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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Portland team just keeps on winning -- and keeps an eye on the WHL playoffs

COURTESY PHOTO: MATTHEW WOLFE/PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - Mason Mannek (right) of Portland battles Cordel Larson of Spokane for the puck during Tuesday night's Western Hockey League game at Moda Center.Forgive me for expecting the Winterhawks to take a dip after going 40-22-3-3 last season, finishing third in the U.S. Division and losing to Spokane in a five-game first-round playoff series.

Portland lost its two best players from the 2018-19 team — forwards Cody Glass and Joachim Blichfeld, the latter the Western Hockey League Player of the Year and scoring champion. Both are in the NHL this season — Glass with Las Vegas and Blichfeld with San Jose. Jake Gricius and Reece Newkirk were returning 20-goal scorers, but it seemed as if this would be one of those rebuilding years.

Yet here are the Winterhawks, past the midway point in the regular season, with the league's best record at 28-6-1-3 after Tuesday night's 5-3 win over Spokane at Moda Center. The Hawks started 3-3 and are 25-3-1-3 since then. They have an amazing 16-1-1-1 mark on home ice this season.

Portland's biggest ballista is Joel Hofer, who leads the WHL with a 1.81 goals-against average. Hofer, though, has missed the last nine games while helping Canada to the gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Czech Republic. The splendid splinter — 6-5 and 170 — made the All-Star team and was recognized as the top goalie in the tournament, going 5-0 with a 1.60 goals-against average and .939 saves percentage. Hofer saved 35 shots in the championship game, a 4-3 win over Russia.

In his absence, with Isaiah DiLaura and Dante Giannuzzi in goal, the Hawks have gone 8-0-0-1, the only blemish a shootout loss to Seattle.

"That's really good," coach Mike Johnston said. "I'm shocked, to be honest."

Over the recent nine-game span, Portland has yielded only 21 goals. That kind of defense is going to win a lot of games.

"We're playing really good hockey," said 17-year-old right wing Seth Jarvis, who has joined Newkirk as Portland's best offensive weapons this season. "With Joel being away, that brought in some questions from other teams, but we know what we have in our locker room. Our goaltending with Isaiah and Dante has been solid. Proving to everybody that we can still win without (Hofer) has been big."

Against Spokane Tuesday night, the Hawks were missing Hofer and 17-year-old right wing Simon Knak, who played for his native Switzerland in the World Juniors. Defenseman Jonas Brondberg was back after spending time with Denmark's junior national team over the holidays. Portland has beaten the Chiefs (20-13-4-1) twice in four days, having won 6-4 at Spokane last Friday.

"Usually at Christmastime we struggle with several of our best players away," Johnston said. "We understand it's going to be like that because younger kids are playing more minutes. But our guys have responded well this year. To beat a top team like Spokane — that's not easy."

Portland is going with eight rookies on its 24-player roster.

"It's one of the youngest teams we've ever had," said Johnston, who has gone 383-190-16-24 since taking the Hawks' coaching reins in 2008-09. "You're putting the puck in the hands of a lot of 16- and 17-year-olds, but this group has responded."

Jarvis (19 goals, 24 assists) and Newkirk (17 goals, 28 assists) are the leading scorers on a team that might not finish with a 40-goal scorer but could have six or seven players tally 20.

"It's a different team this year," Johnston said. "Some nights we'll have four lines and you may not see much difference. It's very balanced. Last year, we had two high-end guys (Glass and Blichfeld), two of the best players in the league. We don't have that right now. But we have good players through our lineups.

"People look at our defense and say it's only average. There aren't any first-round (NHL picks), but we have a good, solid group. And we've had great goaltending all year."

Hofer returns this weekend in time for a pair of games at Victoria. But Don Hay, in his second season as an assistant on Johnston's coaching staff, appreciates what the Portland players have done without the WHL's top netminder.

"The kids are young, but they have lots of energy," said Hay, whose 750 victories as a head coach rank him No. 1 all-time in the WHL. "They enjoy competing and working together.

"Mike has done a great job of giving guys the right amount of ice time. We thought we might drop a little bit with Hofer gone, but the kids have really stepped up. It'll be nice to get him back on Friday, though."

A player who has stepped up as much as anyone is Jarvis, who was all over the ice Tuesday night with a goal and three assists. A year ago, he showed promise with 16 goals and 39 points, the most by a 16-year-old in the Johnston era. A inch taller (at 5-10) and 10 pounds heavier (at 170) this season, Jarvis is providing a lift the Hawks desperately need.

"Seth is a really good all-around player," Johnston said. "He's different from the guys we've had. He does everything at full speed. He's fast, with quick hands. And he's only 17."

"Confidence is a factor for me this year," said Jarvis, one of 40 juniors invited to participate in the Canadian Hockey League/NHL Top Prospect game on Jan. 16 at Hamilton, Ontario. "I'm getting more ice time, but I'm also playing with a different mindset.

"All the work I put in over the summer is paying off. I did a lot of weight training, and I was on the ice working on my shot, on making plays. I know how Mike wants me to play. It's all about building into that."

By now, I should have learned my lesson about underestimating a Johnston team. His Portland teams always win at least 40 regular-season games — this year's club will make it nine in a row — and they usually do some damage in the playoffs.

It's not been often, though, that the Hawks have had the WHL's best record this late in the season. Something special may be brewing, though Johnston claims it's too early to jump to such conclusions, especially with only seven players — including Hofer — at 19 or 20 years of age.

"It's great where we're sitting right now, but in the second half, we play our division (rivals) a lot more," he said. "They're all real strong teams. We'll have our hands full down the stretch.

"We're trying to get ready for playoffs. Everything we're doing is to make sure that our young guys are ready — that they've played in tight games, that they know what we want to do offensively. We're trying to similate good playoff hockey as much as we can."

It's been seven years since Portland hoisted a WHL flag. Maybe this team will show its championship mettle.

"You'd like to think so," Hay said. "That's what we're building for. We're on a really good roll. We want to have a good run in the playoffs.

"For these players, it's about learning how to play in games like tonight. Winning tight games like this is really important for us moving forward."

With Hofer in goal, the Hawks are in position to make a run all the way to the WHL title and a spot in the Memorial Cup May 22-31 at Kelowna.

"There are some great teams in the league, but we have the confidence in ourselves, where we know how good we are and how good we can be," Jarvis said. "There are steps we have to take, but right now, the situation is really good for us. We have what it takes to win any playoff series in this league."

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