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Winterhawks gearing up for WHL title run

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Derrick Pouliot's return from injury gives the Portland Winterhawks even more depth on defense.If the Winterhawks have their way, they’ve passed their final speed bump on the road to the Western Hockey League championship and a spot in the Memorial Cup.

Portland’s 6-3 win over Everett Tuesday night at Memorial Coliseum snapped a three-game losing streak and lifted the Hawks (52-12-1-2) to within three points of clinching the best WHL’s best regular-season record with five games yet to play.

That would mean home-ice advantage through the playoffs, which coach Travis Green declines to acknowledge publicly as a big deal.

“Home ice is important,” he said, “but for me, it’s one game at a time. I refuse to look ahead to anything other than our next game. When you play well game to game, good things are going to happen.”

Sure. But harken back to last year’s WHL finals, when Portland met up with Edmonton, which held home-ice advantage in the series. After the Hawks won Game 6 at the Rose Garden, the teams flew to Edmonton for Game 7 the following night. The Oil Kings prevailed and moved on to the Memorial Cup.

Portland has been the dominant team in the WHL this season, and will enter the playoffs as the prohibitive favorite. But it wouldn’t hurt to be guaranteed Game 7 on home ice in every round.

The Hawks are seven points away from achieving the best record in franchise history, set by the 1980-81 team. That club was swept in the Western Division finals by a Victoria team that finished 60-11-1 during the regular season, so no guarantees.

The most important thing, as Green suggests, is “that we’re sharp as the playoffs start.”

The Hawks looked that way in outshooting Everett 21-7 and seizing a 3-0 lead after one period Tuesday night. Not so much the rest of the way. They experienced some scary moments late in the game, seeing their lead dwindle to 4-3, then surviving a 5-on-3 Everett power play, and finally finishing off the Silvertips with Ty Rattie’s empty-net goal in the final minute.

“It was a yucky game,” Green said. “A lot of blah going on for the last two periods. But I like the way we played. After losing three games in a row, our guys stuck with it.

“Our team likes to play at a high pace. You can’t get frustrated when the game’s not going like that. You have to be able to play in the trenches. That’s the kind of game it was tonight.”

Prior to Tuesday’s game, the Hawks lost 4-2 at Tri-City, 4-3 to Edmonton at home in a game in which the Hawks led 3-1, and then fell 4-2 at Everett with goaltender Daniel Cotton standing on his head. How concerned was Green about the skid?

“Not at all,” he said. “Tri-City and Edmonton are really good teams. You can’t expect to win when you’re playing great teams. I like the way we played for part of those games. We played a real good team game in Everett, but the goalie played well.”

On Tuesday night, Portland welcomed back defenseman Derek Pouliot, who had missed 18 games with an ankle injury. The first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins moved fluently on the ice, a very good sign.

“Any time you get one of the best defensemen in the league back, a guy who can move the puck, jump up into the rush and quarterback the power play, that’s huge,” winger Brendan Leipsic said.

Portland played 14 games in 27 days in February, going 10-4 but feeling the effects.

“Our guys were a little tired after that,” Green said.

The Hawks are off now until Sunday’s visit to Victoria, then finish the regular season with five games in eight days. Still, they’ll get some practice time and an opportunity to refresh both mentally and physically as the postseason approaches.

The players’ confidence has not exactly been shattered by what Nic Petan calls “a little slump.”

“With our team, we’re not really concerned with anything,” said the 17-year-old center, who has sprung onto the scene in spectacular fashion this season, scoring 45 goals and ranking second in the WHL in scoring behind Leipsic. “For those three games, we weren’t getting the bounces going our way. Sometimes it happens like that. But we came back strong tonight.”

The Hawks had a four-game losing streak in January. Other than that and the recent three-game skid, they’ve lost only five of their other 60 games all season.

“It’s not going to be smooth sailing all the way,” Leipsic said. “Teams are playing for their playoff lives. We just have to tighten some things up with our system play. To get a win tonight is a big confidence booster.”

Portland has knocked on the door of the Memorial Cup the past two years, reaching the WHL finals only to be denied. This year’s Hawks have no glaring weaknesses. They own three of the league's top four scorers in Leipsic, Petan and Rattie, three good forward lines, a quartet of stud defensemen in Pouliot, Seth Jones, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon and veteran goalie Mac Carruth, who turns 21 this month and has been through the wars for four years. They rank No. 1 in the league in penalty-killing and third in power-play efficiency.

“We have a great chance,” Petan said. “In the playoffs, there are no nights off. You lose and you’re out, right? So you have to come in prepared.

“I know we are the best team in the league, for sure. We’re the most skilled team offensively and defensively. We have speed, a veteran goalie, veteran guys everywhere. Our biggest thing is our hard work. We’re the hardest-working team in the league.”

It may be that the Hawks are a team of destiny after losing general manager/coach Mike Johnston early in the season as part of league sanctions, the severity of which have never been fully explained.

It would be nice for the title to come to Portland, if only for the opportunity to see Ron Robison present the championship trophy following the final game.

The commissioner is looking ahead to that possibility with more than a bit of apprehension, don’t you think?

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