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  • 21 Aug 2014

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Winterhawks continue roll -- win streak at 17 and counting

It's hard to stay humble when you've won 17 games in a row.

Not that a Mike Johnston-coached team would ever be cocky or arrogant.

But the Winterhawks are carrying themselves with a knowing air and a growing confidence as they enter the final month of the Western Hockey League's regular season.

"It’s fun," defenseman Matt Dumba said after Portland's 5-1 victory over Prince George Tuesday night at Memorial Coliseum, the Hawks' 17th without a defeat. "I’ve never been a part of anything like this.

"You come to the rink with that swagger, that feeling that you’re going to win tonight, or you have a great chance of doing so. It’s a good feeling."

Portland (43-12-2-3) has moved past the old franchise record of 15 successive wins and is marching toward long-standing all-time WHL streaks of 22 in a single season (Estevan, 1967) and 24 over two seasons (Victoria, February through October of 1981).

The Hawks aren't backpedaling from the opportunity that stands before them, either.

"Twenty-four, that's the streak we have in mind," Dumba said. "It's on your mind. You talk about it every day."

To have already taken down the 15-game streak led by such greats as David Babych, Jim Dobson and Tim Tookey (1979-80) and Marian Hossa, Andrew Ference and Brenden Morrow (1997-98) is no small feat.

"It's a pretty big accomplishment," Dumba said. "You're part of history."

These Hawks want more, though. The WHL standard is in their sights.

"You're chasing down other legendary teams," Dumba said. "That ambition we have to get there and become legendary ourselves is something extraordinary.

"It would be an unbelievable feat for us. That's what we're trying to hunt down. We treat every game like a playoff game. If we keep doing that, there aren't too many teams that can hang with us."

Prince George hung with the Hawks for two periods before finally buckling under the onslaught of an impressive third period for the locals, who scored three goals and applied plenty of pressure over the final 20 minutes after leading only 2-1 after two.

The Hawks made the most of the clock to score their first two goals, the first one coming with 11.9 seconds left in the first period (Oliver Bjorkstrand), the second arriving just 4.4 seconds before the second intermission (Derrick Pouliot).

All that was left was for backup goaltender Corbin Boes to continue his outstanding work in net, finishing with 30 saves.

Portland's streak has lasted for nearly six weeks. The Hawks haven't lost since a shootout defeat at Victoria on Jan. 10. They haven't lost in regulation since falling 3-2 to the Royals on Jan. 4. That came when several regulars playing in international holiday events -- and suspended winger Brendan Leipsic -- were still missing from the lineup. And before the ultra-talented Dumba was acquired in a trade with Red Deer on Jan. 9.

If they keep on rolling, the Hawks could set the all-time WHL consecutive win mark at home against Vancouver on March 8. Johnston's mind, however, isn't on carving a place in history.

"It's over for me," he said. "It's still a streak, I guess, but it's done. We accomplished (the franchise record). It's a great honor to be able to get a streak like that when you consider all the top teams the Winterhawks have had over the years.

"But we have a playoff run here we're focusing on. We have to play some good hockey down the stretch. We have our hands full."

There's something else the Hawks are chasing as they enter the final weeks of the regular season -- the best record in the WHL, which would mean home-ice advantage through the playoffs. They have made up a lot of ground but are still five points behind Kelowna (46-8-0-4) in the Western Conference race. The Rockets have two games in hand over Portland with 14 games to play. The Hawks have a dozen games remaining.

This is another thing Johnston has put out of his mind.

"I hardly ever look at the standings," he said. "I try to concentrate on who we're playing and what we have to do to beat that team and to try to get more out of each of these guys."

Johnston isn't worried that the Hawks have peaked too early, that they might peter out some as the postseason approaches.

"Our team is very focused, very driven," he said. "We know what it takes to win. We know that the last 15 games of the (regular) season, that's everything for the playoffs. That's how you're going to play.

"You have to get your habits right, and you have to get all the phases of your game going -- the power the play, penalty kill, your goals against. I was glad we brought that back down tonight."

Johnston made a pair of savvy mid-season trades to bolster Portland's chances of reaching the WHL finals for the fourth straight year.

There was the deal for Dumba, who played 13 early-season games with the NHL Minnesota Wild. The Hawks were a little shy in defense with the loss of Seth Jones, Troy Rutkowski and Tyler Wotherspoon from the 2012-13 club that won the league championship and reached the finals of the Memorial Cup.

On Tuesday night, the 6-foot, 180-pound Dumba's vast talents were on display, carrying and passing the puck with confidence, taking bodies -- his third-period, bone-crunching check was the hit of the night -- and standing up to the Cougars' Zach Gonek in a late flurry of fisticuffs.

With Pouliot, Dumba gives Portland as a good a pair on the back end as there is in the league.

"Matt has been a huge help," said Pouliot, who scored a pair of goals Tuesday night, giving him 18 for the season. "He adds that extra piece we were missing, and gives our defensive corps more depth. He knows how to play the game. It's the experience and that depth we need."

On Jan. 9, the Hawks acquired Boes in a trade with Lethbridge, giving up forward Steven Alldridge and a second-round draft pick. It was a gamble, given that Portland doesn't have its first-round pick, to pick up an over-age (20-year-old) goalie to play behind starter Brendan Burke.

Burke came down with mononucleosis last week, though. In the four games he has been missing, the Hawks haven't skipped a beat with Boes minding the nets. He made five or six big saves Tuesday night with the outcome still in balance.

"'Boesey' was awesome tonight," Dumba said. "It would have been a different game if he wasn't kicking as well as he was."

Johnston sent Burke home to Phoenix to recuperate.

"Hopefully he'll be OK in the next four or five days," Johnston said. "Boes has been great. We made the trade in case something ever happened to Burke, and also to give him some support down the stretch run. It's worked out good for us both ways."

The Hawks are mindful that the most important thing is to be healthy and playing their best hockey a month from now. Even so, they'd like to continue their winning binge.

"We're on a 17-game streak," Pouliot said. "The team that snaps that is going to be pretty excited. We expect every team's best every night.

"But we've proved we're a good team. We know what we're doing, and how special (the streak) is. We want to keep it rolling."

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