At the middle point of last week, the Portland Winterhawks were truly thrilled to have locked in a playoff spot having taken the eighth space with a win over Prince George Cougars and a loss by Spokane to cement it. Now the Winterhawks have done it a bit further, capturing two wins in three games to give even more congestion to an already confusing conference with just a few games left in the regular season. To do this, the Winterhawks would have have to contend with three games in as many nights, including a lengthy road trip.
It started with a trip to Spokane, some six hours away, to face the already eliminated Chiefs and a tough battle for the road squad. The Hawks’ Cody Glass opened the scoring and they held the lead until the early in the second period when one of the strong points on the Spokane side Kailer Yamamoto knotted the game at one. The game would stay that way until midway through the third period when Caleb Jones and then Cody Glass on the powerplay, put the Hawks up by two. Spokane tried to make it interesting with a shorthanded marker with just over three minutes remaining, but Spokane could get no closer as they tried to set up in the Hawks zone, only to be thwarted on keeping it there for any length of time and finally Skyler McKenzie put the game out of reach with thirty seconds remaining with an empty net tab. Portland fired 49 shots on the Spokane net with the Chiefs mustering just 25. Portland picked up one powerplay goal on six tries, while Spokane was unable to convert on either of their two chances. The win put the Hawks just one point back of both Tri Cities and Victoria as they headed home to play two more games on the weekend.
Traveling back home for a pair of games at home, Portland would face the top two US Division teams as they battled for supremacy. Portland knew that Seattle, which had just taken over top spot in the Division, was going to fire on all cylinders and they certainly did. Ryan Toth started in net for Seattle, but midway through the first, a shot by Keegan Iverson seemed to hurt Toth. He would remain in the game until the end of the first but was replaced for the rest of the game by Matt Berlin. Toth, who was brought in this season as an overage goaltender in a trade, was listed as questionable on the starting lineup which could indicate an injury he had been suffering from, wasn’t quite as ready to go. Just over two minutes into the second period, Matthew Wedman scored for Seattle, but was countered by a Skyler McKenzie marker just under a minute later. A shorthanded goal by Nolan Volcan and a powerplay goal by Ryan Gropp for Seattle, put Seattle up by two. Shaun Dosanjh scored with two minutes left in the period to make the game a one goal differential. Alexander True scored just under a minute into the third on the powerplay, followed by Keegan Iverson for Portland also on the powerplay to give the Hawks hope. However, an assessed penalty shot to Sami Moilanen and powerplay goal by Ethan Bear with just over two minutes remaining in the game to give the win to Seattle by a 6-3 margin. Portland went 1 for 6 on the powerplay, while Seattle hit for 2 of 6 and outshot Portland 36-31. On the same evening, Tri-City was hammered by Everett and Victoria gained just one point on an overtime loss to Kelowna. With Toth’s injury, it will be interesting if he is healed enough to play this week in games against eliminated teams from Spokane and Vancouver or the game against Portland this coming weekend.
The next night it was Everett Silvertips, down one point in the standings to Seattle that would pay a visit to Portland and it looked early on that Everett was looking to try to regain top spot. An early goal by Branson Hein and one by Matt Fonteyne late in the first period, put the Tips up by two. Layne Gilliss put the Hawks on the board midway through the second period, but that was quickly countered by Eetu Tuuola of the Tips just twenty seconds later. The third period seemed to turn up the heat for Portland as late in the contest, Caleb Jones scored followed by Cody Glass to tie the game and then with just thirteen seconds left, Skyler McKenzie scored his 41st of the season to give the Hawks a 4-3 win. After being outshot 14-9 in the opening period, the Hawks opened the shooting gallery with a final 46-35 shots on goal. Both teams were fruitless on the seven combined powerplays, Portland with two, Everett with five.
The winning weekend put Portland temporarily in sixth spot now in the Conference with 80 points, tied with Victoria one up on Tri-City with the Tri-City Americans having a one game advantage on both Portland and Victoria.
The remaining games for Portland include a road game on Wednesday against the Tri-City Americans, a road game in Seattle on Saturday and will finish the regular season at home to face Spokane on Sunday. Tri-City with their game against Portland will then have home and home games with Spokane, before coming back home to face the Everett Silvertips. Victoria meanwhile, will battle the Vancouver Giants followed by a weekend home and home series with the Everett Silvertips which means the Royals will finish the season a day prior to the Americans and Winterhawks providing some potential drama on the last day of the regular season.
Who these three teams play in the playoffs is still in the air as the top conference teams will be battling it out to the wire. On Wednesday, Everett will travel to Kelowna, while Seattle heads to Spokane. Seattle will play two home games against Spokane and Vancouver on the weekend, with the Silvertips having Victoria at home in the last of their two meetings, followed by a road trip to Kennewick. Prince George has the toughest road. With just two games left, they will play a home and home series with Kamloops Blazers. The Blazers sit three points back of Kelowna for second place in the BC Division, but the Rockets need just a point to prevent any move by Kamloops. Kelowna also has a shot to overtake Prince George for the BC Division title as they are just two points back with a game in hand, a situation which could even further complicate what is already an uncertain playoff picture.