Absence of top Winterhawks takes toll
After rolling through the 11th month with 11 wins, December has been a decidedly more difficult month for the Portland Winterhawks.
The Hawks still own the best winning percentage in the Western Hockey League U.S. Division heading into the nine-day holiday recess, but they are one point behind Everett after Sunday's 8-3 road loss to the red-hot Silvertips.
The explanations for the sudden downturn are not mysterious. Since Nov. 21, Portland has played 10 of its 13 games over a 26-day span on the road. And two of its three home games (all losses) came after challenging road trips.
Playing without three of its top five scorers — likely into early January — adds to the challenge. Kieffer Bellows (United States), Joachim Blichfeld (Denmark) and Henri Jokiharju (Finland) left last week to join their junior national teams' training camps ahead of the World Junior Championships that take place Dec. 26-Jan. 5 at Buffalo, New York.
"At our level, being without your top-end players is hard," Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston says.
After allowing only 78 goals through 31 games, Spokane (six) and Everett (eight) tallied 14 goals in two weekend games. Johnston points to the absence of Jokiharju as notable.
"He quarterbacks the back end and is very important to our team," Johnston says.
• The fact that Cody Glass did not stick with Team Canada is a boost for the Hawks and a bummer for the 18-year-old Winnipeg, Manitoba, native.
The first-round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights lasted three days in Canada's camp — two practices on the first day and practice games the next two days.
"Obviously it's a tough break. But it's good to be back playing with Portland," Glass says.
Glass leads the Winterhawks in points with 51 (20 goals, 31 assists). He had primary assists on three of the five goals Portland scored in weekend losses to Spokane and at Everett.
Johnston says some really good players were not even invited to Canada's camp.
"It's a tough team to make. It's a three-day tryout and depends which way the coaches go with positions, who plays with who and what type of team they want to have," Johnston says. "Cody has had a really good first half (of the season), and he'll certainly represent Canada at some point in time.
"It's disappointing for him. I'm sure these last few days have been really hard on him. But he's always handles adversity well."
Glass says reading some Michael Jordan quotes helped him keep perspective.
"One of his quotes is: 'I've been cut over and over again and in the long run attained success.'"
In summer 2016, Glass was cut from Canada's team for the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. He followed that with his dynamic 17-year-old season with the Winterhawks and became Vegas' first-ever draft choice.
"Things like this are going to happen," Glass says. "It's how you build from it and not what happens when you're upset about it."
• In addition to Glass, last weekend marked the return of forward Ryan Hughes and defenseman Conor MacEachern from injuries.
For Hughes, they were the first two games since suffering a leg injury in the seventh game of the season. He missed 23 games and more than two months, during which time Portland struggled for consistent scoring from its second and third lines.
Hughes, who had 27 goals last season, played in Bellows' spot alongside Glass and Skyler McKenzie in his first two games back and had an assist on Portland's first goal Sunday at Everett.
"It's good to get these two games before Christmas. That was my goal," Hughes says.
Johnston says Hughes' injury is one reason the Hawks have struggled to find consistent scoring beyond their top line.
"It's going to take a little while for him to get back up to the pace and the speed of the teams that are in midseason form," Johnston says.