Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Volcan-ic Tipping Point

Seattle got back into the win column Saturday night with their first shutout win of the season, a 2-0 blanking of Everett at the accesso ShoWare Center.  The win earned them a split of the weekend home-and-home series with their division rivals after falling Friday, 3-2, up at Xfinity Arena.  The home win snapped a five game winless skein for the T-birds who suffered some frustrating losses in a series of very winnable games.

Even with the win, Seattle continues to miss out on scoring chances despite their ability to create opportunities for more goals.  It hasn't helped that one of their top offensive weapons, Sami Moilanen, has missed most of the last four games with injury.  But even without Moilanen in the lineup, the T-birds continue to create scoring chances, even with a younger group of forwards picking up Moilanen's ice time.  Still, the T-birds scored just four times on the weekend and all four goals came off the stick of veteran left winger Nolan Volcan.

The scoring foibles of this team remind me of another young Thunderbirds team from five years ago.  The 2013-14 T-birds featured a set of five fresh faced rookies by the names of Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Kolesar and Eansor who combined to play 288 games that season.  They had some veterans leaders as well, but it took making midseason trades for more veteran forwards to bump up that team's goals per game average to 3.3.  

This year's team currently sports a 3.04 goal per game average and to get it up to 3.3 or higher, I would suspect the improvement will come from in house, not via trades. The group of rookies this season is much larger then the 2013-14 rookie group.  Already this season Seattle's primary group of eight rookies (Hamaliuk, Lee, Terretta, McNelly, Carpendale, Huo, Katzalay and Malukhin) has played a combined 102 games.  that doesn't include Ian Briscoe's 13 games because Briscoe, who  played in 20 games last season, doesn't technically qualify as a rookie this season.

This year's rookies are being asked to carry more of the freight then that 2013-14 rookie class.  While this year's team does feature solid veteran forwards like Volcan, Moilanen, Donovan Neuls, Blake Bargar and Noah Philp, that 2013-14 team had Alexander Delnov, Branden Troock, Roberts Lipsbergs, Justin Hickman, Mitch Elliot and eventually Jamien Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Russell Maxwell (not to mention an 18 year old Shea Theodore on the back end) to carry most of the load.

I could be wrong, but my impression is that the Thunderbirds are willing to go through the expected growing pains this season with this young group and I doubt they are looking to add more veteran players.  They seem fine with putting these rookies out in key situations such as the power play or penalty kill, or out on the ice late in close games.  The expectation is that it will expedite their development.  We're almost one third of the way through this season and this team, with this young roster, is playing at a .524 winning clip and you can certainly argue they've been in most games 'til the end and could have won a few more then the 10 they have so far.

There is no question that the early ice time for players like Hamaliuk, Carpendale, Lee and Huo is paying off.  They are all better players now then they were in late September when the season began.  Much of that is confidence.  They're more sure of themselves and their roles on the team.  It's also confidence from the coaching staff that is willing to play them in all situations.  But there is still much to learn.  I would guess some of these young players started to doubt themselves a little during the losing streak. Hopefully, they learned valuable lessons about the need to keep grinding to work your way out of a slump.

The expectations that were on the T-birds team the past couple of seasons of playing for and winning championships, are not on this year's team.  That doesn't mean expectations on these young players aren't high.  Their job is to embrace the culture of winning created by the team the past four years.  That means playing the right way, playing a 200 foot game and taking no shortcuts.  It means earning your ice time by putting in the work off the ice and in practice that prepare you for a 72 game season.

The one aspect of Matt O'Dette's coaching that is a direct carry over from the Steve Konowalchuk era is this:  veteran or rookie, you're not guaranteed anything.  Age, draft status or what you did in Midget or Bantam hockey or your stats from last season don't automatically put you in the lineup.  It's all about competition and earning your ice.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past weekend:

Third Star:  C Matthew Wedman.  Weds is starting to remind me a little of Alexander True and not just because of their similar builds.  True did a lot of things well but it took him a while to find a consistent scoring touch.  There were so many times when True was in the right place at the right time but just couldn't bury a loose puck around the opposing goal.  Wedman is still looking for that scoring touch too.  But he plays a big man's game, has improved his skating a good deal over last season and makes a living around the other team's net.  Scouts still have to be intrigued by his size.  If he can starts scoring consistently he'll have more eyes on him.  

