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Less pop, but more stop for Winterhawks

by: BRYAN HEIM - Portland Winterhawks forward Ty Rattie, the team's top scorer last season, is getting help around him up front but also from a sturdy defense this season.After his Winterhawks had destroyed U.S. Division rival Tri-City 6-0 Sunday night at Memorial Coliseum, Mike Johnston reached quickly for the humility card.

The always-game Americans were playing the third game in three nights, Johnston reasoned.

“We’re going to have times like that, where the schedule puts you up against the wall,” Portland’s coach and general manager said. “We knew we had to play with some energy and try to back them down early. We did a pretty good job.”

I’ll say. The Hawks (9-3-1-0) outshot the weary Americans (9-6-1-1) 43-15, including 13-1 in the game’s first 12 minutes. Portland led 4-0 after one period; the only question from that point was whether goaltender Mac Carruth was going to get his second shutout of the young season.

Pesky Brendan Leipsic led the way with two goals and two assists, new defensive sensation Seth Jones unleashed a wicked slap shot from the blue line that found net, and goal-scoring phenom Ty Rattie handed out what was likely a career-high four assists.

“An easy night for me,” said Rattie, who has eight goals and 10 assists this season after racking up a team-high 57 goals and 121 points a year ago. “I just have to move the puck; the other guys will do the hard work. Those nights are awesome.”

The 2012-13 Hawks are a different club than the one that went 49-19-3-1 — including a remarkable 31-4-1 at home — during the ‘11-12 regular season en route to losing a seven-game series to Edmonton for the Western Hockey League championship.

Gone are veteran forwards such as Sven Bartschi and Brad Ross, who helped Portland reign as the top-scoring team in the WHL.

Back is Rattie, the plucky 19-year-old right wing who can score in his sleep. So are Leipsic, Chase De Leo and Nicolas Petan, along with other role players who will move up the food chain this season.

“The young guys are moving into the spots left by Bartschi and Ross and contributing big now,” Rattie said. “It’s not going to be hard for me. There’s plenty of help.”

Especially at the blue line, where the 6-3, 210-pound Jones — a member of the U.S. team that won gold at the U-18 World Championships last season — joins a veteran contingent of defensemen that includes captain Troy Rutkowski, Derrick Pouliot, Tyler Wotherspoon and Josh Hanson.

“Our defense is really strong,” Johnston said. “They’re going to be the anchor for us.”

Portland has yielded only 27 goals in 13 games, the best goals-against average in the WHL.

“Our team is going to live and die with the defense and goaltending,” Rattie said. “Last year, we scored a lot of goals to beat teams. This year, we’re going to keep a lot of goals out of our net to beat teams.

“I’m fine with that. I don’t care how we beat teams as long as we’re beating them.”

The goaltending situation is solid with the return of Carruth from the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs. Carruth, 20, is in his fourth year with the Hawks. He will share the nets with promising 17-year-old Brendan Burke, Carruth’s understudy a year ago.

“Burke is going to play a lot more this year,” Johnston said. “We think he’s going to be a key guy going forward. Mac knows that he’s not going to get as much action as he did last year, but I like the way Mac is playing.

“For his professional development, Mac just has to be good when he plays. He has been with us for quite a while. Now Mac has taken some ownership for all parts of his game to try to be better.”

Portland doesn’t yet have the firepower of its teams that reached the WHL finals the past two years, with Nino Neiderreiter and Ryan Johansen leading the way in 2010-11 and Rattie and Bartschi the premier lamp-lighters a year ago. Much will depend on the ability of role players to take on bigger roles this time around.

The road to this year’s WHL finals will likely go through Kamloops, which took Portland to seven games before falling in last year’s Western Conference semifinals. The Blazers are off to a 14-0-0-1 start.

“They didn’t lose anybody from last year’s squad,” Johnston said. “It would be like us having the same team back with Bartschi and Ross. They have an experienced team, and they’re just rolling right now.”

The 2011-12 Hawks came within a game of winning the league title and reaching the Memorial Cup, where champions of the WHL and Quebec and Ontario leagues square off for Canadian Major Junior supremacy. This year’s Hawks would love to take the final step and get to the 2013 Memorial Cup next May at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

“We have the talent and the experience in the (locker) room that we can do it,” Rattie said. “We look around and know we have the the team to do it.

“Just one more win than last year — that’s our focus.”