Saturday, September 24, 2016

Winterhawks start second Johnston era off with bang: 7-3 over Seattle

The Mike Johnston teams of 2008-2014 were known for scoring goals in bunches. Those teams, though were loaded with future NHL players like Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter, Ty Rattie, Sven Bartschi and Seth Jones among others. Tonight the Winterhawks' top returning scorer had only 11 goals and they looked to be a team that would struggle to emulate that scoring. Not having a go-to scorer means that this team would have to get production from a lot of different players to succeed.

Saturday night at the Moda Center, Johnston got seven goals from seven different players and his team took down the defending Western Conference champion Seattle Thunderbirds 7-3.  Leading the way with three points apiece for Portland were Evan Weinger (three assists) and Ryan Hughes (one goal and two assists). Those two were part of a line with 16-year-old center Ilijah Colina that had a lot of scoring production in the preseason. That chemistry appears to have carried over to the regular season.

Portland started off the scoring late in the first period, while on the power play. Ryan Hughes drove the zone and went all the way around the net, looking off Seattle defeners, before finding a wide open Keoni Texeira at the blue line. The 19-year-old d-man forced a slap shot over Seattle goalie Rylan Toth's right shoulder for the 1-0 lead.

Seattle still has a quick strike offense, despite missing the likes of Matt Barzal, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear at NHL training camps. They demonstrated this by scoring goals 37 seconds or less into the start of both the second and third periods. In the second, it was Seattle captain Scott Eansor taking advantage of a poor Brendan De Jong pinch; sending Donovan Neuls in alone. Portland goalie Michael Bullion made a great left pad save on the initial shot, but Neuls stomped on the brakes and smartly poked home his own rebound. The 1-1 tie would only last for a few minutes as Alex Overhardt won a board battle and set up Carter Czaikowski with a good look from the point. The official score sheet reflects that Alex Overhardt tipped it home, but it certainly appeared to me that Czaikwski's shot went off of Seattle d-man Anthony Bishop's stick. The goal should have been given to Czaikowski. This would have been (and still might be) the 18-year-old defenseman's first WHL goal. Seattle's Luke Ormsby tied the game again for Seattle as he got in behind both Jake Hobson and Keoni Texeira. He was stopped initially by Bullion, but put home his own rebound. While this switch in momentum could break a lot of teams, it did not do so to Portland tonight. They responded with another goal late in the period to take a 3-2 lead. The goal was scored when Ryan Hughes came off the bench on a change and was found alone in the slot by a beautiful backhand pass from behind the net, by Cody Glass. Hughes made a great adjustment after receiving the pass to battle off a stick check from Seattle's Elijah Brown in order to get his shot off.

Seattle, once again, struck quickly as Henri Jokiharju failed to get the puck out of his zone under pressure and the very skilled Donovan Neuls took advantage. He came out of the left corner with the puck and went to the net, getting all the way to the right side of the net. He waited out Bullion, before sneaking a shot in on the right post. The game opened up a bit after Neuls' second goal of the night, but Toth and Bullion stood tall under pressure. That was until after the mid-period break. In a goal very similar to Hughes' earlier one, Evan Weinger swooped around the net with speed and found Cody Glass alone in the slot. The 17-year-old center had just come off the bench on a line change. He snuck his shot through Toth's arm for the 4-3 lead and eventual game-winning-goal. Portland got some insurance just over two minutes later on the power play, when Weinger came across the blue line with speed and drove the net, passing the puck to Ryan Hughes. Hughes tried a toe drag but lost the puck and Brendan De Jong happened to be right there. The lanky d-man fired a quick shot that Toth was not prepared for. The Winterhawks added two late goals, one of which was an empty-netter, to make the game look more lopsided than it really was. Skyler McKenzie notched his team's sixth goal into a vacant net, after his line-mates Alex Overhardt and Joachim Blichfeld created the turnover. Then on a delayed penalty, Brad Ginnell spun around Seattle's Reece Harsch to receive a pass in the slot and flipped a nifty backhand into the top corner past Toth.

Seattle's Toth struggle in his first game since coming over from Red Deer in a preseason trade. He stopped just 28 of the 34 shots he faced. Bullion had a strong season debut in the other net, facing 30 shots and notching 27 saves.

Portland was two-for-four on the power play, while Seattle was oh-for-one.

Game Notes;
-Portland went with lines of Brad Ginnell-Cody Glass-Colton Veloso, Ryan Hughes-Ilijah Colina-Evan Weinger, Joachim Blichfeld-Alex Overhardt-Skyler McKenzie and Bronson Sharp-Jake Gricius-Lane Gilliss. Ty Kolle was the lone healthy and present forward scratched. Caleb Jones, Keegan Iverson and Rodrigo Abols are all away at NHL training camps.
-The Hawks started with pairings of Keoni Texeira-Jake Hobson, Brendan De Jong-Henri Jokiharju and Carter Czaikowski-Conor MacEachern, but rotated Jokiharju up with Texeira as the game reached the second period. Matt Quigley was the lone healthy and present d-man scratched.
-Gilliss, Gricius and Sharp were a cycling machine throughout the game. They carried a lot of the possession while they were on the ice and created a lot of good scoring looks. None of the three notched a point, but they all had solid games. Gricius used his size well along the boards, making it hard on defensemen to get the puck away from him. This helped Portland's future shifts as they wore down Seattle's defense.
-Speed is the name of the game this year for Portland. Hughes and Weinger both used theirs to create goals from behind the goal line. The Winterhawks failed to generate a lot of scoring chances from behind the goal last year and often just turned the puck over, creating odd-man chances the other way. This year they are generating good looks and that was abundantly clear tonight.
-It appears Johnston and co. are using the Overhardt line as their shut down unit and it was very effective tonight. Blichfeld demonstrated impressive instincts and took chances on intercepting passes, often guessing correctly. McKenzie and Overhardt are also buying into their roles fully and it showed as they protected the lead late in the third.
-Hughes, Glass and Sharp all seem to have taken large strides in their development. This is something you hear often about second-year 17-year-old players. Glass' backhand pass on Hughes' goal demonstrated how comfortable he is with Portland now and the green light he has been given to make a relatively risky play.
-How defensively responsible is 16-year-old rookie Ilijah Colina? He constantly back-checked away good scoring chances and even tied up a Seattle stick, when Bullion was struggling to cover a loose puck in the crease. He seems to have fully grasped his role on a line with two speedy offensively minded wingers.
-One negative that I saw was how much MacEachern and Czaikowski struggled when under pressure. Johnston's system calls for risky passes out of the zone, up the middle. These two turned the puck over quite a bit and didn't react quickly enough when they did. There is definitely room for improvement in this area for them.
-Johnston is already trusting Jokiharju to protect a late lead. As he gets used to the WHL, where he now has played just one career game, he will get a lot better. Sometimes his positioning was awful, as he let forwards get behind him with enough time to get shots off. Other times though, he showed great instincts breaking up passes and shutting down forwards in one-on-ones.
-Portland takes their fresh 1-0 record into a game Sunday evening with Tri-City.

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