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Portland Winterhawks Need Wake-up Call Before 3rd Period

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

 

As the playoffs loom ahead, the Portland Winterhawks have had to cope with a nasty weekend that tied them in the standings with the Spokane Chiefs at 73 points. Three regular season games remain, one of which is against the Chiefs and the other two against the Seattle Thunderbirds who have recently clinched the US Division title for the season. And just as this last weekend, all three games are back-to-back-to-back.

It’s a desperate hour, but even if the Hawks can limp into that final slot for the Western Conference, it may be a hollow victory if they cannot make it past the first round. The conference is led by serious teams who can hold up in a series lasting four or five games, such as the Victoria Royals or the Kamloops Blazers. At present, the Winterhawks can beat almost any team in the conference … but only as long as it is the third period or overtime.

Last Sunday’s game at Veterans Memorial Coliseum against the Everett Silvertips illustrated several problems with the team that have held them back all season: sluggish defense, lack of communication, and an inability to pass in the neutral zone. But the highlight issue is definitely Portland’s napping on the job for the first two periods. Entering the second intermission down 0-2, there was a distinct peewee pond hockey mentality about their performance. Two Portland players had collided with each other on open ice in their defensive zone minutes earlier. Upon the return, however, there were ESPN highlight-level steals and a more intimidating physical game led by Rodrigo Abols and Caleb Jones that tied up the score and bled into the overtime period. It was, simply put, a different team.

The same could be said about the Friday night game against Vancouver; though the 5-2 victory was satisfying, it was only the result of a three-goal burst in a matter of six minutes at the top of the third. The Hawks started both bouts sluggishly and only came alive when the game was really on the line.

Granted, there is plenty to be said about offensive momentum, good weeks versus bad weeks, and an opponent’s physicality. But this has been an issue the whole back half of the season. Of the team’s 34 wins this season, seven of them (over 20 percent) were OT struggles, and there have been over a handful of games where the Winterhawks have come back from a severe goal deficit in the last 20 minutes to teams like Everett, Tri-City, and Spokane. These teams are not titans of the league like the Brandon Wheat Kings or the Kelowna Rockets. This is basic US Division play, and frankly the Winterhawks belong much higher among their peers.

Some could call this last-minute hustle, which is commendable, but I think of it more as risky behavior that won’t be tolerated in the playoffs. In particular, now that the league has settled into the new NHL standard of 3-on-3 OT periods, there’s just too much left to chance and timing. But what is the answer? Perhaps more scrimmage time in practices or longer shifts for some of the stronger offensive lines. If the Hawks need 40 minutes against their opponents to get properly fired up, however, they may find that better teams in their conference and the even more solid eastern teams will take advantage to the lack of resistance.

 

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