Following a tough stretch in December, leading to Christmas, the Portland Winterhawks ran their longest losing streak of the season. Compounding the issue was the World Junior Tournament where the Hawks would lose the services of Keiffer Bellows, Joachim Blichfeld and Henri Jokiharju. They thought they would lose Cody Glass as well, but an overloaded Canadian team released him back to Portland which suited the team just fine.
Post-Christmas, Portland played four games in five nights, with three of them played in a row. With their next dozen games or so against US Division opponents, the Hawks would need to gain as many points to stave of the charge of the Everett Silvertips as well as the Spokane Chiefs, Tri-City Americans and Seattle Thunderbirds, the latter two being the opposition in these four games.
Starting at home against the Tri-City Americans, the home squad fell behind early in the game, but found the back of the next three straight times to take their first lead. Midway through the game, Tri-City tied the game and then scored three straight in the third within a three-minute period to take a 6-3 win from the Hawks. Though Portland outshot the Americans, and both teams tallied once each on the powerplay, it seemed that Portland wasn’t quite back from the Christmas break.
Two nights later, the same two teams met in Kennewick, Washington. A much tighter defensive effort and the return of Shane Farkas between the pipes gave Portland a bit more confidence in this playoff atmosphere game. The two teams got shots on goal, but both Farkas and Patrick Dea for Tri-City made the difference as neither team scored in the first two periods. Tri-City would break the deadlock right off the get go in the third period, but Portland responded, only to give up a goal just two minutes later. With Farkas pulled, the Hawks mounted a serious challenge and tied the game with just a minute left. The teams headed to overtime where Skyler McKenzie ended the game halfway through the overtime period. Portland was unable to convert on its five powerplays while Tri-City converted once on two-man advantages. The Hawks had a slight edge in shots on goal. Portland also lost Cody Glass during the game following a high stick collision with a Tri-City player which seemed to take Glass down awkwardly and had to be assisted off the ice without being able to put pressure on his leg. Glass was seen later in the game at the visitors’ tunnel wearing street clothes.
Portland the traveled to Kent, Washington for a home and home series with the Seattle Thunderbirds. Without Glass in the lineup, the Hawks went back to goaltender Cole Kehler and settled in for another playoff style game. The Thunderbirds scheduled netminder was injured the night prior and Liam Hughes, who hadn’t played in a month and a half, was pressed into service. The physical nature seemed to really play out between Portland’s Alex Overhardt and Seattle’s Turner Ottenbreit as virtually every time they were on the ice, they engaged in extracurricular activities. The two teams went scoreless in the first period, but started the second with a goal each just over a minute into the period with Skyler McKenzie getting Portland’s marker. Alex Overhardt scored Portland’s second goal of the game late in the second period, but just seconds into the third, the game was all tied again. Skyler McKenzie potted his second of the game in almost identical fashion to his first goal, but Portland couldn’t hold the lead as Seattle tied it midway through the third period. Like the previous night, Portland headed to overtime, but unlike the night before, it was the home team with the overtime marker and the 4-3 win for the Thunderbirds. Portland went two for five on the powerplay and allowed Seattle just one goal on two powerplays. Portland edged Seattle in shots.
The same two teams would battle the next night for the annual New Year’s Eve bash. Once again, the two teams struggled to find the net in the first period. The fireworks continued from the night before with a spirited tilt between Alex Overhardt and Turner Ottenbreit in which Overhardt finished with an impressive judo throw to put Ottenbreit to the ice.
In the second period, Skyler McKenzie opened things up for Portland, but two Seattle goals thirty seconds apart, put the Thunderbirds ahead. An unlikely pairing of John Ludvig and Reece Newkirk gave Reece only his second goal of the season to tie the game. The third period saw Seattle notch their third goal of the game and appeared to be headed for victory. With the Hawks pulling Kehler, they mounted a charge to the Seattle zone where Ryan Hughes capped off the play with his fifth of the season and the two teams headed for overtime again. Both teams had chances, but both goaltenders came up big and the game headed to a shootout. None of the big guns of Portland were able to score and Seattle only needed one goal which they got in the first round, to take the game in a 4-3 shootout win. Both teams scored once each on the seven combined powerplays with Portland holding the advantage in shots on goal.
The US division standings have all five teams within seven points of each other with Portland one point back of Everett while holding two games in hand. Portland holds a two-point advantage over the Tri-City Americans, with the Ams holding a two game advantage over the Hawks.
With the recent losing string the Hawks also dropped from the CHL poll completely after being in the top ten since the rankings started prior to the regular season beginning.
Portland now plays its next four games on the road, all against US Division opponents before playing home games against Seattle and Everett as part of an extended homestand.
Over the next eight days, the clock will tick down to the eventual trade deadline on Wednesday, January 10. Thus far the wire has been silent with the Hawks making a minor deal, announced just at the tail end of the Christmas break that sent Brad Ginnell to the Kootenay Ice for a second and third round draft selection in 2018. There has been tremendous amount of speculation that Portland was looking to leverage a big deal like other late hour deals in previous seasons that have brought such players as Matt Dumba and Corbin Boes to the Hawks and draft picks that have brought in Cody Glass. The big prize on the WHL line is apparently Calgary Hitmen’s defenseman Jake Bean who was a first round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes this season. The Hitmen look to be out of the playoff race as they sit fourth in the wildcard race, but are well back of the front runners in the race.
There may be other teams looking to bolster their rosters as the Regina Pats, who host the Memorial Cup this year, are well back in the race and Moose Jaw Warriors, Swift Current Broncos and Brandon Wheat Kings who are in the top spots in the Eastern Conference, might also be looking for additional depth. More will be known in the coming few days as to who the buyers and sellers are.