BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Demanding schedule factor in recent skid, and now four key players will be away for World Juniors

COURTESY: CHAD BAKER/PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - KEHLERThese are challenging times for the Portland Winterhawks.

The five-game losing streak? That's not a reason to panic.

Sure, Mike Johnston would feel better if his team had won a game or two last week. But the Winterhawks VP/GM/coach knew playing 11 games over 19 days — eight of them on the road — would make for a tired team.

"It's a very tough part of our schedule. Very demanding," Johnston said after Saturday's 2-1 loss to Everett. "We knew it was going to be hard. But every game's been a little bit different. We've still been in every game, and we've gotten our scoring chances. We just can't score right now."

The Winterhawks still lead the Western Hockey League U.S. Division with 20 wins, nine losses and one shootout loss.

The challenge gets tougher this week as the team's four best players leave for national team camps ahead of the World Juniors Championships. Cody Glass has joined Team Canada. Kieffer Bellows (United States), Henri Jokiharju (Finland) and Joachim Blichfeld (Demark) will leave after Tuesday's game at Spokane.

The pending return of center Ryan Hughes from injury — expected in the next week or two — will help.

"It's going to be a struggle. There's no question," Johnston says. "No team can lose their four best players — five with Hughes out. We're going to have to fight for everything we get."

The silver lining here is that the players who participate in the World Juniors — the tournament is Dec. 26 through Jan. 5 at Buffalo — will gain experience unmatched in the WHL. And the Winterhawks will use this time to evaluate some young players on their roster.

Portland plans to call up 16-year-old forwards Connor Bowie and Jaydon Dureau and 15-year-old forward Seth Jarvis during the World Juniors absences.

• The best news of the week in the Winterhawks camp was goalie Cole Kehler signing a three-year NHL entry-level contract with the Los Angeles Kings.

"It's exciting for me and my family and everyone who's helped me get to the point that I'm at now," Kehler says.

Kehler has not been to a Kings camp and doesn't know any of the coaches, but he knew in recent weeks that Los Angeles had some interest.

"They stressed the need for a goalie in their system, and they let me know they were looking at me quite seriously," he says. "Over the past week things started coming together."

When he arrived in Portland last season, Kehler was just hoping to prove he belonged in the WHL after very limited action in two seasons with Kamloops.

"Honestly, coming here I just wanted to get a spot back in the league," Kehler says. "Being out of it when I was 18, that was pretty defeating in a way. Mike gave me every opportunity possible and really helped me out and guided me."

Johnston credits luck for getting Kehler to Portland and credits the goalie's determination for earning a pro hockey chance.

"It wasn't like we scouted him and said he's really, really good and we want to get him," Johnston says. "He was a guy who was available, and our goaltending coaches worked with him. He came in very motivated. His first year, he wanted to prove that he could play in the league and he worked on his conditioning, worked on his game. Last year, I thought he had a little inconsistency in his game. This year, he's been really consistent. He's deserving of the contract."

Knowing he'll get his pro hockey shot starting next season adds confidence for a goalie already having a strong season.

"The NHL is the highest level of hockey in the world, and for them to have the belief in me that I can one day play there and be an L.A. King, that's just a huge confidence boost," Kehler says.

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