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Paul Danzer on Hockey: Portland leads Everett by one point in WHL U.S. Division race

COURTESY PHOTO: MATT WOLFE/PORTLAND WINTERHAWKS - Johnny Ludvig (15) takes a shot for the Portland Winterhawks in a game against Seattle. Five games remain in the Western Hockey League regular season, and two this week for the Portland Winterhawks might decide the champion of the Western Hockey League U.S. Division — and the top spot for the Western Conference playoffs.

The Winterhawks lead the Everett Silvertips by one point with 10 possible points available over this weekend and next.

The defining game might be Saturday's 6 p.m. visit to Moda Center by the Silvertips.

But first Portland plays on Friday in Spokane against a surging Chiefs team that figures to be a handful in the first playoff round for the team that winds up second in the division. Spokane has won nine games in a row since a Feb. 14 loss to Portland. Seven were against Eastern Conference foes.

In addition to avoiding the Chiefs in the first round, the U.S. Division champion is likely to finish with the best record in the WHL. Edmonton has 94 points, three behind Portland, and has only four games remaining.

A dramatic, 5-4 overtime win over Victoria last Saturday was critical to the Winterhawks' chances of finishing in first place. Jake Gricius tied the game with 22 seconds left, and Cross Hanas won it 18 seconds into OT.

In addition to that emotional win, Portland got a lift from the return from concussions of captain Johnny Ludvig and fellow defenseman Jonas Brondberg. New York Islanders prospect Reece Newkirk, Portland's third-leading scorer, has missed six games with an upper-body injury.

Portland finishes its regular season with three games in three days next week: at last-place Tri-City on March 20, at fourth-place Seattle on March 21 and home against Seattle on March 22.

Everett plays three times this weekend: at Tri-City on Friday and Sunday bracketing the showdown at Moda Center. The Silvertips will close with home and away games versus Victoria next weekend.

• Dean Vrooman was presented with the WHL Distinguished Service Award on Saturday. The Winterhawks' play-by-play voice for 26 seasons (1992-2008), Vrooman served as the club's director of corporate partnerships for seven years (2012-2019) before retiring last summer.

Since 2004, the WHL has presented the award annually to one individual in the Western and Eastern Conference to recognize behind-the-scenes contributions to the league.

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