It's Mac's night, and Winterhawks', too
Beards and playoff hockey. With the Winterhawks, according to goaltender Mac Carruth, nature has gotten in the way of one of the sport's most hardy traditions.
Only Carruth, who observed his twenty-oner on March 25, has the follicular maturity to wear one sans peach fuzz.
His teammates "can't grow one," Carruth claimed. "A couple of the guys are just going with mustaches, because their sides are a bit patchy.
"I feel obligated to let it go."
It's fitting, because Carruth is a veritable graybeard (his beard is actually a light brown) on a Western Hockey League club that is hoping to write its ticket to the Memorial Cup at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in late May.
The Winterhawks took another step Saturday night at the Rose Garden with a 3-0 victory to seize a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal series with Spokane.
Carruth stopped all 27 shots by the Chiefs in becoming the WHL's career leader in goalie playoff victories with 39. In the process, he established a new Portland record with his fourth playoff shutout.
The most important thing to Carruth and his teammates is that they are now 10 wins away from their collective goal -- a WHL championship and a berth in the Saskatoon tournament that determines supremacy in North American junior hockey.
But pressed, Carruth will stop to take a whiff in the City of Roses and reflect on how far he has come in his four years with the Hawks.
In its 47 seasons, the WHL has seen a number of outstanding goalies come through its ranks. None has ever won more playoff games than the Shorewood, Minn., native, a fresh-faced rookie when he first donned the protective gear in the league at age 17.
"My first game was against Vancouver," Carruth said. "I still remember it shot for shot. Got lit up for seven goals. I thought to myself, 'Oh boy, what did I get myself into? Am i cut out for this?'
"But (coach) Mike Johnston put his trust in me. We worked on some things with (goalie coach) Tyler Love, and over the years, I've gotten better and better with Tyler helping me out."
Carruth has had his issues with temperament through his years in Portland. Opponents always tried to engage him in extracurricular stuff to get him rattled. For awhile, it worked. Not so much anymore.
"We've gone through a lot with Mac since he was 17," said Travis Green, Portland's acting coach through the WHL's suspension of Johnston. "He has matured a lot. He is a real focused individual, a real competitor. He has had a real good career with us."
The Chiefs had a few good scoring chances Saturday night, but either missed or had the puck gobbled up by Carruth.
"Mac was outstanding," said feisty winger Brendan Leipsic, who was too, with a goal and an assist. "He made some really big saves to keep us in there when we were up one or two goals.
"We keep getting performances like that from Mac, we're going to be really tough to beat."
Carruth was second in the WHL through the regular season with a 2.06 goals-against average. Part of that, of course, is that he played on the best team in the league, with a veteran defense in front of him and an offense that led the loop in goals scored.
"Goaltending's not an easy position," Green said. "You can be a great goalie and be stuck on a team where you don't have a lot of success. Or you can be a good goalie like Mac and be on a team where you have some success.
"But he has been a big part of our success. it's real nice to see him get those records tonight."
Carruth's presence has a calming effect on his younger teammates. He has been through the wars many times over, the regular in the nets as the Hawks reached the WHL finals in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
"It makes you feel better, maybe taking a chance or two, to know Mac's a veteran guy back there and can bail you out," Leipsic said.
Carruth, center Taylor Peters and defenseman Troy Rutkowski are the three overage players on Portland's roster this season. That leads to a little kidding, especially with a guy old enough to actually grow a full beard.
"Us three 20s are the old guys," Carruth said. "They kind of give you heat for being old and rickety.
"But it's all in good fun. Nobody gets picked on on our team. The young guys can chirp us, and us them. It's a good chemistry we have going."
Talent abounds. Portland's arsenal features four good lines, including the league's three top scorers in Leipsic, Ty Rattie and Nic Petan, along with the top quartet of defensemen in the league. The Hawks outshot the Chiefs 43-27, and the wired-in Leipsic-Rattie-Petan line could have scored a few more goals.
"A couple of shifts into the first period, I fed Ty and it went off the crossbar," Leipsic said. "We had a couple of other chances in the third period. In the second period, we were buzzing, too.
"In the playoffs, it's a game of inches. We missed a few but were able to come away with the win."
Most of the pressure generated at the net Saturday night came in the direction of Spokane goalie Eric Williams, who had 40 saves in a more than creditable performance. It's an advantage that helps the psyche of the guy minding the space between the pipes at the other end.
"Sometimes as a goalie on a team like this, you take a backseat as far as the limelight goes," Carruth said. "I seem to play a little bit better that way, when I don't have to think about too much."
Only one thing could have been better for Carruth in Game 2. In the closing minute, with the Chiefs having pulled Williams for an extra attacker, Carruth cleared the puck from behind the goal and sent it off the boards near mid-ice. It bounded off the glass and ended tantalizingly close -- perhaps two feet -- wide of the Spokane goal.
"One bounce here or there, it could have been in," said Carruth, who hasn't scored a goal in his WHL career. "But it wasn't meant to be."
A minor quibble on a night when Mac Carruth wrote his name into the record books of both the Winterhawks and the WHL. A night the grizzled graybeard won't soon forget.