Sometimes travel will win you games, sometimes it won’t and for the Portland Winterhawks, travel is what they will be doing a lot of this month. Winning a good percentage of those games will give them the advantage they need to withstand pressure from the two teams seemingly bent on making Portland have a rough ride in maintaining their hold on the final wildcard playoff spot.
The Spokane Chiefs currently sit eight points behind the Winterhawks, but have a crucial game in hand as they look for signs of life to keep them in the playoff race. The Victoria Royals of the BC Division are one point ahead of Portland, but it is the Hawks who hold the game in hand on them in the Western Conference. To muddy the waters still, the Tri-City Americans hold third place in the US Division, sixth in the conference, two points up on Portland, but give up a game in hand to the Hawks, two games to Spokane and one to Victoria.
Portland dropped a decision in Spokane midweek before coming back with a 5 to 4 shootout win leading into the weekend. One night later it was an ugly 8 to 5 loss to Seattle Thunderbirds. With no time to ponder what went wrong, they played a Monday afternoon game in Kamloops, BC as part of Family Day in the province and handed the Blazers a 4-0 shutout. The Hawks won’t play again until the weekend when they play a three game in three-night set, at home versus Red Deer Rebels in their only appearance this season and then a home and home battle with Seattle.
For those who check the stats sheet for streaks, points and direction, Portland holds a strong advantage streak wise, having won eight of their last ten games, while Tri-City and Victoria just barely break the even split and Spokane has won its past three games, but has struggled in their past ten. The big test for Portland is of they face in their remaining games, four are against Seattle Thunderbirds who have now taken over as the leader of the US Division after nearly running the table in their past ten games. The Everett Silvertips, who were the Division leader until this past weekend, have won just two of their last ten and for the Tips, a tough Eastern swing that could give Seattle a bit more breathing room at the top and Portland has just two games remaining against them.
Portland has just two games left against Spokane whom they split with on a home and home series this past week with each taking the win in their home barn. Tri-City has two games left against Portland, both in Kennewick where the Hawks have had only moderate success this season. The bizarre schedule leading into March will see Portland play the Vancouver Giants from the BC Division three times in four days, once on the road and back to back games in Portland. The Giants are just four points away from being eliminated from post season play, meaning they could be “giant killers” for teams like Portland who are looking to give themselves a lot more breathing space and a chance to avoid traveling to Prince George Cougars in the first round. The Cougars though, have also fallen a bit on tough times. Standing right at .500 in the past ten games, the surge by Seattle has put the Birds at just three points out of top spot in the Western Conference.
What does all this mean? For Portland, they will need some help if they look to get out of the wildcard spot and into at least third place in the US Division. A third or fourth place in the Conference, would give them at least one home playoff series, for which they are at least nine points out of.
Over the next five weeks, the shape of the WHL playoff picture will become much clearer, though many feel it will come down to the final weekend before all the dust has truly settled. The only team that has assured themselves of post-season play is the Regina Pats in the Eastern Division. Having lost just 13 games total this season and currently on an 11-game winning streak, they are the odds on favorite to win the Scotty Munro trophy for overall best record having played 3 to 6 games less than most teams and with a 6-point lead over their closest rival.
Ice Chips: The Saturday, February 18th game versus Seattle will air on CW32 from Kent, WA, marking the third straight Saturday of televised Winterhawks games and the second Saturday in a row versus the Thunderbirds, hopefully a stronger result than the 8-5 defeat last game. The player appearance at Burgerville at 122nd and Stark has been canceled with the other appearance at Burgerville (Scholls Ferry and SW Allen Boulevard) still on. Players appearing will be Ryan Hughes, Brad Ginnell and Caleb Jones from 6 to 7pm.