The comeback has been swift and opportune for the Portland Winterhawks, having nabbed seven wins from their last eight games and clinched a berth in the WHL playoffs. At this point, with only two back-to-back games left to close out the regular season play, the team’s focus has certainly shifted toward keeping the coveted third slot in the US Division and preparing for battle against their round 1 nemesis. Going off the stats right now, anything is still possible.
Portland currently has 82 points, far below the US Division leaders, the Seattle Thunderbirds at 96 and the Everett Silvertips at 95 points. Meanwhile, the recently rebutted Tri-City Americans trail with 79 points from the bottom wild card slot. It looks like a bridge too far, but Tri-City has three more games, while the Hawks have only two. Potentially, the season could end with these scores swapped, but that would depend ironically on the performance of the Spokane Chiefs, who have already been eliminated.
The Americans face Spokane twice this weekend, and then the Winterhawks will close the season against the Chiefs on Sunday night. Tri-City’s last two games against Spokane have been big 5-1 blowouts, though those were before the jaw-dropping losing streak that buried the team into the wildcard positions. It’s more than possible for them to pick it up and capitalize on Spokane’s lackadaisical defense of late, but I would be surprised if the Americans could pull off two wins in two nights against the Chiefs at the rate they have been playing.
Portland should be able to handle Spokane. The Hawks won two of their last three matchups with the Chiefs, though one came down to a shootout. Portland’s ups and downs during the regular season can be traced back to a few very hard losses against Spokane this year. The real hurdle this weekend for Portland is going to be Seattle. The Thunderbirds boast the best record in the Western Conference, and have beaten the Winterhawks in four out of five recent matchups with scores above five goals every time. On paper, they are merely the better team. The most likely scenario is that Portland will beat Spokane, but not Seattle. Meanwhile, it’s hard to say regarding Tri-City, but I’m predicting one win and two losses for them.
If I am right, the Winterhawks should start setting sights on the Everett Silvertips as the most likely round 1 rival. Abilities and offensive awareness are very evenly matched between these two, but the real testiment to Everett’s better record is their GA stats. The Tips have only 159 goals against them for the season, by far the lowest in the WHL. Their defensive pairs are formidable, and their bench is deep. And while Portland has found an offensive stride lately, Cole Kehler has been carrying most of the load on defense, with backchecks into the defensive zone taking way too long and a staggering amount of passing and rebounds being allowed from their opposition.
Playoffs begin March 24, and Winterhawks fans should be celebrating the late-season resurgence. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, that the playoff bracket is a tough pill to swallow.