You've heard this before, and you'll hear it again: This is a big weekend for the Portland Winterhawks.
The Hawks face back-to-back games against two U.S. Division rivals. They'll play host to the Spokane Chiefs at 7 p.m. Friday in their 2013-14 season debut at Memorial Coliseum. Then they'll go to Kent, Wash., for a 7 p.m. Saturday game against the Seattle Thunderbirds.
The way the Western Hockey League is shaping up, every game against another team in the division will be a big game for defending WHL champion Portland.
Through Monday, the Hawks had the division lead with 36 points but Everett (34), Spokane (31), Tri-City (31) and Seattle (28) were within striking distance, and Everett, Spokane and Seattle had played one fewer game than Portland.
Portland is 0-1 against Everett this season. The Silvertips beat the Winterhawks 3-2 last weekend at Everett. The teams will play nine more times in the regular season.
"There are going to be a lot of very important games prior to Christmas," says Johnston.
Portland has nine games within its division from Friday through Dec. 28.
And the competing teams will make adjustments, in the front office and on the ice, he says.
"Teams will change over the next couple of months, with trades or acquisitions depending on where they think they are for the playoffs, whether they are buying or selling," Johnston says.
Everett clamped down on Portland's explosive offense, built a 2-0 lead, then held on after giving up two goals early in the third period.
"They didn't give us a lot of room the first two periods," Hawks general manager/coach Mike Johnston says. "Our rushes and shots were down."
"We were just playing our game," Silvertips captain Matt Pufahl told the Everett Herald. "We were talking our way out of the D-zone. That was a huge point for us. We made them dump pucks in, we had good gap by our D, and we got good backchecking from our forwards. That helped keep the shots down."
It helped, too, that Everett returned No. 1 goalie Austin Lotz, who had missed six games with a twisted ankle. He stopped 26 Portland shots.
Johnston says Everett GM Garry Davidson, who was the Hawks' director of player personnel in 2008-11, has done a good job building the 'Tips. And the return of coach Kevin Constantine, who coached Everett to three division titles from 2004-07, gives the club "a very structured, very disciplined coach," Johnston says.
The Winterhawks bounced back on Saturday. One day after the loss to Everett, they won 7-3 at Kamloops, going 3 for 3 on power plays and scoring two shorthanded goals in a span of 27 seconds late in the third period.
"When we're shorthanded, we're dangerous on the rush," Johnston says.
"With the firepower that they've got, the offensive presence that they've got, you can't make mistakes against them," Kamloops coach Dave Hunchak told the Kamloops News.
Portland has two of the top three scorers in the WHL.
Nicolas Petan has 48 points (13 goals, a league-high 35 assists) and trails only Spokane's Mitch Holmberg (25-30-55).
Oliver Bjorkstrand is third with 42 points (18 goals, 24 assists).
Taylor Leier is tied for 12th with 31 points (17, 14).
Johnston says there are things to like about playing both at Memorial Coliseum and Moda Center.
"It's a little louder and more intimidating to the other teams in the coliseum," he says. "The Moda Center has a great family and fan atmosphere to it, with the scoreboard and the lighting. Our players enjoy playing in both buildings."