Stellar season puts team on track for success in playoffs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - High-scoring forward Nic Petan and the Portland Winterhawks begin their playoff quest on Friday with a WHL first-round series against Vancouver.The road to the Memorial Cup begins at Moda Center this weekend and continues in Vancouver next week in first-round Western Hockey League playoff action, and the Portland Winterhawks hope to march to junior hockey’s promised land.

The veterans — and there are many — have made little secret that returning to the Memorial Cup and winning the tournament in London, Ontario, in May remains the only goal.

As it should, with the Winterhawks winning 28 of their closing 29 regular-season games and finishing 54-13-2-3 for 113 points, second to Kelowna (57-11-0-4, 118) in the WHL.

Beat Vancouver and potential subsequent-round foes Victoria, Kelowna and Edmonton again and win the WHL?

It could happen, but Mike Johnston, Portland coach and general manager, says the Winterhawks won’t focus too far ahead.

The Hawks beat Vancouver (32-29-7-4, 75 points) in all four meetings this season, but these are the playoffs and it’s a new season.

“They won’t look too far ahead,” Johnston says of his players. “They haven’t looked far ahead this whole second half. They won’t look further than the next game.”

The Hawks lost in the WHL finals in 2011 and 2012, then broke through last year, beating Edmonton and advancing to the Memorial Cup before losing to Halifax in the title game.

Portland has plentiful playoff experience, a deep forward group led by Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic, Taylor Leier and Oliver Bjorkstrand, two studs on defense in Derrick Pouliot and Mathew Dumba, and a quality goalie in Brendan Burke.

“We’re confident in our team,” Pouliot says. “We’ve proved all season that we can play, and especially in the past couple months we’ve been really good. With our veteran experience, the guys know what the playoffs are going to be like and the compete level they’ll have to bring. In that way, I think we’re ready.”

The Hawks scored 338 goals — topping 300 goals for the fourth consecutive season and notching the most since 1997-98.

They also led the WHL in power-play rate (27.5 percent). And they also got better at limiting shots against and on penalty kill, which helped Burke and the other goalies.

“A lot of people say we’re better than last year’s team. A lot of people say we’re just as good,” Leier says. “We’re looking forward to (the playoff run), and have been looking forward to it for a long time. We’re excited.”

Says Pouliot: “We’re not sure about the West. We have a good conference this year. It’s going to be a battle. We’re going to have to earn every win. We’re wanting to make another run.”

n Portland players call Vancouver their best first-round opponent in recent years.

The Giants have some forward depth and a puck-moving defense, and Payton Lee has played well in the net.

Behind the bench is Don Hay, a three-time Memorial Cup champ (twice with Kamloops, once with Vancouver) and former NHL coach.

“He’s always had hard-working teams,” Johnston says. “They always play a disciplined style. They’ll play a gritty, hard-working game.”

The Giants know they have to be disciplined to avoid Portland’s lethal power-play units.

The Hawks like their chances, especially in an uptempo game where they can skate and pass and use their skill to keep the puck. But Johnston and the players say they’ll also be comfortable in 2-1 and 3-2, grind-it-out games in which the Giants — and any future opponents — try to be rough with Portland’s skill


“They’re going to try to come after our top guys,” Leier says.

Petan says the Hawks are ready for some rough hockey.

“They’re not the funnest games, and they’re the hardest,” Petan says. “I feel like when they’re closer, we’re more into it. We’re not just going out there to score goals. We’re going out there to win.”

n The Hawks won 51 of 56 games when scoring three or more goals. They are 3-11-1-1 when scoring one or two goals.

“We have confidence we can score three in a game,” Johnston says. “But, to give up three, now you’re looking at scoring four. Against playoff-type goaltenders, you’re going to have trouble doing that.”

Johnston says scoring first and leading after two periods are important statistics to him. The Hawks are 44-6-0-2 when scoring first, and 44-1-0-1 (losing to Seattle in regulation, Victoria in a shootout) when leading after two periods.

The coach also puts great emphasis on shots allowed this season, and the team became better at limiting chances. The Hawks are 45-5-1-2 when outshooting an opponent, but only 7-8-1-1 when being outshot.

n Leier has expressed his dislike of Vancouver defenseman Dalton Thrower, whose elbow to the head knocked Leier out of the 2013 Memorial Cup — when Thrower played for Saskatoon.

The Giants acquired Thrower in the offseason and made him the captain, and Hay credits the Montreal Canadiens’ prospect for much of Vancouver’s success.

Thrower, however, could miss the series with a bad ankle.

Is Leier disappointed about that? “I don’t really care anymore,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

n Burke returned after missing a dozen games with mononucleosis and played well, posting a shutout in a 7-0 win against Seattle.

He’s ready to go, after two years as Mac Carruth’s backup, and he’s ready for his chance to become part of Winterhawks history.

He says everybody should enjoy the ride.

“These opportunities don’t come along every year,” he says. “Winterhawks fans have been spoiled — so many great years recently. Really, these opportunities don’t come around that often. Even though it seems like a Winterhawks-every-year thing now, it’s not always going to be that way.”

Burke says the Hawks are ready for the playoffs, as if winning 28 of the final 29 games didn’t prove it.

“Of course the wins look good, but it’s the way we’re playing that is really special,” he says. “We have a really classy team, because even against lesser opponents, we never underestimate anybody. We always bring our best.”

n The Hawks established a franchise record for consecutive wins (21) before falling to Seattle 4-1 on March 1. Then the Hawks won their next seven, including three times against Seattle, outscoring the Thunderbirds 19-5.

A 29-game winning streak would have obliterated the WHL record.

“We weren’t going to go the entire second half without losing a game,” says Johnston, although his team almost did just that. “We just weren’t on in that game in Seattle. They were better than us that night. It’s all how you respond. Same thing in the playoffs. The next few games, we were really good.”

Johnston says he has never had a team play better than Portland in the past couple months, especially with consistency and resiliency.

“I’m actually really impressed with how our guys have played,” he says. “

n Final regular-season stats: Petan, 35 goals-78 assists-113 points; Bjorkstrand, 50-59-109; Leipsic, 39-52-91; Chase De Leo, 39-42-81; Leier, 37-42-79; Pouliot, 17-53-70. Petan and Bjorkstrand finished 2-3 in the WHL in scoring. Vancouver’s leading scorer was Carter Popoff, with 13-51-64.

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