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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Young players' promise, play of Hofer and veteran skaters has team in good shape

COURTESY PHOTO: KEITH DWIGGINS/PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - Strong play from goalie Joel Hofer (30) and defenseman Johnny Ludvig (15) made the Winterhawks tough to beat in the first half of the WHL season.The Portland Winterhawks return from their 10-day holiday break for road games on Friday and Saturday before their traditional New Year's Eve game at Moda Center against Seattle. As the calendar flips to 2020, it appears there are good times ahead.

• Portland is second in the Western Conference with 48 points from 32 games, two points back of U.S. Division-leading Everett. This despite having one of the younger rosters in the Western Hockey League.

• The Winterhawks have the second best goal differential in the WHL (plus-47, one behind B.C. Division leader Kamloops).

"If you look at the NHL level or our level for signs of good teams, you look at goals for versus goals against," VP/GM coach Mike Johnston said. "That's a positive sign."

• Using four forward lines helps Portland wear down opponents.

"That should be our strength in the second half," Johnston said. "When we spread out our young guys through our lineup and play four lines, we've been fairly effective in the last eight to 10 games."

• Three Hawks in their 16-year-old season and the six in their 17-year-old season are growing in strength and confidence — a process that for many younger players accelerates in the second half of the season.

"They're getting stronger as athletes. They're getting confidence that they can play in this league and be a contributor in the league," Johnston said. "Even the 17-year-olds, they didn't play big roles last year, now they're playing big roles. They've shown that they can contribute and they can play against anybody."

• Goalie Joel Hofer leads the WHL with a 1.81 goals-against average and 20 wins and is a close second in save percentage. And 19-year-old's impact goes beyond stopping pucks.

"He's a real leader with our team off the ice. He has a real presence in the dressing room," Johnston said.

• Team captain Johnny Ludvig's impact has been huge. A 2019 third-round pick of the Florida Panthers, the 19-year-old defenseman is logging around 25 minutes a night against opponents' top lines and leads WHL defensemen with 11 goals.

• Ahead of the Jan. 10 trade deadline, Johnston has sometimes traded prospects for a proven player at the end of his junior career. That's not likely.

"We've got to look at what's good for this year and what's good for next year as well, because we're going to have a good team next year," Johnston said. "If we were going to do anything (before the trade deadline), it would have to make sense for two years."

• Johnston said his team's improvement should be helped by competing first place in the tough U.S. Division.

"Our game is evolving," Johnston said. "It isn't there yet totally, but our guys do have confidence if we're behind we can score and they also have confidence we can shut teams down."

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Twitter: @pauldanzer

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