The long winter break for the Portland Winterhawks became unexpectedly longer this month when the back-to-back games on Jan 7 and Jan 8 were postponed due to inclement weather. While safety was the obvious choice for fans, players, and Rose Quarter staff alike, the simple act of shuffling the game schedule has made the Winterhawks’ position within the WHL rankings just a little too precarious as the playoffs loom over the horizon.
Portland went into the two-game series against the Spokane Chiefs this last weekend having not played since Dec 31. Meanwhile Spokane had five games under their belts since coming back from the break. This goes against the typical blueprint for a Hawks season, as the last two years Portland has come back after the New Year to win back-to-back home games, but those were typically scheduled for the first week in January. At the time of the last Winterhawks game, they were decidedly miles ahead of Spokane by seven points in the league standings, but the mere absence of those two postponed games have closed the gap considerably.
Now, with Spokane hot on their heels and the Seattle Thunderbirds fighting just as hard for the third playoff slot in the US Division, Portland has to hope for a productive month. That means no more OT wins and low scores. It is time to decimate, and prove that they belong in the playoffs. That third US slot is valuable real estate, as it grants its owner a first round series against the Tri-City Americans currently holding the second slot. Tri-City is a good team this season, and they hold a 5-3 record against the Winterhawks since September. But of all the playoff contenders in the Western Conference, the Americans have the least consistent gameplay and the most vulnerable defense.
If Portland fails to snag this opportunity away from Seattle or Spokane, they will have to hope to fend off Spokane for that dreaded second wildcard position. This would put them against the Prince George Cougars in the first round, and I don’t think the Winterhawks are up to the challenge. Prince George currently leads the BC Division by a wide margin, and likely will butt heads with the Everett Silvertips for domination of the entire western bracket. They also have an impressive WHL veteran in the goal: Ty Edmonds is boasting a save percentage of .919 in 33 games played. While Portland has Cole Kehler looking solid with his own 91 percent and a new rookie goalie to back him up, the defensive pairings in front of him have led to Portland giving up 23 more goals than the Cougars so far.
With over 30 games left in the season, the Hawks have every opportunity in the world to make a strong showing and at least move to the second round of the playoffs. Fans and the higher-ups within the organization itself have expected improvement over last season, especially with the change in coaching staff. The perilous weather is hopefully done for the Pacific Northwest, and now is the time for heroics on the indoor ice.