Rutkowski, defense rise up as Winterhawks square series
Timing may not be everything, but it can be damn important, as Troy Rutkowski proved Saturday night at the Rose Garden.
The Winterhawks' veteran defenseman had just escaped the penalty box early in the third period when an Everett forward tried to skate by with the puck. Rutkowski poked it back inside the Silvertips' blue line, won the race to get it and sent a pass to teammate Ty Rattie, whose high, hard shot found the back of the net for a 3-0 lead.
It was just one piece of Portland's 4-1 victory that squared its best-of-seven first-round Western Hockey League playoff series with Everett at 1-1, but it was a mighty big one on a night when Rutkowski stood tall.
The 6-2, 200-pound back-liner had a goal and two assists and helped anchor a defense that matched a franchise record in allowing the Silvertips only 11 shots on goal.
" 'Rutter' stepped up," coach Travis Green said. "Our leaders were real good tonight. It was a real 20-man effort, but the veteran guys led the way."
After outshooting Everett 58-31 yet coming out on the short end of a 4-3 decision in Friday's series opener, the Hawks came out with plenty of determination, ruling the shots-on-goal battle 34-11 and keeping the play in the Silvertips' end a vast majority of the game.
"I really liked the way our team came back tonight and battled hard for 60 minutes," Green said. The Hawks "were on the right side of the puck defensively, not just offensively.
"Playoff hockey is very much territorial. If you can control the territorial game, more nights than not, you're going to be on the right side of the scoreboard."
Nobody was more important for the Hawks Saturday night than Rutkowski, one of the more dependable as well as durable defensemen in franchise history. The Edmonton, Alberta, native, who signed a three-year entry-level contract with the NHL's Ottawa Senators earlier this month, played in 351 regular-season games, finishing with 240 consecutively, both club career records. He owns a share of the team mark for regular-season goals by a defenseman with 61.
Rutkowski, who turns 21 on April 29, is also the Hawks' career leader in playoff games with 58 and, including the postseason, his ironman mark now stands at 298 straight contests.
It was a big night for the defense, who scored three of Portland's goals. Rutkowski got it started on a rebound off a Rattie shot in the first period.
"I was just following the play up and Rattie lost (the puck) at his skates, and I saw it pop out when I got to the net," he said. "I was lucky enough to get my stick on it."
Rutkowski's third-period assist to Rattie as he exited the sin bin was fortuitous but perfectly executed.
"I was just trying to poke the puck up to him," he said. "Anytime you have a 50-goal scorer ahead of you, you give him the puck."
Though Rutkowski offered self-effacingly that "I don't know if my offense is that great," he scored 20 goals during the regular season and has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
"He has great hockey sense," said teammate Seth "Iceman" Jones, the son of former NBA forward Popeye Jones and a rookie ticketed as the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft. "He has had a fantastic year. He has put some points up, he's played solid defense, blocked shots, penalty-killed he's our vocal leader and he leads by example, for sure. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him."
As one of Portland's three overage players, Rutkowski has quietly helped hold things in check through a long season's chaotic times.
"Rutter has been a big piece of our team for awhile now," Green said. "He carried our team on its back during Christmas time, almost, when all the guys were gone (to seasonal world junior tournaments). He's a character guy who cares about his teammates. Those kind of players step up in big games."
Even with the shocking Game 1 loss, the Hawks showed no panic.
"After a game like (Friday's), you have to bounce back," Rutkowski said. "Our mood was exactly like after any regular-season game we lost. We wanted to get our jump back and play the way we can play."
Saturday's game was played more tightly than in the opener, but the Hawks stayed patient, outshooting the Silvertips 18-4 while taking a 2-0 lead through two periods.
"I liked that we didn't get impatient tonight," Green said. "Our team is used to scoring goals. Young guys who want to score a lot, sometimes they get a little antsy when things aren't going their way.
"Before the game, we talked about, 'Go out and play 60 minutes, and if you win the game 1-nothing, great.' We weren't worried about the score; we were just worried about the process of getting to the end."
Getting to the end took some time as fisticuffs accented some hard feelings on both sides in the game's final minutes. The Hawks had the edge there, too, with feisty little Brendan Leipsic scoring a unanimous decision over Everett's Connor Cox in the nightcap square-off as the sellout crowd of 10,947 roared its approval.
Portland -- the WHL's regular-season champion -- went into the series heavily favored against an Everett team that squeezed into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Most pundits forecast a sweep.
Now the teams head to Everett for Games 3 and 4 Wednesday and Friday night. There is no question Portland is far and away the better team, but 17-year-old goaltender Austin Lotz -- solid in Game 2 after playing lights-out in the opener -- gives Everett a weapon to lean on.
"We were committed tonight," Green said. In Friday's game, "we weren't all in. Whether it was overconfidence, or playing a little too offensive, I'm not sure. When you lose a game like that and you play the next night, it's a lot harder than when you win, especially at home. It's tough if you go down 0-2.
"Give (the Silvertips) credit. They came in here and played two hard games. I think we wore them down a little bit tonight, but it's going to be a battle. We have to go up and steal one now in Everett."
That's not what the Hawks are really after. They're thinking two wins on the road, then returning to wrap up the series Saturday night at the Garden.
Saturday's win was a good start, but there is plenty of hockey yet to be played in a series that has proved more competitive than anyone imagined.