Second Star:  G Matt Berlin.  Seattle could have lost that game Saturday to Everett in the first period were it not for Berlin.  While the rest of the club got off to a slow start, Berlin stood tall and stopped 12 shots, kept the game scoreless and finished with a 27 save shutout, the second of his T-birds career.  When your goalie is playing well, you want to reward the effort.  Saturday Seattle did and Berlin was a big reason the T-birds snapped the losing streak.

First Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  Volcan erupted for four goals this weekend. That was every goal Seattle scored in 120 minutes of hockey.   In fact by himself, he outscored the entire Everett team in the two games, 4-3.  He is now a point a game player with 22 points (10g, 12a) in 21 games.  He is so much more then his offensive numbers though.  He's the Tasmanian Devil, a non-stop whirling bundle of energy.  The T-birds currently sit third in the league on the penalty kill and his willingness to block shots with any body part is a big key.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Lost Weekend

Seattle came off seven straight games on the road, winning five of them, and promptly lost the first two games of a three game home stand.  While they found two different ways to lose those games, there was one common thread between them; missed opportunities.

Going into the last two games, the T-birds were actually averaging 3.3 goals per game.  Considering the amount of fire power they lost from last season's team, that had to be a better then expected goal production number this early in the season.  Unfortunately they could only muster two goals on the weekend in suffering a pair of losses.

It certainly wasn't for lack of chances.  In the two games on the weekend, the T-birds generated a combined 69 shots on goal, or an average of 35 shots per game.  This is in keeping with a trend that started 10 games ago when Seattle's average shots per game jumped up from 25 per game over the first ten games of the season to an average of 33 since.

And we're not talking about a lot of shots and no scoring opportunities.  It wasn't just a case of Seattle throwing pucks on goal from anywhere on the ice.  A good percentage of these shots were high percentage chances.  Just in their Friday night 4-0 loss to Tri-City, the T-birds coaches graded out 24 of their 43 shots as "Grade A" scoring opportunities. That means over 50 percent of their shots put them in a position to score.  While the shots were fewer in Saturday's 4-2 loss to Kamloops, the ten bell scoring chances were still there, even after they lost leading goal scorer Sami Moilanen to injury early in that game.

Sometimes a shot that's not a shot on goal is also a scoring chance missed.  There were numerous  times over the weekend where Seattle missed the net with a shot or, even more frustrating, hit the post or cross bar. But the biggest culprit was failing to get sticks on loose pucks in and around the crease, the shot never taken.  Credit the opposition for winning those battles and clearing the danger.  In some instances it's a case of bad puck luck for Seattle.  They're in position for a rebound but the bounce goes the other way.  But at some point the T-birds have to start winning there fair share of those second chance opportunities.

When you are in the midst of a mini-scoring drought, it might be that one ugly goal, that crazy carom or redirection that gets the offense humming again.  You create that with hard work and that is something this team does have going for it.  Hard work is what gets you 24 scoring chances in a game against one of the top teams in the league.  So far in 18 games, there has not been an instance of this young team taking a night off.

There were a lot of reasons given, I thought of them more as excuses, as to why Seattle had a goal waved off Saturday versus Kamloops.  I watched the play unfold right in front of me and never saw the Blazer goalie try to cover the puck outside the crease.  He just muffed it as he tried to scoop it and play it to his defenseman.  He flubbed the scoop and ended up flicking it into his crease and then it was knocked in to his goal  When a goalie makes an error like that, he shouldn't get bailed out by the officials.  That "quick whistle" (never heard a whistle) cost Seattle not just a goal, but a point in the standings.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star:  W Ian Briscoe.  Healthy and playing with more confidence, he is earning the trust of the coaching staff.  As a result he's even getting special teams ice time.  He filled in for Moilanen on the power play Saturday and earned an assist, his first point of the season.   A gifted offensive players at lower levels of hockey, he's learning to play at both ends of the ice with effectiveness.

