Special team often gives Winterhawks a big advantage

by: COURTESY OF BRYAN HEIM - Taylor Leier, Portland Winterhawks forward and captain, celebrates his power-play goal in the final game of the Victoria playoff series last week with home fans.The Portland fans cheer as an opposing player goes to the penalty box, and out on the ice skate five Winterhawks: Derrick Pouliot, Nic Petan, Taylor Leier, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Brendan Leipsic.

It’s a great time for all — except the other team, of course.

“We just have fun with it,” says Leipsic, of the Hawks’ lethal power-play unit. “We always have a big smile on our face when we go out there for the power plays. We enjoy playing with each other. ... We have a level of calmness. We’re a confident unit. We expect to go out there every shift and score a goal.”

Combined with the second unit of Chase De Leo, Keegan Iverson, Paul Bittner, Garrett Haar and Mathew Dumba, the Hawks have been tearing apart opposing penalty killers for a long time — scoring at an exceptional 30-percent clip since mid-January.

Now, the Western Hockey League’s top “PP” hopes to better the league’s top “PK” in the Western Conference finals, when the Winterhawks face off against the Kelowna Rockets in an anticipated epic clash. Game 1 is Friday and Game 2 is Saturday in Kelowna. Games 3 and 4 are Tuesday and Wednesday at Moda Center.

• • •

Special teams usually factor into such hockey showdowns. Portland led the WHL with a 27.5-percent power play during the regular season, and Kelowna led the league with an 86.2-percent penalty kill.

In the playoffs, Kelowna has the WHL’s top marks of 35-percent PP and 90.2-percent PK, while Portland’s numbers have dipped slightly (24.6 and 80 percent).

It doesn’t matter, from Portland’s perspective, what the stats say. The only concern: Will Petan be able to play or be effective, because of an injury — head and/or neck — sustained in a hit and skirmish with Victoria’s Ryan Gagnon in the previous series?

With their first-unit five guys leading the way, the Hawks have been stupendous on the power play during their 36-2 run, which started in mid-January. According to team broadcaster Todd Vrooman, the Hawks have a 29.8-percent power play during the 36-2 streak — with at least one man-advantage goal in 28 of 38 games, more than one such goal in 18 games and four PP goals scored in three games.

“Our power play has been absolutely electric,” says Leier, the team captain. “All of us are really engaged and focused, and our attention to detail is really good. We’re around 30 percent, which is like out of control.”

The Hawks also have been good about drawing power-play opportunities with their hard work, aggressiveness, speed and skill. They had 334 power plays during the regular season, three shy of WHL leader Edmonton, and a league-leading 92 PP goals.

• • •

Typically, Pouliot and Petan man the point, with Bjorkstrand on their left and Leipsic on their right and Leier patrolling the slot. It’s a versatile group, the biggest difference between the power play now and in the past. Sometimes the unit works “low,” because the four opposing players defend Pouliot and Petan, sometimes they work “high” because the defense focuses on Bjorkstrand, Leier and Leipsic.

“Whatever’s open — you’ve got to take what they give you,” Leier says.

The quick and crisp passing, the intelligence, the grit, the rifle shots, the rebounds, the ability of Pouliot and Petan to keep the puck in the zone, the breakout up the ice ... a lot of things make Portland lethal on the power play.

Mike Johnston, general manager and coach, likes to keep the first five out there for one minute, at least, before going with the second five.

The goal would be to have overwhelming puck possession in the offensive zone, rip off several shots and tire the


“You can make it look good with a lot of passes, but if you don’t get shots on the net, you can’t score,” says Bjorkstrand, who had a team-leading 17 power-play goals in 69 regular-season games, many with his precise one-timer, and 50 overall. “We try to make plays with our set plays, and we try to change it up to confuse them.”

Leier says the Hawks have 20 to 24 power-play plays, all of which the guys “have mastered. We know what each other is going to do based on what the defense does.”

