by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Brendan Leipsic says he won't change his physical style of play for the Portland Winterhawks.Brendan Leipsic says he hasn’t changed, and doesn’t plan to change, even after serving the Western Hockey League’s longest suspension this season — seven games — for a head hit on Seattle’s Keegan Kolesar in December.

“Stuff happens” in hockey, Leipsic says.

The Portland Winterhawks will need his services through the WHL playoffs, but Leipsic says he won’t alter his game out of fear of making a wrong hit again.

“You never want to get suspended,” he says. “I’ve been suspended three times in my career now, and played almost 250 games. It’s a fast game. Stuff happens.”

Since returning from suspension on Jan. 8, “I’ve been smarter. It’s unfortunate what happened last time (with Kolesar), but it doesn’t change my game.”

Mike Johnston, Portland’s general manager and coach, agrees that asking the 5-10, 180-pound Leipsic to change his game would take away his strength.

“I talked to him last year when he was injured and then suspended,” Johnston says. “This year, I didn’t talk to him. He knows he made a mistake on the hit — he thought the player would pick up his head; he caught him with his head down.

“He’s a very competitive guy and an emotional guy. (A suspension) shouldn’t be in the back of his mind. Hockey is a very fast game, and you have to play on your instincts. He’s not a big player, and you don’t want to take his energy and ‘compete’ out of his game and have him worry about a suspension.

“I like the way he hits and competes. He’s always been that way, he just can’t do it all the time, as far as being a physical force. ... He’s a very skilled player who has better balance to his game. He can play as physical and hard as anybody, but he can also make plays. But he can’t be a physical force every night for 72 games. He’s not big enough.”

Whatever the reason — being rested, motivated, reunited with friend and linemate Nic Petan — Leipsic has been one of the WHL’s hottest players since his return. He garnered 26 points in 14 games before being held off the scoresheet Monday in Prince George. He had 31 goals and 38 assists for 69 points through 44 games.

Not coincidentally, Petan came back from the World Junior Championship at the same time Leipsic returned from riding the pine, and Petan has been just as hot, with 25 points in the same 14 games. He added an assist Monday against Prince George to draw within one point of Spokane’s Mitch Holmberg for the WHL lead. Going into Wednesday’s game at Prince George, Petan had 29 goals and 63 assists for 92 points.

Petan and Leipsic tied for the WHL scoring lead last season with 120 points each — Leipsic with 49 goals and 71 assists, Petan with 46 and 74 — and they continue to elevate their games for the defending WHL champs.

Taylor Leier and Derrick Pouliot also returned in January from the world juniors, and the Hawks acquired star defenseman Mathew Dumba. The result? Portland had a 13-game winning streak through Monday, with a favorable remaining schedule until the WHL playoffs begin in late March. It’s not inconceivable that Portland could lose no more than two or three games the rest of the way.

“We’re just trying to get better every day,” Leipsic says. “It’s important that we don’t take steps back.”

Leipsic and Petan know they’ll be front-and-center as the Hawks seek to repeat as WHL champs. They’re confident. Petan says the Hawks can be playing much better in the playoffs — like, twice as well.

A year after playing alongside star Ty Rattie, Petan and Leipsic have been teaming since November with second-year player Paul Bittner, who had 19 goals and 21 assists (40 points) through Monday. At 6-4, 195 pounds, Bittner provides a different matchup for opponents than Leipsic and the 5-9, 175-pound Petan.

Leipsic, a signed Nashville Predators prospect from Winnepeg, Manitoba, says the suspension may have helped in one respect: He got a different perspective on playing the game.

“Sitting out those games, getting a different viewpoint and watching the game is never a bad thing,” he says. “I came back from an injury last year and played well. I don’t know if it’s coincidental. I’ve been playing well, and also on the defensive side of the puck. I would’ve liked to have a more consistent season. But the more me and Nic play with each other, the stronger the chemistry gets.”

Leipsic says that while he won’t change the way he plays, he makes more of a concerted effort to not suffer an injury himself.

“As you get older and been in the league longer, you know where to be on the ice, what makes you successful and stuff like that,” he says. “When you’re younger, you take too many hits. I’ve learned to choose my spots and not be too erratic.”

Says Petan: “I don’t see any difference in his game (since the suspension). He’s still playing the same way and doing the same things. He’s maybe a little bit hesitant, to not get a suspension, but still playing the body.”

Petan, a signed Winnepeg Jets prospect from Delta, British Columbia, says he and Leipsic have enjoyed much success because of one thing: “Every game we’re excited to get out there with each other and make things happen, whether it’s offensively or defensively. It’s the excitement of playing with each other.”

Leipsic and Petan like what Bittner, a Minnesota native who could be a high NHL pick in 2015, brings to the first line.

“I think as a line we bring a little bit of everything,” Leipsic says. “Me and Nic are two smaller players with good speed and skill sets. Paul’s bigger and lankier. He gets to the net, has a good shot and good hands, which people underestimate. He complements me and Nic.”

Adds Petan: “His size helps. His reach. He’s coming into his own. He can carry the puck more. He has more confidence in how he’s playing, scoring goals and getting points. Like myself last year, you get in that mode, you get confidence.”

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