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What makes Winterhawks so good?

With depth, defense and more, WHL team on record pace


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Tyler Wotherspoon of the Portland Winterhawks unloads a shot during a game at Memorial Coliseum. He is part of a solid defensive line corps that has performed well offensively, too.To think what the Portland Winterhawks’ record would be, had the Western Hockey League’s No. 1 team not recently suffered four consecutive losses.

It’d be otherworldly, with the Winterhawks threatening the WHL record of 125 points by the 1978-79 Brandon Wheat Kings (58-5-9).

But, the four losses happened from Jan. 18 to 23, and Portland hadn’t lost since then, entering Wednesday’s home game against Calgary. At 43-7-1-2 (89 points), the Winterhawks mathematically could catch the Wheat Kings, but a more likely destination with 19 games remaining — entering the Calgary game and two weekend tilts at red-hot Kelowna — is top seven all-time in the WHL, which would take 115 points or more.

Nobody in the Winterhawks’ locker room envisioned such success, given the youth on the roster entering the season, and then with the major hurdle posed by the suspension of general manager/coach Mike

Johnston amid multiple penalties levied by the WHL for

player benefit violations in late November.

But Portland has chugged along, and seems likely to approach the team record of 113 points by the 1980-81 Hawks (56-15-1).

They might be cliches, but the Winterhawks work hard, possess wonderful chemistry and don’t get too high or too low — three keys to their success, coming off consecutive WHL Western Conference titles.

“To be honest, we were a pretty young team, and we didn’t know what direction we’d go in,” says Travis Green, Johnston’s assistant who transitioned into being the head man with Johnston’s suspension. “Give our group a lot of credit. They’ve played strong, our guys work hard, and it’s a close-knit group.

“For a young team, they’re mature, they’ve seen a lot and been through a lot. There are new faces on the team, and older guys let the young guys be themselves. They’ve bought into being a team. It feels a lot more like a team concept this year.”

Adds leading scorer Nic Petan: “All of us are pretty close. We’re a close team. No complaints.”

Still, it takes some talent, and some players have risen to the challenge in the wake of multiple high-level players graduating in the past couple years — Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Sven Bartschi and Joe Morrow.

Mac Carruth returned for his 20-year-old season and has been steady and stellar — ranking second in the WHL in goals-against, 1.83, entering Wednesday — and Brendan Burke (2.55) has been just as good between the pipes. They had combined for 10 shutouts going into the Calgary game.

The defensemen have performed as well as expected, led by veterans Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Wotherspoon and Derrick Pouliot, and infused with the transcendent talent of Seth Jones, the potential No. 1 pick in this year’s NHL draft.

But the real impressive part of the Winterhawks has been the emergence of Petan and Brendan Leipsic, who joined veteran Ty Rattie on the No. 1 line and exploded on the scene. Petan was leading the league in scoring (36 goals, 57 assists, 93 points), with Leipsic ranked second (36-54-90) and Rattie fourth (29-44-73) entering the Calgary game.

Such production had been expected from the 19-year-old Rattie, the St. Louis Blues’ prospect who tallied 57 goals and 121 points last season.

Petan, 17 and NHL draft eligible, has been a pleasant surprise as the WHL’s leading scorer, although the Hawks knew all about his work ethic, maturity and skills.

“Just being stronger and more confident, playing bigger than I am,” Petan says. “I thought (scoring) would come a little bit, but I didn’t think it would be ... I’m happy with the season I’m having. Being comfortable out there is the biggest thing.”

Size has clearly not been a detriment to the trio. Together, Petan (5-9, 165 pounds), Leipsic (5-9, 170) and Rattie (6-0, 175) present some speed and skill challenges for an opponent’s top D-men.

“We don’t need an enforcer,” Petan says. “We just go out and play. The guys around the league have enough respect for us,” as to not try to intimidate them. “If we use our speed and skill, we’ll be fine.”

Says Green, of Petan, from Delta, British Columbia: “He’s a really gifted player. Did we think he’d be at this level this year? Probably not. Are we excited about it? Extremely. He has a real professional demeanor about him. He’s driven. A lot of that goes back to the leaders and culture that’s been brought in here and developed by Mike. No cockiness within Nic at all. He comes to work hard every day.”

Oliver Bjorkstrand, from Herning, Denmark, has continued the team’s recent success with European players, teaming with Taylor Leier and Chase De Leo on the second line. Veteran Taylor Peters anchors the third line with rookies Preston Kopec k and Adam De Champlain.

Bjorkstrand, 17, has a heck of a shot.

“Whenever he gets the puck, something good happens,” Petan says.

Portland’s D-corps has been bent on playing offensively in recent years, and made strides in last year’s playoffs on the defensive aspect. Rutkowski says the defensemen are concentrating more on defense — led by Wotherspoon — and the unit only got better with the addition of 6-4, 205 Jones, who came to the Hawks with much hype.

“He’s a big, athletic guy. He’s got it all,” Rutkowski says. “A great guy, too, on and off the ice. He’s really humble. Anytime you’re getting a good player, you’re wondering what kind of character they’re going to bring. We got really lucky with Seth. Great character, a real leader in the room at 18 years old.”

The Winterhawks are playing well, but much work remains, which leaders such as 20-year-old Rutkowski, Peters and Carruth, and Rattie and Wotherspoon emphasize. It appears Kelowna stands in the way of another Western Conference title. The Rockets (40-10-3-1) started slowly but entered the week riding a 17-0-2 streak. The teams split games in Portland earlier in the season; so, their match-ups Friday and Saturday in British Columbia should be interesting.

“They play a 200-foot game,” Green says. “We talked about them in September, ‘That’s going to be a hard team to play against.’ They’ve got a more active D than they’ve had in the past, and they’ve got four good lines.”

It’s not too early to talk about making the Memorial Cup tournament, set for Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The Hawks have knocked on the door to junior hockey’s ultimate tournament, losing in the WHL finals to Kootenay and Edmonton the previous two seasons.

But Kelowna and Kamloops in the Western Conference and defending WHL champ Edmonton, Prince Albert and Calgary in the Eastern Conference could be formidable. Edmonton returned several key players from last year’s team, including goalies.

Still, the Hawks are good, and the WHL penalties galvanized their approach.

“I’d like to think the guys rallied around it,” Green says. “But it’s never discussed within our room. You’re only as good as your last game. ... You don’t win the championship in September. It’s a process. You build toward the end of the year. They’re not satisfied.”

Petan says the Hawks are ready to take the next step to the Memorial Cup, but they’ll need a day-to-day approach.

“No nights off,” he says. “Do-or-die situation. Hopefully it’ll pay off in the playoffs.”