Winterhawks climb back to top-tier status

Portland goes from worst-to-first in three seasons

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter




Portland vs. Kootenay

Schedule (all times PDT): Today at Portland (Rose Garden), 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at Portland (RG), 7 p.m.; Tuesday at Cranbrook, B.C., 6 p.m.; Wednesday at Cranbrook, B.C., 6 p.m.; May 13 at Portland (RG), 7:30 p.m.; May 15 at Cranbrook, B.C., 5 p.m.; May 16 at Portland (RG), 7 p.m.

TV: Comcast SportsNet, cable ch. 37/737.

Radio: AM 970.

Kootenay’s edge: The Ice are rested and confident, having won 11 straight. They are a veteran team built to make a championship push this season. They put a premium on defensive positioning, but aren’t passive having scored 52 goals and allowing 28 in 14 playoff games.

Portland’s edge: The Winterhawks have plenty of firepower, but their real strength is their resilience. Portland has taken more penalties than any other playoff team, but responded with a strong penalty kill. The Winterhawks have home-ice advantage if the series goes seven games, but have been better on the road (7-1) in these playoffs.

Prediction: Portland in 6 games (Hey, the Winterhawks never clinch at home).

PORTLAND — Tayler Jordan played 52 games with the Portland Winterhawks in the 2006-07 season, a 16-year-old on a team that won only 17 games.

He’d grown up with dreams of playing in the Western Hockey League, of competing for the Memorial Cup.

But playing for the Portland Winterhawks of 2007 was almost as far from competing for the Memorial Cup as was playing midget hockey in his native Saskatchewan.

Competing for championships “was a long way away. It was a pipe dream,” Jordan recalled this week as he and his teammates prepared to face the Kootenay Ice in the WHL finals. “We knew what we were playing for, but we didn’t have much of a chance.”

Starting tonight with Game 1 against the Ice at the Rose Garden, Jordan and the 2011 Winterhawks have a chance to complete a three-year worst to first journey. Win this best-of-7 series, and Portland will be WHL champion for the third time since it became the first American team in the league in 1976.

Since many of the Winterhawk players are from western Canada, they have a genuine appreciation for the opportunity in front of them.

“I’ve watched these WHL finals since I was 5 years old, so it’s an unbelievable feeling” to be playing in them, said 17-year-old winger Ty Rattie, in his second full season with the Winterhawks.

“This is quite an experience for me,” Winterhawks defenseman and team captain Brett Ponich said. “I still remember when I was 15 right after I got drafted (by Portland), watching Vancouver and Medicine Hat in the finals. They had an epic battle.

“A lot of those guys are now in the NHL,” Ponich noted. “So this is pretty special for me.”

Ponich, a St. Louis Blues prospect, is one of 11 Winterhawks who have been either drafted or signed by an NHL team. Add in the four Portland players ranked among the top 40 skaters entering the 2011 NHL Draft, and it’s clear how the team grew into a championship contender.

“We’ve come a long way as an organization and as a team,” said Jordan, a third-line winger. “We’re all really lucky to be part of a team like this and to be able to push on for a championship.”

For Ponich, it would be particularly satisfying if he gets to play in this series. He has been out since injuring his knee at midseason. He has been skating for a few weeks and is waiting for doctors, in consultation with the Blues, to clear him for game action.

“I’ll know right before I get to play,” Ponich said. “So I’m preparing for every game like I normally would and trying to get back into (the routine).”

Ponich has maintained his captain’s role while rehabilitating his knee, and has traveled with the team every step of the first three playoff rounds.

“My biggest responsibility is to try to keep everybody focused off the ice,” Ponich said.

The Winterhawks’ focus turned quickly to the Ice team from Cranbrook, B.C., after Portland eliminated Spokane on Monday to clinch the Western Conference title. The Eastern Conference champions rolled to the finals by winning 11 consecutive games. The Ice haven’t played since finishing off Medicine Hat on April 27.

The Ice are led by a trio of NHL third-round draft picks: centers Cody Eakin (Washington) and Max Reinhart (Calgary) and defenseman Joey Leach (Calgary). Reinhart scored five of Kootenay’s seven goals in the series-clinching win over Medicine Hat.

Kootenay won the only game between the teams, 5-3, on Dec. 1 at Memorial Coliseum. The Ice play a trapping system. But they aren’t a passive bunch.

“They stick to their structure,” Portland assistant coach Travis Green said. “Trapping teams, sometimes you think they’re not aggressive. That’s not the case here. Kootenay’s going to be an aggressive team that comes after us.

“When the time’s right, I expect they’ll be a good trapping team and a good defensive team in their own end,” Green added. “They’re just a well balanced team that plays the game the right way.”

The Winterhawks started heading the right direction in October 2008, when Canadian businessman Bill Gallacher bought the franchise and hired veteran NHL assistant coach Mike Johnston as head coach and general manager, and 14-year NHL defenseman Green as Johnston’s assistant.

Jordan, who chose to leave Portland early in the 2007-08 season and spent his 17-year-old season playing midget hockey near his hometown, got a call from Johnston and jumped at the chance to return to the WHL.

Now a 20-year-old WHL veteran who attended the Vancouver Canucks training camp in the fall, Jordan said he noticed upon his return to the Winterhawks for the 2008-09 season that the bar had been raised in Portland.

“I think (the big difference) was probably holding higher expectations for yourself and for the team,” Jordan said. “Not accepting failure. Not accepting anything less than the best. That’s what we’re going to strive for every day.”