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Rout of Seattle not indicative of U.S. Division, Johnston says

Winterhawks coach/GM says Portland turned its energy into goals in 10-2 win


by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - Winterhawks forward Paul Bittner moves the puck in a recent game against the Brandon Wheat Kings.Portland Winterhawks coach/general manager Mike Johnston doesn't think people should read too much into Tuesday night's 10-2 home win over Seattle.

"Seattle just had an off night," he says. "They're a very good hockey team. They're going to be a big threat all year, as is everybody in our division."

The Thunderbirds' problems were compounded by Portland's sharp, fresh, fast start. Brendan Leipsic scored 53 seconds into the game, rebounding his own shot on a a 2-on-1, and Portland scored four more times in the first period to build a 5-0 lead.

"If you start like that, it's difficult to come back," Johnston says.

The fast starts have come often this season for Portland, which has the best record (16-4-1-1, 34 points) in the Western Hockey League.

Johnston says sometimes a favorable match-up with another team helps the Hawks get off on the right foot, and sometimes it's more a case of Portland coming into a game with more energy.

Last Saturday, for example, Johnston felt the schedule caught up somewhat with his team, as Portland dropped a home game 3-2 to Victoria to launch the annual winter parents' weekend.

"We ran into a Victoria team that had more energy than we did," he says.

And Victoria is playing well, adding to the depth in the Western Conference.

"If you look at the top-end teams, certainly in the other (B.C.) division, Kelowna is one, and Victoria is going to push up in that range," Johnston says. "Vancouver's played better lately, as well."

The other half of the WHL Western Conference still shapes up to be hotly contested throughout the season, as Portland tries to maintain its U.S. Division lead -- only three points over Everett, with the Hawks playing there Friday night.

"You could call all the teams in our division elite teams," Johnston says. "They've all proven they can beat teams in the other conference. They've all been strong out of the gate.

"From top to bottom, I think our division is as strong as it's ever been."

• Paul Bittner's first WHL hat trick came in Tuesday's romp over Seattle. He had missed substantial time after breaking a hand in the season opener.

Johnston has used Bittner, a left winger from Crookston, Minn., with standouts Leipsic and Nic Petan the past two games.

"He played with those two guys a little last year at Christmas time, when Ty Rattie was away, and looked good then, so we tried him up there again," Johnston says. "He's a young guy, not draft eligible until the year after this. When we get a guy like that scoring and contributing, it really adds quite a lot to our offense."

• Portland's 5-2 win at home Sunday over Regina snapped a two-game losing streak.

"Our guys were really skating" that night, Johnston says.

• Victoria's victory last weekend at Moda Center came after the Royals had won at Seattle.

"Teams are trying to do some things to neutralize the speed of our attack," Johnston says. "Victoria did a very good job against us, and we're going to have to make adjustments."

• Victoria and everyone else in the league have little trouble getting motivated to play the defending Western Hockey League champion Hawks.

"It's only going to make our team better," Johnston says.

• Winterhawks attendance has been good -- 6,687 fans per home game, second in the Western Hockey League behind Calgary (7,258), and on pace to better Portland's 6,687 average last season, given that many key games and promotional nights are to come.

The support helps the home team, but doesn't necessarily deter the opponents.

"You see the visiting teams come in and they're excited to be playing in the Moda Center in front of 8-9,000 people," Johnston says.

After last weekend, Spokane was third in average home attendance (5,690), followed by Vancouver (5,339) and Edmonton (5,174) in the WHL top five.