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BY PAUL DANZER/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Loss to Kamloops only blemish as young Portland hockey team continues to evolve

A 6-5 loss to Kamloops on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum didn't much spoil a productive three-game weekend for the Portland Winterhawks.

For about 10 of the Hawks, it was their first time playing three games in three days. After wins Friday at Everett (4-1) and Saturday at home against Seattle (2-1), Portland fought back from a bad start to give itself a chance against the Blazers.

"You're down 3-nothing to one of the best teams in the league, you want to see how you're going to play against them and how you're going to respond. And I thought we responded the right way," Winterhawks coach/GM/VP Mike Johnston said.

Kamloops had Saturday off and was the better team early. But Portland had a 31-17 edge in shots in the final two periods and might well have pulled it off if not for solid play from NHL draft prospect Dylan Garand, who stopped 24 of 25 shots — including a Seth Jarvis breakaway — after entering a game tied 4-4 in the second period.

With a 10-4-0-1 record, Johnston is encouraged by how his young team is playing.

"As I told the guys, our game is still evolving," Johnston said. "We're going to see the best of our game 25-30 games into the schedule. It's still a work in progress."

It was a rough outing for backup goalie Isaiah DiLaura. The 19-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, gave up six goals in his second appearance (and first at home) for the Hawks. While DiLaura could have played better, turnovers and coverage mistakes from the Hawks didn't help him.

Johnston cut DiLaura some slack, noting he hadn't played since a 44-save performance on Oct. 8 in a loss at Medicine Hat.

As good as regular goalie Joel Hofer is, DiLaura's opportunities figure to be few, but he will be used on three-game weekends. Johnston said the plan is that Hofer will not start every game in a three-game weekend — seven of which remain.

"(Hofer) is a key guy for us, and we want to make sure he's rested and doesn't get overtaxed," Johnston said.

• Sunday was an emotional day for Ryan Hughes. That he scored a goal and assisted on another to help Kamloops beat the Hawks made it even more memorable.

Playing his first game in Portland since he was traded to Saskatoon last January, the former Winterhawk — Hughes played in 248 games including playoffs over 3 1/2 seasons with Portland — received a warm welcome from fans at Memorial Coliseum.

"I tried to just keep my same routine, play like it was just another hockey game. But it was emotional," Hughes said.

It helped that his family made the trip from Edmonton to share this homecoming with Hughes.

The Winterhawks recognized Hughes by showing a series of his highlights on the video screen during the first-period media timeout. Hughes was surprised by the gesture and stood to acknowledge the crowd.

"Playing that tribute video was awesome. Classy move by the Winterhawks," he said.

On his first shift after that, Hughes scored his fifth goal of the season, giving his Blazers a 3-0 lead.

Hughes said getting traded twice in 2019 was a challenge. Kamloops GM Matt Bardsley was with the Hawks when they signed Hughes in 2015, and acquired him from Saskatoon on Sept. 25.

"I've grown a lot as a person. (Being traded twice) takes a lot out of you. It's a very weird experience, but that's the hockey world," Hughes said. "I think I've handled it well up to this point, and it's made my career a lot more fun, I guess."

Now 20, the 5-7, 155-pound Hughes was brought to Kamloops for his speed, play-making ability and experience.

Kamloops coach Shaun Clouston said Hughes' competitive fire helped him fit in quickly. He is a creative player who boosts the Blazers' transition game and power play.

"He's a real good person, and he's been a real good addition for us," Clouston said. "He fits our team in a lot of ways."

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