With teams ranging from eight to twelve games left in their respective schedules, the next two weeks of hockey is going to go down to the wire. The Portland Winterhawks assured themselves of postseason action after picking up two one-goal win games in Victoria this past weekend. Portland heavily outshot the Royals in both games as Kieffer Bellows took most of the scoring for the Hawks. Shane Farkas, who has seen limited play this season, came in to replace Cole Kehler during the Kamloops game prior to the road trip and fared very well securing both wins and giving the Hawks a strong presence in netminding duties.
During the two-game set with Victoria, Portland also had the distinction of having a goal disallowed in each game and both could be argued very favorably for the Hawks. The physical, playoff style games played in Victoria are now seemingly a regular occurrence for the Winterhawks and many other WHL teams in this, the final push to the playoffs. Prior to the trip, the Hawks dropped a decision to the Kamloops Blazers, who are still somewhat mathematically in the Wild Card race for the playoffs, but have to almost win out their remaining games and hope for some serious tanking by the two teams ahead of them in order to event get a sniff at postseason. In the US Division, the Everett Silvertips gave themselves a bit of a cushion with a nine-point difference between them and the second place Winterhawks, but give three games in hand to the Hawks. The Spokane Chiefs have suddenly hit a bit of a tear, now just one point behind the Hawks, still giving a game in hand to Portland.
Portland’s upcoming week will feature just one home game in a span of nine nights and five road games which will span the US Division and up into Prince George, BC. Should the Hawks excel in these five games, they will end up right where they are currently, except to offer up home ice advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs which begins in the last weekend of March. The most likely scenario for the Winterhawks will be a first-round matchup with the Spokane Chiefs, a team that has been great competition for Portland this season. Other matches look to be the Everett Silvertips versus Seattle Thunderbirds, Kelowna Rockets and Tri-City Americans would be the only US versus Canada battle, and cross water rivals Victoria Royals and Vancouver Giants would complete the Western Conference playoff round one.
The Eastern Conference isn’t quite as cemented as Moose Jaw and Swift Current continue to grapple for the rights to top spot overall as they are separated by just two points, with Moose Jaw holding a two-game advantage. The Central Division is a bit more distanced with Medicine Hat holding a four-point lead on the Lethbridge Hurricanes, but could be easily erased with the two-game advantage for the Canes. The odd spot is the Wild Card positions, where the Brandon Wheat Kings still trail the Regina Pats by a point but hold two games in hand. With both teams in the Eastern Division, the battle for third in the division against top wildcard spot is one of facing either the Medicine Hat Tigers or Red Deer Rebels. Are you confused yet? Over the next two weeks, it’s likely that those conference battles will flip flop a few teams and may go down to the final games on Sunday, March 18 out west and Saturday, March 17 out east.
Ice Chips: The Portland Winterhawks Booster Club brought a group of nearly fifty people on a bus to Victoria with over 150 fans each night hailing from the Rose City. The 5,500 in attendance the first night and a sellout crowd of over 7,000 were treated to deafening loudness from the Hawks faithful as the noise carried over the airwaves of both the Winterhawks App and Royals radio during the game. Coming up in just over a week’s time, the celebration of one hundred years of hockey continues with the 1998 Memorial Cup team gathering at the Memorial Coliseum for its twentieth anniversary on Saturday, March 10.