Team defense leads way as Portland heads into second round

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Defenseman Tyler Wotherspoon of the Portland Winterhawks fires a shot in a playoff game against Everett. Wotherspoon is one of three Hawks to sign recently with an NHL team.The result would seem to indicate that the powerhouse Portland Winterhawks survived their first-round Western Hockey League series against Everett. Pushed to six games, the Hawks won 4-2.

But Portland coach Travis Green and captain Troy Rutkowski have a different take on what happened, noting that the Hawks manhandled the Silvertips in four of the games and lost by one goal in the other two. The Winterhawks, they say, are happy with their performance.

“I liked our game in the majority of all six games,” Green says. “Our worst game was Game 1, and we almost had 60 shots (in 4-3 loss). I like the way our team played and stuck to its game plan. We got more consistent with our game as the series went on — vital in the playoffs. A lot of times teams get frustrated when it’s not going the way they envisioned.”

Rutkowski says he can’t pinpoint anything of concern to the Hawks as they prepare for their next series.

“I like our team’s play,” he says. “We’ll continue to get better. We got the job done, won four games.

“We thought we were in those games (lost). We had a chance to win those games. You gotta hand it to Everett, but we wanted to come out and respond.”

Portland outshot Everett in each game and outscored the Silvertips 27-9 in its four wins. Inexplicable was the 3-2 loss in Game 5 on home ice. But, as they have done throughout their record-breaking year, the Hawks responded by whipping Everett 5-1 Monday to close out the series.

The most impressive thing was the team defense, which led to Portland tying the franchise mark for shots allowed (11 in Game 2) and going long stretches without allowing the Silvertips much offense.

“Our forwards did a good job with puck possession,” Rutkowski says. “Anytime you have the puck, it’s guaranteed you’re not going to get scored on.”

He also credits the backchecking of the forwards “and defense doing its job.”

Green says “everyone bought into the way we had to play. It’s not just about defensemen or the goalie. It’s about forwards working hard, not thinking just offensively, but backchecking and everybody playing at the right speed. You have to use that team speed defensively, too.”

Seventeen Portland players got on the scoring sheet, with the usual standouts atop the list: Brendan Leipsic (4 goals-7 assists-11 points), Ty Rattie (6-4-10) and Nicolas Petan (3-6-9). The team’s top line proved, through one series, anyway, that it needs to be reckoned with in playoff hockey.

Defenseman Derrick Pouliot, who sat out much of the second half of the season with an ankle injury, had nine points on three goals and six assists in the Everett series.

Green says the Hawks avoided high-risk plays.

“We learned how to stick with it, and not force plays,” says Green, examining what the Hawks might have taken from the Everett series. “With offensive play, controlling play, sometimes you think you have to keep pushing, and you make higher-risk plays.”

As far as improvement, he adds, “I’m not really looking for big improvement from where we’ve been. I think we’ve been a good hockey team all year, and our team has learned to put its best foot forward nightly.

“If we can be consistent, and consistent in all three zones (offensive, defensive, neutral), I like our chances any night.”

NHL comes calling for Winterhawks

Three more veteran Portland Winterhawks have realized their dream, signing contracts with NHL teams.

As expected, Tyler Wotherspoon signed last week with Calgary, the team that drafted the defenseman in the second round in 2011.

Free agents Taylor Peters (Dallas Stars) and Troy Rutkowski (Ottawa) also signed recent deals.

Peters and Rutkowski, both 20, almost certainly will be playing in the minor leagues next season.

Wotherspoon, 19, is likely to join them, although he could be back with Portland, as was the case with overage goalie Mac Carruth (who signed with Chicago) this Western Hockey League season.

Defenseman Derrick Pouliot (Pittsburgh) and forward Ty Rattie (St. Louis) are also signed with NHL clubs.

Forward Brendan Leipic (Nashville) is the next likely Hawk to sign.

And, of course, defenseman Seth Jones and forward Nicolas Petan will be drafted in June, with Jones signing and expected to leap to the NHL.

Portland coach Travis Green calls Rutkowski a genuine WHL success story, somebody who persevered for five years in the league and eventually signed to play pro.

"Troy matured every year with us," Green says. "He's always been an offensive defenseman; when he came into the league, you could tell he wanted to be an offensive guy. But the defensive side of his game improved so much.

"He matured off the ice as well; conditioning was not his biggest asset in his first few years, but he trains hard and works out in the gym after games. He's become a big leader. To see him get that contract, we're proud of him."

Says Rutkowski: "Now I can focus on going as far as I can in the playoffs."

Checking center Peters also had to wait until the end of his fifth year to sign.

"At 17, we sent him back to Junior A for a few months," Green says. "He's a guy who's steadily gotten better. He's become a man over the past five years. He's learned what it takes to play his best hockey."

Wotherspoon "has been a good player for us from the get-go," Green says. "He was a high draft pick and it wasn't 'hoping he would sign, but when he would sign.' ... We're proud of all three of them. It's a different feeling for all three of them."

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