Okay, sure. It’s a rebuilding year. But it’s one of the more successful rebuilding years in recent memory for the Portland Winterhawks. Already, with split games last week against the Prince George Cougars the season’s outcome surpasses last season, which ended in a despondent sweep and an immediate shakeup in management.
Halfway through round one, there is plenty to praise and plenty to admonish in the Hawks’ performance. Thanks to that tremendous win last week, they are still very much contenders to advance, and against a team that led a very tough division all season that’s nothing to sniff at. But after two monstrous blowouts in a row, what does Portland need in this crucial second week to salvage the series? What needs to happen, and what needs to never happen again?
Winning Game 1 in Prince George wasn’t just valuable because it kept the Winterhawks alive in the playoffs. It was also a powerful psychological tool. Not only did it announce Portland as a serious competitor, but it ensured some extra pressure on the Cougars, who have more than ten veteran players of age 19 and 20 to accommodate on the roster and a tougher road week.
If there is one vital hockey ability that the Hawks have over the Cougars, it is speed. Portland has smaller players than a lot of teams in the league, and if they are as tough pound-for-pound as Skylar McKenzie then they have an advantage over any six-foot defenseman. They can outmaneuver him and take him into the boards with less effort. And there is no secret that Coach Mike Johnston favors draft picks from the European prospect lists, like Henri Jokiharju and Joachim Blichfeld, who skate with a different training level of finesse. North American hockey is not exactly figure skating by comparison to the the fundamentals taught to the Finnish and Danish players, and hopefully their style is something that could rub off on the others.
While the Winterhawks’ skating might be fast, it has also been some of the sloppiest and most haphazard this month. Particularly in the last two games, Portland players have been falling down, succumbing to a seeming lack of conditioning, and unable to communicate. A player’s positioning has to be a message to his teammates: “Dump the puck behind you, I’ll be there,” or, “Protect our scoring position at all costs.” There is no message or method behind the Hawks and their movements, and at this level there should never be an player with possession of the puck who is struggling to keep up with it. If you are reaching that much, you are not skating. End of story.
Going along with that, the control on passes, especially in the neutral zone, has been slow and desperate lately. If the Hawks want more chances to go up against Prince George’s ace goalie, they need to improve the puck movement and their pacing. It’s beneficial to slow the game down if feeling overwhelmed, but this is not a opposing team that will tolerate that.
I gripe quite a bit about the lack of defensive awareness Portland has slid into since the return of Mike Johnston. He isn’t a two-way hockey personality, and it usually shows. Havìng said that, Cole Kehler was recently given a CHL Goalie of the Week and he is not living up to the title. In Game 2 he gave up 5 out of 24. In game 3, it was 6 out of 45. Ugh. The silver lining is that Shane Farkas got some good experience and ice time as the reliever.
In the playoffs, a vigilant goalie can win a game. Or several. Kehler deserves every word of praise he got this season, but he has had zero control of rebounds in the last two bouts. The Cougars, on the other hand, have the indisposable Ty Edmonds in their goal, and the comparison is downright unfair.