The season is coming down to the wire for the Portland Winterhawks, and the time for heroics has come. Currently, the team has amassed a five-game winning streak against opponents ranked safely above them in the WHL standings, and they cannot afford to let up for the entire month of February. Despite their hot sticks, the Hawks have fallen behind the Seattle Thunderbirds for the third US Division playoff slot and now have the Kelowna Rockets battling for the top wildcard position.
The chief factor in the most recent wins for Portland has been a diversity of scoring among the top offensive lines. Tuesday’s game against the leading US team, the Everett Silvertips, yielded goals for Evan Weinger, Colton Veloso, Alex Overhardt, and Joachim Blichfeld, several of which were off fast rebounds from a deadly shot on goal. Likewise, Wednesday’s outing against the Kamloops Blazers also saw four different scorers for the Hawks; Weinger netted another, joined by Skylar McKenzie, rookie Jake Gricius, and defenseman Caleb Jones. It is no secret that Coach Mike Johnston favors playmaking and patience, and though it has taken weeks for the Winterhawks offense to find a balance they have been fierce on the forecheck and eager to help each other. High-scoring forward Cody Glass alone picked up two assists against Kamloops that night.
The other big headline of the week took place between the pipes. New Winterhawks goalie Shane Farkas has not quite acclimated to his defensive pairs, averaging four goals against him in his first three games for Portland. Nevertheless, he has still gained the trust of Coach Johnston from the looks of things. Farkas came out shaky against the Kelowna Rockets on Jan. 28, giving up four goals in the first 25 minutes of play. Any coach in Johnston’s position would be perfectly justified in pulling a goalie with that performance, but Farkas shook it off and shut down the Rockets for the rest of the game. This enabled the offensive lines to pull the biggest comeback of the season and win 5-4 in OT. This seemed to boost the rookie goalie’s confidence for Wednesday’s game, as he cut his GA in half and brought his save percentage over the 90% mark.
Meanwhile, Farkas has had a great example to follow in Cole Kehler, who was awarded the WHL’s Goaltender of the Week after a staggering showing on Jan. 27 against the Silvertips. The 19-year-old only allowed one goal, and boasted a whopping 47 saves that night. Currently, with 37 game appearances this season, Kehler is holding a .910 SV% and 18 recorded wins, hopefully with more to come. The Winterhawks defense has had an uneven season, and goalie burnout is a serious issue at the junior level, but Kehler has been the defensive rock of the team since September and it is very appropriate that he be recognized for it as the team stares down the arduous last months of a rebuilding year.
The Hawks have back-to-back important games this weekend against Seattle and Everett before taking a much-deserved rest for much of this next week. It is hard to say if the Thunderbirds can be knocked off their perch in the rankings, but certainly the damage to Everett’s record has helped. The only way Portland can make a decent showing in the post-season, though, is to keep the intensity of the last ten days flowing.