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The Winterhawks Find Offensive Balance & Defensive Problems in Central Canada

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

 

At a recent home game in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, I found myself in a chat with total strangers in the row in front of me. One of them was venting much disappointment in the lack of exciting marquee players for this season’s Portland Winterhawks, and while I disagreed respectfully, I commiserated just the same. Any Hawks fan will lament the loss of Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand. They were more than leaders, scorers, and fan favorites; they elevated the most mundane of US Division mid-season snore games into something artful.

Having said all that, I argue (both here and in the stands) that this season is twice as valuable for the team and the coaching staff. Heading into the early playoffs it looks like the Winterhawks offense is finally finding a strategy that involves the individual talents of each man in concert with one another. Though there have been standout performances from Alex Schoenborn and Blake Heinrich, the high-scoring wins at the beginning of the recent Alberta road trip were the result of line harmony.

In the 4-2 against the Lethbridge Hurricanes Feb. 19, Rodrigo Abols and Schoenborn shared the goals evenly with two each, but they were largely the result of fantastic passes from Cody Glass and Skylar McKenzie. Likewise, the massive 8-1 Saturday victory over the Medicine Hat Tigers the next night came from six different Winterhawks shooters, including two from Schoenborn and two from Evan Weinger. Noteworthy among these was a phenomenal poke to Weinger off a lightning-fast faceoff win by Alex Overhardt. Put simply, this US Division team had to go to Alberta to find a true Canadian-style offense focused on playmaking and finesse passes through the neutral zone. This last Saturday's OT win against Kootenay was likewise a concerted offense winner. Even though Schoenborn and Heinrich were the frontrunners, their performance wouldn't have occurred without a well-timed pass from Keegan Iverson

There is a flip-side to this coin, however. While the offensive lines were synching together over the weekend, the defensive pairs seemed to grow apart from each other and from goalie Adin Hill. Last Tuesday’s game against the Calgary Hitmen found Hill removed from the net after the second period with four goals against. Two of those goals were short-handed, and the entire game Portland suffered from a lack of communication on the back-check. 

Problems continued against the Edmonton Oil Kings the following evening. Two power play goals against the Hawks served to illustrate the need for faster feet, and frankly the 49 shots on goal from the Oil Kings is an embarrassment. There is no reason for Hill to simultaneously have a staggering 44 saves in one game and still come away with an 89.7% average for the night. If Coach Jamie Kompon desires to play the level of two-way hockey he is used to from the NHL, he needs defensive pairs who can more aggressively support Hill. At this point, this is a waste of a good goalkeeper.

The Winterhawks broke even 3-3 for their road trip, which was the minimum requirement for them to keep their chance at the playoffs. The wins have moved the up to No. 6 in the Western Conference, but there won't be much of a showing unless they can stand up on defense.

 

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