Winterhawks give Victoria a Royal flush
I'm not sure if this is the greatest team in the Winterhawks' 38-year history. Memorial Cup championship squads of 1983 and '98, plus Western Hockey League kingpin clubs of 1982 and 2013, would have something to say about that.
But it's safe to say the current Hawks are putting together the greatest streak of hockey in franchise annals.
Portland's 6-3 victory over Victoria Saturday night at the Moda Center in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinal series was its sixth straight of the playoffs and 35th in its last 36 games.
The Hawks won a franchise-record 21 straight games -- one shy of the WHL single-season record -- lost 4-1 to Seattle on March 1, then closed out the regular season with seven straight victories.
The local lads have lost once since Jan. 10.
"They've been on an incredible roll," said Victoria coach Dave Lowry, whose team was on the short end of an 8-2 pounding Friday night. "For us to beat them, we have to play a perfect game. So far, we haven't been able to get there."
The city's sports fans have noticed, too, that they are witnessing something special. A sellout crowd of 10,947 blew the roof off the Moda Center as the Hawks stormed back from a 3-2 deficit at mid-game with an onslaught that overwhelmed the Royals.
"Wasn't that crowd something?" Portland coach Mike Johnston asked me before he met with the media postgame. "That was an electric atmosphere tonight."
Victoria is a solid team that won 48 games and went 3-1 against Portland during the regular season. The last meeting, though, was on Jan. 11, the day the Hawks started their 21-game streak. The three Royal victories occurred before veteran defenseman Matt Dumba was acquired by Portland; two of them came with several of the Hawk stars missing while playing in international holiday tournaments or on suspension.
Things are different now. The Hawks possess two lines with uncanny scoring potential, a pair of NHL-quality defensemen in Dumba and Derrick Pouliot and a goalie in Brendan Burke who is not going to let a lot of easy stuff by him.
Victoria made a go at it early, seizing a 3-2 lead on Steven Hodges' second goal of the game 7:36 into the second period. Then the Hawks gave the visitors a Royal flush.
At that point, shots on goal were 14-14. Over the next 32 minutes, Portland outshot the B.C. contingent 30-11.
"The third period was a great period," Johnston said. "We had them for only one scoring chance in the period. For a team that's pressing (to come from behind), we only gave them one? That was incredible."
Down a goal, the Hawks simply took it to another level, Pouliot ramming in a power-play goal from the slot to even the count at 3-3, then Oliver Bjorkstrand converting 17 seconds later for a lead they never relinquished.
"It got the building back into it," said left wing Brendan Leipsic, Portland's prince of feistiness. "We didn't panic when we were down. We're a pretty mature team."
"That usually happens with us," said Dumba, who played 13 games early this season with the NHL's Minnesota Wild. "We're such a well-conditioned team that over the course of a game, we can just keep on coming, keep on coming, and be relentless with our game. I think that took a toll on (the Royals) tonight."
Dumba's presence has been a stabilizing influence in what had been Portland's weakest spot. His offense has been a bonus, too, as Johnston now usually employs four forwards along with either Dumba or Pouliot with a man advantage.
"He gives us another weapon on the power play," Leipsic said. "He probably has the hardest shot in the league. He's a leader in the locker room, which is a big thing. He has a lot of experience, coming from the NHL. He's well-respected in the room and gives us another rock on the back end."
Then there is Bjorkstrand, the great Dane who scored a pair of goals Saturday night, giving him eight in the six playoff games. The 6-foot, 170-pound right wing, who turns 19 on Thursday, is the best of Portland's splendid array of offensive weapons.
"He's one of the smartest players I've coached," Johnston said. "He has a really good stick. By that I mean, when the puck is on his stick, it seems like it's glued to the stick. He can go in and out of traffic with it.
"He has a great shot. His intelligence is off the charts. Once he gets physically stronger, he's going to be a real, real good player."
What the Hawks are working on now is a dynasty. They have a chance to reach the WHL finals for the fourth straight year, and to win the league championships in back-to-back seasons. No team has reached the finals in four consecutive seasons since New Westminster won four straight titles from 1975-78.
There's a formidable hurdle in the way, though, should Portland get past Victoria. Kelowna went 57-11-0-4 in the regular season and leads its series with Seattle 2-0. A showdown could result in one of the more exciting Western Conference finals series in history.
The Hawks are doing their best not to look ahead.
"We just focus on one game at a time," Leipsic said. "We can't control what happens in those other series. We're looking at the next game, the next period, the next shift."
What is happening with the Hawks is a credit to the people running the show, including owner Bill Gallacher, president Doug Piper, assistant general manager Matt Bardsley and Johnston, the team's GM and coach.
A year ago, Johnston was watching from home during the insanely ridiculous season-long suspension levied by the league for some minor violations relating to player benefits. The Hawks stayed the course under interim coach Travis Green, making it to the final game of the Memorial Cup.
Now they're on the precipice of a return, though with quite a bit of hockey yet to be played.
The usual story line in the playoffs is that a series doesn't really begin until a team wins on the road. All Portland has done is hold serve at home. The Hawks visit Victoria Monday and Tuesday with a chance to sweep the series. The Royals will be doing all they can to ensure that doesn't happen.
"We know we can play," Lowry said. "We proved it through the regular season. Now we're going against a team that's playing extremely well right now. We've dug ourselves a hole. We have to do everything possible to not make it a deeper hole."
Look at it this way: Victoria must claim four of the next five games to win the series and advance. Looks like a Royal predicament to me.