Says Johnston: “We have more versatility; we have more things we can do at different times. We can switch it up. The other day (against Victoria) we ran a play that was totally different, but it was the same setup, we just picked a different option to start the game and it worked. It doesn’t always work like that.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Veteran defenseman Derrick Pouliot, a mainstay on the Portland Winterhawks potent power-play first unit, looks to pass in a first-round playoff game against Vancouver.

• • •

The Hawks’ power play “wasn’t very good” in early November. Johnston consulted with a friend, Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Tom Renney.

“I came back with a sort of combination of things we were going to do, and we worked on it for probably two weeks straight,” Johnston says. “From that point on, we just kept building new options, new looks. Built and built and built, and we pick certain things that we think will work against certain teams.”

And, just think: The Hawks feature an NHL first-round, No. 7 pick (Dumba) on the second unit — and future No. 4 overall pick Seth Jones played on the second unit last year.

Leier laughs at the thought, and Pouliot says, “If we hadn’t had that (first) unit together all year, (Dumba would) probably be out there. When the power play works that well, it’s tough to split guys up.”

Dumba, however, does join the top power-play unit when it’s a 4-on-3 or 5-on-3 advantage. He has a booming shot, and against only three defenders there is more space for him to send some rubber toward the goalie.

• • •

The current team’s 27.5-percent power-play rate isn’t the highest of the Johnston era (since 2008-09), however.

The 2011-12 team that lost to Edmonton in the WHL finals had a 29.4-percent power play. It was led by first-unit players Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi, Brad Ross, Joe Morrow and Troy Rutkowski.

Last year’s power-play rate was 23.4 percent, led by Rattie, Petan, Leipsic, Rutkowski and Pouliot.

And this season’s power-play numbers pale in comparison to the 1982-83 Portland team that won the Memorial Cup on home ice. Then again, that was a different era — the ‘82-’83 team, for goodness sakes, scored 495 goals and gave up 387, or 49 more than Portland scored this season (338), the WHL’s highest total since the 1997-98 Hawks.

The 1982-83 power-play first unit featured future NHL stars Cam Neely and Ray Ferraro, 160-point player Ken Yaremchuk, 82-goal scorer Randy Heath and 100-point defenseman Brad Duggan. Longtime Hawks radio announcer Dean Vrooman fondly recalls that group’s precision — 35 percent.

And there were other good Portland power-play units:

In 1988-89, Dennis Holland set the franchise record with 40 PP goals and Portland had a 28.9-percent rate with Holland, Troy Mick, Terry Black, Chad Biafore and James “Hamish” Black.

The 1997-98 Cup winners, who had a 27.2-percent power play, featured future NHL stars Marian Hossa, Brenden Morrow and Andrew Ference,

terrific playmaker Todd Robinson and offensive defenseman Kevin Haupt.

The 1993-94 team had a 27.1-percent power play with Brandon Smith and Jason McBain at the points and Colin Foley, Layne Roland, Lonny Bohonos, Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Wiemer and Scott Nichol equally manning low positions.

The Hawks of 1982-83, 1993-94 and this year led the WHL in power-play percentage.

Told of the ‘82-’83 team churning at 35 percent, Leipsic smiled and said: “That’s something you shoot for, but nowadays penalty-killing units are so good and goalies a lot better, I’m not sure that’s totally realistic. But you never know, you could get hot at the right time. Anytime you’re hovering around the high 20s or even 30s, you’re doing something right.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the 2007-08 Portland team had an 11.3-percent power play.

Leipsic says just to pressure Kelowna early with the power play will be important in the West finals, even if the Winterhawks don’t capitalize with goals.

Johnston says it’s a key to always get one more power-play goal than the opponent.

“That could be the determining factor in the game,” he says.

Adds Leier: “Against Kelowna, special teams are going to be huge. I’m predicting the refs are going to try to keep it even as possible (with penalties), unless a team acts like idiots. So, whoever scores on the power play ... that could be the turning point of the game, and could determine who wins.”

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