WHL team exudes confidence as tough division games loom

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Brendan Burke has stepped in this season as the No. 1 goaltender and posted a solid record for the Portland Winterhawks.It always comes down to goaltending, doesn’t it?

The Portland Winterhawks hope to defend their Western Hockey League championship in the coming months and return to the Memorial Cup tournament and win it. But, like every team in every year in every hockey league around the world, a lot will depend on goaltending — in Portland’s case, how third-year goalie Brendan Burke handles himself and performs at crunch time.

Burke, the son of former NHL goalie Sean Burke, played only in relief duty behind Mac Carruth the past two playoff seasons. But he doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by being the Hawks’ No. 1 goalie between the pipes in the playoffs this year.

“That’s not something I’m too concerned about,” says Burke, who entered this week’s play with a 27-10-2-2 record, .906 save percentage and 2.96 goals-against average. “People kinda hype that up.

“I’ve been with the team for two (playoff) runs and I can see ... as long as you don’t let yourself get overrun by the moment, the moment doesn’t really change that much. We’re still playing the same teams in the same league. Obviously, the intensity goes up, but I’ve always felt like I could handle it. I’ve played in big games, and it’s how the team plays in front of me. I’m very confident we’ll have success.”

Indeed, confidence abounds in the Portland locker room, even though the Winterhawks likely won’t enter the WHL playoffs as the favorite. The Hawks have great forward depth, a bolstered defensive corps after the addition of superstar Mathew Dumba and solid goaltending with the addition of 20-year-old Corbin Boes to back up Burke.

But, the damage already has been done, and the Hawks probably can’t recover from it. Portland has been swept in a four-game regular-season series against Kelowna, and the Rockets rolled past the Hawks, outscoring them 28-10.

The Winterhawks are not worrying about the Rockets right now. Kelowna (40-7-0-2, 82 points, entering Wednesday) would have to falter, big-time, not to earn the WHL Western Conference’s best record — or even the WHL’s best record.

And the Winterhawks still have a tough U.S. Division to navigate, in what could be the best season ever for the U.S. Division. All five teams are above .500, with Seattle (31-15-2-3, 67 points) on the heels of the division-leading Hawks (33-12-2-3, 71 points) entering Wednesday’s play.

“Kelowna’s clearly the favorite,” says Mike Johnston, Portland general manager and coach. “They’re a really good team, really experienced, great defense, veteran goaltenders, depth up front. They got a lot of everything.”

The Hawks would meet Kelowna in the West final — and not earlier, if things remain the same.

“I don’t worry about it too much,” Johnston adds. “The key thing is our division. It’s so tough. It’s going to make us a better team. Our division pushes us really hard. In the end, our teams will all be better for it. Maybe Kelowna won’t have quite the edge we have because we’ve played more competitive games throughout the year. ... The second half is all about gaining momentum, and we’re starting to gain momentum.”

Nic Petan, Taylor Leier and Derrick Pouliot returned from the World Junior Tournament, joined by Canadian teammate Dumba, who the Hawks added after the NHL’s Minnesota Wild reassigned the defenseman to junior. Coincidentally, the Hawks started dominating and winning games. And, they’re bonding, working on the chemistry part — “which needed some time,” Petan says. So, the Hawks had 22 games left to get ready for the playoffs entering Wednesday, plenty of time to get ready to beat everybody in their way.

“We have a lot of playoff experience in the room,” Pouliot says. “We have a lot of guys who know what it’s like (in playoffs). Kelowna hasn’t had that experience, but they’re still a very good team and it’d be a tough test.”

Leier, the captain, says the Hawks should still be the favorite. They’re the ones with the 2012-13 WHL Champions banner hanging in the rafters.

“We’re looking to defend that banner,” he says. “Consistency is the big thing for us. If we stay consistent, we’re going to win. We have a target on our back and every team that plays us wants to beat us. Everyone wants to beat the champs.”

So, with two months left in the regular season, what do we make of the Hawks?

Johnston says the Hawks can roll through four forward lines, led by the first line of Petan-Brendan Leipsic-Paul Bittner and second line of Leier-Oliver Bjorkstrand-Chase De Leo. The 6-5 Bittner fits well with the spitfires Petan and Leipsic, who again rank among WHL scoring leaders. The second line returned intact this year, and Bjorkstrand led the Hawks in goals with 33 heading into Wednesday.

“We try to use our depth. We try to play four lines,” Johnston says.

Leier says: “Oh my gosh, we could have the deepest forward group in the league. Kelowna’s up there, too.”

Pouliot has played like a superstar and now Dumba, a fellow first-round NHL pick, joins him on the blue line. The back end is less of a question mark with the presence of Pouliot, Dumba, Josh Hanson, Anton Cederholm and Garrett Haar.

It stung Dumba, predictably, to be relegated to juniors after playing in the NHL since September. But the Wild convinced him that Portland would be a good place for him, because the fast-paced Hawks like to move the puck and score.

“It’s not just any other team,” Dumba says. “It’s the Portland Winterhawks. They got a lot of great guys here. I know a lot of them from past experiences. It’s a pretty good situation for me. ... I fit in well here; my game lets me play to their systems. I know Derrick has loved playing here.”

The Hawks believe they have the physical element on the back end. “I personally believe we have the best D-corps in the league,” Burke says. “Cederholm’s physical, more of a defensive guy and can still make plays. Dumba is physical. Derrick is more physical than people give him credit for, and same with ‘Haarsy.’ All our guys are physical, but because they have so much offense, it gets swept under the rug. But, we do have a two-way, physical defensive corps.”

The key in the next two months?

“Just take off, just like last year,” Petan says. “Keep winning games, keep being consistent. Shooting pucks on net, winning shots-on-goal battles, winning corner battles, playing defense instead of always playing offense.”

But, what about goaltending? Johnston insists that he acquired Boes from Lethbridge to provide “insurance,” in case something happens with Burke.

“Brendan needed a break,” Johnston says. “He didn’t have a break in the first half, didn’t have much time off. I thought he played a lot of heavy-minute games, which

I didn’t want him to have, but I didn’t feel comfortable that we didn’t have an experienced backup. Boes is capable.”

Are the players confident in Burke?

“Absolutely,” Pouliot says. “Since (the four of us) have come back from world juniors, ‘Burkey’ has been unbelievable. We expect that from him every night, and he’s delivering. I’m sure he’ll be good down the road.”

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