The Portland Winterhawks are in Prince George preparing to begin their first of four straight games against the Cougars. Mike Johnston and the young Winterhawks just concluded a two game series, and completed their regular season series, with the Kamloops Blazers.
Portland left Kamloops, British Columbia, with two points after a 2-1 shootout win on Friday. DUBNetwork’s Jordan Bremner recapped the game and spoke with Don Hay and Johnny Ludvig.
On Monday, Johnston said in a phone interview, “I really liked our first game. I thought it was a great hockey game. It was back and forth, good goaltending at both ends, a tight checking game but still had a lot of skill.”
Unfortunately for Portland, the rematch on Saturday did not go as well. The Blazers, on their Teddy Bear Toss night, defeated the Winterhawks 4-1. If you missed Jordan’s recap, you can read more here.
“The second night, I really didn’t like our game at all,” Johnston said on Monday. “I thought that Kamloops’ maturity showed through and our youth showed through, and that wasn’t a good combination. It was their Teddy Bear Toss game, with a sold-out crowd. We knew it was going to be like that. There was a long delay in the first period after they got their five-on-three goal. I think that took a little bit away from our momentum.”
The Winterhawks coach saw the series as a measuring stick. “I just felt the series against Kamloops was kind of a test of where we are at as a team. We still have a ways to go to be ready for the playoffs. I just think our maturity (level) really showed through, and we gave up too many scoring chances, mismanaged the puck, very uncharacteristic of our team. Playing against one of the top teams in the league is challenging as well.”
Moving on to the Prince George Cougars
With their attention now turned towards Prince George, Portland faces an odd portion of their schedule. “I don’t think we have had a series like this before,” Johnston mentioned when asked about playing the Cougars the next four games. “I think the most we have ever played a team is twice in a row except in the playoffs. This is like a playoff series. You are not going to get another opportunity during the year to have a playoff-like series like this. I think this is a positive.”
Over the next four contests, Johnston hopes to see a return to “our game, the game we want to play, which continues to evolve and get better.”
He is excited about the stretch of games on the road trip similar to when the team made their way through their Central Division swing. “We have a checklist of areas that we move through as the year goes along. Where are we at in this area? Where are we at in that area? We are just trying to get our game down. Certainly some holes were exposed in the Kamloops series, so we have to tidy those up and get better. I thought the Alberta swing was good for us, tested us, exposed some things that we have to be better at. We came home, and we got better. Now, in this Prince George series, heading into the Christmas break, we have to make sure we are finding ways to win games within the structure of how we want to play.”
Joel Hofer to represent Canada
On Monday, Joel Hofer was one of four goaltenders named to Hockey Canada’s Selection Camp. The camp is in Oakville, Ontario, and runs December 9-12.
“Joel has had an outstanding year, and he deserves to go,” Johnston commented on his 19-year-old netminder. “I believe he is the top goaltender in our league which is great for him to get the opportunity.”
Many Winterhawks have represented their countries at World Juniors over the years. Hofer looks to join the long list which includes last year’s captain, Cody Glass.
Johnston feels sending players to the top junior tournament in the world not only helps the player but also the organization. “Any of our players who have gone to the World Junior tournament, or had an opportunity to go to the World Junior tournament, it is quite a credit to them and where they are in their careers. If (Hofer) does get to go, and does get to play at the world stage, how much of a benefit is that to us? It is enormous and immeasurable. He will come back and knows he had a good first half, now he needs a good second half and playoffs probably before he starts his pro career.”
There have been some questions surrounding when Hofer would leave for Selection Camp. Johnston confirmed he will be in Portland through the weekend. “No World Junior guys are allowed to leave until I think Sunday or Monday.”
While Hofer is away, Portland will need to call up a second goaltender. They currently have two signed prospects eligible to get the call — Dante Giannuzzi (17-years-old) and Lochlan Gordon (16-years-old).
Giannuzzi is playing in the MJHL with the Steinbach Pistons after being traded from the Winnipeg Blues. In five games with the Pistons, he has a 2.75 goals against average and .908 save percentage.
Gordon is playing this season with SSAC Athletics in the AMHL. In his nine appearances, the Edmonton, Alberta, native has a 4.17 goals against average and .892 save percentage.
As of Monday evening, Johnston had not yet decided on which netminder will join Portland next week. “We are working through that right now because the (Canada Roster) announcement was just finally made today. We had an inclination the other day, but it is for sure now. Now we will make plans to cover that off next week.”
Simon Knak’s World Junior status unknown
Speaking of World Junior news, there is no official update, as of Monday afternoon, on whether Simon Knak will join Switzerland’s Selection Camp. Per Mike Johnston, “No updates from Switzerland yet. We don’t know one way or the other what Switzerland is doing.”
An update on Gabe Klassen’s status
16-year-old forward Gabe Klassen may be staying with the Winterhawks for the rest of the season.
First reported by Lucas Punkari of the Prince Albert Daily Herald, Gabe Klassen appears to be staying with Portland for the remainder of the year.
Johnston did not give a firm answer when asked about a decision. However, indications suggest that Klassen can unpack a little more. “We are determining what is going to happen with him. We still have until January 10 to make a final decision. We told the (Prince Albert) Mintos (Klassen’s team in the SMHL) that we would make a final decision sooner rather than later so they would know and could make plans to get their team together. We are leaning towards keeping him.”
Nick Perna traded to Medicine Hat
Last week, the Winterhawks traded 18-year-old defenseman Nick Perna to the Medicine Hat Tigers in exchange for a fourth-round pick in the 2020 WHL Bantam Draft.
“Basically, we had eight defense. To be honest, it is tough to keep eight defense happy — not happy, but everyone wants to play. It is tough to get them in the rotation,” Johnston said.
Injuries, or lack thereof, on the back end played a factor per Johnston. “As everyone knows, we had forwards that got injured in the first half and we were stretched with our depth up front. (That) meant we had to bring up Klassen. On defense, we really didn’t have many injuries and to get them in the lineup, get them playing time, I think it is my responsibility to develop them, but you can’t develop them fully if you can’t play them.”
Portland is one of the teams who often does not trade roster players. However, given the logjam on their blue line, a move was necessary.
“We then had to take what is best for the player, and Nick Perna is a great kid,” Johnston expressed. “Similar to a lot of our defense, he is developing and getting better. Again, it was an opportunity for him with a coach I know well (Willie Desjardins) and a program that I think is a solid program (Medicine Hat Tigers), to get playing time, regular playing time, and development. I thought it was good for him and obviously a fourth-round pick was good for us in return. More importantly, it gives a good kid a chance to stay in the league and play regularly.”
Johnston confirmed there are no conditions on the fourth-round pick. He also made it clear it was important for him to get a selection in the upcoming draft.
Three straight Teddy Bear Toss games
Portland is back on home ice on Saturday for their own Teddy Bear Toss game. For three consecutive Saturdays, the Winterhawks have a Teddy Bear Toss game — last weekend in Kamloops, home against Prince George, and December 14 in Tri-City. Johnston said, “It is an unusual situation, but we play a few Teddy Bear Toss games this year. It is always way easier for the home team because it is exciting and fun. The visiting team just sits there and waits.”
The Winterhawks have seven games left before the Christmas and Holiday break — four at home and three on the road.