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Winterhawks still have goals

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Taylor Leier and the Portland Winterhawks go for win No. 18 in a row Friday night at home against the Kamloops Blazers.The Portland Winterhawks have 12 games in 24 days to go in the Western Hockey League regular season — and, basically, three objectives:

1. Tune up for the WHL playoffs

2. Attempt to set WHL records for consecutive victories

3. Catch the Kelowna Rockets, who have the league's best record

  • The Winterhawks' playoff preparation and pursuits resume on Friday. The Hawks play host to Kamloops at 7 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum.

    Portland has won 17 games in a row. The previous franchise record was 15. The WHL record is 24, set over two seasons by Victoria from February through October 1981. The WHL mark for consecutive wins in one season is 22 — and has stood since the Estevan Bruins did it in 1967, before leaving for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1971.

    Despite their surge, the Winterhawks trail Kelowna by seven points, and the Rockets have 13 games remaining, one more than Portland.

  • Tuning up for the WHL playoffs? Check. The odds of the Hawks doing that between now and their March 16 regular-season finale are very good. And seven of their remaining 12 games are at home.

    The WHL records for consecutive wins? Maybe. Portland's U.S. Division rivals will have a say in that. One of the games the Hawks will have to win is at Seattle on Saturday, March 1, one night after a game at Spokane. And even before that, the Winterhawks have three games in three nights this weekend, ending Sunday with a one-day trip to Everett.

    Catching Kelowna? Not likely. The Rockets have been consistently strong, and they have given up fewer goals (151) than anyone in the WHL West, including Portland (only sixth in that department, with 184 goals allowed).

  • Still, the Winterhawks have their goals.

    "We're shooting for the league record (for consecutive wins)," captain/forward Taylor Leier says. "Everyone knows about it, but not everyone talks about it. It's in everybody's back of their head."

    Mike Johnston, coach and general manager, says "I don't even know what the league record is, I just know we have some important games this week."

    Adds Leier: "Mike's taught us to come into every game with a playoff mind-set, the last 20 games of the season. We think they're tuneup games for the playoffs. We want to make our game perfect going into the playoffs."

    The 17-game streak doesn't surprise Leier.

    "We went on an 11-game streak at the beginning of the year," he says. "We shouldn't have lost that streak (Nov. 6, with a 3-2 loss to Tri-City)."

    Leier also hasn't given up hope of catching Kelowna.

    "If we keep playing like we're playing … they need to drop some games for us to have a chance," he says. "If they can give us some help, and we keep winning, we can pass them."

    Adds Johnston: "If we're going to have an opportunity to catch them, we're going to have to play some good hockey, because they've had a great run this year."

    Also important for the Winterhawks, though, is to keep playing well in order to stay ahead of Victoria, which is second to Kelowna in the B.C. Division — and only three points behind Portland. Those two teams could meet en route to the Western Conference finals, and the team with the better regular-season record would get home-ice advantage.

  • So, how have the Winterhawks been able to put together 17 straight wins?

    The consensus is that it's been a combination of, in one order or another:

    A. Getting key players and scorers back from the world junior championships (Nic Petan, Derrick Pouliot and Leier) and WHL suspension (Brendan Leipsic)

    B. Adding defenseman Mathew Dumba, a midseason acquisition from the NHL Minnesota Wild who has lots of WHL seasoning

    C. Using their depth to challenge teams with four lines capable of scoring and combinations that have performed well on the power-play and penalty-kill units

    D. The trade for goaltender Corbin Boes, who has given Portland a veteran backup to Brendan Burke and come through in recent weeks as Burke recovers from mononucleosis

    E. Consistency and work habits

    Johnston says the Winterhawks' win streak just shows "consistency in how you play, shows that you're at a (certain) level every night. If you want to be a good playoff team — and the playoffs are difficult and challenging — you have to be able to win on the road and at home, you have to be able to play four games in six nights like we did last week, you have to be able to play with that consistency. It shows that your habits are really good and your team is playing sharp and consistently."

    Johnston says another key ingredient has been energy.

    "The guys who were here were excited to have the other players come back and to have some reinforcements, so to speak," Johnston says.

  • Johnston says the key now is focus.

    "Our players generally have a lot of energy; they're young, teen-age guys, they always seem to carry energy to practice and games," he says. "I never worry about their energy too much. I worry about their focus at times. We have to keep them sharp for every opponent, and on their game."

    The firepower and depth on the forward lines "give the team confidence," Johnston says. "If you're down by a couple of goals heading into the third period, you know you have that ability to come back. That's always comforting in a team.

    And you want the reverse part of it, to be confident defensively, and I was very happy with our play 10 to 12 days ago."

    That includes the work of Boes, a 20-year-old who has stepped into the line of fire.

    "Corbin has played extremely well," Johnston says. "He is really valuable for us. And we'll be excited to get Burke back. I expect probably in the next week he should be fine."

  • Five of Portland's final six regular-season games will be at home. Two of those games will be against Seattle, which is second in the U.S. Division, and the Hawks also play at Seattle on March 14, as they conclude with three games in three nights. That last burst includes the March 15 home game with Seattle and March 16 finale at home against Everett.

    "We want to be playing our best hockey down the stretch," Johnston says. "The last three or four games to me are not a lot of focus, unless they mean something to each and every team playing. We just want all parts of our game to be sharp."