With now just five games left for both the Portland Winterhawks and Everett, as well as four for Edmonton, it is the final push to determine who will emerge with the best record in the WHL.
On a weekend where Dean Scooter Vrooman was honored by the WHL with the Distinguished Service Award, the Hawks are set to face the Victoria Royals, who have assured themselves of third place in the BC Division, and have a travel date with the Vancouver Giants.
For the Royals, it was a chance to roll into the playoffs on a winning note, and for Portland, a chance to build on the romp over Tri-City earlier in the week.
Things in the first game did not start well for Portland. Two goals by Victoria, the second on the powerplay, gave the Royals a 2-0 lead at the end of one. Portland battled back with a goal by Seth Jarvis, but less than seven minutes later, Victoria restored their two-goal lead. With less than two minutes left in the second period, Jack O’Brien and then Matthew Quigley scored to tie the game up heading into the third. Portland again found themselves in a hole with just over three minutes left when the Royals scored again.
Joel Hofer was pulled for the extra man and it paid off with 22 seconds left. Jake Gricius pulled the Hawks even and sent the game to overtime. Victoria won the faceoff and moved into the Portland zone. Johnny Ludvig intercepted a Royals pass and shovelled it to Jake Gricius. Using a stretch pass to Cross Hanas, he was able to get in behind the defenceman for a one-on-one with Royal goaltender Adam Evenoff. Cross made no mistake with his shot just 18 seconds in and the Hawks claimed the two points with a 5-4 overtime win. The Hawks peppered 42 shots at Victoria and saw 32 come their way. The Hawks were foiled on their 3 power plays while Victoria cashed in once on two attempts.
The same two teams met a night later, but with a different story. Though Victoria outshot Portland 38-33 and both teams went 1 for 4 on the powerplay, the Hawks scored twice late in the first frame and that seemed to set the tone. Tyson Kzak was the first to hit the twine followed by Jake Gricius as they led 2-0 after twenty minutes.
Victoria scored its only goal on the powerplay early in the second period, but five minutes later, on a powerplay of their own, the Hawks’ Cross Hanas was able to restore the two-goal lead. Victoria pulled their goaltender and after a couple of tries going wide, Jaydon Dureau was finally able to score the empty-net goal with just over 50 seconds left to salt it away.
The two wins were very important to Portland as Everett split their home and home series with Seattle and Edmonton was crushed by Spokane and Medicine Hat. This put Portland ahead by a point in the overall league lead. Both Everett and Portland have five games left.
Portland has three games in three nights with visiting Spokane, home to Everett and an away game in Kent; Everett will travel to Tri-City, Portland and then Tri-City again. Next week Everett hosts Victoria before traveling there to end the regular season. Portland will have a home-and-home with Seattle. Edmonton has two home-and-home series, the first with Lethbridge and the second with Red Deer.
There is still some fire in the Prince George Cougars, who still have six games left and are seven points back of the final wildcard spot. Seattle, which has been hot and cold, needs to gain at least six points in their final five games to ensure Prince George doesn’t get in. The Cougars have an uphill climb as they travel to Victoria for a pair with the Royals, to Vancouver to face the Giants and Kelowna to battle the Rockets. The Cougars will end the regular season at home against the Blazers with a pair of games.
The regular season is almost over, but it’s far from concluded as one can see. Playoffs will begin the weekend of Friday, March 27. Who will face off when it’s all set?