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Stuff happens, but Winterhawks don't want it to happen again

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Oliver Bjorkstrand of the Portland Winterhawks makes a move during Tuesday's home game versus Tri-City.Stuff happens in sports, and it happened in waves to the Winterhawks Tuesday night at the Moda Center.

The Tri-City Americans were the ones looking the part of defending Western Hockey League champions while the Hawks reminded of the Portland teams of the bad ol' days in a 6-2 rout.

That was Mike Johnston coaching the Hawks, not Rich Kromm, but the resemblance was to the pre-Johnston era when Portland was the league laughingstock.

Tri-City, 0-2 coming into the game, led 4-1 after one period and 6-1 after two on a night when Portland goaltender Brendan Burke finished the game on the bench.

"Tri came in a hungry team," Johnston said. The Americans "had a lot of jump early in the game. We let our guard down, got frustrated. Our body language led to us losing some energy. Then you get off your team game. By the time we collected ourselves, it was too late."

Burke was involved in a play I've not seen in 37 years watching the Hawks. With Portland trailing 2-0, the 18-year-old goalie lost his stick behind the net. As defenseman Josh Hanson got the puck in the Hawks' end, Burke skated back to retrieve the implement. Just then, Hanson sent a pass toward mid-ice that Tri-City's Lucas Nickles intercepted and deposited into an open net.

"I don't know why (Burke) went to get it that time," Johnston said. "Then Hanson makes a play across the ice. (The Americans) get it and it goes right into the empty net."

Moments later, defenseman Shaun MacPherson turned the puck over in front of the Portland net. Tri-City's Brian Williams deposited it for an easy shorthanded score.

"We gave them two gift goals," Johnston said. "You can't do that to a desperate team. Give (the Americans) credit for the job they did."

Portland is short of some bodies. Star defenseman Derek Pouliot is in training camp with the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins. Injured forwards Paul Bittner, Shane McColgan and Dominic Turgeon all missed Tuesday's game.

"There's no excuses that way," Johnston said. "We're a much better team than we showed."

Portland had the best quartet in defense in the WHL a year ago. Three of them -- Seth Jones, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon -- are gone to the pros.

That leaves Hanson and MacPherson as the most experienced Hawks on the back end this season. They'll need to step up and play better. They're not the only ones. Tri-City outshot Portland 40-32, and Burke and backup Jerrod Schamerhorn -- who played the third period in goal -- made some good saves or the final margin could have been greater.

"We have to improve our defensive habits," Johnston said. "We have to shut down our shots-against. At times, our defensemen aren't handling their increased minutes."

Portland is 1-1-0-1 after hammering Prince George 9-2, then falling 4-3 at Seattle in a shootout. With veterans Brendan Leipsic, Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Presten Kopeck and Chase De Leo leading the way, I think the offense will be fine. Defense is another matter. But Leipsic was in no mood after Tuesday's loss to pin the blame on any specific position.

"We have some inexperience back there, but everybody can be better," he said. "It's early in the season. Guys will get better. We can't put the blame on our defense or goaltending. We win as a team, we lose as a team.

"We just came in thinking it was going to be an easy game. (Tri-City is) a good team. We're the defending champions. We have a target on our back every night. We can't take anybody lightly. (The Americans) wanted it more than us tonight."

The Hawks need Pouliot, who will remain in Pittsburgh's camp at least until the end of the preseason. He'll stick only if the Penguins' coaches feel he can make a contribution this year.

"I'll wait until they finish all their exhibition games and talk to them about it," Johnston said.

Burke, replacing the venerable Mac Carruth in goal, looks as if he'll be able to get the job done.

"He was great the first two games," Johnston said. "He wasn't as sharp tonight, but it was hard to tell with some of the situations that happened to him."

It's a long season that has only just begun. The Hawks, who have reached the WHL finals three years running, will be hard-pressed to do it again. They lost plenty of talent from their 2011-12 club, though, and reloaded with one of the best teams in franchise history a year ago. I'll never bet against Johnston, who does as good a job identifying talent and developing players as any coach in the league.

"It's so early in the year," he said. "But we have some work to do, that's for sure."

Portland lost only one game by as many as four goals last season. That, ironically, was a 6-2 loss to Tri-City in February.

"We need to refocus and get back to the staples of our game," Leipsic said. "We didn't compete enough early on tonight. It's a wakeup call."

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