The Winterhawks start their first of back to back 3 games in 3 nights weekends up in Vancouver, where they take on the Vancouver Giants and their new Coach: Claude Noel. Noel was brought in as a replacement for former Abbotsford Heat (AHL) Coach Troy Ward, who lasted only 25 games with the club. The season started pretty smoothly for the Giants, as they won their first 3 games, but in their next 24, they only won 6. Defensively, they were really playing poorly, as they have up 6 or more goals in 6 of the last 7 games, Ward was with the team. Reasons have been brought up for Ward's departure that include him trying to install a pro type system, that did not fit the personnel he had to work with. It was also clear that General Manager Scott Bonner, as well as, Owners Ron Toigo and even the late Pat Quinn were not fans of the way Ward was running the team.
Regardless of the reason why Ward was fired; they did find a replacement for him with a professional pedigree. He has been coachi8ng since 1984 in some fashion and was a Head Coach in Columbus and Winnipeg over 4 of the past 5 years' landing in the playoff only once. He does have a Calder Cup (AHL Championship) to his name with the Milwaukee Admirals in 2004. This, to me, is a solid hire, as long as he can connect with the younger players of today. He did not succeed in the NHL with 2 very young team in Columbus and Winnipeg and who's to say this won't change in Vancouver. Of course, these are very different games, but hiring a 59 year old coach, who has never coached in your league before, does not happen too often. On the other had, Vancouver's season was spiraling downwards and a lot of their elite talent is of the 16, 17 and 18 year old variety, there really isn't much to lose with this choice. We will see the start of the Noel era in Vancouver tonight.
-9/26/14: Portland 3 @Vancouver 5:
Portland was still without Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Josh Hanson, Brendan Burke and Blake Heinrich during the two team's only meeting prior to tonight. Portland was also without Paul Bittner, who was at the All American Prospects Game, as was Vancouver's Alec Baer. Miles Koules was also not a part of the team yet, so that's 4 forwards, 1 D-man and their starting Goalie. The Giants pumped 48 shots on Adin Hill and overcame a 3-2 deficit in the 2nd, to win behind 2 points from D-man Arvin Atwal and Over-Age Forward Joel Hamilton. Even if the outcome is the same these team will both look very different tonight.
Players To Watch:
-#14 (RW) Matt Bellerive:
The 20 year old Winger, is about the only Giant that is somewhat hot over the last 5 games. He was re-acquired from Kamloops in the off-season and was going to be relied upon for some significant offense this season. Instead, Bellerive started out cold, going 5 games into the season before notching his first point. Recently, though, he had 13 points in the month of November and 5 goals over the last 5 games. This is impressive when you factor in that the Giants were shut out twice in that span and scored only 1 goal in one of the others. The over-age player needs a great season to renew interest in him as a pro prospect and will look to keep this going tonight.
-#44 (D) Mason Geertsen:
A 19 year old, hard nosed D-man, who a lot was expected of this season. He is part of the Giant's top shut-down unit with Dmitry Osipov. The team really seems to go as Geertsen does. In their last game (a 6-3 win in Calgary) Mason was a +2 but in their 6 game losing streak, he was a combined -4.. He is a Colorado Avalanche pick and is currently unsigned, which is a concern for a D-man entering the midpoint of his 19 year old season. The Giants traded for him from Edmonton a couple seasons ago, foreseeing him as their stalwart along the blue line for the next 2 years. While, he hasn't exactly been porous, he still hasn't lived up to the potential he showed with the Oil Kings. If Vancouver continues to lose games, he will certainly be a piece that they will try to get some draft picks for.
--#1 (G) Payton Lee:
The now 18 year old Goalie was seen as the net minder of the future in Vancouver. So much so that they traded away Jackson Whistle to the Kelowna Rockets. Whistle is currently the #3 overall Goalie in the WHL, while Lee has lost his starting position at times this season to 17 year old Cody Porter. Lee, before winning his last game in Calgary, had gone a stretch of playing in 10 games, without recording a win. His GAA for the month of November is a terrible 5.30, while his save % is 0.832%. And if you want to say that this could be because of a high amount of shots allowed,; he has made more then 30 saves in only 1 game this season (his last one vs. Calgary). If the Giants are to make the playoffs, they really need Lee to rebound from this awful start to the season.
#27 (RW) Oliver Bjorkstrand:
The 19 year old Dane is just simply on fire as of late. He currently has the longest goal scoring streak (5) and second longest point scoring streak (10) in the WHL. Over the last 10 games, he has a total of 19 points. The chemistry that he could not find with Nic Petan early in the season? It can safely be said to be found. Besides the chemistry, there really isn't anything he is doing that is that different then before, I just think his accuracy has gotten a little better. We all know that he has an NHL wrist shot and lately he's been showing off a killer one timer as well. Portland has the #1 road power play in the WHL and the shocking thing to me is that Oliver only accounts for 2 of these 16 road power play goals.
#9 (C) Chase De Leo:
It seems like I find something new in his performance every game to be impressed with. He just does a lot of the little things on the ice, such as back-checking that do not show up on the score sheet. He was recently named to the preliminary roster for the USA World Juniors team and will look to continue his hot play for the December 16th start of camp. He has 9 points over his current 6 game point streak and has found great chemistry with Alex Schoenborn and Keegan Iverson. Bjokrstrand recently took over the team lead in points with 36, but Chase is right at his heels with 35.
-This is a tough game to predict, as not only are emotion going to be high with Claude Noel making his debut; you have to factor in a long ceremony before the start of the game to Minority-Owner Pat Quinn, who passed away last week. The Giants will be wearing a shamrock on their jerseys for him.
You never really know how a team will play in their first game for a new coach. Sometimes, that new voice in the locker room can inspire a team to play their best and sometimes, if a new system is being installed, like in this case, it may take awhile for them to learn.
The Hawks, meanwhile are on a 6 game win streak. During this win streak, they have found a way to win various ways. In at least a couple of them you could make the argument that they got outplayed and yet they still won. What has improved though is the rate at which Portland has been scoring. We knew that there are a large number of very skilled forwards on this team, but they were not lighting the lamp on a consistent basis. Once Coach Jamie Kompon switch the lines up 7 games ago, all 3 lines have found a way ton contribute. The defense has not been as consistent over this stretch, but that has been made up for by better performances out of Adin Hill and Brendan Burke.
Portland really needs to pounce and get a couple goals behind a struggling Goalie in Lee and this game will go their way.