Winterhawks test mettle this month
November included the challenge of a nine-day road trip with six games, a journey the Portland Winterhawks handled quite well on their way to an 11-win, 23-point month.
December, however, figures to be even more challenging for Portland's Western Hockey League team. It begins with a key stretch of five games over seven days this week, and will require the Winterhawks to play without several vital players for a stretch of eight or nine games.
Cody Glass (Canada), Kieffer Bellows (United States), Joachim Blichfeld (Denmark) and Henri Jokiharju (Finland) expect to learn this week that they have been selected to play in the 2018 World Juniors Championships. The tournament is Dec. 26-Jan. 5 at Buffalo, New York.
The players chosen will leave early next week to join their teams — interestingly the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Finland are in the same group for the round-robin portion of the tournament, which means Winterhawks players will be rivals for a while.
The pending departures add some urgency to the four games the Hawks will play between now and Saturday — two each against Vancouver and Everett, road games Tuesday and Wednesday followed by home dates Friday and Saturday.
That the Hawks started this week by losing 4-0 on Sunday at home to a Saskatoon team at the bottom of the Eastern Division was a disappointment, but not as huge an upset as it might seem.
"We knew this game was going to be a real tough game coming back (home)," Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston says.
The Hawks left Medicine Hat, Alberta, on Wednesday after closing their Central Division swing with a 5-2 win over the Tigers. They arrived in Portland at about 1 p.m. Thursday.
"You don't sleep the one night, so it's not easy," Johnston says.
Nothing came easy on Sunday, and the job got harder after Bellows received a game misconduct penalty and Skyler McKenzie 17 minutes in penalties for fighting after a perceived dirty hit on Glass.
But Sunday's struggles should not overshadow a truly stunning month of November. Portland had 11 wins and one shootout loss. Playing eight of those games on the road, the Winterhawks outscored their opponents 51-19 in November. Along the way, they passed Victoria for first place in the Western Conference and built an eight-point lead on second-place Spokane in the U.S. Division.
Even with Sunday's loss, Portland's 20-5-0-1 record is the best winning percentage in the WHL, though Moose Jaw has three more points having played two more games. The Hawks' 115 goals are third most in the league; their 64 against are easily the fewest, 13 fewer than Everett's second-best 77.
Johnston prefers his teams make their one Eastern Conference swing in October because the trip provides valuable chemistry-building time. But he was pleased with the way his team handled itself on its November travels.
In addition to fatigue, preparing for six games over nine days against opponents faced only once a season adds to the challenge of the swing.
"Mentally and physically, it's really tough. You want to see how your team responds to that," Johnston says. "I thought our team played really well right to the end of the road trip. We had a lot of jump, a lot of energy, good focus."
No one had more jump on the trip than Glass. The first-ever draft pick of the Vegas Golden Knights was named WHL Player of the Month for November after recording 13 goals and 13 assists in the 12 games.
The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native enjoyed playing in Canada and says having his father, Jeff, and older brother, Matthew, along for the six-game swing added to the experience.
"I think I play a lot better with them in town," Glass says.
McKenzie, in his second season playing alongside Glass, says his line mate played with renewed confidence on the road trip.
"It was good to see. He got back to the fundamentals of his game. He started shooting a lot more, which is good. He had a lot more confidence in his shot. He had an amazing road trip," McKenzie says.
n Ryan Hughes, sidelined since Oct. 10, is skating and expected to rejoin the lineup toward the end of the month. Hughes had four goals and two assists in the three games before he injured his leg on a hit by Spokane's Rykr Cole.
Portland has not had consistent second-line scoring without Hughes. It helped that Blichfeld had five goals and four assists on the road trip, and Johnston was glad to see his second power-play unit register the first two goals of the game at Lethbridge that ended up as a shootout loss.
"That's what we're going to need throughout the rest of the season," Johnston says.
n Saturday's game against Everett at Memorial Coliseum is the annual Teddy Bear Toss game where fans throw stuffed animals on the ice after the Winterhawks' first goal. The stuffed animals are delivered by players to children at area hospitals.