Seattle (32-23-4-5, 73 pts, 3rd in U.S. @ Portland (37-20-2-3, 79 pts, 2nd in U.S.)
In the 11th of the team's annual 12 meetings, Seattle travels to take on Portland at 7pm in the Moda Center tonight. Seattle comes into the game, just recently rebounding from a 4 game losing streak to beat Victoria in the 2nd of back to back games on Tuesday: 4-1, behind a 3 point night from star D-man Shea Theodore.
Meanwhile, the Winterhawks have gone 8 straight games, without losing in regulation and have railed off an 18-3-2 record in 2015, propelling them to a position, breathing down the neck of the division leading Everett Silvertips.
-Portland is 4-4-0-2
-Seattle is 6-3-1-0
Strangely, Portland has only won 1 of 5 games in Portland vs the T-birds this year (a 4-0 win), while they have a winning record (3-2) in Seattle.
The 4 game skid, severely hurt their chances of catching the Winterhawks and obtaining home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The now have 8 games left (counting tonight), 5 of which are match ups vs. the top 3 teams in the Western Conference. That being said, Seattle has proven this season that they can go on win streaks, if their scoring is consistent. If they won out they would be at 89 point and would need Portland to go 5-5 or worse over their last 10 games, which is improbable, though not impossible. More than likely they will end up finishing 6-10 points behind Portland, firmly slotted in the 3rd seed.
The Hawks have lofty goals to end the season and a win tonight would be a great launching point, especially in front of an increasingly swelling crowd. They have 2 games in hand on Everett and also get a crack at them one more time, next Wednesday up there. Tonight Everett plays Tri City, whom is starting to get healthy again and has given the Silvertips fits recently (winning 3 in a row in the series). All but one of the 10 games, are divisional games, so Portland can utilize these games to set the tone for the playoffs, which, after the change to start the season, is set divisionally for the first 2 rounds. Somewhat ironically, Portland needs wins in their final 2 games with Seattle to avoid facing them in the first round, as they have given Portland troubles this season.
Players to Watch:
-He seems firmly entrenched as one of the top 5 Center prospects in the 2015 NHL draft and has a lot of scouts following him around now. In Seattle's 6-3 win in Kent, a few weeks ago, Barzal blew past Portland D-man Adam Henry and scored on Adin Hill. This is just an example of the blazing speed that he has, which makes him a terrible match up for Portland's slower of foot or not positionally sound D-men. Look for Portland to utilize the last change, by matching up the top 2 D-pairings at all times with Barzal. He has 10 pts in 8 games vs Portland this year, though started the season with 6 in his first 3.
-Gropp's 2015 NHL draft status has much more fluctuation, as a deep playoff run with Seattle, will most likely warrant him more attention and a ultimately higher selection in June. He is another forward who started the season torturing the Hawks; notching 11 points in his first 8 games, but has now been held off of the score sheet the last 2 meetings. His quick wrist shot can be a problem and Portland has done a better job, as of late, in keeping it out of the net. While the Theodore's, Barzal's and Lispsbergs have been out, Gropp has really been the one offensively consistent player.
-#17 Shea Theodore:
-His defensive play has improved markedly this season, warranting him shutdown minutes and even making him a guy Anaheim refused to trade during the NHL trade deadline. He now has 34 points I his last 24 games since returning from the World Junior Championships and his point shot is always a danger, as it has been for his entire career. During his first few years in Seattle, Portland has had their way against his team, but he has consistently found a way to keep his team in games, with a timely rush or slap shot. He is the team's MVP in my opinion.
#7 Paul Bittner:
The other main reason, a lot of scouts will be present in Portland tonight. He fought through a lot of struggles point wise earlier this season and faced somewhat un-warranted criticism. After the WJC's and his top line mates returns, he can go back to the style of play that has worked for him in his career and it has shown as he has 28 points over his last 20 games. There is not a game that goes by that I don't see him do something just a little bit better.
#16 Blake Heinrich:
Quietly moving his way to top minutes among Portland's D-men as the season has gone on. Heinrich has looked more comfortable in his last 20 games or so and this has shown with how much more Assistant Coach Kyle Gustafons and Head Coach Kompon have trusted him. At the start of the season, Layne Viveiros was getting most of the penalty killing minutes and now Heinrich has firmly supplanted him next to Anton Cederholm in that role. I still think there's more offensive potential there somewhere, but can't argue with how good he is in his own end.
-A win tonight over Seattle, would really help with confidence for the playoffs, especially since they are most likely top face them in the first round. The T-birds threw 51 shots on Adin Hill last game and that cannot continue for the Hawks to win games vs their hated rival. A lot of the things that have worked against Portland this year have been point shots, wither through deflections or going straight in with a screen. Seattle has 3 D-men (Theodore, Ethan Bear and Jarrett Smith that are extremely good at utilizing this). Coverage out on the perimeters by the wings is going to be very important for the Hawks to be successful.
More on Oliver Bjorkstrand in my next piece.