Winterhawks taking step up for playoffs

Record-setting regular season over, Portland aims for WHL crown

By Paul Danzer, Columbian community sports reporter

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For a dozen of the Portland Winterhawks, this playoff stuff is old hat.

Runs to the Western Hockey League finals in two consecutive seasons did not earn Portland a championship. But it does mean the team that was the best in the WHL this regular season enters the postseason with a good understanding of the challenge that begins Friday.

"Experience always helps," said team captain Troy Rutkowski, a defenseman who will play his 57th career WHL playoff game when Everett visits the Rose Garden for Game 1 of a best-of-seven series. "The battle level increases. Just knowing what you're walking into is huge."

That knowledge is especially helpful when momentum turns against a team -- in a game or in a series, Ty Rattie said.

Rattie, who has played in 55 WHL playoff games, remembers when in 2010 the Winterhawks rallied from three goals down to win a deciding seventh game at Spokane. He remembers needing seven games to beat Kamloops last season after Portland won the first three games of that series.

"If you get a goal scored against you late in a game, or have a couple of bad shifts or a bad period you just can't get too low," Rattie said. "You've got to keep an even keel going through every game."

Acting coach Travis Green agreed that experience is an asset -- to a point.

"Experience can be helpful in many different situations," Green said. "You can never have enough of it, but it's not an ingredient that guarantees you anything."

Green himself is entering new territory guiding the Winterhawks through the playoffs as the head coach. He said the experience working with Mike Johnston -- Portland's suspended coach and general manager -- through three playoff runs has taught him plenty about navigating the postseason.

It helps, Green said, that this Winterhawks' team is a together group.

"Our team the last few years was older. But I didn't sense that the last few teams were as close-knit," Green said. "We have more rookies this year than we have in the past, yet there just seems to be a one-for-all, all-for-one kind of feeling within our group."

For that, Green credits the inclusive leadership style of Rutkowski, Rattie, Taylor Peters, and Tyler Wotherspoon.

"The thing I like about our leadership group is they lead the right way. They''e not phoney about it," Green said. "They let the other guys lead as well. That probably comes from experience, as well.

"They are a very controlled, yet high-competing group -- which is rare."

The result was rare success in the regular season. The Winterhawks finished with 57 wins and a franchise-record 117 points. They won a league-record 29 road games.

They finished with the league's best record for the third time in their 37 seasons in Portland.

But to make this memorable season one for the ages, the veteran Winterhawks know they need to go one step further than the past two playoff seasons.

"We've had a good run, but come Friday it doesn't really matter," Rutkowski said. "The key is just be prepared and not look too far ahead. You've got to get 16 wins, but it starts with one."