BY STUART KEMP
Two games up north in the frozen city of Prince George were hoping to provide a warm welcome for the Portland Winterhawks as they looked to make the playoff race a great deal tighter. The Prince George Cougars, already eliminated from the postseason, looked to be the spoilers in the Hawks bid. The first game saw a much tighter game for the Hawks than they might have originally suspected.
The Hawks picked up two goals in the first period from Joachim Blichfeld and Reece Newkirk and appeared to be heading for victory lane. Late in the second period, the Cougars scored two goals in less than thirty seconds to tie up the game and send the Hawks reeling to the dressing room, trying to figure out how to turn back the rage of the cats.
The break seemed to initially work for the Hawks as Skyler McKenzie scored early in the third period to restore the lead, following an assist by former Cougar Dennis Cholowski. However, it was a former Winterhawk in Illijah Colina, whom the Hawks had traded along with Connor Bowie to the Cougars for Cholowski, that showed his former teammates that he was the real deal and the score suddenly became knotted with three quarters of a period to go. The Cougars desperate for everything, did all they could to stymie the Hawks firepower.
The Hawks nearly doubling of shots on goal became frustrating as time and time again, the puck rang off a crossbar or post and the score remained tied. It took the utility line of Layne Gilliss, Jake Gricius and Ty Kolle to finally stick the dagger in the heart of the Cougars with a late third period goal. Despite the Cougars pulling goaltender Taylor Gauthier for the sixth attacker, they were unable to tie the game, but also prevented the Hawks from scoring the empty net goal. Cole Kehler returned between the pipes to get the victory for the Hawks, who also saw Spokane Chiefs drop a decision to Victoria which gave the Hawks a six-point lead over the Chiefs for second place in the US Division.
The following night, the two teams battled again with the same two netminders, but far from the same result. The Cougars started off the night with a goal just over two minutes into the game by Connor Bowie, marking his first ever career goal and showing a bit of the stuff that made many Portland fans fall in love with his on-ice work. The Cougars would see that lead erased six minutes later with a laser shot that blew the goaltender’s water bottle from the top of the net to the rink glass. The Hawks then blew the game wide open with a pair of goals by Skyler McKenzie one on the powerplay and one short-handed and a goal by Lucas MacKenzie to give the Hawks a three goal lead.
Just over two minutes into the third period, Layne Gilliss snuck the puck short side and two minutes later it was Kieffer Bellows who added to the Hawks lead which chased starting goaltender Taylor Gauthier from the net. Gauthier gave up six goals on thirty-one shots before being replaced by Isaiah DiLaura.
Late in the third period, Skyler McKenzie completed the hat trick, this time with the team at regular strength to complete the game as a 7-1 mauling of the Cougars. With the win, Portland moves within four points of first place Everett with both teams having five games left to play. The Spokane Chiefs who dropped their first game to the Victoria Royals, came back to win the second game and remain six points back of the Hawks while having a game in hand on both Everett and Portland.
Six teams have now claimed playoff spots in the Western Conference with Tri-City and Seattle within a win of claiming the last two wild card spots which they can do on Friday, or see Kamloops Blazers lose to the Kelowna Rockets who are still clinging to first place in the BC Division.
Out east, only four teams have assured themselves of playoff berths. Moose Jaw Warriors and Swift Current Broncos passed the century mark in points with the two teams within a point of each other and a few games left to play. The lower spots remain undecided with Brandon and Regina within three points of each other. Regina currently holds third in the Eastern Division, but Brandon, who holds the first wildcard spot could easily flip that with a small streak of their own. The Prince Albert Raiders and Saskatoon Blades are in a fight themselves for the second wildcard spot which the Raiders currently own. Based on mathematical scenarios all four teams could be in reverse order by the time the regular season is over.
It’s playoff hockey time and the air is thick with excitement as the final two weekends of games are upon us.
ICE CHIPS: Saturday will feature a tribute to the Portland Winterhawks’ last Memorial Cup winning team as many members of the 1998 team will appear at Veterans Memorial Coliseum for an induction ceremony and special autograph session during the first period intermission. The game, which is being played against the Tri-City Americans, will feature Mike Williamson, current coach of the Americans and the former assistant coach of the Portland Winterhawks 1998 Memorial Cup run.