While maybe not drastic enough to be considered a reversal of fortune, the last week of play has been a rough one for the Portland Winterhawks. There are less than a dozen games left in the regular season, and it isn’t enough that the team is losing but rather that the wrong rivals are winning at the same rate. If this decline continues, the rebuilding year might come to a premature end.
Last week saw the return of team captain Keegan Iverson to the roster after a month on the injured list, and it appeared to invigorate the backcheck skating and defensive posture of his fellow forwards. That Thursday’s game saw the Hawks beat the Kamloops Blazers 4-0 with only one bout for the penalty killing unit, and goaltender Cole Kehler was sufficiently supported to snag a 41-save shutout.
Unfortunately, the momentum was not maintained and the Hawks have had three straight defeats, two of which are significant blows to their playoff hopes. The Seattle Thunderbirds have left the Winterhawks in the dust with a 13-point lead in the rankings and the Tri-City Americans have also emerged as the dark horse contender for the third playoff slot with 75 points to Portland’s 68. The real frustration comes from watching great goaltenders like Kehler and rookie Shane Farkas have to suffer so many more shots on goal than they needed. The little mistakes have started to add up as well, with Portland giving up six powerplay conversions to Seattle in one game. As much as the Hawks need defensive cohesion for skaters, there is a serious issue with consistency in between the pipes. One night, 45 saves. The next game, choppy performances and a failure to hustle.
Credit should be given when it is due: Seattle and Tri-City have gotten serious. Play-offs serious. The Americans have won their last four games, and the Hawks have had trouble with them all season. Seattle, meanwhile, has a knack for drawing penalties during crunchtime and has stepped up their standard for two-way, aggressive play in the last two months.
Headed into March, Portland must hope that the sudden rise of the Americans has not stabilized the US Division rankings too rigidly. If so, Portland is stuck vying for that top wildcard position, which has quite a few suitors like the Vancouver Giants, who shall be the bane of next week as the adversaries of a three-time series. Every game counts from here on in, including games that Portland players aren’t even in.