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'Evil Empire' eyes winning the Cup

Winterhawks embrace outlaws image in playoffs


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE -  Forward Ty Rattie, looking to shoot in last week's home win over Seattle, is the veteran mainstay on a high-powered first line as the Portland Winterhawks go into the Western Hockey League playoffs.Evil Empire? Portland Outlaws?

The Portland Winterhawks are embracing both titles, as the Western Hockey League’s top team enters the playoffs, with the one and only goal to win the WHL finals and make the Memorial Cup tournament.

It’s a long road — 16 wins — and it starts against Everett in the first round of playoffs, Friday and Saturday at the Rose Garden.

Since the WHL’s monumental penalties against the Winterhawks in November, including the season-long suspension of general manager/coach Mike Johnston for excessive player benefits, the Portland players have played with chips on their shoulders — a season-long motivation for what they see as the WHL doing wrong to the organization.

The chip becomes even bigger now, forward Taylor Peters says.

“Losing Mike, although devastating to our organization, hasn’t really slowed us down,” he says. “But, moving forward, we have the chip on our shoulder, and we’re playing up how we battled adversity all year. The Evil Empire thing (as designated by fans), we’ve definitely jumped on that, and use it as fuel.”

The Hawks have key veterans in Peters, Troy Rutkowski, Ty Rattie, Tyler Wotherspoon, Derrick Pouliot and goalie Mac Carruth, and 10 first-year players who have melded to help the team go 57-12-1-2, set a franchise record with 117 points and rank No. 1 in the Canadian Hockey League. The veterans have led the way, playing up the adversity angle.

“Troy and I and Mac have almost 1,000 games among us,” Peters says. “That pays dividends when you move forward. When guys know how to battle adversity, the highs and lows of playoffs, that’s what gets you championships.”

Carruth, Portland’s all-time wins leader, says the Johnston suspension — not to mention a $200,000 fine and loss of several bantam draft picks levied by the WHL — still stings.

“It’d be a disappointment if we didn’t (make the Memorial Cup),” he says. “We’d be letting down Mike and for everything that’s happened this year. It’s absolutely motivation. Some of us have forgotten about it, and we need to get back to that — the Portland Outlaws. We’re getting our minds right for the playoffs.”

On paper, Everett (25-40-3-4, 57 points) appears little more than a blip on Portland’s championship quest, although it is the playoffs, with the proverbial anything can happen.

Everett had 60 fewer points than Portland and finished 19th in the 22-team league. Portland won nine of 10 games against the Silvertips — 17 of 20 games spanning two seasons.

A hot goalie, Austin Lotz, led Everett’s 4-2 home win March 2. But the Silvertips appear overmatched in every area. While Portland has the league’s top three scorers — Brendan Leipsic (49 goals-71 assists-120 points), Nic Petan (46-74-120) and Rattie (48-62-110) — the Tips’ leading scorer would have ranked ninth on the Hawks in scoring. Josh Winquist had 24 goals and 27 assists for 51 points.

“We don’t get caught up in numbers,” says Travis Green, the interim coach and general manager who certainly deserves much credit for Portland’s fantastic season. “Anybody in the playoffs is a good team. They’ve undergone some changes, playing a little different style than at the beginning of the year, playing with a lot more speed, a high-tempo game. I’m expecting it to be a tough series.”

Before the Winterhawks can worry about Tri-City or Kamloops or Kelowna in potential upcoming Western Conference series, they have to take care of business against Everett.

The Silvertips have “been playing a lot better hockey lately and they’re speedy, an in-your-face team,” Rattie says. “We’ve always had good games against them.”

Adds Peters: “They always make us work. We’re not going to take them lightly.”

After coming up short in consecutive WHL finals, the Winterhawks feel primed to make another run to the league championship and the elusive Memorial Cup berth.

The Hawks scored a league-leading 334 goals and allowed 169, second-best in the league (to defending champ Edmonton) and a franchise record.

The top line ranked 1-2-3 in league scoring. It is believed to be only the second time one team has featured the top three scorers (Brandon, 1978-79). The second line of Chase De Leo, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Taylor Leier has been jelling, and Peters leads the stifling checking line. The defense has been sensational with superstar Seth Jones, Rutkowski, Wotherspoon, Pouliot and Josh Hanson. Carruth and fellow goalie Brendan Burke have suffered through very few bad games.

Rattie, a St. Louis Blues prospect, expects teams to try to play physically against Portland’s top line. Last year, he was knocked out of games against Kamloops and Edmonton, while playing alongside Sven Bartschi and Marcel Noebels. Rattie says skilled lines usually see physical play.

“We’re obviously not the biggest line,” Rattie says, adding that an opposing strategy would be to “every time they touch the puck, hit them, and don’t make the game easy for them, take away their time and space.”

They are veteran players. They know what to expect. But, chances are scoring will have to come from elsewhere.

Enter Bjorkstrand (31-32-63), Leier (27-35-62) and De Leo (18-38-56), and even Rutkowski, who led the offensively talented defense corps with 20 goals and 46 assists for 66 points.

“We have had great depth all year,” Rattie says. “Everyone’s going to contribute.”

Adds Peters: “Looking back at the Edmonton series last year, what killed us was their depth. That’ll kill ya. It’s your depth that takes you the furthest, and we got it.”

Green says that while Portland’s camaraderie and chemistry have been key elements, depth and competitive level and composure have been the differences on the ice. And, the Hawks have been mature, despite having several young players on the roster. “They’re very good about not getting too high or too low, which is really important,” Green says.

At times, maybe Carruth will have to stand on his head — hockey lingo for playing well.

“Every year in the playoffs I’ve gotten better,” he says. “As a team, we’ve gotten better. We just kind of come to expect to win hockey games in the playoffs.”

Backup Burke hopes that Carruth won’t be needed to be the last line of defense in games. A hot goalie can win a series, but it would indicate issues among the skaters.

“I wouldn’t say (goaltending’s) the No. 1 key,” he says. “No doubt, it’s important. We can make a defense look good, but hopefully we don’t have to do too much of that. There’ll be times when you have to.

“If your goalie has to be the first star every night, you’re not going to win as many games as you should. If your goalie has to pull you through a series ... you don’t want to go into the next series having squeaked by because of your goalie.”

It appears Portland has enough talent that it won’t have to rely on Carruth, although Edmonton looms as the formidable team, should the Oil Kings advance through the Eastern Conference playoffs.

“We gotta battle, gotta win one-on-one battles,” Carruth says. “That’s what playoffs is about.”

Adds Green: “You can do a lot of good things during the regular season, but your true test starts in the playoffs. You’re graded, remembered, whatever you want to call it. We play the regular season for the playoffs.”