Brett Cullen

Cole Kehler has the Winterhawks riding high

Portland Winterhawks overage netminder Cole Kehler had quite the week, last week. He stopped 120 of 123 total shots faced and led his Hawks to three straight wins. The WHL and CHL noticed and named him the Goalie of the Week for the second time this year. While Portland’s NHL first round-drafted talent in Cody Glass, Kieffer Bellows and Henri Jokiharju get a lot of notice, the undrafted Kehler has been just as big a reason for the 12-4 start Portland is off to.

He currently leads the WHL in GAA at 2.09 and save percentage at 0.935. He is 10-2 in his 12 starts this year as well.

Kehler credits his team as whole for his individual honors.

“It’s pretty cool. To start off the year and get two so early, it’s a pretty great personal achievement. But I think it’s more of a team thing for me. Our team is playing really well, which has allowed me some accomplishments. We have a skilled group of guys and we have really been coming together. As a group we have had a great start,” Kehler said.

Kehler and the Winterhawks started the week with a three-game losing streak. Included among those three losses were the two poorest outings of Kehler’s season.

“I think that with the group here and all the skill we have-losing three in-a-row was not acceptable in the room. Coming out against Prince George, we knew it was a bigger game. It was a playoff series for us last year and there is quite a few returning guys. It was great for us as a team persevere with being down 1-0 and playing against (Tavin) Grant, who played well against us in his first outing and again this time. We came out of that second intermission with the mission that we needed to get the job done. It was a good team effort by us. It carried into the weekend with two more good outings.”

Kehler followed up 30 saves on 31 shots in Portland’s 2-1 win over Prince George, with a 47-save performance in a 3-1 victory in Spokane. Of their 48 shots, Spokane had 24 in the second period alone. Kehler stopped all 24.

“Anytime that we give up a few shots like that it falls upon the goaltender to make those saves and it makes it easy for me to make those saves when I know that I have some skilled guys in front of me. You got guys like Cody (Glass) who went to the super series now and other guys in our lineup. Our third and fourth lines can score and they showed that a little bit earlier. Our penalty kill too has been a big attribute to our success. Games like that, where there is a few more shots, I think it looks statistically maybe, but also we kept a lot of those to the outside and that makes my job pretty simple.”

Spokane did celebrate a goal in that period as Zach Fischer knocked one past a scrambling Kehler. The Portland backstop had a strong feeling that Fischer had knocked it in with his glove though.

“I was right there and had a front row seat for that. I saw that way he went up for that and it was kind of 50-50…obviously I’m going to protest that then. I could see he got his hand on that and the refs looked at it. I was just happy that they made the call they did.”

With six nights off in-a-row coming up, Kehler took the net again for Saturday’s game in Everett. He again eclipsed the 40-save mark with 43 stops, including a highlight-reel one late in the second period. Kehler made this one on instinct alone as he was well out of position after making previous stops.

“That was one, where you kind of go into scramble mode. It was coming down to the final minute of the period. The first one I was diving around for and it popped out the other side so I just dive back looking for another shot. As it moved to the top, it was kind of self defense since I had my side to the puck. I just tried to open up and threw my arm up there and got a piece of it.”

Portland, who rode their offense to wins to start the year, committed themselves to a stellar, team-defensive effort in coming back to help Kehler out. They have shown that they can win in a variety of ways.

(photo-Dayna Fjord)

“That’s part of what makes us a dangerous team in the league. We do have that offensive fire power up front. We got up to number one in the CHL and that puts a target on your back as a group. Teams are going to watch video on us key in on those top guys. That’s when we need to come together and start clicking as a team. We are doing really well in our defensive structure and have not given up many goals overall throughout the entire year, but especially this last week. I think it’s a commitment to playing the right way that is going to help us be successful. So far it has been working pretty good.”

Kehler, who was acquired from Kamloops for a seventh round bantam draft pick in 2016, credits goalie coach Tyler Love with helping him get settled in. He won the starting job and has never looked back. Kehler has two other goalie coaches in Portland, one of which has 700-plus NHL games under his belt.

“I think it’s a really good mix. Tyler is a great guy with a lot of credentials to his name and he’s got World Pro goaltending up in Calgary. I worked with him when I was back at Okanagan Hockey Academy and we kept touch over the years. When I got to Portland it was a pretty cool thing for me to have in my back pocket-to know someone right off the hop. That made me really comfortable last year and into this year-continuing to build our relationship. To get to see him quite often has been really helpful. The addition of Andy Moog and Angelo (Maggio) has been really good. They are both guys who have experience and you look at a guy like Andy who played for some of those great Oilers teams-he’s really great with some of that stuff between the ears. Just keeping you calm and making those tweaks that are needed.”

It certainly does not look like many tweaks will be needed right now as Kehler keeps adding to the individual accomplishments and league-leading goaltending stats. His play and the commitment by his teammates at coming back has given Portland a bunch of different ways to earn those wins.