BY Stuart Kemp
The Portland Winterhawks were hoping this past week’s games would give them a larger spread on the Spokane Chiefs for the final playoff spot, while Spokane hoped to narrow the gap between the two teams. In the end, neither squad got the results they desired.
Portland started off with a gritty, hard fought win over the Red Deer Rebels, a team seemingly far removed from its perch as last year’s Memorial Cup hosts. The Rebels came into Portland unable to get victories against opponents in the US Division, but nearly captured one in Portland. The Hawks had held a 4-2 lead in the third, when Red Deer scored and put the Hawks on their heels for the rest of the game. The Winterhawks were able to weather a tough storm to win 4-3, but at a physical cost, one that probably affected them the rest of the weekend. With games as a home and home with the Seattle Thunderbirds, Portland knew that they were facing a team which was challenging for top spot in the US Division with the Everett Silvertips. The Tips had done well on their Eastern swing, a trip all other US Division teams had already made and with it, Everett had opened a small gap atop the division.
Portland fought valiantly in both games, at one point holding a lead in the third period. The deciding factor in the first game was defenseman Ethan Bear who provided two goals and two assists to lead the way for the Thunderbirds in the first game in a 5-3 loss in Seattle. The following night, Portland again lost the lead in the third period with just 45 seconds left to force overtime and then a shootout which Seattle scored twice to Portland’s once to take a 5-4 shootout victory.
Portland gets a relatively light schedule this week with just two games if you call facing divisional opponents ahead of you in the standings relatively light, but hits it hard the following week with four games in eight days.
The division and conference races have gotten much tighter with Prince George and Kamloops within a point of each other in the BC Division, mirroring the US Division with Everett and Seattle. Tri-City still has a very slight glimmer of hope of catching the top two US teams, but will need a lot of help, while Portland is within 4 points of the Americans with a game in hand. The Spokane Chiefs are eight points back of Portland with 13 games left on their schedule and all are against teams ahead of them in the standings who are in battles of their own. The Winterhawks will play Spokane in two of those games.
This season seems to be the toughest in figuring out who will get the playoff spots this late in the season as nine teams in the Western Conference and realistically nine teams in the Eastern Conference have a shot not only at a playoff spot, but could cause considerable movement within the division to have a more advantageous position. One thing is for certain, there doesn’t appear to be a safe playoff position yet.
Ice Chips: Former Winterhawks broadcaster Dean “Scooter” Vrooman and recently retired NHL player Paul Gaustad, who makes Portland home, were the special guests of a Q & A event at a one-time screening of the movie Ice Guardians. The movie chronicles many former NHL players who were regarded as “enforcers” for their respective NHL teams and a more in depth look at changes to the game which have forced their style to the sidelines and a conversation about the potential elimination of fighting in the game. Having had a chance to see the movie, I would recommend it as viewing for anyone wishing to see both sides of the argument.
On Saturday, February 25th, the very popular Try Hockey for Free Day will take place at over 300 rinks across the United States for kids ages 4 to 9 who would like to have the chance to see what it’s like as a hockey player at no charge. Mountain View Ice Arena in Vancouver, WA will host their event at 9AM and the Winterhawks Skating Center in Beaverton will host theirs at 1:30PM for this one hour special presentation. Registration in advance is highly recommended as space is very limited.
A chance to meet with Winterhawks players will take place on Monday, February 26th at the Les Schwab in the Pearl District from 4 to 6PM. A handful of players to be announced will be there to sign autographs, take pictures and win some prizes.