WINTERHAWKS: Portland can roll out the lines
Portland Winterhawks coach/general manager Mike Johnston is comfortable rolling four lines in and out of games.
The Hawks, who have won 13 in a row going into Wednesday's game at Prince George, feature the first line of Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic and Paul Bittner. They've totaled 79 goals and 122 assists, for 201 points this season.
But the second line of captain Taylor Leier, Chase De Leo and Oliver Bjorkstrand also has been churning out the points (98 goals, 106 assists, 204 points).
The team's other forwards get into the scoring act, as well, and Derrick Pouliot and Mathew Dumba are world-class defensemen capable of going forward, too.
Johnston says he likes the development of the third line, which consists of second-year players Dominic Turgeon, Keegan Iverson and Alex Schoenborn, and the fourth line, which can be a combination of Adam Rossignol, Tyson Predinchuk, Adam De Champlain and Ethan Price.
Petan and Leipsic say having such forward depth helps take the heat off them in some games. It's a case of pick your poison.
"Sometimes (opponents) will try to get certain match-ups and it exposes their other lines," Leipsic says. "We have three lines that can score and even our fourth ... our depth is really good this year."
Johnston says the Winterhawks have the ability to put two exceptional power-play units on the ice: Leipsic/Leier/Petan/Pouliot/Bjorkstrand or De Leo/Bittner/Dumba/Iverson/Garrett Haar.
And the Hawks' power play has surged to the top of the Western Hockey League rankings at better than 27 percent.
Johnston says he is very confident with Petan and Leipsic on the ice.
"'Leiper' is a real energy guy, and Nic is a very competitive player," Johnston says. "They feed off each other. Both of them think the game at a high level and make really good plays you don't think they can see.
"That comes with knowing each other and having good hockey sense."
The Winterhawks would match the longest winning streak of their 2012-13 WHL championship squad 14 games with a win on Wednesday.
Portland won a franchise-record 15 games in a row in 1979-80 and 1997-98.
The Hawks play at Kamloops on Friday and at Vancouver on Saturday; the Friday game will be televised on Root Sports at 7 p.m. (The March 7 home game against Seattle also will be on Root Sports).
Portland's penalty kill has risen to fifth in the WHL at 83 percent (and the Hawks added two short-handed goals Monday at Prince George).
But Johnston wants to see the unit be better down the stretch.
"Our PK has improved, but we still think we can get a little bit better," he says.
Johnston has other improvements in mind, as well.
"Goals and shots against, you still want to bring those down on a consistent basis," he says. "I don't want to give up three goals, I want it to be two or under."
Other than that, he says the focus also is on "just getting our defensive pairings down; we've experimented with defensive pairs, and we're starting to get them set a little bit."
Petan says the Hawks won't let the winning streak or a favorable remaining schedule bother them.
The Hawks won't play any of the four other best teams in the WHL Kelowna, Victoria, Edmonton and Calgary the rest of the way.
"It's in the back of our heads," Petan says, "but we don't like to talk about it like that. We go out the same way every game, have the same start. There's not a question with how we play."
The Victoria Royals (formerly Chilliwack Bruins) have surged to 38-16-1-3 (80 points) in the WHL Western Conference.
The Royals have a physical team and a great goalie in Coleman Vollrath, who leads the WHL in goals-against (2.16) and save percentage (.933).
Kelowna has beaten Portland four times this season; Victoria has three wins against Portland, and dealt the Hawks their past two losses.
"They're a big, physical team with very good goaltending," Johnston says, of Victoria. "Not a high-powered offensive team.
"They've had a very good year. They're going to be a really tough team in the playoffs."
Johnston says the Hawks are preparing for the playoffs, but he realizes that it's a long way to the WHL title and even further to the Memorial Cup championship.
"We've had a good team the past couple years, too," he says, of Portland's WHL runner-up and Memorial Cup runner-up teams. "It's a challenge. There are other good teams around. If we stay healthy, we'll be a tough opponent."
It's an interesting time in the hockey world, with the Olympics going on in Sochi, Russia.
Canadians ardently stand by their team, on which Pouliot and Dumba hope to play someday. Americans have made inroads against the Canadians in recent years. Portland's roster has 10 U.S. players and nine Canadians. Will there be fightin' words exchanged?
"I'm sure the boys will be all over that," Dumba says. "I'm sure we'll have some bets going."