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  • 26 Nov 2014

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Carruth will save memories of his Winterhawks record

by: COURTESY OF JEFF HINDS - Mac Carruth, Portland Winterhawks goalie, keeps the puck out of the net en route to another victory.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.

“It’s special,” Carruth says. “The record has stood for quite a few seasons.

“It’s a long season. I’m probably going to get another win out of it. The way our team’s 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 I’ve 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.”

Carruth’s coaches know what the record means.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” says Travis Green, Portland’s 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, it’s 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 Carruth’s 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. He’s had a phenomenal career here and he’s 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 Carruth’s 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.

Carruth’s 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 year’s 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 Mac’s 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 couldn’t get to me, he was out of the lineup.”

Johnston says the improvement has been palpable.

“Mac is emotional,” Johnston says. “There’s 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 can’t. He has reined it in to a point when he calls on (the emotion) when it’s needed. Before, his flareups happened once every week or two. Now, it’s 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 wouldn’t 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 don’t 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 you’re the goalie. Mac has done a great job of that.”

Johnston calls Carruth “one of the most competitive guys I’ve 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 it’s kind of a relaxed day, but I’ve just kind of grown up that way. If you win, you win. If you lose, it’s 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 he’d be gone,” Green says. “If it wasn’t 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 wouldn’t have had him. It’s 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, wasn’t going to be an every-day goalie again.

“We were honest with him, that he wasn’t going to play as many games,” Green says. “From my perspective, it’s better for him. He’s going to be a pro next year. He’s not going to play 60 games. He’s going to play 30, maybe 20, maybe 50 — but he’s not going to play 60.

“Now he has to prepare to play 40, because we need to develop Brendan. It’s important we do that going forward to next year.”

In 20 games, Carruth’s 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, “He’ll get 99 percent of the games. He knows that’s his time of year.”

Carruth isn’t taking that for granted.

“We’re going to go with the hot hand,” he says. “We’re not here to pass out favors to 20-year-olds. We’re going to look to win games.”

Right now, Carruth in goal gives the Hawks the best chance.

“Mac’s better than he was last year,” Green says. “That’s all we want. He’s better as far as his reads and his patience. He plays best when he’s 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 Portland’s 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 they’re 16 and are going to make mistakes,” he says. “They’re not going to know what to do. Not everyone’s 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 Johnston’s suspension and the WHL’s other over-the-top sanctions against the franchise have Carruth even more motivated.

“The guy’s life has been thrown around the rink,” Carruth says of Johnston. “I’m sure he’s upset about not being able to coach us. The league’s going to do what they’re going to do, and we’re going to win, anyway.”

At some point, Carruth will appreciate what he accomplished during his time in Portland. Not yet, though.

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet as far as how big of a deal it is,” he says.

When he sets the record, “I’m going to look at it as just another win. And then after the season, I’ll go back and remember.”

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