It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
And that was just the first two days.
The young Portland Winter Hawks gave their fans reason to be optimistic about the upcoming season with a come from behind 3-2 victory over the Kelowna Rockets in the season opener. Then they showed that this team still has a lot of hardship ahead of it with a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of the Kamloops Blazers.
The Hawks played a solid game in the opener, playing a very conservative style, limiting shots, and basically mucking things up to slow the pace of the game down. After the Hawks got a pair of quick goals in the second period, Portland applied the clamp, and allowed only 7 shots on goal in the third period. The Hawks rode the goaltending of Lanny Ramage, who played a solid game and showed that he wants to set himself apart as the clear starter for this team.
Krister Toews got the start for the Hawks in the next game against Kamloops. The Hawks weren’t completely shut down offensively, as they had a few good chances to score. However, Blazers goalie Davis Parley made all the big saves, and the Blazers offense responded. Portland actually out shot Kamloops 30-28. Despite playing without their top forward, Scottie Upshall, the Blazers still managed to get past the Hawks defense to light the lamp five times.
One major concern that needs to be addressed is special teams. In the two games over the weekend, the Hawks were 0-10 on the power play with a shorthanded goal against. The penalty killing wasn’t much better either. Portland went 11-15 on the penalty kill over the two games. The power play goals against are cause for concern, but the deeper issue here is the number of penalties the Hawks have assessed. This is a young team, as has been noted about 216 times by every Hawks player, coach and fan. Another thing to note is that the referees in the first two games called an unusually high number of penalties on both teams. Still, this team needs to show more discipline. Winning games and slowing down the tempo will be hard enough as it is without giving opponents extra power play time.
It’s clear that the Hawks were beaten soundly in the Kamloops game because they were playing catch up the entire way. They were never able to really sustain control of the puck for very long, so they had to try to play the Blazers’ style of game. Early in the season, getting control of the game in the first period will be key to the Hawks’ success.
Round One of the goaltending matchup between Ramage and Toews appears to have gone in favor of the incumbent. Sure, Ramage played against a probably weaker opponent in Kelowna. Kamloops did slaughter the Seattle Thunderbirds 10-2 in their opener. Seattle is a team that many, including myself, think are the favorites to win the U.S. division. Still, according to the radio broadcast, Ramage made the most important saves at crucial times. There’s still the matter of a weakness with his glove, but other than letting one in over his glove, he was solid the rest of the game. Toews was under attack all night long against the Blazers, but still five goals is five goals. Two were on the power play, but I’m willing to bet if you asked Krister about his performance on Saturday, he’d say he wasn’t pleased with it either.
The question remains, will both Ramage and Toews be around all season? It’s likely that Portland GM Ken Hodge is already working the phones, trying to find some extra scoring touch, or perhaps looking for some good younger players. It would seem sort of peculiar to hold a 20 year old and 19 year old goalie on a team that likely won’t contend for a league title or even a division title. Perhaps they feel they can surprise people and find the scoring touch to contend. I still think that a trade for a younger goaltender is quite possible later on this season, not to mention a deal involving a defenseman for a younger forward.
In fact, a recent roster move involving bringing another player in, is causing a bit of a stir with Hawks fans. Rob MacGregor was taken off the active playing list, and replaced by former Seattle free agent, Danny Lapointe. Lapointe, an 18 year old, didn’t get much opportunity to play with the Thunderbirds last season, and the Hawks are hoping that he’ll improve with added playing time this season. MacGregor, a 19 year old, played as a forward, and on defense last season for the Hawks. He never made any spectacular plays, but he showed some promise at times. The main issue for Hawks fans isn’t the addition of Lapointe on the team over MacGregor. It’s that 19 year old defenseman Dustin Bauer was not deactivated instead. Bauer has gone through many growing pains in his three season with the Hawks. He’s 6’6″ and about 215 pounds, so he has good size for a stay at home defenseman. His main problem has been his skating ability over the years. There has been some improvement, but he still gets beaten by quicker forwards in transition. Hawks coaches have said that Bauer is a great guy to have in the locker room, and has been a leader for the team early on this year. Hawks fans remain unconvinced, stating that his intangibles don’t make up for his overall lack of pure skill. Combined with the fact that there’s a serious logjam at defense, with 9 blue-liners available for the Hawks when David Turon and Jon Weigum return from their injuries. I will withhold my final opinion on this until I see Bauer in a few games this season to see how his development has gone. However, based on past performances, I do understand why many Hawks fans are upset. Bauer, while he has shown steady improvement, has looked to be overwhelmed by the speed of the WHL, and has never truly shown the ability to keep up. It looks like he’ll have one more season to prove himself before he becomes a 20 year old. Overagers have to be very solid, since only three are allowed per WHL team, and if Dustin doesn’t improve, he won’t be with the Hawks next season.
