February 27, 2014
Winning is a way of life for the Portland Winterhawks. They have won 20 games in a row with their last loss happening on Jan. 10 in a 3-2 overtime affair against the Victoria Royals.
Ultimately, the Winterhawks’ uncanny success isn’t surprising at all. It was clear that they would have enough pieces coming back from their 2012-13 championship squad to be a powerhouse club. In addition, they brought in two veteran stars, Minnesota Wild first-round pick Matt Dumba and overage goalie Corbin Boes, at the trade deadline that have solidified them as arguably the top contender for the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Winterhawks GM-head coach Mike Johnston views the win streak as “a blur.” He feels it has come together because the team has had all of their pieces in play during the 20-game stretch with the likes of Dumba and Winnipeg Jets prospect Nicolas Petan returning from the world junior championship.
“It has kind of been a blur,” says Johnston. “It has happened so fast that I haven’t been able to really think about how it’s all happened. I think the main reason why it has come together is because we got everyone back after Christmas and that really helped us. We had some guys at the world juniors and (Nashville Predators prospect) Brendan Leipsic was suspended for some games, so when we got them back, it really helped us get on the roll we are on. And we’ve just took one game at a time and looked to the next game after winning one.”
Dumba, who was acquired from the Red Deer Rebels, undoubtedly deserves some of the credit for propelling the Winterhawks to go on this tear. They, after all, haven’t lost a game with him in their lineup.
“Dumba brought a lot of energy to our blueline,” says Johnston. “He’s really strengthened our defence and we brought him in because we felt that was our weak point. And he has a lot of experience in the world juniors and NHL that will be valuable for us down the stretch.”
Boes, the Winterhawks’ other notable trade deadline acquisition, has stood tall in the blue paint since joining the team. He’s posted a 11-0-0-1 record and allowed three goals or fewer in eight of his showings in a Portland sweater. But despite his strong play, he remains the No. 2 goalie behind Phoenix Coyotes prospect Brendan Burke according to Johnston.
“We brought in Boes because we didn’t feel we had a backup capable of playing qualities minutes and pushing Burke,” says the Portland bench boss. “Boes has come in and played well for us and pushed Burke. And we were familiar with him because we originally drafted him before he played for the Brandon Wheat Kings. But as well as Boes has played, Burke is our No. 1 goaltender. He’s just been sick lately.”
Portland’s strong depth has been a crutch to their success. Their third line of Dominic Turgeon, Adam de Champlain and Keegan Iverson is a testament to that. The trio has combined for 36 goals and 73 points this year, including 20 genos and 14 apples from Iverson.
“They've been very valuable to us and have given us scoring depth,” says Johnston. “You need that with the possibility of injuries. They are all more comfortable in the league this year in their second seasons and earlier in the year it was important to have them during the world juniors and injuries.”
Portland’s win streak doesn’t seem to put them ahead of the Kelowna Rockets, who sit first in the WHL standings with a 50-9-0-4 record, in terms of the who has the edge on whom in the Western Conference. They only played two top-four teams, the Royals and Seattle Thunderbirds, during the steak. Therefore, the Winterhawks haven’t been knocking off contenders during the string of victories. The win streak mainly makes a statement to the league that when Portland is hot, it’s practically impossible to beat them. Not to mention, they have shown they are light years ahead of some of their conference rivals, outscoring their opponents 113-42 during the 20-game stretch.
In the offseason, it would have been crazy to suggest the Winterhawks would be stronger this year than last season because they lost Nashville Predators top pick Seth Jones, St. Louis Blues prospect Ty Rattie and Chicago Blackhawks goalie prospect Mac Carruth to the pros. Yet with the additions of Dumba, Boes and blueliner Garrett Haar, as well as several players such as Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Oliver Bjorkstrand and 18-year-old Chase De Leo taking the next step forward in their games, it’s not out of the question to debate it. But it goes without saying that Portland will need to win their second consecutive championship to show that they’re even better this year. Moreover, that won’t be easy with the red-hot Rockets in their way and the Edmonton Oil Kings and Calgary Hitmen licking their chops in the Eastern Conference.
Regardless of whether Portland heads to London, Ont., for the MasterCard Memorial Cup, it’s extremely impressive that Johnston has pieced together a contender four years in row. It’s hard to believe that the Winterhawks architect has found a way to put together one of the league’s top teams year after year despite losing Jones, Rattie, Columbus Blue Jackets star Ryan Johnasen, Minnesota Wild sniper Nino Niedereiter, Calgary Flames first-rounder Sven Baertschi and many other stars to the pros in the past three off-seasons.
Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen