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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Players' development arc is a lesson to rookie Winterhawks

The Portland Winterhawks' two most experienced forwards — Jake Gricius and Lane Gilliss — never have been flashy guys. Neither has been drafted by an NHL team.

But proficiency at sometimes-overlooked parts of the game make both 20-year-olds consistent difference-makers.

Penalty killing? Gilliss and Gricius are two of the best in the Western Hockey League. They, along with goalie Joel Hofer, are a key reason Portland has one of the best penalty-killing success rates (87.4%) in the WHL.

Face-offs? Gricius is winning those at a career-best 58%.

Getting to the "dirty areas," including the kitchen of opposing goalies? Gricius and Gilliss take pride in being a presence there.

On a team with plenty of promising, younger talent, the development arc of Gilliss and Gricius is an example to the rookies and shows them the growth that happens for players who spend three or four seasons with the club.

"I've gotten harder and more physical and stronger and bigger through the years," Gilliss said. "I remember when I was younger it was hard to win battles and knock someone off the puck. Now that I'm 20 and a little bigger than everyone else, it helps for sure."

A defense-first center from Calgary, Alberta, Gilliss (6-0, 200 pounds) has prided himself on his penalty-killing role. This season, he has seen more time on the power play, scoring four of his six goals through 23 games in man-advantage situations. In his first three seasons, only two of Gilliss' 28 goals were on the power play.

Gilliss credits the attention to detail from associate coach Kyle Gustafson (power play) and assistant coach Don Hay (penalty kill) for the success he and Portland have had on special teams.

"When you're younger, you're scared to screw up," Gilliss said. "But when you're older, you just mentor the younger guys and make sure there's no mistakes happening."

"He's a key guy," Gustafson said, pointing to Gilliss' ability to play in multiple situations. "Lane's a very effective penalty-killer, and he's able to score."

Gustafson noted that Gilliss got to the front of the goal to score an important power-play goal in the game that Seth Jarvis, the team's top scorer, left injured.

That highlighted Gilliss' competitiveness, one of those immeasurable personality traits that can mean the difference between winning and losing.

As he looks toward his final few months in Portland and junior hockey, Gilliss isn't going to change his approach.

"Just do what I do," Gilliss said. "Whatever it takes for the team to win. it's a team game, and I want nothing more than to just win and win and win."

The Winterhawks are winning. And lately, Gricius' goals have boosted the attack.

The Colorado Springs, Colorado, native has scored two goals in a game three times this season, including twice last week, after entering the season with four two-goal WHL games. His 10 goals is tied for the team lead through 23 games. One-third of the way through the season, Gricius is on pace to better last season's 27 goals.

"I've been working on trying to shoot more and get pucks to the net, and it paid off," Gricius said.

GRICIUSGricius attended the San Jose Sharks' rookie camp this season. At 6-3 and 200 pounds, he has a build made for pro hockey.

In an effort to end up there, he has become proficient at face-offs, an often-overlooked skill.

"Face-offs are a huge part of the game," he said. "I wanted to be a guy that was reliable to go out there with 10 seconds left when we have a one-goal lead and win the draw. It's something I take pride in."

He's watched video of the NHL's best face-off guys, studying techniques of players such as the St. Louis Blues' Ryan O'Reilly. He also credits Paul Gaustad, a former Winterhawk who has worked with the team on face-offs.

"Size helps, but a lot of it's technique and knowing what they're going to do," Gricius said about contesting opponents for face-offs. "It's having a rhythm and knowing what you're going to do with every draw."

Gricius has been called on to play with both veteran and rookie wingers this season.

"I've tried to take more of a dominating role and am trying to carry a line. With all the injuries (to Jarvis, Robbie Fromm-Delorme and Simon Knak), guys have been bouncing around a lot."

Gustafson said Gricius has been able to stabilize lines, whether they include 16- or 17-year-olds or veterans, "and then becoming one of the elite penalty-killers in the league, that's how he's carved his niche."

Eight of the Hawks' 13 forwards are 17 or younger. Aside from playing important roles on the ice, Gricius and Gilliss are tasked with helping them navigate life in the WHL and Portland.

"When you're younger, you're just trying to get accepted by your teammates and trying to make new friends. It's nerve-racking," Gilliss said. "When you're older, it's about accepting those younger guys and making sure they feel comfortable so it translates to the ice."

More than a quarter of the way into their final junior hockey season, Gilliss and Gricius marvel how quickly their time in Portland has passed.

"My first year felt like it was never going to end. Now it's gone by in the blink of an eye," Gricius said. "It's been a good time."

n Winners of four in a row, the Winterhawks are 15-5-1-2, tied with Everett atop the U.S. Division with 33 points. Portland is on the road for its next four games — playing Friday and Saturday at Kamloops and Tuesday and Wednesday at Prince George. Prince George then comes to Portland for games Dec. 7 and 8 at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

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