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WINTERHAWKS: Fans deserve assist; tough road stretch ahead for team

by: COURTESY OF BRYAN HEIM - Nic Petan celebrates a Portland goal.The official scorer's sheet won't show it, but 10,146 people deserve an assist in the Portland Winterhawks' come-from-behind, 6-5 victory Sunday night over Saskatoon.

The big crowd at Moda Center kept the Hawks going after they gave up four consecutive goals and fell behind 4-1 midway through the second period.

The crowd continued to inspire the Hawks into the final minute, and Portland's Oliver Bjorkstrand scored the winning goal with 20 seconds remaining.

"Early in the game, the fans were still encouraging us, even when we didn't give them much to cheer about," coach/general manager Mike Johnston says. "And once we started to score, the building just came alive."

That's no surprise to Johnston, who has seen that happen in previous seasons as well.

"The fans have always been great," he says, "and the team really rallies around them."

• The Winterhawks begin a stretch of five straight road games with a showdown at Everett, 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The Silvertips have the best record in the Western Hockey League. They are 20-4-4-0 (44 points) and lead Portland (20-5-2-1, 43 points) by one point after 28 of 72 regular-season games.

Everett owns a 1-0 advantage in the 10-game regular-season series, having won 1-0 at home a couple of weeks ago. Portland fell behind 3-0 but made it a game with two goals in the third period.

"The way they played early gave us trouble," Johnston says, "but then we started to skate better and had some success in the third period. It was two teams feeling each other out, and I'm sure both teams will make adjustments Tuesday night."

• Portland will have three road games in three days Friday-Sunday, taking on Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary, in order, with the Sunday game a matinee at Scotiabank Saddledome.

"Going all the way to Alberta and playing three games in a row will be tough," Johnston says.

The Hawks will get a few days off before facing Seattle on Friday, Dec. 13 at ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash.

Portland's next home game is Dec. 14 versus Seattle at Memorial Coliseum.

• The Hawks weren't surprised to hear that captain Taylor Leier, top scorer Nic Petan and star defenseman Derrick Pouliot are among 25 players invited to the Canadian national junior team tryout camp. They will skate at the Toronto camp Dec. 12-15, hoping to make the 22-player roster for Canada's games at the world junior tournament in Malmo, Sweden.

The squad will be finalized no later than Dec. 25, and the tournament is Dec. 26-Jan. 5.

Johnston figures that the trio could miss eight Portland games while away, assuming they go to Sweden.

"Certainly for us it's a challenge, but we've been through this for several years now," he says. "It's a great opportunity for those guys. It makes the players better, and it also helps more of our young guys get more of an opportunity for playing time and to develop their abilities."

• Petan has 60 points (second in the WHL) and Leier has 38 points, both in 28 games this season.

Pouliot leads the Winterhawks' D-men with 25 points in 24 games.

Pouliot was the eighth overall pick (by Pittsburgh) in the 2012 NHL draft.

Petan went to Winnipeg in the second round of the 2013 NHL draft.

Leier was a fourth-round choice of Philadelphia in 2012.

All three played well for Team WHL in last week's Subway Super Series.

• In Sunday's win over Saskatoon, the Blades scored their five goals on just 16 shots. And Johnston pulled his starting goalie, No. 2 netminder Jarrod Schamerhorn, after 31:40 and brought in the regular starter, Brendan Burke.

Schamerhorn allowed four goals on 11 shots; Burke gave up one goal on five shots.

"We made a couple of mistakes defensively," Johnston says. "Two of their four goals (versus Schamerhorn) are easily solvable. We were just sloppy. And they scored on their chances."

Making a goaltender change "is one of those things that is always just on instincts," Johnston says. "I thought four goals was enough for Jarrod. He wasn't particular sharp on a couple of them.

"But I liked the way we battled back in the second period, and that got us back in the game."

Petan — who had four goals in the game — scored at 15:37 and 18:45 of the second period on power plays for his first two tallies.

He had another power-play goal, at 13:48 of the third period, that tied the score at 5-5.

"We had good power plays," Johnston says, "and Nic is a scorer. His intelligence on the ice is really good."

Then came Bjorkstrand on a rush for the winning goal, with Brendan Leipsic getting his fifth assist of the game.

Johnston made a coaching move and followed a hunch in teaming Bjorkstrand with Leipsic and Petan for the closing seconds, with Paul Bittner going to the bench.

"The puck got turned over in the neutral zone, and Leipsic drove wide and put it to Bjorkstrand in the slot, and he made a good shot," Johnston says. "I just thought that Bjorkstrand was playing so well, I'd better get him out there for the end of regulation."

• Two nights earlier, the Winterhawks picked up a big road win at Spokane, with Bjorkstrand getting a hat trick.

The 6-3 victory last Friday gave Portland a 5-0 record against the Chiefs this season.

"We knew they were going to give us their best, trying to get a win against us," Johnston says, "so that was a key game to win on the road."