Another month of the season is over, and the WHL is glimpsing playoffs on the far horizon. The Portland Winterhawks, after starting the 2016-17 season with a firm grip on their division and extreme focus thanks to the return of Coach Mike Johnston, are now starting to reconnoiter their position after a demoralizing losing streak and a few recent heartbreaker losses at home. Things aren’t too dire, however. As a matter of fact, the Winterhawks turned a major corner in the last two weeks, with five important wins in the last seven games.
This time last year, the Hawks were at 12-11-0 and already defending their third place US Division playoff slot against the Tri-City Americans. Right now, they at 16-13-1 and hanging in neck-and-neck for third place with the Seattle Thunderbirds at 33 points each. This is still miles behind the division-leading Everett Silvertips, despite Portland having the largest winning streak in the Western Conference and dominating it in goals. With 42 games left in the regular season, the time has come for Portland to find permanent footing and build upon the offensive progress being made. Portlanders in the stands could sure use a reassuring back half of the season, since being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs last time around.
It also doesn’t help that defenseman Carter Czaikowski, 18, parted ways with the team and the league earlier in November, announcing that he wished to move closer to home and start his university studies. At this point Coach Johnston must be a little worried about the look of his team’s defense. The Winterhawks have the worst time getting stuck in the zone this year, and Czaikowski was a very capable counterbalance for the organization in that regard. He had four assists in 37 games last season as a Winterhawk, and had already matched that with four in 17 games this season, plus a goal. He is an offensively minded defenseman, which is valuable at the junior level.
Looking ahead to December, Portland hockey-heads are bound to get frustrated, if history has anything to say. With players as young as 16, the holiday season leads to gaps in the roster for trips home. This leads directly into more missing players joining their national teams for the IIHF World Championship tournament which runs this season from Dec 26 through Jan 5 in Toronto. The most likely Winterhawks to be invited would be Caleb Jones and Henri Jokiharju, though their chances of making the respective teams are up for debate.
In the more short-term, Hawks fans had a packed weekend. First a road game against Tri-City, and then home ice in back-to-back early games against the Kootenay Ice and the Medicine Hat Tigers. Portland prevailed against Tri-City, placing them a mere three points away from second place in the division. Despite how things look on paper, the glass is still half-full for the Winterhawks.