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Hawks' 2nd line hot on the ice


Depth, chemistry result in goals for Portland forwards

by: BRYAN HEIM/PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - Taylor Leier, second-year left wing, is one of the Hawks' top scorers.They have all had good games in their young Western Hockey League careers — but nothing like Monday’s.

In an 8-3 home win against Spokane, the Portland Winterhawks’ line of Chase De Leo, Taylor Leier and Oliver Bjorkstrand combined for 16 points. Bjorkstrand had four goals and an assist, Leier two goals and four assists and De Leo five assists.

It was just one of 72 games, and 12 games remained on the Hawks’ schedule entering Wednesday’s tilt at Kamloops.

But such production excites the coaching staff. Portland already possesses the most lethal line in the WHL — Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic and Ty Rattie, three of the league’s top four scorers. Just think how good Portland could be, should both lines be clicking come playoff time. The Hawks already own the WHL’s best record, 48-9-1-2 (99 points) heading into the Kamloops game.

“You need your depth,” assistant coach Kyle Gustafson says. “It’s why we pride ourselves on depth at forward. And you want to make sure you’re playing your best down the stretch. You never know what’s going to happen with injuries, and who’s going to step up and fill what role. Experience is huge, and you want to make sure all the guys are getting their experience.”

Head coach Travis Green and Gustafson have moved their forwards around this season, with Leier playing at times on the checking line with Taylor Peters and with the frontline guys at times, and De Leo’s center skills allow him to step in and play

between Rattie and Leipsic.

But the coaches have been happy with the chemistry shown by the De Leo-Leier-Bjorkstrand unit.

“We’re just clicking right now, chemistry’s really there,” De Leo says. “Travis feels he’s going to leave us together, and we’ve been practicing with each other. Everything seems to be going our way.”

In the playoffs, opponents pair their best defensemen against top lines, and it’ll be on Petan’s line to fight through things. Often times, unsung heroes score the big goals, make the big plays. The Winterhawks seemingly have their share of playmakers among the top six forwards.

“You need some depth in our lineup with scoring,” Leier says. “We’ve found a lot of chemistry in the past two weeks with me, Bjorkstrand and De Leo, and it clicked (Monday).”

The thing about the designated second line is it’s not too different from the first. The Winterhawks haven’t featured too many forward lineups like this year’s — in a sport where teams used to covet bigger players with skill, the Hawks noticeably feature smaller players with lots of skill and speed. Leier is the heaviest at a listed 178 pounds. Rattie is the tallest at a listed 6 feet.

“Our organization has done a really good job of picking guys with good speed and core strength,” Leier says. “I don’t believe in the size thing. If you’re good, you’re good. ... You look at Petan and Leipsic, world-class skill, and they’re 5-8 and 5-9.”

Calgary coach Mike Williamson, after his team’s recent win over the Winterhawks, said Portland’s smaller players play big, meaning they fight for pucks, get to tough areas to score, stay strong on their skates, handle the physicality of defensemen and bounce back after being knocked down.

Gustafson says the players’ similarities make them interchangeable.

“They all complement each other. You see it on the power play,” he says. “That gives us some depth there. The skill and speed will allow you to play them anywhere in your lineup.”

De Leo, 17 and from La Mirada, Calif., came to Portland with high acclaim, and he hasn’t disappointed. Through 60 games, he had 13 goals and 33 assists (46 points). Leier, 18 and from Saskatoon, Sask., has a two-way game that allows for flexibility, and he had 25 goals and 26 assists (51 points).

Bjorkstrand, 17 and one of 10 rookies on the roster, emerged in training camp once the Winterhawks landed him from Herning, Denmark. The 5-11, 165-pound Bjorkstrand, who has an American father, immediately made an impact after unleashing some shots in practice and games. He has one of the best shots to come through these parts.

“Second-to-none,” Gustafson says, of the winger’s shot. “That gives us that weapon on the power play that keeps a lot of teams on edge and honest.”

After his four-goal explosion, Bjorkstrand had 27 goals and 26 assists (53 points), the latest explosive offensive player to come from the European ranks, following Nino Niederreiter and Sven Bartschi.

“He’s so easy to play with, so smooth with the puck,and he seems to find the back of the net,” De Leo says. “He’s a really quiet guy, but he’s easy to get along with, easy to play with.”

Bjorkstrand didn’t know what to expect upon joining the Winterhawks. He has adjusted well. He had an edge and skill to him that allowed him to adjust.

“It took a couple games, I guess,” he says.

It helps that Bjorkstrand has been surrounded by veteran players who have been to consecutive WHL finals — Rattie, Peters, defensemen Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon and goalie Mac Carruth among them.

Bjorkstrand also feels his line, as well as the Petan-centered line, doesn’t play at a disadvantage because of size.

“Speed helps a lot, you can fill out the ice. Other teams get tired, because we’re such a fast team,” he says.