After a solid ending to the month of January, the Portland Winterhawks took it on the chin in Kennewick to start the month of February. That defeat seemed to be the spark the Hawks needed as they played a four-game home stand and one road game in a span of eight nights and seemed to build on each night’s successes in leading the team to five straight wins.
The toughest test was the four games in five night juggernaut, including a top ranked team in the BC Division and two teams, who while below the Hawks in the US Division standings, with wins, could have made the race for the top spot that much more difficult.
The Hawks would first face Victoria Royals, a team needing to gain some distance in the BC Division after losing their grip on it over the past month. The first period produced five goals, the second period, four more and the third period four more as the Hawks skated away with an 8-5 win. The Hawks were dominant on the shots on goal, with neither team scoring on the combined four powerplays. Kieffer Bellows scored twice, Cody Glass, Mason Mannek, Ryan Hughes, Conor MacEachern and Skyler McKenzie each added singles in the win. Tyler Soy picked up a hat trick in the losing cause for Victoria.
Two days later, Shane Farkas took the start in net for Portland as the Hawks faced the Tri-City Americans. The Americans opened the scoring late in the first period, but the Hawks came roaring out in the second period with quick goals by Dennis Cholowski and Joachim Blichfeld to give the Hawks the lead they wouldn’t surrender. Kieffer Bellows added a late third period goal to shut the door on the Americans hopes and the Hawks skated away with a 3-1 win. Farkas often came up with incredible saves to keep Portland in the game stopping 32 of 33 shots coming his way. Patrick Dea stopped 34 of 37 against the Hawks and the teams kept a lid on the penalties during the actual playing of the game, with just three powerplays handed out. It was at the end of the game that the two teams got about as close to a line brawl as possible. With sixty-two minutes in penalties handed out at the end of the game, there was definite intensity as the Hawks were keeping pace with the Everett Silvertips for the US Division title and the Americans, desperate to make the playoffs after paying heavy dues at trade deadline, are just six points away from being overtaken for the last wildcard spot.
The Seattle Thunderbirds played host to the Winterhawks at the Accesso ShoWare Center in a televised game and one that the Birds would like to forget. The first period was scoreless, but the Hawks found a way to the net on the powerplay in one of the fastest goals in history. Right off the faceoff, Dennis Cholowski forced the puck to Cody Glass on an almost untouched breakaway as he put the puck past Liam Hughes just seven seconds into the second period. Battles started ensuing between Hughes and Portland’s Alexander Overhardt in the Seattle crease at virtually every opportunity which probably helped Portland’s cause. Goals less than five minutes apart from Keoni Texeira and Ryan Hughes, both getting assists on each other’s goals to give the Winterhawks an insurmountable lead. The third period was Seattle’s strongest of the game, but they could only muster one goal, the first for Graeme Bryks, but the Thunderbirds lost any momentum towards the end of the game with Turner Ottenbreit taking a high sticking penalty and killing valuable time off the clock. Eventually with Liam Hughes pulled for a sixth attacker, Seattle lost control of the puck in the Hawks zone and Henri Jokiharju pounced on, freeing Skyler McKenzie for the empty net goal and the Hawks 4-1 win. Seattle outshot Portland 29-28 with Portland capitalizing on one powerplay in four tries, while blanking Seattle on its three chances on the man advantage.
The bad blood spilled over to Portland the next night with the chippiness in full effect. The curtains were down at Veterans Memorial Coliseum allowing for daylight to enter the building for over an hour in this the annual Daylight Classic. Both teams elected to use backup goaltenders in order to quell some of the heat, but it was obvious from the beginning, that the on-ice battle was going to be in full force. Seattle opened the scoring just over four minutes in, but a shorthanded goal by Joachim Blichfeld knotted the game at the thirteen-minute mark. Seattle would regain the lead with less than a minute in the period as the powerplay finally came to life for them. Late in the second period, the Hawks tied the game again, but Seattle used yet another powerplay to regain the lead as the period was closing. Unlike a Hawks team that looked a bit tired during the second period, the Hawks in the third period looked like they had had a long rest and took full advantage. Ryan Hughes started things off almost nine minutes into the period to start the Hawks charge in tying the game. Alex Overhardt, who had been a thorn in the Thunderbird’s side the previous night pocketed his thirteenth of the season to give the Hawks their first lead of the game. In fitting fashion, Joachim Blichfeld who had started the Hawks scoring was the one to end it as he scored the empty net goal to finish the game. The Hawks went scoreless on the four powerplays they had, while Seattle scored twice on their four, but the Hawks with their huge advantage in shots during the third period, outshot Seattle 36-22.
The quirky schedule that has plagued the Hawks during the season, dealt the team a bit of a golden handshake this week as the Hawks will now play a total of twice in a span of ten days. Portland will play Vancouver and then Kamloops before the rough weekend begins. Right after the Kamloops game, the Hawks will board a bus for a long drive towards the BC border and arrive in Victoria the following day for practice before back to back games against the Royals.
With just fifteen games left to play in the regular season, half will be played on the road including the brutal nearly twenty-hour drive to Prince George to play a pair of games against the Cougars.
As has been the case over the past while, the top two teams in all four divisions have kept pace with each other, in most cases less than three points separate them.
Topping off an incredible week of hockey, Winterhawks General Manager, Coach and Vice President Mike Johnston announced the signing of sixteen-year-old prospect Nick Perna. The 6’2″ Dallas Texas native is a defenseman currently playing for the Dallas Stars Elite Under 16 AAA team. Perna impressed the Hawks staff during training camp, making the decision to court him to sign a standard WHL player contract, a priority.