PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS (WHL champion)
There's no doubt that Calgary billionaire Bill Gallacher saved the Portland Winterhawks when he purchased the team in late 2008. From 11 wins five seasons ago to 57 in 2012-13, Portland would be considered major junior's most heartwarming story of resurrection if not for the November sanctions that marred their impressive franchise turnaround.
Yet here we are, months later, still wondering if the Hawks really were docked $200,000, nine draft picks and head coach-GM Mike Johnston for buying some plane tickets and paying a cell phone bill. And now, though most in Portland have long ago thrown their hands up and given up trying to figure it all out, the matter is now front and centre as Canada's national media gets its hands on the Hawks for the first time. Expect acting head coach Travis Green to act as a shield as much as possible to keep the distraction away from his players.
Even without the compelling storyline of the "Evil Empire," the Winterhawks are a bit of a novelty in the Memorial Cup. The WHL's U.S.-based teams are used to being the outsiders of the CHL, and Portland fans are still very much aware that the Canadian hockey establishment didn't handle it well when original Hawks owner Brian Shaw took major junior from Edmonton and moved it to the States in 1976. When Portland became the first American team to qualify for the Memorial Cup in 1982, Canadian newspapers were outraged that the "national championship" included a team from Oregon. When the Hawks won the Cup in 1983 — as the host team, no less — the "C" in CHL was forever destined to be merely a suggestion, not a requirement. Still, whether it's sponsorship (WHL finals sponsors Husky and Kal Tire have no outlets in the U.S.) or some sort of intangible relationship with the game itself, the American teams don't quite "fit in" with the rest of the CHL — something that motivates them to crash the party on occasion.
Their season so far, expressed through the majesty of '80s rock anthems
The Clash, "Police On My Back." Johnston, like the late great Joe Strummer, was wondering "what have I done?" after the WHL suspended him for the season and sanctioned the franchise for violating the league's player benefit policy.
Then Green took over, helped Portland stay hungry, and the WHL's punishment became a rallying cry. Take it away, Twisted Sister: We'll fight the powers that be / don't pick on destiny.
That fierce urgency of now thing — After two trips to the WHL finals that ended in heartbreak, the Winterhawks finally got experience the joy (and relief) of being a league champion, including a rally in downtown Portland that drew a couple thousand loyal fans. But the celebration was so emotional (with the exiled Johnston being included) that there might be some worry of a letdown. That might have been the case in the normal year, but there's nothing normal about what the Winterhawks have been through this season. The "us against the world" mentality endures, and that can be a powerful motivation in the hands of teenage kids.
Up front — Brendan Leipsic, Nicolas Petan and Ty Rattie combined for 350 points in the regular season and 88 in the WHL playoffs, and the Hawks won't win this tournament without that top line continuing to be a terror. The second line of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Chase De Leo and Taylor Leier has been outstanding in the playoffs, as much for its defensive play (they were often the unit sent out by Green to shut down Edmonton's top line) as for its offensive contributions, which have been consistent in the playoffs after an up-and-down regular season. Third line center Taylor Peters is Portland's top faceoff man, and the Hawks have increasingly relied on his line to play big minutes in key spots despite Peters being flanked by 16-year-old Minnesota natives Paul Bittner and Keegan Iverson.
On the blueline — With super-prospect Seth Jones, first-round NHL pick Derrick Pouliot, second-rounder and Canada world junior team member Tyler Wotherspoon, and overage captain Troy Rutkowski, Portland's top four might be one of the best defensive corps in major junior history. And these four will continue to be worked hard, with Jones paired with Wotherspoon and Pouliot with Rutkowski. Wotherspoon is the only true stay-at-home guy in the mix, but his ability with the puck has developed enough to fit in with the tremendous, forward-like skill shown by his blueline mates.
In goal — For a goaltender who's played a key role in getting his team to three straight WHL finals and now a Memorial Cup, Chicago Blackhawks draftee Mac Carruth often takes as much of a verbal beating from Hawks fans as he does from the opposition.
Whether it's for his brash attitude that occasionally boils over to outright cockiness, or his overzealous desire to stray from his crease to play the puck (A Carruth turnover leading to a goal was a key moment in a Game 5 WHL finals loss to Edmonton), the overager quickly goes from hero to villain to goat, sometimes within minutes.
Never one to back down from a verbal confrontation (and often the instigator of such conversations), Carruth took his play to a new level this season, posting a 2.06 GAA and .929 save pct. in the regular season. He followed that up with 1.63, .937 in the playoffs, forcing detractors to begrudgingly give him credit after he previously developed a reputation for getting a little shaky at inopportune times.
If Carruth is at the top of his game, the Winterhawks are nearly unbeatable. And since it's become harder over time to truly get into his head, expect his play to continue to be solid, if not necessarily acrobatically flashy.
Outlook — The Winterhawks don't have to play on back-to-back days in the round robin, which should help for regrouping and refocusing between games. And while they hope a ticket into at least the semifinal is punched ahead of time, the Hawks get the Blades last, allowing them to perhaps control their own destiny against the weakest team on paper.