For the third straight season the Portland Winterhawks are heading into the Western Hockey League playoffs as a heavy favorite, but this could be their last chance to claim a championship for some time.
After making it all the way to the WHL finals and coming up just short of a championship each of the past two seasons, this year's Hawks appear to be the best team Portland has had since the 1998 Memorial Cup champs; maybe even better. This year the Winterhawks have torched through the WHL, setting all sorts of franchise and league records along the way.
The Hawks finished the season with a 57-12-3 record, for a total of 117 points and the top overall record in the entire league. Their 57 wins are fourth all-time in the WHL, while the 117 points ranks fifth all-time (both are franchise records). They won 29 games on the road this season, which is a new WHL record. The Hawks also were able to record a shutout in 16 percent of their games this year (12 games), which is another franchise record.
Portland led the WHL in goals in the regular season with 335 total goals, 25 more than the Kelowna Rockets who ranked second. They allowed the second fewest goals against in the league with 169, giving them a plus/minus of +166. With such drastic scoring numbers it isn't surprising the Hawks also dominated the individual statistics as well.
The Winterhawks had the top three scorers in the WHL in Brendan Leipsic (120 points), Nicolas Petan (120 points) and Ty Rattie (110 points). All three skaters were in the top-four in goals scored, with Leipsic (49 goals) and Rattie (48 goals) leading the league. Petan led the WHL with 74 assists, while Leipsic was second with 71.
Portland also had the top-scoring rookie in Oliver Bjorkstrand (63 points), as well as the top scoring rookie defenseman, Seth Jones. To top it all off the Hawks also boast one of the top goaltenders in the league, Mac Carruth. Carruth led the league in goals against average (2.06 GAA), was second in save percentage (.929) and led the league with 7 shutouts.
With all that said, it is safe to say the Hawks are a strong favorite to advance to the WHL finals for the third straight season and also have a great shot to be the WHL's representative in the 2013 Memorial Cup tournament. However, sadly for Portland fans this could be this last time for quite some time that they have the chance to witness such great hockey in town.
At the start of this season the Hawks were hit with a set of brutal sanctions for violating league rules. The Hawks will forfeit their first five picks in the WHL Bantam Draft next season as well as forfeit their first round pick each year through the 2017 season. To put this into a college football perspective, it would be like telling a team they couldn't sign any four or five-star recruits next season and no top-50 recruits for the next four seasons.
So while the string of high success over the past three seasons has been a treat to watch for Portlanders, it likely won't continue past this season. Depending on call-ups to the NHL from the current roster, the Hawks could still be a strong team next season, but as the Hawks lose players to age and the next level over the next couple seasons the inability to reload is going to come back to haunt them. General manager and head coach, Mike Johnston (who was suspended for the remainder of the season back in November), will have a very tough time keeping the momentum the Winterhawks have built recently going past next season.
So Hawks fans (and all Portland sports fans) need to take in the Hawks’ success while they can. This 2012-13 season has already been one to remember and it still has all the makings to be a truly amazing one. Portland needs to soak it in while they can, because due to the impending sanctions it could be the last one for a while.