by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Alex Schoenborn of the Portland Winterhawks takes a shot against Everett.Commemorative rings for the 2012-13 Western Hockey League champions were presented to players Tuesday night before the Winterhawks' 4-2 loss to Everett at Memorial Coliseum.

The problem was, too many of the intended recipients were missing during the final game before a 10-day holiday break.

Center Brendan Leipsic was in street clothes, the result of a seven-game suspension levied for his involvement in an altercation during Portland's 5-3 win over Seattle on Saturday night.

Mainstays Nicolas Petan, Taylor Leier, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Layne Viveiros and Derrick Pouliot were off with their national teams preparing for the World Junior Championships over the holidays.

Leipsic, Petan, Leier and Bjorkstrand all rank among the WHL's top dozen scorers, representing 87 goals of Portland's 163 goals scored in its first 34 games this season.

It was like Ocean's Eleven going into production without George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia and Bernie Mac.

So the Hawks' defeat to a good Everett team (22-10-2-2) -- now two points behind Portland (23-8-2-2) atop the U.S. Division standings -- wasn't alarming. What amounted to a step above a Tier II team fought to the end, giving up an empty-net goal with little more than a minute to play on a night when the ammunition supply had been vacated.

"Our execution wasn't great at times, but we battled and competed hard," coach Mike Johnston said. "We hung in there. As I told the players, with the short bench and guys who haven't played many minutes before, you have to be really detailed in your game."

Johnston brought up a 15-year-old and two 16-year-olds from the farm system for depth, and they wound up with ample playing time. Some of the Hawks' regular younger players doubled their normal work load. Everett was minus two of its players due to World Championships participation, but it wasn't an even tradeoff.

"We're going to be shorthanded for a while," Johnston said. "You try to use this situation to your advantage. We prepare for the playoffs by giving these guys major minutes and big-time opportunities. By playoff time, if somebody goes down (to injury), these guys have done it before, and they can handle it."

"Mike knows exactly what he's doing," said center Chase De Leo, who scored his 22nd goal Tuesday night, the only player on hand in double figures on the goal-scoring ledger. "That's why we called up the young guys, in case something does happen. It's a great time for them and for the other guys on the team."

De Leo, 18, enjoyed the opportunity to own the spotlight.

"This is a great time for me to step up and take some leadership," he said. "I like being one of the older, more experienced guys, to take charge. I like being put in this position. I'll try to make the best of this right now and take advantage of the great opportunity."

There was extra pressure on Portland goaltender Brendan Burke, in his first year of regular duty. The 6-4, 185-pound Burke made 31 saves -- several of the spectacular variety -- and acquitted himself well, as he has done most of the season.

"Burkie is really progressing," Johnston said. "He has had a heavy workload, but I like the way he is coming along."

Added De Leo: "He has continually improved since he has been here. He works very hard every summer. I know he wants to be the best he can be. The boys all believe in him."

Johnston, whose teams have reached the WHL finals in each of the past three seasons, has another title contender with this year's club. What is missing is experience on the back end. It's why the Hawks last week acquired the rights to defenseman Mathew Dumba from Red Deer in exchange for forward Presten Kopeck and conditional draft picks.

Dumba, 19, is a top-end talent who has played 13 games for the NHL Minnesota Wild this season and is also in Canada's selection camp for the World Junior Championships. There is no guarantee Dumba will play a minute for Portland. The Wild have until Jan. 10 to decide whether to keep him or release him to the Hawks.

"It's up to them," Johnston said. "They can bring him back to the NHL or they can send him here. It depends on injuries, where they're at and what they want to do with him. They should have a good idea right after the World Juniors on about Jan. 6."

If Dumba sticks with Minnesota, the Winterhawks get a third-round pick back. If that happens, Johnston will explore other trade options to get more defense help. Johnston wouldn't have made the deal if he didn't think the chances are good he'll get Dumba, but there are no guarantees.

Bjorkstrand and Viveiros are expected back for Portland's next game against Tri-City on Dec. 27. The other four missing veterans should return for a Jan. 8 rematch with Everett.

There are six very good teams in the Western Conference this season. The best right now is Kelowna, sporting a remarkable 28-3-0-2 record. The Hawks play the Rockets twice at home, on Dec. 31 and Jan. 2, before Leipsic, Petan, Leier and Pouliot rejoin the club.

"They're a really good team, with a great defense and good depth at forward," Johnston said. "It's unfortunate we'll play them without our full lineup, but it will be good to play them and force the other guys to see what they can do."

The Hawks, near the midway mark in the regular season, are building for another strong playoff run.

"We have lots of speed and lots of scoring," Johnston said. "If we get Dumba, we'll be solid defensively. Burkie has come along really well in goal. I think we have a really good group."

A year ago, the Hawks came within a whisker of winning the Memorial Cup, symbolic of North American major junior hockey supremacy.

"We had a tight group," De Leo said. "This year, we have a very tight group, too, on and off the ice. It may sound cliche, but we are honestly like a family.

"I think we can push ourselves to where we were last year. That's your goal every year -- to win the WHL and get back to the Memorial Cup."

Don't order those rings quite yet. But have the fingers sized, just in case.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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