Hawks gear up for World Juniors
Last January, Kieffer Bellows scored two goals for the United States in the gold medal game of the 2017 World Juniors Championships hockey tournament.
But his favorite memory is the instant USA goalie Tyler Parsons stopped Canada's Nicolas Roy in the final shootout round, clinching the gold medal for the Americans.
"I remember the intensity of the game and just those dying seconds where Roy was going down on Parsons. My heart was in my throat. As soon as he made that save, I don't know if I've screamed louder in my whole entire life," Bellows says. "It was pretty emotional and pretty special."
Bellows, now a member of the Portland Winterhawks, is one of a half-dozen players off that gold medal team eligible to play again this year. If he made the roster as expected — final cuts were announced over the weekend — the New York Islanders draft pick will have another special opportunity beginning on Tuesday, when the 2018 International Ice Hockey Federation World Juniors Championship Tournament begins in Buffalo, New York.
A 19-year-old forward, Bellows is one of three Winterhawks projected to play in the 10-day tournament.
Forward Joachim Blichfeld, a 6-1, 190-pound San Jose Sharks prospect, played for Denmark in last year's tournament — contributing three goals and one assist in five games.
Defenseman Henri Jokiharju, 6-1, 180, did not play for Finland at the 2017 tourney, but the 18-year-old Chicago Blackhawks' 2017 first-round pick was projected to be part of a talented group of Finnish defensemen this time.
"World Juniors is always a special time. It's always something you dream about as a kid," the 6-0, 205-pound Bellows says. "I'm expecting the same kind of tournament it was last year: a very skilled, fast tournament with a lot of pressure.
"I think there's a lot of pressure on us this year with the USA being possible back-to-back champs and having it in our own country."
Team USA opens the tournament on Tuesday against Denmark (5 p.m. PT, NHL Network), which means Bellows and Blichfeld might be going head-to-head.
Bellows would enjoy getting to play against Winterhawks' teammates.
"It's going to be pretty funny. I'm going to have to throw a few tricks at them, maybe give them a few love taps," a smiling Bellows says. "We're all shooting for a gold medal so were all going to bring the intensity every single game."
One game in the round-robin phase will be extra special. At noon PT Friday, the USA and Canada are scheduled to meet outdoors at New Era Field, home of the NFL Buffalo Bills.
"Growing up in Minnesota, my first time I stepped on the ice was on a pond in my backyard. That was something special," Bellows says. "I got to see my dad (Brian Bellows, who had over 1,000 career points in the NHL) play an alumni game in Minnesota outdoors and now he's going to get to see me play in one, if I make the team."
One Winterhawk who did not make his team was Cody Glass. In an unexpected move, the 18-year-old who leads Portland in scoring was one of the early cuts from Team Canada.
If Bellows, Blichfeld and Jokiharju make their national teams, the Hawks will be without three of their top players for up to six more games. The trio missed Portland's two games prior to the Western Hockey League's holiday break.
The short-term hardship of playing without three of their most important players should pay off come playoff time, according to Winterhawks VP/GM/coach Mike Johnston.
"As a coach, you have to look at it as a payoff long-term," Johnston says. "They go to the world's best tournament for junior players, and they get to play high-stakes hockey. It's almost like they're gaining playoff experience.
"For us, we need that in our dressing room. We need guys who've been through it."
Johnston notes how last season Caleb Jones became a difference-maker for the Winterhawks on the ice and a leader off the ice after helping Team USA win the gold medal in Montreal.
Jones, an Edmonton Oilers prospect who is in the American Hockey League with the Bakersfield (California) Condors, was a big contributor down the stretch for a Hawks team that upset Prince George in the first round of the 2017 WHL playoffs.
One bonus, if Portland is without three key players for another couple of weeks, will be the opportunity for young players to step into larger roles.
"It gives guys who haven't played as much more of a chance to play," Johnston says. "We can take a look at those guys and evaluate them."
n The Winterhawks (21-11-0-1, 43 points) return to action after a nine-day holiday break when they play host to Tri-City Americans (18-10-3-0, 39 points) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Memorial Coliseum.
It will be the first of four games in five nights for Portland, culminating in the popular New Year's Eve game against Seattle at 7 p.m. Sunday at Moda Center.
Portland is second in the U.S. Division, one point behind Everett. The Hawks have three games in hand, though, and still own the best winning percentage in the division.