Monday, December 5, 2016

Winterhawks bounce back with big 5-3 win over visiting Tigers

The Medicine Hat Tigers were a desperate team Sunday evening at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. After vaulting to the top-overall record in the WHL, the Tigers had stumbled to two straight losses to start their U.S. Division road trip. They play a system that relies upon speed, so the 3,112 fans at Veterans Memorial Coliseum were treated to a back-and-forth game. If Las Vegas set an over-under for the game, it probably would've been seven or higher.

The two teams combined for 33 first period shots and found the back of the net five times. Skyler McKenzie opened the scoring off a great feed from Cody Glass. McKenzie smartly parked himself to the right of the net and waited for Glass to dig the puck out of the left, side boards. Glass threw a backhand pass that found it's way through two Tigers' defenders and onto McKenzie's stick. After Kehler made two big saves on Steven Owre breakaways, the Hawks extended their lead to two. Caleb Jones got around the defense and fed Keegan Iverson cutting to the front of the net. The overage forward roofed a shot in tight for his 12th goal of the year. Portland extended their lead off another great set up by Henri Jokiharju on the power play. The Finnish d-man fired a shot wide and used the end-board bounce to get the puck to Evan Weinger on a tight angle. Weinger banked his shot off of Medicine Hat goalie Nick Schneider's back and in. The Tigers finally scored a goal just eight seconds later. A shot from Mason Shaw caromed off of goalie Cole Kehler's pad and right to defenseman David Quenneville in front of the Portland net. The WHL's leading scorer among d-men put home the rebound to cut Portland's lead to two. Before the period was over, that lead would be down to one. Swedish forward John Dahlstrom protected the puck in tight on Kehler, getting him to stretch out on the ice and make a save. He then corralled the rebound and fed Mason Shaw, who shot the puck over the down and out Kehler.

The back-and-forth play continued in the second period with Schneider and Kehler doing their best to keep the goal scoring limited. Portland would strike first in the period on a goal from Ryan Hughes. Joachim Blichfeld, back at center on the Hughes and Weinger line, used a nice cut to get around the Tigers defense in the corner of their zone and found Hughes in the high slot. Hughes waited out Schneider, while protecting the puck and put his shot over the goalie. The Tigers would not go away though and cashed in on a power play with 1:28 left in the frame. Chad Butcher helped create the goal by driving hard into the Portland zone and getting the defense to close on him. He then got the puck to Max Gerlach, who fired a shot on Kehler. The 19-year-old goalie made the save, but John Dahlstrom poked home the third rebound to cut Portland's lead back to one. The two teams exchanged 32 shots in the crazy period.

The Winterhawks tightened up in the third period and only allowed six shots to get in on Kehler. They, themselves threw 16 on Schneider in pursuit of an insurance goal. They appeared to have one when Keegan Iverson lit the goal lamp with a shot from a tight angle. The goal was reviewed and was disallowed after the replay showed that his shot had gone off of the cross bar. Cody Glass then nearly scored, but his shot went through Schneider's legs and sat on the goal line, before being covered. He finally got the insurance marker after a fantastic outlet pass from rookie d-man Matt Quigley. He set up Cody Glass with a two-on-one and Schneider and d-man Clayton Kirichenko expected him to pass. Instead he sniped a shot glove side to give Portland a 5-3 lead. The Tigers went with four forwards with just over three minutes left and also pulled their goalie relatively early. Portland's defense did not allow much towards the net though and the Hawks pulled out a big win.

Kehler responded well after his first loss in awhile, turning away 43 of 46 shots. Schneider, who is signed by the Calgary Flames turned away 36 of 41 shots.

Portland and Medicine Hat each potted one power play goal on three chances. The Tigers are atop th league in this category with a 30.2 percentage, while Portland is fifth with 25.0.

Game Notes:
-This match up featured eight of the top-20 scorers in the WHL. By the end of the night, Shaw had two points and now has 42; Glass had three points and now has 41 and Butcher had two and now has 42. Shaw and Butcher are tied for third in league scoring, while Glass is fifth. Regina teammates Adam Brooks and Sam Steel are numbers one and two overall.
-Shaw, Glass and Butcher are all pass-first guys. What is interesting is that Glass and Shaw had two-on-one looks. Shaw passed, despite Kehler selling out to stop his teammate and Glass took advantage of a similar situation and scored.
-Butcher really stood out to me. He has a ton of speed and can create from anywhere in the opponent's zone. If I were to bet on a Tigers' player to win the scoring title, it would be him.
-Mike Johnston went with a forward unit of Alex Overhardt, Jake Gricius and Colton Veloso, holding onto a lead late in the game. Overhardt and Veloso started out this year as two of Portland's, relied upon defensive forwards, but Gricius has grown into that role. It's been interesting to watch Portland's coaches start to trust him more and more. He even took a face off, despite Overhardt also being on the ice.
-One thing the Hawks have not quite figured out, is who will center the Hughes and Weinger line. They have tried Blichfeld there, despite him not really being a natural centers and have moved Hughes to center at times. Neither seems to be a great fit. With the Hawks having 33 points in 30 games, Johnston is put in a tough spot. Does he stay with the youth and try to sneak in as a wild card, or does he make a deal for an overage center to play with Hughes and Weinger and try to get into the U.S. Division bracket as a two or three seed?
-I get the impression that Johnston will make a move for a center. An overage would make a lot of sense, but I wouldn't be shocked if he finds a younger option (18 or 19). This team looks to only lose Iverson up front and the more continuity that they can keep among this group, the more they will be a real contender next season. I don't think he'd have to move their 2017 first rounder in such a deal.
-Of course Blichfeld has produced as a center as well. He had an assist in this game and has four points in his last three games.
-Sklyer McKenzie had three points and has 14 points in his last 10 games.
-Portland is now 8-1-1 in their last ten games.
-They next take on Victoria at home on Friday. They won the first game of the four-game season series.

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