For the third consecutive year the Portland Winterhawks (40-20-3-3) have won 40 games. The milestone win came on Tuesday evening in their final matchup of the regular season with the U.S. Division leading Everett Silvertips (46-16-2-2). Four different goal scorers, and 36 saves from Joel Hofer, paced Portland to a 4-1 victory.
The Winterhawks were coming off a difficult loss in Prince George on Saturday, and head coach Mike Johnston wasn’t pleased with the team’s performance on the road trip, “I didn’t like our game in Prince George, I didn’t like either game in Prince George. I thought we played parts of games, but didn’t play full games. I thought we looked a little fatigued; that concerned me.”
Once again, Portland’s scratches were quite lengthy as Kade Nolan, Matthew Quigley, Cody Glass, and John Ludvig all missed the game.
“We have a lot of new guys in the lineup playing and playing bigger minutes than they normally play because of injury” Johnston said. “I expect that they are going to step up. I didn’t think that they did in Prince George, but I thought they did tonight. That was a big response game for the team against a very good team. They also had a couple of guys out in their lineup as well.”
The opening 20 minutes were both sloppy as well as entertaining for the 5,065 fans inside the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Hofer and Dustin Wolf each made saves on multiple odd-man rushes.
Both teams also went zero-for-two on the power play in the opening period.
The middle frame had stretches where each team had control of the play; however, when the horn sounded Portland led 1-0.
2001-born forward Reece Newkirk scored his 22nd goal of the season.
“I like playing with [Jake] Gricius and [Joachim] Blichfeld, it is fun” Newkirk said after the game. “I like playing with those guys. They had a good forecheck and the puck came up the wall. I shot it and got a little lucky, but I will take it.”
The 2019 NHL Draft eligible forwarded gloved a puck down out of mid-air to create his opportunity. His reaction time had to be fast and said with a smile, “I don’t know, [Nick] Cicek and I were playing basketball yesterday, so I was working on just grabbing it and that worked. I caught it, shot through the screen. I’m just happy it went in, and I could help out the team.”
Reece directly helped the team again a little over five minutes into the third period.
Gricius won a faceoff and the puck went to Blichfeld. Wasting no time with the puck, the WHL’s leading scorer spotted Newkirk in the slot for a one-timer. The puck ended up going off Gricius for his 26th goal of the season.
Newkirk said, “That was the biggest turning point. Going up two there we had confidence going to the end. It was a great faceoff call by Gricius and Blichfeld there.”
After allowing multiple odd-man rushes and quality looks in the first 40 minutes Portland locked play down defensively in the third.
19-year-old Lane GIlliss talked about how the team responded, “I thought we just stayed very vocal on the bench and stayed positive. We were holding each other accountable and that is what got us the win.”
Johnston felt his team settled into the game more as play progressed and “played well defensively and didn’t give them as much in the second half. They still had a few chances; Hofer was good when he had to be. Early in the game we gave them some transition opportunities and Everett can feast on those.”
One key to the game for Portland was scoring the first goal.
“They get the first goal; they are a tough team.” Johnston continued. “If they have to chase you, we’ve talked about this before with Everett, if they are chasing you they are not as good of a team. We saw that tonight; they chased the game. They overplayed [Connor] Dewar a lot. He plays high, high, high minutes, and I thought Gricius, Blichfeld, and Newkirk checked Dewar all night doing a real good job.”
Everett pulled Wolf for the extra attacker with 2:34 left in the game and a draw in Portland’s zone. Dewar won the faceoff and spotted Kindopp to the left of Hofer.
The Lloydminster, Alberta native scored his 39th goal of the season to cut the lead to one with 2:30 to play in the game.
A few seconds later a similar situation occurred with a faceoff to the right of Hofer. Johnston called timeout to talk his team.
Not only did Portland not allow any other chances, they scored twice into the empty net.
20-year-old Jared Freadrich first gave Portland some breathing room when his shot from his own zone found the back of the net.
Everett pulled Wolf a second time for the extra attacker as they trailed by two, but Lane GIlliss scored his 15th of the season to ensure a Portland victory.
“I’ve kind of been fighting it the last couple of games also, so it was good to get that one” Gilliss said postgame. “Paty (Josh Paterson) just made a great effort out of our zone chipping it by. I passed it to Mason [Mannek] there and he kind of rolled up the boards. We got it again, and I just shot it in.”
What impressed the 19-year-old most though was holding onto the lead late, “That is really big, especially coming into playoffs. You have to learn how to bounce back and learn from your mistakes; key to hold the lead.”
Newkirk said the team “just wanted to play a full 60 minutes. We’ve come into the room a lot after games and we are mad because we let up for ten minutes and that is what cost us. Tonight we thought we played a full game.”
When the final horn sounded the action did not end.
The teams had a strong disagreement in the corner to the right of Joel Hofer’s net and led to Nick Perna and Conrad Mitchell dropping the gloves.
After everyone cleared the ice, 54 penalty minutes were called along with two game misconducts.
Newkirk, who received a 10-minute misconduct for his actions, said, “I was just on the bench getting pretty fired up about it. It was fun, our 16-year-olds are out there and it showed they are standing up. Great job by Perna out there too.”
Gilliss also commented saying, “I just know us and Everett we’ve never really liked each other. I think it is good old time hockey. I mean, it is entertaining and it is fun for us; don’t know, but it is a lot more fun when you win.”
Home Ice Advantage in Playoffs
The win gave Portland 86 points on the year. Spokane fell to Kamloops 5-1 so Portland’s lead on second place in the U.S. Division now stands at five points.
Spokane has three games remaining, Wednesday night in Kelowna against the Rockets. The Chiefs close out the year with a home-and-home series with the Tri-City Americans.
Portland needs two points to clinch home-ice advantage. These points can come via a win on Saturday in Seattle or with Spokane dropping two points along the way.
Should the teams finished tied on points the first tiebreaker is the number of wins. If the teams are even at 86 points Portland will hold the tiebreaker with the 40-39 advantage. Should the teams tie at 87 points, both teams would each have 40 wins. The second tiebreaker then goes to points in the series.
The Chiefs hold that tiebreaker as they are 3-2-0-1 against Portland while the Winterhawks are 3-3 against Spokane.
The outcome of the Kelowna vs. Spokane game on Wednesday will determine if Portland has anything to play for in terms of the standings.
Regardless of the standings Johnston still feels the games this weekend are important for his team, “We definitely want home ice, but I just feel there are two most important things. One is that we get healthy, and it looks like we are moving that direction. I like where all of our injuries are at. They look like they are going to be healthy and ready for playoffs. Second is that we are playing well. I thought [Tuesday’s] game was a great test for us. Certainly Seattle is playing well, it is going to be a good test on the weekend as well.”
Portland next plays on Saturday in Seattle before closing out the regular season at home on Sunday against the Thunderbirds.