Ahead of this week’s action was the conclusion of the World Junior Tournament in Buffalo, New York. Canada won gold at the tournament with a 3-1 win over Sweden, while the USA was only able to catch bronze after a couple of loses at the tournament put them in a match versus Slovakia where they manhandled them 9-3. In the tournament, Kieffer Bellows led the way in goals, placing him as the most prolific scorer in the history of the tournament with seven goals. In the relegation round, where the losing team drops from the tournament next season to be replaced by another team, Denmark defeated Belarus to be able to play in 2019. In that game, Portland Winterhawks forward Joachim Blichfeld suffered a neck injury on a check into the boards where the offending Belarus player was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct. Blichfeld was taken off the ice on a stretcher, but later reports stated that he was requiring a good amount of rest before returning to the Portland Winterhawks, which is obviously good news. Blichfeld also signed his NHL entry contract with the San Jose Sharks during the tournament, so the news on the injury recovery is very positive for both clubs.
Without the services of Blichfeld, Jokiharju and Bellows, the trade last week of Brad Ginnell to Kootenay and injuries within the club, the Portland Winterhawks brought up fifteen-year-old Jaydon Dureau on an emergency callup to fill the gap. Seth Jarvis, who has passed the five game allowance per season, was allowed to remain in Portland on emergency callup as well due to the roster being below the normal twenty man limit. Nick Cicek has also remained with the club as Portland tried to find a way to stem the flow of losses that have not only dropped them from the CHL rankings, but also out of top spot in the US Division. With the resurgence of Everett and the Tri-City Americans, Spkane Chiefs and Seattle Thunderbirds to near .500 status, the entire division sits within five points of each other.
The Hawks played twice last week with games on the road in Spokane and Everett. The Hawks would certainly like to forget the game in Spokane. In what was probably their worst game of the season, the 9-3 loss to Spokane, it seemed everything that could go wrong in a game, did.
While being outshot 50-19, the Hawks were unable to convert either of their two powerplays and allowed three goals on four chances by the Chiefs. After spotting the Chiefs three goals in the first, Portland’s two goals of the game were met by three by the Chiefs who led 6-2 at the end of two periods. The third period started badly when Portland’s Ryan Hughes was clipped by Hudson Elynuik’s stick and a delayed penalty was coming up. As Portland pulled goaltender Cole Kehler for the extra attacker, an errant pass by the Hawks from the corner of the Spokane net ricocheted off the rink boards and sailed into the empty Portland net. Because Spokane had to touch it for the whistle to be blown and no one had since the hit by Elniuk, the goal was credited to Elyniuk and Spokane promptly then killed off the penalty. Portland did score once more in the third, but was met by two more by the Chiefs to end the game.
Thirty plus Portland Winterhawks Booster Club members attended the game the following night in Everett as the Silvertips promoted the Canada win at World Juniors led by their backstop in Carter Hart. With Hart still out of the lineup, the tending was left to Dustin Wolf who has stymied the Hawks in recent games.
Portland and Everett played a solid playoff style game with both clubs having incredible chances only to be foiled by the goaltenders at both ends of the rink. Late in the first period, Jake Gricius converted in front of the net to give Portland the lead. Just sixteen seconds later, the puck found its way trickling down the back of Dustin Wolf and into the net. Ryan Hughes was credited with the goal and Portland led 2-0. Just over a minute into the second period, Illijah Colina scored on the powerplay in of two chances on the night, to give Portland a commanding lead, or so it seemed. Penalty trouble hit the Hawks and Everett buried their chances with three straight powerplay markers on five opportunities, two in the second period and one in the third to tie the game at three.
With just thirty-nine seconds left in the game, a mad scramble at the side of the Everett net resulted in Jake Gricius flipping the puck over the pad of Wolf and giving the Hawks a 4-3 win. The shots, 39-38 favoring Everett were a clear indicator of how tight the contest was. At the end of the game the situation got a little tense as many players left the bench entering skirmishes that fortunately dissipated quickly, and the players escorted from the game.
The win gave Portland a one-point lead atop the US Division having played three fewer games than Everett and one more than the Tri-City Americans who sit one point back of the Hawks. The next night Victoria was throttled by Everett 9-4 and Tri-City defeated Kamloops 4-1 which tightened up the top three spits even more with Everett regaining top spot by a single point and creating a tie between Tri-City and Portland.
Trade deadline approaches on Wednesday and the sweepstakes for Jake Bean is over. The Tri-City Americans, who have never won a WHL title in their history, made a deal that could get them much closer. Trading two players and a first round and two second round draft picks over the next three seasons to get Bean from the Calgary Hitmen, the Americans seem to be serving notice that they intend on pushing to the limit this year. The Hitmen, on the other hand, look to rebuild for next season as they sit far back in the wildcard race. The Regina Pats, who are hosting the Memorial Cup this year, have been very busy on their own with smaller deals affecting twenty percent of their roster and possibly more. Within the past day, several teams have made moves to shore up rosters ahead of the deadline with a notable exception being Portland. As the Wednesday deadline approaches, players are more nervous, and teams are frantically looking to where their clubs will be towards the end of the season and playoffs. There have been a few sellers this year as those teams foresee their postseason dreams disappear and several buyers who think their team will be the one to go all the way.
Overall in the Western Hockey League, the Moose Jaw Warriors continue to heavily outpace the league with a total of just eight losses in forty-two games played. They are the only WHL team at present with single digit regulation losses. They sit ten points up on Swift Current in the East Division, while the Central Division has a tight race with three teams within a few points of each other at the top. In the BC Division, The Kelowna Rockets, Victoria Royals and the suddenly strengthening Vancouver Giants are within a point of each other as the second half of the season gets underway.
Portland will play next on Tuesday as they travel to Seattle and then to Tri-City on Friday where they will have their first look at Jake Bean who is expected to suit up for the Americans for the first time that night. Portland then comes home to play Seattle in a televised game at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, followed by a return match with Everett Sunday, also at the Coliseum. This week should also mark the return of Henri Jokiharju and Kieffer Bellows to the Hawks, which could make the game versus Tri-City a must watch game. Keoni Texeira, who has been off with a lower body injury, might also be looking at a return this week as well.