The Portland Winterhawks made a statement last weekend, beating Kelowna twice on the road to solidify their standing as the Western Hockey League's top team and a legitimate Memorial Cup contender.
The Hawks scored 10 goals and allowed four. It was a dominating couple of games against a team that had vaulted to the top of the WHL's B.C. Division and to within sniffing distance of the Winterhawks for best record in the league.
"I thought we played well offensively, and the second game played really well defensively," Portland coach Travis Green says. "Mac (Carruth) was really good in net, and our team competed well, from top to bottom. It was as close to a playoff game as you're going to get at this time of year, and it was nice to see."
The Winterhawks then spanked Vancouver 8-3 on Monday to move to 46-8-1-2 (95 points) and retain the No. 1 spot in the Canadian Hockey League rankings.
Portland plays Tri-City at 7 p.m. Friday, then faces Vancouver at 3 p.m. Saturday and Spokane at 3 p.m. Monday, both at Memorial Coliseum, before another four-game trip.
All eyes are now on another expected showdown, Feb. 27 against Edmonton at Memorial Coliseum. The Oil Kings (41-12-2-3, 87 points) beat the Hawks in seven games to capture the WHL title last season and appear to have another strong Cup contender.
Green expects to have defenseman Derrick Pouliot (lower body injury) return in a couple weeks.
"You definitely miss him," the coach says of Pouliot, a signed Pittsburgh Penguins No. 1 draft pick. "He's a great player in our league. No matter how good your team is or how well you're playing, you're going to miss a guy like that."
The top line of Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic and Ty Rattie factored into all three of the recent road wins, continuing to pad their numbers. They combined for 10 points in the Vancouver win, with Rattie netting four goals.
Entering weekend play, Leipsic (40 goals-61 assists-101 points) had taken over the league scoring lead, followed by Petan (40-60-100), with Rattie fourth (35-51-86).
Rattie's goal-scoring has fallen off from last season, when he played alongside Sven Bartschi (now with the NHL Calgary Flames), but he happily dishes assists to his linemates.
"Nic and Leip are more the scorers, and I'm more of a passer," Rattie says. "I'm fine with that. Those are two very good players; if they want to shoot the puck, they can, because they're going to score half the time when they shoot it.
"It adds another dimension to my game. Playing with Bartschi last year, I don't know if he ever shot the puck, he was always looking for me. It made my game a lot easier. Petan and Leip look to shoot the puck more, and I'm trying to adapt to that, looking for them more often. It's working."
Like all prospects, the 19-year-old Rattie didn't get to attend NHL camp because the league's lockout stretched into December. Still, he talks with St. Louis Blues' personnel each week.
"They're happy with my game," the 6-0, 175 winger and second-round Blues pick says. "Everybody says, 'Put on weight, put on weight.' I'm trying my best. I'll put on weight, and they said come to camp next year and we'll see how it goes."
Rattie lives with defenseman Seth Jones, who is expected to be the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NHL draft. Last season, Rattie roomed with Bartschi, Calgary's first-round pick.
"He's easy to get along with, we're best of friends off the ice, do everything together," Rattie says of Jones. "I couldn't have got luckier living with him."
Rattie would like this season to end well meaning a Memorial Cup championship. He has been on Hawks teams that have lost in the WHL finals twice, and been on Canadian junior teams that have not won gold.
Green downplays the significance of the WHL's front-office penalties against the Winterhawks as motivating factors.
But forward Taylor Peters says the league's suspension of coach/general manager Mike Johnston, along with the fines and loss of draft picks, loom in the dressing room.
"We want the (WHL) title. We want everything," Peters says. "We have that chip on our shoulder of Mike being suspended and our draft picks being gone. We want to show the league that they can't stop us and, um, we're going to take it all and do it with a smile on our face. We have that fire in our hearts from November. People can see that."
Rattie says Green has filled in admirably as head man on the bench.
" 'Greener' was more than capable to step in as the head coach," he says. "All the boys respect what he says, listen to him. He's been to the NHL, where everybody wants to go.
"He's more of a yeller than Mike, but that gets the boys going. I like it."
It might be lost on some people, but the Winterhawks have 10 first-year players on their roster, including Jones. That's almost half the team.
"It's impressive," Peters says. "Taking that step is definitely a transition, playing Western league-style. These guys play a very professional game."
On the other end of the spectrum, Peters, Carruth and defenseman Troy Rutkowski are the 20-year-old leaders.
"We've definitely developed a special bond," Peters says. "Troy has played all those games (a team-record 336), I've passed the 300 mark (306) and Mac has broken records. We're very loyal to this organization, and it's our last chance at it. We've come so close (to the Memorial Cup) in the past. We don't want to push that hard and not get it this year."
Count Calgary coach Mike Williamson among the opposition impressed with the Winterhawks, although his Hitmen rallied to beat Portland 4-3 last week.
"I don't see too many weaknesses," Williamson says. "Their defense is strong, their forwards go with speed. They're an elite team. They probably let up a little bit in the third period (in the loss)."
Williamson says the relatively small size of Petan, Leipsic and Rattie shouldn't be a problem in the WHL playoffs.
"You're only small if you play small, you're only big if you play big," Williamson says. "It's how big you play. Those guys play big. They get to all the tough areas, are willing to take pucks to the net and win a lot of puck battles."
The Hitmen, meanwhile, remain in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race, sitting behind Edmonton in points. They just went 4-1 against U.S. Division opponents, all on the road, to move to 37-17-1-3 (78 points). The loss came Wednesday at Spokane 4-3.
Williamson, the former Portland player and coach, led the Hitmen to the 2010 Memorial Cup tournament. Calgary missed the playoffs in 2011, but returned to the postseason last year. Clearly, the Hitmen have another good team.
"We've got a strong group, a lot of depth," Williamson says. "We haven't seen Edmonton since before Christmas, and they've made a few changes, but they're a very good hockey team. Very good. We've shown we can play with the best teams. We've just been inconsistent."
Williamson briefly left the coaching business a few years ago after being let go by the Winterhawks. He and wife Michelle wanted to stay in Portland to live and raise their two children. But when Calgary came calling, Williamson jumped at the chance to coach for one of the league's strongest franchises.
"Calgary's a great place. From a family standpoint and coaching standpoint, there are a lot of positives," he says. "Portland is still home. We've got some family and friends in Portland, and we come back in the summer."