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by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Forward Brendan Leipsic helps to lead the Portland Winterhawks attack that is bolstered by an improving defense and sturdy goaltending.There's no denying it. With 20 games left in the regular season, the Winterhawks are working into a groove that could carry them through another long playoff run.

Portland won its ninth consecutive game Friday night at the Moda Center, a 6-0 cruise-control shutout of Spokane that had plenty of sparkle and lots of substance, too.

The Winterhawks haven't just been winning, they've been rolling. Over their last eight games, they've outscored the opposition 43-8.

It's a result of having an entire roster together, along with the addition of Mathew Dumba, a defenseman acquired in a trade with Red Deer who has NHL experience and a rather impressive array of talent.

"We have a little bit of toughness, some scoring, some defensive grit and a good goaltending mix," general manager/coach Mike Johnston said after the whitewash of the Chiefs. "We have a good balance to our group."

Reaching the Western Hockey League finals has become commonplace for the Hawks (35-12-2-3), who have been there three years running. Last season they broke through, winning the WHL championship and reaching the title game of the Memorial Cup.

Portland stumbled through a stretch over the holiday season when six of their best players were participating in the World Juniors and a seventh, swashbuckling center Brendan Leipsic, was saddled with a seven-game league suspension. With a depleted unit, the Hawks went 2-5 over a seven-game span, falling 9-3 and 7-2 at home to Western Conference power Kelowna.

Those days are in the rear-view mirror now. Since the prime players were reassembled and Dumba was added to the mix, the Hawks are 10-1, including a nine-game run that has them chasing the franchise record of 15 wins in a row.

"It's always hard when you miss a lot of guys," said right wing Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Denmark native who was one of those gone through the holidays. "We all knew when everybody came back, we'd be back to the normal Winterhawks hockey. We were pretty confident about that."

Bjorkstrand netted a pair of goals and barely missed a chance at a natural hat trick in the second period Friday night, running his season goal total to 36, second in the WHL to Spokane's Mitch Holmberg. The 6-foot, 170-pound Bjorkstrand is developing into the type of player reminiscent of ex-Hawk Sven Baertschi of a couple of seasons back.

"I said at the beginning of the season I thought Oliver would score 50 goals, and I still think that," Johnston said. "As an 18-year-old, that's a lot of goals. He's a dangerous scorer."

Leipsic, whose reputation as a hot-head is well-earned, was named WHL player of the week last week and was sharp again Friday night, scoring his 31st goal in only 40 games, setting up teammates several times and avoiding the penalty box. His between-the-legs goal against Everett Wednesday night was featured at No. 3 on ESPN SportsCenter's top 10 plays of the night.

"You look at his point total since he came back, he's been all-world," Johnston said. "The thing I like about Brendan right now, though, is that he's taking more responsibility defensively."

The 6-foot, 180-pound Dumba, who played 13 games with the NHL's Minnesota Wild this season before being sent to Portland for seasoning, is a skilled defenseman with a lethal slap shot and savvy that will go a long way toward fortifying the Hawks' somewhat vulnerable back end.

With Dumba and Derrick Pouliot leading the way, the Hawks have given up a goal a game over the last eight outings.

"The on-ice performance is obvious," goaltender Brendan Burke said. "But off ice, (Dumba) is a great leader. His preparation is second to none. When you see a D-man working hard and preparing like he does … I have tons of confidence in him.

"I knew if we got him, he'd be a great fit. He's not a big dog, sour that he got sent back (from the NHL). He's a great guy, and he's getting along with everybody. He's not acting like he's above anybody."

At 18, the 6-4, 185-pound Burke is looking like he owns the crease these days in his first season as the No. 1 netminder. On Friday night, he earned his second shutout of the season and the sixth of his career.

"Burke's had a great year," Johnston said. "We brought him in at 16 with an eye on this year and next year, knowing he had to be the guy. He keeps maturing, keeps developing. He had some shots there tonight, particularly in the third period, that he hung tough on."

There were several altercations that led to fights Friday night, a good indication in the mind of the coach.

"The guys are coming together really well," Johnston said. "You see them sticking up for each other on the ice. That creates a lot of chemistry. We had a close-knit team, anyway. The new guys have fit in well."

Portland is the highest-scoring team in the WHL by a long shot. Burke appears ready for prime time. With Dumba, the Hawks seem ready for the challenge of taking on Kelowna, at 41-7-0-3 baking the opposition with 85 points. Portland, which owns the league's second-best record, is 10 points back. There's probably not enough time to catch Kelowna and earn home-ice advantage through the playoffs, but it's nothing to fret about.

"We rarely look at the standings," Johnston said. "We try to focus on our games and chisel away. As soon as you start looking a the standings, you're worried about things you have no control over."

The Hawks are 0-4 against the Rockets, but never with a full complement of players. They won't meet again unless they square off again in the playoffs -- probably in the conference final. That could be doozy.

There's a lot of ice time to be had between then and now, of course. But the Hawks figure they're ready for another shot at the league's top prize and another Memorial Cup date.

"That's absolutely the way we see it," Burke said. "Especially with our D-corps now and the addition of Dumba and how the team is coming together. There's no doubt in my mind we have a good chance to win it, and everybody in the locker room really believes it."

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