Three teams rolled into Portland, Oregon to start off the Winter Hawk’s season and all three left feeling pretty good about themselves.
Opening night saw the Seattle Thunderbirds come out and take it to Portland. Seattle’s Brent De Cecco, Scott Kelman, and Shane Endicott were all Seattle needed to ruin the party in Portland. Kelman and De Cecco are nearly unstoppable when together on the ice. Almost all of the quality scoring chances were a result of one or both of those guys touching the puck. De Cecco scored first with an assist from Kelman that was no doubt a preview of things to come for Seattle, as well as the Coyotes, who drafted Kelman in the first round of the 1999-entry draft. De Cecco said about Kelman “we’re great friends off the ice and I think our chemistry transfers to the ice, we played together all last year so we’ve had a chance to get used to each other on the penalty kill and the power play”. Endicott tallied with a sweet top shelf stick side wrister over Winter Hawk netminder LaBarbera’s shoulder, then assisted on a Nathan Forster slapshot from the point to put Seattle up 3-0 at the end of the second. The third period was really the only period that Portland showed up. Blake Robson, Jozef Balej and Marcel Hossa did most of the damage for Portland. Blake Robson and Marcel Hossa scored for Portland, but the scoring was almost incidental. Portland fans got their first real look at the new Winter Hawks, which have virtually no one from their Memorial Cup Championship team of two years ago. Jozef Balej (bally) is a phenomenal puck handler, skater, and all around player. He plays both ways with equal enthusiasm and is not afraid to take or dish out some punishment, Balej said “I love to play both ways, just not goalie”. I asked Jozef about the differences between European and North American hockey, “the WHL is a lot tougher than home, the players are rougher, stronger, but a little slower”. I can see why he might think the are a little slower by the way he beats guys to the puck or blows by them on the way to the net. Marcel Hossa seems to be coming into his own, but is still somewhat overshadowed by his brother Marian of the Ottawa Senators. Hossa and Balej played on the same line in Slovakia and compliment each other very well here. Blake Robson is still showing signs of becoming a great player but is saddled with getting used to new lines almost nightly and this young team is still trying to develop some chemistry.
The second of three games was against the Spokane Chiefs. Spokane took a page out of the Seattle playbook by coming out hard in the first and setting the tone early. Spokane’s Shawn Thompson scored on a practically bare naked Jason LaBarbera who was left to fend for himself while his defense tried to figure out which end of the stick to use. Portland got one back when Dean Beuker stole a bad pass and fought off two Spokane defenders to stuff one in. Portland, and Spokane got their first look at defenseman Kent Sauer when he is challenged. Sauer wasted no time punishing Wes Rypien for wanting to go toe-to-toe. Sauer looks like an NHLer out there and I have no doubt that he will be back with the Nashville Predators making an impact. The second period started with a flurry of goals. First Portland’s Scott Botterill scored on a picture perfect pass from Ken Davis, but the lead was quickly wiped out by two quick goals from Lynn Loyns and Daniel Bohac. Loyns added an empty netter in the waning second to seal the victory for Spokane. I was particularly impressed by the play of Tim Smith and Brandin Cote. Tim Smith reminds me of Jeremy Roenick with his quickness and unwillingness to slow down for any part of the game. He is always near the action and like Portland’s Balej, plays both ways very effectively. I asked Smith about his play this year and he responded rather sheepishly, “I’m primarily an offensive player, and I like defense, I just need to be sound with my defensive play”. Tim Smith when motivated properly will be a scary player in the WHL this season. Brandin Cote had a more philosophical take on the game in Portland, “I think we need to take this win and go forward, we’re a really tight group of guys and after last years rebuilding I think we’re ready to go”. Spokane Head Coach Mike Babcock said it best, “I think we’re gonna be really competitive this year”. I think he’s right.
The third game in the punishing opening week for Portland was against the Prince Albert Raiders. Prince Albert was as relaxed as I’ve ever seen a team. From the head coach on down to the very last player, they all seemed to be out for a skate on the pond. Portland’s defense again seemed to have missed the cab to the game. LaBarbera was taken out by defenseman Chad Grisdale and the puck trickled in. Grisdale had a pained look on his face while listening to his goalie chew him out, out of frustration. Things settled down for a while until Scott Hartnell found Cody Jensen on a give and go that rivaled any NHL goal I’ve seen, again, Portland chose not to play defense. The second period seemed to be better for Portland with Ken Davis stuffing in a wraparound to cut the score to 2-1. Portland didn’t look good, but they didn’t look bad, they played even with Prince Albert and managed to get off a few good shots while putting the hurt to a few of Prince Albert’s players. Five minutes into the third Michal Sivek put the puck in the net off of a great Scott Hartnell pass. Kent Sauer pulled Portland within one when he took a McIvor face off win and one timed it past ex-Portland goalie Duane Perillat low stick side. Sauer’s shot was his first goal for Portland and will no doubt not be his last. Portland then let down their defense, AGAIN, and left LaBarbera out to dry allowing Prince Albert to go up for good at 5-3. Portland pulled LaBarbera in the last 1:17 of the third and even scored on a nice second effort by Marcel Hossa, but came up short again. Raiders goalie Duane Perillat said about returning to Portland to face his old team, “I just wanted to show Portland that I could play”. Well, Perillat showed Portland he could play, and win. In addition to Perillat, Prince Albert has Grant McCune in net and both are showing well this season so far. Ross Lupaschuck is a quiet, serious kid who is a fierce competitor that hates to lose, he will lead Prince Albert, along with Michal Sivek to many wins this year.
Overall, Portland seemed up to the challenges they faced, but are a very green team. They are working on chemistry and are attempting to recover from a complete retooling. Michael Kiesman, team captain, is emerging as a great leader for Portland. He is always ferocious and works harder than anyone on the ice at any time. If Portland can learn from his example, and stay together as a team, things will get better. Most winning teams seem to have to go through the turbulence before they can fly through the smooth air. The only problem is that Portland won the cup two years ago and almost all the participants are gone, leaving Portland fans feeling like the Florida Marlins fans the year after the World Series winning team…shell shocked.