Portland's conference champs built for WHL title bid

It's not quite Memorial Cup or bust for the Winterhawks, who ended the Western Hockey League's regular season Sunday night with a 6-3 loss to Spokane before a packed house at the Rose Garden.

But it's something like that.

Portland mortgaged a bit of its future in a midseason trade that landed 20-year-old center Craig Cunningham - last season's Western Conference Player of the Year - from Vancouver. And the Hawks have added other veteran pieces, knowing that the heart and soul of the team will be off to the NHL next season.

Sunday's game was supposed to be a showdown for the conference and U.S. Division championships, but that got decided a day early when the Chiefs lost to Tri-City and the Hawks polished off Seattle. That clinched Portland's first division regular-season title since 2001-02 and its first conference crown since 1997-98.

It turned Sunday's contest into an exhibition, with each team resting a few regulars. Other than allowing Spokane bragging rights and a 5-4 season series win over Portland, it was a meaningless game.

It will be a much different situation when the Hawks open their first-round playoff series against Everett Saturday at the Rose Garden.

'Seventy-two (regular-season) games is a long haul, but this is the most exciting time of the year,' Portland coach Mike Johnston said. 'We're really looking forward to it.

'To win the division and the conference, that's a big step for the organization. It's a great accomplishment for our guys, especially the guys who have been through the tough times. But now we start a new season, and we feel good about our team's chances.'

This is the best Winterhawk team since the 1997-98 Memorial Cup champions - better than the 2000-01 squad that got to the WHL Finals.

The first two lines - Nino Niederreiter, Ryan Johansen and Brad Ross and Sven Bartschi, Cunningham and Ty Rattie - are sensational, and the depth behind them solid. Even without second-round draft pick Brett Ponich (knee), the defense is capable, too.

Dean 'Scooter' Vrooman - the voice of the Hawks from 1982-2007 and still doing TV interview work for the club - compares this team favorably to the '97-98 version.

'This team is right up there at the top end, and the depth is much better' than that of the '97-98 team, Vrooman said. 'The key will be (goaltender) Mac Carruth. He doesn't have to be great - just solid in the playoffs.'

Johansen - who notched his 39th and 40th goals of the season Sunday night but was a third-period post shot away from his first career hat trick - concurs.

'Mac is going to be a big part of our success,' said Johansen, whom Columbus made the fourth pick of the 2010 draft. Backup goalie Keith 'Hamilton has been amazing for us down the stretch. But I know from practicing against him every day, when Mac's on his game, he's tough to beat.'

Portland will be a huge favorite over Everett, which finished in eighth place in the West and lost nine of 10 meetings with the Hawks this season. But the Silvertips have one of the loop's best goalies in Kent Simpson and absolutely nothing to lose in the seven-game series.

'All of the games have been close,' Johnston said. 'They're a good defensive team, a tight-checking team, with two good goaltenders. They're much like us.'

'It's going to be a war out there in this series,' said Niederreiter, who scored 41 goals despite playing only 55 games this season. 'We'll fight as hard as possible to win it.'

A year ago, the Hawks beat Spokane in the first round, then fell to Cunningham and Vancouver in the second round.

'We have way more guys this year with experience, plus Craig, who has gone deep in the playoffs, which is big for us,' said Niederreiter, who went to the New York Islanders one pick behind Johansen.

'We have the leadership we need now,' Johansen said. 'We've all gained an extra year of experience in the league. The older guys have helped our younger guys like Bartschi, Rattie and (Brendan) Leispic, who have stepped into big roles for our team.

'We're really confident. We just have to touch up a few things in practice and get our legs back. It's been a grind the last few weeks, battling for playoff position. Now we can take a deep breath and get back out there Saturday.'

Spokane coach Don Nachbaur has a healthy dose of respect for the Hawks.

'It's a great team,' he said. 'There's a reason why they won the U.S. Division. They're highly skilled and they have size. The playoffs are about perseverence. The battle level goes way up in the playoffs, and they're built that way.

'It'll be interesting. In the playoffs, a lot of intangibles come to the surface - goaltending, special teams for two. They have a lot of good assets on that team. They've been a tough opponent all year.'

Pundits expect it to come down to a conference final showdown between the Hawks and Chiefs, who would likely have to get past a tough Tri-City club in the semifinals. Portland-Spokane would be a doozy. The Chiefs - who led the WHL in both power-play success and penalty-killing and scored seven more goals than the Hawks this season - have four players who were members of the Memorial Cup championship squad of 2008.

'That can rub off on the younger guys,' Nachbaur said. 'Experience has a lot to do with playoff success. But there are a lot of young guys in our locker room, too.

'We think we match up well with (the Hawks), but they are really talented. It would be a tough task. We have other obstacles before we get there.'

So do the Hawks.

Things are set up nicely, though, for a long playoff run this spring.

Ponich could return if they can win a series or two, which would be a big boost. The Hawks could use him if they wind up facing East power Saskatoon in the league finals.

The WHL champion will be in Mississaauga, Ontario, for a crack at the Memorial Cup trophy from May 20-29.

Buckle up. For the Hawks, the drive to Ontario starts Saturday.

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