Hawks surprise even the coach
It's not over 'til it's over, goes the old Yogi Berra maxim. But for all intents and purposes, this one was over.
The Winterhawks were trailing Everett 3-1 and killing a penalty with fewer than six minutes left Sunday night. The Western Hockey's League's No. 1-ranked goaltender, Carter Hart, was in the net for the Silvertips.
Grenada had a better chance against the U.S. military, right?
But Portland's Caleb Jones scored a shorthanded goal with 5:39 remaining to trim the margin to 3-2.
Cody Glass followed with the equalizer with 2:37 to go.
Skyler McKenzie then scored from point-blank range with 13 seconds on the clock, touching off Mardis Gras as the 9,176 denizens of Moda Center went bonkers.
When the final horn sounded, it was Portland 4, Everett 3.
Miracle on Ice II.
The Silvertips left the ice dumbfounded.
The Hawks celebrated as their fans stood and cheered, creating a scene which McKenzie described in one word: "Insane."
"That's probably a first in my career," Glass said. "It was electrifying, especially with the crowd we have."
Down two goals and at a man disadvantage, Portland coach Mike Johnston gathered his penalty-killers.
"We told them they had to take chances," Johnston said. "Any loose puck, we had to have our defense join the rush. Fortunately enough, it worked for us."
Johnston missed McKenzie's game-winner in the closing seconds.
"I was getting our next line ready, making sure they understood how valuable that one point was going to be if we could get a tie," the coach said.
Minutes earlier, even forcing an overtime session had seemed a pipe dream. Somehow, the Hawks found a way to win it in regulation.
"We just kept going to the net," McKenzie said. "We knew we'd break them down, and that's what we did."
It's been that kind of season for the Hawks, who are 38-27-1-3 with three games left in the regular season.
"I'm shocked that 40 wins are in our range," Johnston said. "This team has surprised me."
A year ago, Portland finished the regular season 34-31-6-1, then was swept by Everett in the first round of the playoffs. Shortly thereafter, Jamie Kompon was fired after a two-year run as coach. In his place came Johnston, who had left the Hawks after a wildly successful six-year stint as coach to become head coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins.
But Johnston was let go in Pittsburgh after a season and a half, and returned as the Hawks' general manager, head coach and vice president.
Gone this season were six of the top seven scorers, along with goalie Adin Hill, from the Portland team of a year ago. A rebuilding season, or two, was surely on the horizon, even with Johnston's deft touch leading the way.
"We didn't know what we had coming in," Johnston said. "The first few weeks, I was wondering, 'How good can we be? Can we survive?' But our group kept getting better and better."
Jones and captain Keegan Iverson have provided leadership. Young forwards such as Glass, McKenzie and Ryan Hughes have come of age quickly. Cole Kehler, acquired in the offseason from Kamloops for a seventh-round draft pick, has done a solid job in goal.
At the trade deadline in January, Portland acquired a pair of overage players — center Matt Revel off waivers from Kamloops and defenseman Shaun Dosanjh from Lethbridge for a ninth-round pick.
"We held our group together, added a couple of 20-year-olds basically for free, and the players have responded well the second half of the season," Johnston said. "It's a credit to the players. "The big thing is, as a group, they're not afraid of anything. They believe they can overachieve. Maybe they aren't overachieving. Maybe they're doing what they can do."
The 6-2, 180-pound Glass ranks sixth in the WHL in scoring with 32 goals and 93 points and Monday was named the league's Player of the Week. He's headed for the first round of 2018 NHL draft.
"He had a little bit of a lull a couple of weeks ago, but that's the longest he's ever not showed the Cody Glass we all know," Johnston said. "He has rebounded the last five or six games and taken over games. That's what he can do. He's a young kid who can only get better, a fun guy to watch."
Then there is McKenzie, who played five games with the Hawks as a 5-5, 135-pound 15-year-old center in 2013-14. Playing regularly for the first time last season, he scored eight goals in 68 games. This season at 5-8 and 165 pounds, McKenzie has contributed along the lines of undersized past Hawks such as Marty Standish and Brendan Leipsic, ranking sixth in the league with 41 goals while playing on the first line alongside Glass and Iverson.
"It's pretty easy to produce playing with top-end guys like that," McKenzie said modestly. "The biggest difference for me this year was working on skill stuff during the offseason. And Mike Johnston, who is a top-of-the-line coach. He's given me nothing but opportunity, has rewarded me when necessary and disciplined me when necessary."
Glass credits Johnston, too.
"In Pittsburgh, he got to coach (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and guys like that, so he brought a lot of influential stuff back," Glass said. "He lets us do what we want on offense as long, as we take care of the D zone."
Sunday's victory pushed Portland (80 points) one point ahead of Tri-City (79) and into third place in the U.S. Division behind Seattle and Everett.
Five teams are within six points of each other atop the Western Conference — Seattle (94), Everett and Prince George (93 apiece), Kelowna (91) and Kamloops (88).
The Hawks are battling Victoria (80) and Tri-City for sixth.
Portland visits Tri-City on Tuesday for another important game. If the Hawks finish third in the U.S. Division, they'll face the No. 2 team in the division (Seattle or Everett) in the first round of the playoffs. If they finish fourth in the division, they'll be a wild-card team that might have to travel the 15 hours by bus to Prince George.
"We've climbed over Tri-City," Johnston said. "We're in the driver's seat right now. We're in the spot where if we can keep winning, we'll be playing in our division, which would be good for us travel-wise."
The Hawks have won six of their last seven games.
"We were three points ahead of Spokane and just trying to get into the playoffs," Johnston said. "We knew a lot of teams were within reach, but we were trying to put teams behind us. We did that a few games ago. We know we're in. But we want to climb as high as we can."
Portland boasts six 20-goal scorers, including right wing Evan Weinger, who has missed several games with an eye injury but should return before the regular season concludes.
Johnston coached the Hawks to four straight WHL Finals from 2011-14, including the 2013 championship and the Memorial Cup final.
"I always said when we had the good teams, if we had five or six 20-goal scorers in our lineup heading into the playoffs, we're a dangerous team," he said.
These Hawks qualify.
"They can do anything they want if they really apply themselves," Johnston said. "If our competitive nature comes out, we have the skill to overcome a lot of teams.
"What has happened shows the character of this group. The expectations inherent in our organization are that we're going to find a way to win. That's what these guys have done."
The future is bright, with Johnston again at the controls and most of the players returning for at least another season. But the now isn't too bad, either.
"We have a bunch of young guys who are intent to prove our worth," Glass said. "When we play our game — fast and with fever — we do really good. Everybody believes in each other."