The Portland Winterhawks are right back at it, rising to the top of the powerful U.S. Division with eight consecutive wins.
Portland captain Taylor Leier scored twice, including the winner on a power play late in the second period, as the Winterhawks edged the Spokane Chiefs 4-3 in the Western Hockey League’s premier game on Saturday night.
The Winterhawks, defending WHL champions, improved to 11-3-0-1, 23 points, and knocked the Chiefs (11-4-0-0, 22) out of first place in the league’s best division.
Only six teams in the 22-team WHL have amassed 20 points or more, and four of them are in the U.S. Division. Seattle (10-3-0-2) and Everett (10-2-2-0) both won on Saturday to tie the Chiefs for second place with 22 points.
Spokane is 11-2 against the rest of the league and 0-2 against the Winterhawks, who return to Spokane on Saturday.
“The hockey gods are true,” Chiefs coach Don Nachbaur said. “We didn’t play a game that was competitive enough and we didn’t work hard enough. Through 40 minutes, they owned the game and we didn’t.”
Portland stumbled out of the gate this season, losing four of its first seven games, but the Winterhawks have been unstoppable since Oct. 12. Portland has outscored rivals 42-21 during its winning streak.
“I think we’re really coming together,” said Leier, one of eight players on Portland’s roster who has been drafted by an NHL team. “The guys are all happy, and I think we have another shot at winning it. We have the right tools and I don’t see that much of a difference from last year.”
Portland defeated Spokane 6-4 on Oct. 2 in Portland, scoring four goals in the first period and withstanding a Chiefs rally.
When Brendan Leipsic scored 51 seconds into Saturday’s rematch, it looked as if a similar game was in the works. But Liam Stewart, who returned from an injury Friday and scored, tied the game at 5:04 with his fourth goal of the season, on a rebound.
Leier’s first goal of the game, with 1:44 left in the period, gave Portland a 2-1 edge heading into the first intermission.
The rest of the scoring occurred in the wild second period, which featured two power-play goals for both teams. Trailing 3-1, the Chiefs notched a tie with Mike Aviani’s 14th goal of the season, at 6:39, and Jason Fram’s second goal of the year, on a 5-on-3 play at 11:59.
Mitch Holmberg assisted on both, giving him a league-high 37 points and keeping his streak alive of at least one point in every game.
Keanu Yamamoto’s slashing penalty at 15:49 gave the Winterhawks another man advantage, and Leier capitalized 22 seconds later for the winner.
“Now we’re in first place and I think it was a statement game that we’re the same team as last year and we’re not going to just be fine with winning (the WHL title),” Leier said. “We want to come back and win the Memorial Cup this year.”
“We have to be way more competitive against the Winterhawks,” Nachbaur said.