HAWKS EDGE CLOSER TO FIRST
The scoring depth the Portland Winterhawks have been seeking since the start of the Western Hockey League season is finally showing itself.
In winning four games over five nights, including a come-from-behind Sunday victory over Seattle, 11 different players scored goals for the Winterhawks.
Perhaps most encouraging, Portland's second line of Ryan Hughes and Joachim Blichfeld flanking center Alex Overhardt has come alive. In four games last week, those players accounted for eight goals.
Injuries to Hughes and Blichfeld, along with Blichfeld's absence for the World Juniors tournament, have limited the games they have played together this season.
"We complement each other pretty well," says Hughes, who has goals in four of his last five games. "(Blichfeld) can shoot the puck really well and Alex Overhardt is a good defensive player."
Hughes says he never felt pressure to produce. But he needed time to get strength back into his legs after missing more than two months this fall with a broken leg.
"I had to get some strength back in my legs, and I feel like my speed is picking up now," he says.
There was a scare for Hughes in the first period of last Wednesday's game against Victoria. His leg buckled as he tried to retrieve a loose puck. An X-ray showed no injury, and he was back on the ice midway through the second period.
• The encouraging play doesn't stop with the second line. In Sunday's come-from-behind win over Seattle, 18-year-old center Jake Gricius delivered two assists, including one on a wrap-around play that led to Lane Gilliss' fourth goal of the season.
Gricius, 6-3 and 185 pounds, had four goals and four assists in five preseason games. But once games started to count, scoring proved difficult for the Colorado native, who has 12 goals and six assists in 54 games.
"Early in the season, I was almost in a slump, nothing was going my way," Gricius says. "After Christmas, I stepped it up and started to get a little bit more puck luck and different mentality of trying to do everything I can to get it on net."
Coach Mike Johnston says Gricius has played well despite the low points number.
"He's going to be a big, strong center — probably eventually a 20-plus goal scorer," Portland coach Mike Johnston says. "He's good at both ends of the rink. He's just maturing as a player. Everybody wants it to come instantaneously. I still have liked his game all year. The points weren't coming for him. Now they're starting to come."
• The Winterhawks will get a welcome weekend off after Wednesday's 7 p.m. game against Vancouver at Memorial Coliseum. They will go six days between games and play only four games in the last two weeks of February — the same number they played over five days last week.
"The guys need some rest," Johnston says. "This has been a tough stretch since January. We need some rest time just to rejuvenate a little bit."
Johnston will spend his rare open weekend on the road scouting future prospects.
• After struggling to win consistently at home through mid-January, the Winterhawks have won seven consecutive home games. That run has Portland on the heels of U.S. Division-leading Everett. With 15 regular-season games remaining, the Winterhawks (35-18-1-3, 74 points) are two points back of the Silvertips. The teams meet only one more time, on March 11 in Portland.