Winterhawks raise bar high
The very, very early returns are encouraging for the Portland Winterhawks.
Playing their only home games until late October, the Hawks opened the club's 44th Western Hockey League season with two nice wins.
A 6-1 Saturday win over Tri-City featured a goal-of-the-year candidate from 17-year-old forward Cross Hanas. The 4-3 win over Kamloops on Sunday was highlighted by poise and persistence that belied the youth in Portland's lineup.
Hanas won WHL Goal of the Year honors as a 16-year-old rookie last season. Last December, in a game at Victoria, Hanas stick-handled the puck from his own zone and eluded three Victoria players before swooping behind the net and putting home a wrap-around shot.
The first period of the first game of the 2019-20 season wasn't even half over when the Dallas area native used his hockey stick like a lacrosse stick to set the bar quite high for this season's WHL Goal of the Year competition.
Collecting a pass from Tyson Kozak, Hanas circled behind the net. With no Tri-City Americans to challenge him, Hanas had time to scoop the puck onto his stick blade and in one swift motion lift his stick into the air and stuff the puck under the crossbar behind goalie Beck Warm.
On a day dominated nationally by college football, Hanas' goal was ESPN's SportsCenter's No. 6 of its 10 best plays of Sept. 21.
"I've scored on it in practice a few times before, but I never thought I'd score it in a game," Hanas said of the lacrosse-style shot. "Every time I go behind the net I always look for it. I saw that there were no (defenders) on me or coming from the other side so I just decided I'd try it, and it worked out."
Before that bit of trickery, Hanas scored Portland's first goal, only 2:21 into the game. But his second goal is the one that had the crowd of almost 6,940 buzzing.
"Kind of a cool feeling," he said with a smile. "I've never tried something so gutsy in a game. It was nice to see it pay off, and the crowd loved it, so it was nice."
The Winterhawks drew a combined 11,447 fans over the weekend. Last season — when Portland played six of its first seven on the road — a crowd of 8,202 attended the home opener at Moda Center, then 2,501 for the second game two weeks later at Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Among the things for fans to chew on from these first two games: Seven Hawks had a goal, with Hanas and defenseman Johnny Ludvig and Clay Hanus each scoring twice. Fourteen players contributed at least one point.
Mike Johnston was glad to see it, especially with the next seven games on the road.
"For all of our players, it's really important (to score early in the season)," said the Winterhawks' VP/GM/coach. "You feel comfortable once you get a point or a couple points. To start the year like some of our guys have started is a confidence-builder for them, and we want them to enter the trip with confidence."
Hanas said his confidence was "through the roof" after his two-goal, two-assist game in the opener.
After producing eight goals and 14 assists in 67 games as a 16-year-old rookie last season, Hanas estimated he added maybe 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-1 frame while training in Dallas over the summer. His NHL draft-eligible season is off to an encouraging start.
Hanas is on an intriguing line with fellow 17-year-olds Tyson Kozak and Simon Knak. Knak had a goal and assist on Saturday, the first WHL game for the 6-1, 195-pound native of Switzerland.
That line isn't alone in starting the season with confidence-building results. Second-year wingers Seth Jarvis, 17, and Jaydon Dureau, 18, started well on a line centered by 18-year-old Reece Newkirk. Jarvis had three assists, including a feed from behind the net for Dureau's first goal to open the scoring Sunday.
It was the kind of goal Dureau would not have scored a year ago, when he was more likely to avoid high-traffic areas and finished with 12 goals in 67 games as a WHL rookie.
"Guys mature and realize that if you're going to play at a higher level like ours and then in the future in the NHL, you've got to get to the net," Johnston said. "We emphasized that a lot last year, but they learn it as they get older and feel more confident in front, stronger in front. He's (Dureau) done a good job."
Another second-year forward with a memorable opening weekend was Robby Fromm-Delorme. The 17-year-old's first goal of the season was a skillful, poised spin-around effort that broke a 3-3 tie in the third period against Kamloops.
Fromm-Delorme, who came on late last season, was paired with 20-year-olds Jake Gricius and Lane Gilliss, giving him two physically mature and experienced linemates.
"That was quite a play by a young kid, picking up a pass in the skates and then having the wherewithal to spin and throw it to the net, Johnston said. "There's been some highlight goals. You can see we do have some skill."
The dozen Winterhawks eligible for the 2020 NHL draft are motivated to show that skill. But this season is just as significant for the club's three overage players. Gricius, Gilliss and defenseman Matthew Quigley need strong seasons for Portland to thrive and for their futures to include pro hockey.
Johnston raved about Gricius' play, which included a goal and two assists on Sunday as the Colorado Springs native reached 100 career WHL points. He had led Portland forwards in minutes played the previous night.
"He's one of the best forwards in the league when you look at (playing) 200 feet," Johnston said.
Gricius is one of five alternate captains for the second year in a row. The group will have to guide the young Winterhawks roster through the ups and downs of a 68-game regular season.
The club's 44th team captain is 19-year-old physical D-man Ludvig. The other alternate captains are Gilliss, Quigley, Newkirk and 19-year-old Mason Mannek.
"I like our leadership group overall," Johnston said. "Johnny sets a good example. He's really matured as a player."
Ludvig said he learned from recent captain Keoni Texiera. A third-year Winterhawk, Ludvig is a Florida Panthers third-round draft pick who will be expected to log big minutes playing in big situations.
"I have to be a lot smarter with my shifts this year," he said. "Playing more minutes, I can't be always running around looking for hits and wasting my energy, but I still have to play hard every shift."
Ludvig came away from the Panthers' rookie camp this month understanding he needs to work on his play making, in addition to improving his speed and strength to prepare for pro hockey.
The Hawks need more than the 18 points he totaled last season.
His power-play goal on Sunday was a big momentum play as the Kamloops, British Columbia native helped Portland beat his hometown club.
After a game at Vancouver on Friday, the Hawks will get a few days of practice before six games over 10 days on their annual Eastern Conference swing. This season, they will face the Central Division on the road and play host to East Division teams.
The Winterhawks do not play at home again until Oct. 19. That's fine with Johnston, who prefers to get the Eastern trip done early in the season because it provides a natural bonding opportunity and it comes before winter weather hits Canada.
After opening weekend, Johnston and his staff had a couple of roster decisions to make, including getting down to 13 forwards.
Last week's acquisition of 19-year-old goalie Isaiah DiLaura from Prince George means 17-year-old Dante Giannuzzi likely returns to Winnipeg for one more year of youth hockey.
A native of Saint Paul, Minnesota, DiLaura played in 22 games in two seasons with Prince George and provides a more experienced backup to Joel Hofer.
Hofer, by the way, stopped 47 of 51 shots last weekend. The NHL St. Louis Blues prospect came up big as Portland killed 11 of 12 opponent power plays, allowing only a five-on-three goal that he had no chance on against Kamloops. He also preserved Sunday's win with a series of challenging saves in the final minute.
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