Above the Glass
by Samantha on 03/20/11 at 05:07 PM ET
On Saturday night, the Portland Winterhawks became the WHL’s U.S Division Champions and they finished first in the Western Conference, giving them the number one seed for the playoffs. This weekend was the key to clinching those honors. A big win against Everett kept the team in the number one spot, and it was either some magic math on Saturday or a nailbiter on Sunday that would decide things for the team. The Winterhawks did their part by beating the Seattle Thunderbirds 5-4. But for the magic math to work, the Tri-City Americans had to beat the team that was one point behind us: the Spokane Chiefs. It may be the only time Portland fans rooted for the Ams, who beat the Chiefs 6 - 4. And just like that, the Portland Winterhawks return from the road trip to Seattle as the conquering heroes. Tonight they will play the Spokane Chiefs in a sold out game to close out the regular season. But it wasn’t that long ago that the story had a very different ending. In 2009, the Winterhawks ended the season dead last in the Western Conference and the U.S. Division, with 19 wins and 48 losses. So you see, here in the Pacific Northwest this weekend was about far more than the banner that will be hung in the Memorial Coliseum for the first time since 2002.
But first, the math: Friday: Portland Winterhawks 4, Everett Silvertips 3. Saturday: Portland Winterhawks 5, Seattle Thunderbirds 4. Tri-City Americans 6, Spokane Chiefs 4.
How it added up: Sven Bartschi decided to outdo Nino Niederreiter’s one-timer that won Friday’s game with a ripper of his own, sending a slapshot sailing into the Seattle net right off a face-off win from linemate Craig Cunningham. One minute and 35 seconds later: meet Pearce Eviston, brand spankin’ new player who was just signed by the Hawks on Friday after his BCHL season ended. He scored his first WHL goal in his first WHL game on his second WHL shift. It’s common knowledge around these parts that we will very likely be without the services of Nino Niderreiter next year, and very likely Ryan Johansen as they graduate to the NHL, so it’s good to know we have back up like this waiting in the wings. But the rest was not that easy.Marcel Noebels and Colin Jacobs tied it up to 2-2 going into the second period. Then with 3 minutes to go, there was a full scale mitt dropping, cross checking, don’t screw with my teammates you turd, who started what near line brawl that sent six players total to the box for one penalty or another. The second period saw Seattle take the lead on a goal by Brendan Dillon, which was answered just under six minutes later by Brad Ross, who nabbed the goal from a seemingly impossible angle and by apparently batting the puck into the goal out of midair to tie it up. Then, Nino nabbed a goal on a shot off the face off win. And finally, Craig Cunningham sealed the deal by scoring with a backhander on his own rebound. Seattle’s Burke Gallimore made a noble effort in the waning minutes of the game, but it was to no avail and the Hawks held on for the 5- 4 win.
A little history might help: The last time the Winterhawks hung a banner in the Memorial Coliseum was 2002 and what followed in the next seven years were among some of the darkest days in the team’s history. In 2008 - 2009, the team was doing so poorly that even veteran players like Chris Francis and Kurtis Mucha wanted to be traded out of Portland. Enter new ownership in the form of Bill Gallacher, new head coach Mike Johnston (formerly assistant coach for the Vancouver Canucks) and assistant coach Travis Green (played 14 years in the NHL for five different teams). Under their leadership, in 2010 the Portland Winterhawks finished fifth in the Western Conference, fourth in the U.S. Division and entered the playoffs for the first time in four years. It was widely assumed they wouldn’t get too deep into the playoffs, what with such inexperienced players and all. But they pulled off the mother of all Cinderella games when rookie Ty Rattie scored the game winning goal in overtime in a game 7 that put the team into the second round. The team they eliminated? The Spokane Chiefs. Oh, and that goal was set up by fellow rookie Taylor Aronson. Here’s the YouTube version for your viewing pleasure.
We do believe in miracles: I discovered hockey when I accidentally on purpose ended up watching the U.S. vs. Russia game in the 1980 Olympics. This weekend had that same feeling here in Portland, where indeed I’m sure there may be a few people at tonight’s game who don’t know a blueline from a clothesline. Like Al Michaels said, it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. This weekend was about way more than the scoreboard. All you need to know is that they did it. They really, really did it. The road to Portland’s redemption that began two years ago ends tonight in the Rose Garden with much more than a banner and a first place spot in the Conference. It was about finding what was lost, redeeming what was thought to be a foregone conclusion and restoring pride for fans who have waited in the dark for someone to turn the light back on. In this case, counting newly signed rookies, it was 26 someones. I make much fun of one of them for his love of cliches, but in this case I shall relent and follow Ryan Johansen’s lead and say simply that it’s surreal. But that also means that I must remind myself of the advice I gave him when I heard him use that word one too many times: it is real. Enjoy the ride.
Parting shots: For Portland fans, at least for Sunday’s game let’s try not worrying so much about how we’ll do against Everett in the first round or who we’ll play next or whether we’ll get to the Memorial Cup. One year ago, we were lucky the team had a post-season to pontificate about. And here we are, with a banner and all. In a little more than three months, the post season will be over no matter what happens. Two overage players will be gone, and we pretty much know that Nino will be with the New York Islanders for good this time. So let’s try and enjoy the ride, shall we? As for the readers outside Portland who were kind enough to tune into our frequency by reading this post, Freedom AM 970 will stream the game online tonight. Winterhawks play-by-play commentators Andy Kemper and Todd Vrooman are some of the best in the business: http:/www.970.am. Game starts at 5 pm Pacific. Feel free to join us.
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About Above the Glass
Welcome to Above the Glass, a definitive anti-expert’s guide to hockey. I started blogging in 2009 as part of an effort to learn all 87 rules in the NHL Rulebook in 107 days before the 2010 Olympics, 30 years after I discovered the sport. You can peruse the archival results here. Growing up in Arizona, I didn’t even know hockey existed until February 22, 1980, when the USA played Russia in the Olympics. And just like that, the game of the century changed my life. I still don’t quite understand the icing rule or which faceoff circle goes with what offense, but I do know that every aspect of hockey has something to teach us about life. That’s what you’ll find here, along with my unadulterated passion for the game.
I live in Portland, Oregon, home of the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. I invite anyone who wants to know more about hockey in the Rose City to visit here, where I blog exclusively about the Winterhawks. I’ll post an occasional musing about the Hawks, the WHL and junior hockey here as well.
Follow me on Twitter: @AbovetheGlass