HAWKS' STRONG LINE HARD TO BREAK
As much fun as it was to average six goals per game in the first few weeks of the season, Portland Winterhawks coach/GM/VP Mike Johnston is more encouraged by the way his team has won games more recently.
In each of their last three games, the Hawks have been scored on only once. The result is a three-game winning streak and a 12-4 record heading into an interesting Saturday game against the Tri-City Americans at Moda Center.
Tri-City, which plays on Friday at home, is right on Portland's heels early in the season. Saturday's game is the first of 10 between the Hawks and the Americans, most of those games later in the season.
The way Portland has won its three most recent games — a steady penalty kill, solid positional play and high-end goaltending from Cole Kehler — has pleased Johnston.
"Any experiences you go through at the beginning of the year, they build your confidence," Johnston says. "Coming back on a team, playing close games, being able to win those games late ... That's important to be able to do that if you want to be a good team. Can you come from behind? Can you play when it's a real tight score?"
You can if your goalie plays the way Kehler has. Last week, in Portland's wins over Prince George (2-1), Spokane (4-1) and Everett (3-1), the 20-year-old netminder stopped 120 of the 123 shots from opponents. That earned him his second WHL Goaltender of the Week honor this season.
Kehler is 10-2 with a 2.09 goals-against average that is best in the league among goalies who have played more than two games. His 93.5 save percentage also leads the league among starting goalies.
Kehler's play is a key to the penalty kill, which has risen to fifth best in the WHL (81.7 percent) through 16 games. Portland has killed the last 18 opponents power plays, including all 13 in the three-game win streak.
Extra practice for players new to killing penalties is part of the story, according to Johnston, who says assistant coach Danny Flynn has worked with first-time penalty killers on the finer points of the task.
"That's really been a big factor, just teaching some new guys how to kill penalties and what we need them to do and their reads," Johnston says.
• Games tend to become more competitive as teams get more time playing together and have more time to work on defense. Busy schedules also tend to keep scoring down.
"The schedule gets very demanding for players so teams tend to be really careful defensively," Johnston says.
• Portland's scoring took a hit when Ryan Hughes was lost to a broken leg in the first period of the seventh game. Hughes might be back at some point next month. Teamed with Alex Overhardt and Joachim Blichfeld, Hughes had four goals and three assists in the first six games of the season — his four goals coming in the three games before the injury.
In the last seven games, Blichfeld has no goals and one assist — a nice one to Kieffer Bellows for a power-play goal on Friday at Spokane.
Overhardt had a short-handed goal in the game Hughes was injured, and has two goals and three assists in the nine games since. His game-winner on Saturday at Everett was encouraging. Ty Kolle won a battle along the boards and got the puck into the slot. Both Kolle and Overhardt fanned on shots before Overhardt put the loose puck home.
One of four rookie forwards on the roster, Kolle has two goals and five assists in 14 appearances this season. As a 16-year-old last season, Kolle appeared in 13 Winterhawks games and had three assists before moving to the Cariboo Cougars of the B.C. Major Midget League for more seasoning.
Johnston notes that the WHL game can be a challenge for 16-year-old players but that Kolle (5-9, 172) came to Portland this season prepared to contribute.
"He's been really good to start the season," Johnston says of Kolle. "He's been really effective overall. He's a good skater, strong on the puck, playing with a little bit more confidence."
The same can be said for another Hawks "rookie."
Bellows has put up points in 11 consecutive games (11 goals, nine assists) and now has 13 goals and 12 assists.
Of course, the 19-year-old New York Islanders prospect is hardly a typical WHL rookie. He has quickly developed chemistry with linemates Cody Glass (eight goals, 18 assists) and Skyler McKenzie (13 goals, 11 assists).
With the exception of the first period of last Wednesday's game with Prince George — when Johnston experimented with shuffling his lines — Bellows has played with Glass and McKenzie all season, and their chemistry is strong.
Keegan Iverson was the power forward on that line last season. Bellows (6-0, 200) fills that role but can also fill up the net.
"He's a scorer. He can finish. He gets a loose puck, he's got that ability to find the net," Johnston says. "Scorers generally do that, and he's been really effective for us."
Don't expect Johnston to break up that line anytime soon.
"Even though everybody knows they score a lot, that's a hard line (for opponents) to handle," Johnston says.