The playoffs are now within reach. The Portland Winter Hawks need but to reach out and grasp it. Unfortunately, despite the two recent wins over the Tri-City Americans, the Hawks have not done a great job of seizing it. Portland is 3-6-1 in their last ten games, including more close losses to the likes of Seattle. Portland has not won a game this season in which they were losing after two periods. What’s more important is Portland’s tendency to lose one-goal games.
What’s the common thread in all these bad trends for Portland? Lack of clutch scoring. Sure, the goaltending has been inconsistent this season, and the defense has not been as good as most Hawks fans expected it to be. But the Hawks are losing many of these games in the third period by not finding a way score when it counts most. What good is stopping the other team if you can’t seize the win yourself? Ties are better than losses, but this turns into a big issue when you get to the playoffs and teams play until there is only one winner. Is there any easy answer to the late game scoring woes? Not really. Craig Valette is obviously your best bet to score at any given time, but he can’t do everything. Alex Aldred scored his second game winner Sunday night against Tri-City, but it was only his second goal of the season overall. Chad Wolkowski can be called on to score some goals as well. We know the usual suspects, they just need to execute when the time comes. Easier said than done, but absolutely necessary for any playoff success.
Speaking of that inconsistent goaltending, the biggest battle on the Portland Winter Hawks has started to heat up again. Krister Toews appeared to have taken control of the battle after a number of stellar performances in a row, netting him six appearances in seven games while Lanny Ramage rode the pine. However, Toews has lost his last two starts, giving up a combined 9 goals. Ramage has won two in a row, both against contenders for the last playoff spot in Tri-City. Lanny also collected his second shutout of the season. It was also his eighth career shutout, increasing his already franchise record total. It’s likely that when the Hawks begin their road swing in Brandon that Ramage will start between the pipes. So, if the playoffs were to start today, who should start the games? It’s a decision that’s going to be a major focal point of the team in March should the spot be secured by that point. If you want to win now, Ramage is probably the best choice as he’s got more of a chance to steal a game for Portland than does Toews. However, this team isn’t likely to go very far in the playoffs, so the Hawks might consider looking to the future and give Toews some playoff experience. It wouldn’t be a huge drop in overall goaltending talent, but they lose the gamebreaking ability Ramage possesses. If I’m Mike Williamson and it’s a dead heat going into the first round, I’d probably start Toews. I think the team has a better chance to contend next season, and Toews could use the experience, even if Ramage has earned a chance to end his career in Portland as a starter.
As for that playoff spot…..nothing’s guaranteed just yet. This Eastern road swing will weigh heavily in determining whether or not the race for the final playoff spot will go down to the wire or not.
If the Hawks have to play Brandon, they have perhaps the most ideal situation coming up on Friday. The Wheat Kings were ranked 6th in the latest BMO Bank of Montreal CHL rankings, but have not shown as strong a form as of late. They’re 5-4-1 in their last ten, a bad record when compared with their 33-12-5-3 record overall. Another big factor will be the absence of sniper/power forward/goon (depending on your perspective) Jordin Tootoo. He’s in the middle of serving a seven game suspension, depriving the Wheat Kings of their leading scorer and penalty minute earner. Still, this is not a team to be taken lightly. Players like Ryan Craig, Tim Konsorada and Lance Monych are no pushovers. If the Hawks can even get a point out of this game, it should be considered a success.
Regina is a team that’s been having their share of trouble, going 4-6-0 in their last ten games. There’s not a lot of top notch snipers on this team, but there are some good players. There are the Mulock brothers, Tyson and T.J., both capable of putting points on the board. Then you have a forgotten Hawk killer, Pat Iannone. I’m sure Williamson and Wesley probably breathed a collective sigh of relief when he was traded out of the conference, but they’ll have to face him again here. Still, this is one of the games Portland has to focus on winning if they want to get some decent points out of this swing.
Moose Jaw’s Crushed Can is no longer a friendly place for road teams to come and visit these days. Former team stick boy David Bararuk is tearing through the league, standing third in the WHL in assists. Owen Fussey and Derek Krestanovich are also top notch players. As Dean Vrooman wrote recently, just think if this team still had Tomas Mojzis and Brooks Laich from Seattle on this team. They’d be close to unstoppable. Much like the Brandon game, most Hawks fans would be happy to get a point out of this game. Not only have the Warriors been deadly at home with a 16-6-5 record, it will be the Hawks’ third game in three days. This game looks to be even more of a daunting task than the Brandon game.
After what will probably be a much needed day of rest, the road swing continues with a game against the Saskatoon Blades. Saskatoon was one of the hottest teams in the league not too long ago. They seem to have hit a wall, however. Their home record is, frankly, nothing to write home about at 14-11-2, which ranks last in the East division. Ryan Keller has been a nice surprise for the Blades, and Warren Peters is also a tough opponent. They also have one of the top rookies out there, with perhaps the best name in the league, in Wacey Rabbit. This is another winnable game for Portland, especially with the day off prior to the game.
The Hawks end their East division trip with a game against the Prince Albert Raiders. This is another quite winnable game for the Hawks. Only the Regina Pats have scored fewer goals than Prince Albert, and they’re the only team in the East division with a sub-.500 record. There are some dangerous players here, though. Seth Leonard leads the team with 48 points. Igor Pohanka is another player that seems to like playing against Portland. The Raiders also sport the #1 overall pick of last year’s bantam draft in Kyle Chipchura. If the Hawks are truly serious about getting a win, this is their best bet.
Tri-City lost all five games when they went East. If Portland can score 5 or more points in this trip, they’ll probably have a playoff spot wrapped up. This can either end up being a bonding experience for the Hawks, or it can be a serious blow that ends up eventually costing the team a playoff berth, a blow that would be devastating to the franchise. This could also be a springboard to a possible series with home ice in the first round. Spokane has fallen to only 3 points ahead of Portland, after losing their last three games. Portland also has a game in hand on Spokane, so they’re potentially only one point back of the Chiefs, whom the Hawks will play two days after the Prince Albert game, in Spokane Arena.
That’s all for now. I’ll have a recap of the trip before the Spokane game on the website next week. I’ve also started to update player rankings and analysis of all the Hawks players. I hope to have that finished by the end of the trip as well. Thanks for reading!