Sunday, October 30, 2016

Portland runs out of magic and loses their fourth straight: 5-3 to Kelowna

It was a textbook Portland-Kelowna game Saturday night with an end-to-end style leading to many quality scoring chances both ways. It even had a heart-breaking ending for Portland fans, as Keegan Iverson struck the post with what would have been the tying goal with a minute left.

The difference in the game ended up being the thing that has been Portland's biggest strength all season. The number one ranked power play in the WHL went 0/6 on the night and gave up the game-winning-goal. Devante Stephens was the big hero with two goals, including the winner and an assist. This was not only his first three-point game in his WHL career, it was his first two-goal game and multi-point game of any type. Suffice it to say, he isn't expected to provide offensive production, but he did this night. Tomas Soustal also had two goals in the game and Calvin Thurkauf had two assists for the Rockets.

Skyler McKenzie and Keoni Texeira led the way for Portland with two points apiece.

Portland opened the scoring Saturday night, when defenseman Caleb Jones activated and won a battle behind the Rockets' net. Skyler McKenzie was next on the puck and he fired a very quick and perfectly placed cross-crease pass to a waiting Joachim Blichfeld. The Danish sniper tapped it home for his fourth goal of the season. Kelowna tied the game at one later in the first when Portland d-man Henri Jokiharju couldn't get a bouncing puck to settle for him and Kelowna's Conner Bruggen-Kate was able to force the puck away from him. Kole Lind took advantage of the confusion by corralling it and driving into the Portland zone and dropping a pass to Tomas Soustal. The import winger fired a shot past Bullion to knot the score up after one.

Just 23 seconds into the second period, Kelowna caught Portland napping and took their first lead of the game. Jake Kryski got tied up along the boards with Portland blue-liner Brendan De Jong. This freed up space for Devante Stephens to pick up the loose puck and walk in on Bullion, beating him. Kelowna took advantage of the momentum gained from this goal to tilt the ice and control most of the possession. Michael Bullion helped them keep the game within the reach with some timely saves.

Portland got enough going late in the second to give them hope and cashed in early in the third. It was another goal due to a big battle won along the boards. This time it was Keoni Texeira who activated and Keegan Iverson who sucked in the defense, before feeding McKenzie in the slot. McKenzie protected the puck and roofed a backhand shot past Kelowna goalie Michael Herringer to tie the game. Just over two minutes later, Kelowna not only retook the lead, they got one of their key players out of a season-long slump. Nick Merkley buried his very first goal of the year, when a shot from Calvin Thurkauf was clocked by Jokiharju and rolled right over onto the stick of Merkley. Sometimes when an elite player is struggling, they just need luck to go their way and Merkley did in that sequence. The Winterhawks again bounced back though with a highlight reel goal. A slick outlet pass from Keoni Texeira to Evan Weinger somewhat handcuffed the winger. He made a heads up play though, by passing the puck into space and away from two Kelowna defenders, before getting it back and breaking in alone on Herringer. He made a power move in tight then, beating Herringer on his glove side, tucking it past his pad along the ice. This was a great thing to see, as Weinger has struggled this season with scoring goals on breakaways.

The game would seemingly be going Portland's way shortly after the Weinger goal as they drew a penalty and set themselves up with a power play. They even had several high-quality looks on the power play, before a blocked shot set up Rodney Southam and Stephens on a two-on-one break. Southam got his pass onto the stick of Stephens, despite Caleb Jones' efforts and the d-man netted his second of the game short-handed. Portland turned up the pressure late, but after Iverson struck iron, the Rockets sealed the game with an empty-net-goal from Soustal. The goal was scored from deep within the Rockets' own zone.

Michael Herringer got the win for Kelowna, stopping 38 of 41. Bullion was handed the loss, due to only being able to stop 34 of the 38 shots he saw. This was Bullion's first start in over two weeks.

Portland's power play was 0/6 with a short-handed goal against and is now 30.6 percent on the season. The team is now second overall in the WHL, as Medicine Hat has overtaken them. Kelowna was 1/4 on their PPs. The Winterhawks PK is now seventh in the league with an effectiveness percentage of 82.6.

Game Notes:
-Skyler McKenzie now has nine goals and 10 assists for 19 points. His current career high is the 25 he had last season in 68 games. He is a completely different player out there under coach Mike Johnston. The increase in confidence is the most notable. In the position he was in one his goal in this game, he would have deferred last year.
-With the two assists, Texeira is tied for sixth in the league in scoring among d-men with 13.
-Caleb Jones was a woeful minus three on the night. His inability to stop the pass that set up the winning goal was puzzling to me. He seemed to be stuck between laying out to stop the pass and playing to standing up. In his indecision, he did neither. While he should not expected to be a shutdown blue-liner in his role in this system, he has to make plays like this when he needs to.
-Iverson wasn't the only Hawk to draw iron as Cody Glass made a slick move to get alone in tight on Herringer before hearing the "clink" of a close call. Without a point in this one, Glass fell to third in WHL scoring behind Medicine Hat's Mason Shaw and Spokane's Kailer Yamamoto.
-M.J. made his first big change to Portland's top lines, exchanging Joachim Blichfeld for Keegan Iverson. Putting Blichfeld on that line gives them a more potent, play-making unit, but it also takes away the force that is Iverson and gives McKenzie and Glass less room to operate. I'd like to see another game or two from this line, before deciding whether this was a good move or not.
-A line I don't want them to change at all is the unit of Brad Ginnell-Jake Gricius-Bronson Sharp. This fourth line owned possession practically every time they were out there and was one of the big reasons Portland was able to turn momentum around in the second period. Ginnell is the engine that makes this unit go, as he has the speed and creativity that makes them dangerous. Sharp and him combined for two quality chances back to back at one point that Herringer was forced to stop. The best play Ginnell made all night, though was his back check that tied up the stick of a Rockets' player that was about to tap in a goal in third period. Ginnell had to skate all 200-feet of ice to make the play.
-Portland and Kelowna go at it again Sunday night with Portland desperate to put an end to this four-game losing streak.

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