Winterhawks hope to reignite at home
Fans of the Portland Winterhawks will reacquaint themselves with the Western Hockey League team Saturday.
The 6 p.m. game at Memorial Coliseum against the Brandon Wheat Kings will be the first in Portland in almost four weeks.
The Winterhawks finished a stretch of seven consecutive road games with three wins, three losses and a shootout loss, a respectable outcome for a team with new players and new partnerships up and down the lineup. Portland is 5-3-0-1 (11 points) and finished last weekend atop the U.S. Division.
After playing seven of their first nine games on the road, the Winterhawks will play 10 of their next 14 games at home, starting with visits to the coliseum from the Wheat Kings on Saturday and East Division leader Prince Albert next Wednesday.
Portland coach/GM/VP Mike Johnston would have liked to fare better than .500 on the trip. The Hawks did not play well early — consecutive losses at Lethbridge, Calgary and Medicine Hat are their only regulation defeats.
Johnston was pleased, though, that his team played its best hockey late in the trip, when fatigue can take over.
"We got kids to focus on (good) habits," Johnston said of the development he saw during the challenging stretch of six games over 10 days in Alberta and Saskatchewan. "We chipped away at our identity."
The team bused back from Edmonton after Sunday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Central Division-leading Oil Kings, arriving in Portland on Monday afternoon.
Johnston prefers to get the long road trip to the Eastern Conference out of the way early in the season. For this team, with a lot of new players, it was an important team-building experience as well as a hockey challenge.
"It was a chance to be tested," Johnston said.
Through games played Oct. 13, Portland's 34 goals were tied with Kamloops for the most in the Western Conference. The Hawks and Blazers also shared a plus-11 goal differential that was best in the West.
Goaltending was consistently strong on the road swing, and Joel Hofer was named WHL Goaltender of the Week.
Hofer's big week included a win in his return to Swift Current, where he was the backup on the Broncos' 2018 WHL champions. Hofer played 30 games last season for Swift Current before he was traded to Portland.
He followed that with his fifth WHL shutout, stopping 16 shots in a 5-0 win at Red Deer. Then came a 39-save performance in a 2-1 shootout loss at Edmonton, the only Oil Kings goal on an odd-man rush.
Backup goalie Isaiah DiLaura played a strong game in his Winterhawks debut on Oct. 8, making 44 saves on 48 shots in a 4-2 loss at Medicine Hat. DiLaura played 36 games over two seasons with Prince George.
Sixteen players have scored goals nine games. Defensemen continue to lead the scoring parade, with captain Johnny Ludvig scoring six goals and Clay Hanus scoring five times.
The trip also featured a few notable individual moments:
n Kishawn Gervais made his WHL debut Oct. 8 at Medicine Hat and also played at Swift Current, the two towns on the Winterhawks schedule closest to his home in eastern Saskatchewan. Johnston liked the energy the 16-year-old gave the Hawks.
n Reece Newkirk had a career-high four-point night (goal, three assists) in the 8-2 win Oct. 9 at Swift Current. Eight Hawks scored goals in that game.
n Portland scored 11 goals in a row bridging the 8-2 win at Swift Current and the 5-0 win at Red Deer.
n Rookie forward Jack O'Brien, a 16-year-old from Denver, scored his first WHL goal on Oct. 6 in the loss at Calgary.
n Second-year defenseman Kade Nolan scored his first WHL goal on Oct. 9 at Swift Current, and James Stefan, a 16-year-old rookie forward, picked up his first WHL assist on that goal.
n Second-year defenseman Nick Cicek scored his first WHL goal on Oct. 4 at Lethbridge.
n Defenseman Kurtis Smythe did not play on the trip because of an injury, but he is close to returning, according to Johnston.
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