Johnston says he remembers clearly Carruths debut with Portland as a 17-year-old rookie at Vancouver.
Mac played great up until the third period, then really struggled and we lost, Johnston says. He felt terrible, and I know he was thinking, I came to junior hockey because I wanted to be a pro. Did I make the right choice?
Well, I think he did. Hes had a phenomenal career here and hes been an outstanding goaltender.
Carruth nearly went the college hockey route. The native of Jackson Hole, Wyo. his father ran a hockey school there moved to Minnesota when he was 10 and verbally committed to Minnesota-Duluth when he was 15. When Carruth was 17 and playing for the Tier II junior team in Wenatchee, Wash., Minnesota-Duluth coaches ran out of scholarships and asked him to wait a year before enrolling.
In the meantime, Portland had acquired Carruths WHL rights. A deal was struck and soon Carruth was a Winterhawk, serving as a backup as a rookie before winning the starting job at 18 for the 20010-11 campaign.
Carruths talent has never been in question as much as his temperament. Carruth knows he was, at times, his own worst enemy. He came of age during last years second-round playoff series with Kamloops. His 32-save gem was the first seventh-game shutout in franchise history.
Guys who have been on other teams have told me what their plans were before the games against us, the 6-2, 180-pound Carruth says. A lot of the time, it was, Get in Macs face. He likes to mix it up. Get him off his game.
(Kamloops goalie) Cam Lanigan was telling me Ryan Hanes only job was to talk to me the entire game, including warmups. When they couldnt get to me, he was out of the lineup.
Johnston says the improvement has been palpable.
Mac is emotional, Johnston says. Theres a good side and a bad side to that. The bad side is, sometimes he has gone overboard a little. It gave him trouble. Other teams knew they could get to him.
Now they cant. He has reined it in to a point when he calls on (the emotion) when its needed. Before, his flareups happened once every week or two. Now, its once a half-season, if that. He has controlled it and used it in a great way. He had to learn how to do that, or he wouldnt have become the goaltender he is.
Carruth credits Green for helping him play more under control.
The biggest thing with Mac is he has matured, says Green, who played 14 years in the NHL. He has a fire inside of him that you dont see in a lot of athletes. It can also work against you. The thing that makes them breathe is also the thing that can take your breath away.
He has learned to manage that a lot better. I know how it can feel to let your emotions get the best of you. I remember playing with (former NHL goalie) Ron Hextall. What a fiery, competitive guy, and yet you have to find a balance and keep things under control when youre the goalie. Mac has done a great job of that.
Johnston calls Carruth one of the most competitive guys Ive been around. From the time he arrives at the rink til he finishes practice, his professionalism shows.
Says Carruth: I take pride in getting ready for practice, just as I do games. Maybe sometimes I come out too competitive when its kind of a relaxed day, but Ive just kind of grown up that way. If you win, you win. If you lose, its not good enough.
It appeared the WHL career of Carruth a seventh-round draft pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 was over after last season.
A guy who has played so well in our league and gone to two finals, we figured hed be gone, Green says. If it wasnt for the NHL lockout, we might not have him.
He had a very good training camp (with the Blackhawks). They were real happy with him. Under normal circumstances, we wouldnt have had him. Its a surprise, but a nice surprise.
The Blackhawks allowed Carruth to return to Portland instead of going to their American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Ill. It created a bit of a dilemma for the Winterhawks, who are in the development process with promising 17-year-old goalie Brendan Burke. Carruth, who went 42-17-2-2 in 63 regular-season appearances a year ago, wasnt going to be an every-day goalie again.
We were honest with him, that he wasnt going to play as many games, Green says. From my perspective, its better for him. Hes going to be a pro next year. Hes not going to play 60 games. Hes going to play 30, maybe 20, maybe 50 but hes not going to play 60.
Now he has to prepare to play 40, because we need to develop Brendan. Its important we do that going forward to next year.
In 20 games, Carruths goals-against average is down (1.77), his saves percentage up (.937) is up and his confidence at an all-time high. Johnston says when the playoffs roll around, Hell get 99 percent of the games. He knows thats his time of year.
Carruth isnt taking that for granted.
Were going to go with the hot hand, he says. Were not here to pass out favors to 20-year-olds. Were going to look to win games.
Right now, Carruth in goal gives the Hawks the best chance.
Macs better than he was last year, Green says. Thats all we want. Hes better as far as his reads and his patience. He plays best when hes reading the play instead of getting into a habit of dropping and expecting the puck to hit you. Because he is playing less, it will keep him mentally sharper and a little hungrier.
Carruth, one of Portlands three over-age players, turns 21 in March. Some of his teammates are 16. Carruth has become a leader and role model for the cherubs.
You have to take a step back if they make a mistake and realize theyre 16 and are going to make mistakes, he says. Theyre not going to know what to do. Not everyones been through the league for four years like I have.
At some point probably three or four years down the road, after some apprenticeship in the minor leagues Carruth is likely to get his shot at the NHL. For now, he is intent on helping the Hawks to the Memorial Cup. The injustice of Johnstons suspension and the WHLs other over-the-top sanctions against the franchise have Carruth even more motivated.
The guys life has been thrown around the rink, Carruth says of Johnston. Im sure hes upset about not being able to coach us. The leagues going to do what theyre going to do, and were going to win, anyway.
At some point, Carruth will appreciate what he accomplished during his time in Portland. Not yet, though.
It still hasnt sunk in yet as far as how big of a deal it is, he says.
When he sets the record, Im going to look at it as just another win. And then after the season, Ill go back and remember.