Give Hawks management credit, though. They do have quite a few banners hanging in the Memorial Coliseum rafters to show that they know what they’re doing. Ken Hodge deserves credit as well for his talent evaluation. He has managed to consistently get solid players from Europe to play for Portland. The list of recent players is pretty impressive. Richard Zednik, Marian Hossa, Marcel Hossa, Joe Balej, and Jakub Klepis are just a few of the recent European player for the Winter Hawks. And it looks like Hodge may have delivered again with his two recent picks. David Turon is said to have looked strong in his only preseason game with the Hawks against Kamloops, scoring a goal against the Blazers. His injury at the end of his time in Toronto’s training camp was a tough blow, but he’ll be playing for the Hawks in about six weeks. The Hawks’ 2nd round pick in the Euro draft, Roman Prazak, was originally just an afterthought. Someone that didn’t really draw any attention. But Prazak has shown to be a skilled offensive player. His passes are accurate, he can skate through defenses with speed, and he has a deceptive wrist shot. He’s impressed Portland coach Mike Williamson so much, that he’s been place on the first line with Craig Valette and Brad Priestlay.
Now it’s time for a new feature for a relatively new column. Presenting……
The Three Stars of the Week
This section will honor the three Winter Hawks who had the best performances in the last 7 days, whether it be for scoring, playing exceptional defense, or being a brick wall in front of the net.
The Third Star – #33 Lanny Ramage
Ramage had a solid effort against Kelowna, stopping 22 of 24 shots to get the victory. Though he wasn’t pressured often thanks to good defense in front of him, Lanny stood up to the challenge when he had to, and played a big part in getting the Hawks off to an opening game victory.
The Second Star – #12 Craig Valette
Valette had two assists in the opening win over Kelowna, and played effectively both ways in the two games over the weekend. The overager did a good job of checking other forwards, and he gave the defense a big boost every time he was on the ice.
The First Star – #11 Brad Priestlay
Priestlay scored a goal and an assist in the opener, and did a great job of being a pest to the other team. Played effectively on the top line with Valette and Prazak to form a dangerous group, combining grit with finesse. Priestlay is turning out to be a true leader on the ice.
A Look at the Week Ahead:
Friday – Vs. Kelowna Rockets (Hawks season record against opponent: 1-0-0-0)
A rematch of the first game of the season, opens Portland’s home schedule. The Hawks got a bit of a break in the opener when Kiel McLeod missed the game while he was still at Columbus’ camp. There’s been no word, as of this writing, whether or not he’ll be back from Friday night’s game. The team’s leading returning scorer from last season, Cam Paddock, scored in the opening game, and will certainly be a player the Hawks defense has to watch out for.
Saturday – Vs. Vancouver Giants (0-0-0-0)
The last place team from previous season, has made a number of moves to improve the team with the goal of making the playoffs this season. Marian Havel is the most dangerous scoring threat on the team. Adam Courchaine is a talented young player, who could be among the leading rookie scorers in the league when the year is over. Joel Martin gives the Giants a level of skill at netminder that the team was sorely lacking last season.
That’s about it for this week, folks. There is one thing left on my checklist, however. I figure that since this is going to be a weekly column, it needs to have some sort of witty, official name. I’ve heard the theory that if you had 1000 chimpanzees type randomly for one hundred years, one of them would be able to write a Shakespearean play. I thought this would be an excellent way to get a nifty column title. I’m certainly not asking for Shakespeare! Unfortunately, I’ve only got four, and they’ve only been at it for about 3 weeks. The best any of them have come up with is “aieaDl%sblxw$ SD9$3kfd”. Not exactly helpful, though one of them did come up with a decent sonnet. So, since that plan has failed, I’ve decided to leave it up to you, the readers. I’m sure that amongst the four of five of you that read this column, you could easily come up with a better title than anything I could come up with. If any of you come up with something, e-mail me at HawkLeaf@aol.com . Put “Column Title” in the subject line. If I like it, and choose it to be the new title for this column, I’ll make sure the author gets due credit for at least one week before I steal it for myself.
See you all next Thursday.