Second Star:  W Dillon Hamaliuk.  It's hard to believe he came out of the weekend with nary a point.  No one creates more offensive chances for himself and his linemates the way Hammer does.  He is a bit snake bitten right now but you get the feeling once he scores his next goal, the flood gates will open.  While the focus is on the present, one can't help but salivate at the potential he has for the future.

First Star:  W Blake Bargar.  I know we're only 18 games into the season and there is lots of hockey still to play but the 19 year old Torrance, California native has already exceeded expectations after Seattle obtained him in the offseason from Victoria.  A year ago he compiled ten points in 61 games with the Royals.  This season he already has six points in 18 games, including four goals, just two off his total from last season.  It's his well rounded game that makes him a team leader.  He plays in all situations and is becoming one of the team's top penalty killers.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Ready for Home

Seattle just completed one of their most successful extended eastern road trips in years with a 2-0-1-0 record the second half of their trek through the Central Division.  As a result, the T-Birds end a stretch of seven straight on the road by going 5-1-1-0.  Hindsight being what it is, if you look back on some of the results that didn't go the team's way, you realize how close they came to going 7-0.

In their only regulation loss against a Central Division team this season, a subpar second period put Seattle behind, but they battled back well enough in the third period to get within a goal against the Kootenay Ice before an empty net goal sealed their fate in a 4-2 loss.  In their overtime loss to end the trip in Medicine Hat, the T-Birds hit at least two posts/crossbars and a questionable non-penalty call directly led to the Tigers third goal.  Put those two issues together and that had Seattle chasing the game.  Instead of lamenting the situation, Seattle came on strong with a pair of late goals to tie it up, earning a point, before falling early in the OT.

Before their October 21st home game versus Moose Jaw, head coach Matt O'Dette broke up his top line of Volcan-Neuls-Moilanen in order to spread more offensive production up and down the line up.  At the time, Seattle was averaging just about 25 shots per game.  Since then, the T-Birds have had over 30 shots a night in seven of eight games, including a high of 39 twice.  One could argue fatigue, travel and playing their fifth game in seven nights is the only reason they didn't hit that 30 shot mark in Edmonton.  Even so, Seattle still averaged 32.4 shots over that eight game stretch, an improvement of seven shots a game. That may not sound like much but they went 5-2-1-0 over that span and actually outshot their opponent in the three games they didn't get the win.

Only once in their last seven games have the Thunderbirds had their top six defenseman on the ice and available for all 60 minutes.  In a couple of instances the T-Birds played with just their top three defensemen available.  Often they had three rookie defensemen in the lineup.  In Edmonton they utilized 15-year old prospect Ty Bauer, limited his shifts and still won the game.  The strength of this team entering the season was going to be the return of five of their top six d-men from last season's championship team. Yet Seattle just went through a critical stretch of the season with many of those top defensemen unavailable and came out with a winning record.

That is a testament to the coaching staff's ability to coach up the young defenseman as well as make it clear to the forwards they have a responsibility in the defensive zone.  Often on the road trip an opponent's scoring chance was thwarted by a backchecking center or winger.  There were also time's when the other team scored because of a missed assignment by a forward in the defensive zone.  It's all part of learning to play the 200 foot game.

The trade of Luke Ormsby to Everett and the departure of Elijah Brown, who left the team because he was unhappy with his ice time, has opened the door for other young forwards to get more ice time.  Three of them have really stepped up and taken advantage of the situation. The more ice Sam Huo, Tyler Carpendale and Ian Briscoe get, the better they play. Briscoe in particular is benefitting as he is now seeing time on the power play as well.  While he didn't officially earn an assist on the play, Briscoe's forecheck late in the game versus the Oil Kings, created a turnover that led directly to Zack Andrusiak's game-winning goal.

Do vets really help rookies develop?  Maybe it works both ways.  The Seattle coaches put veteran Donovan Neuls on a line with two rookies the second half of the road trip.  The last few games Neuls has been centering a line featuring 17-year old rookie Dillon Hamaliuk and the 16-year old Huo.  Neuls, who hadn't been scoring early in the year, put up a three-game goal scoring streak.

I think the popular sentiment is that Seattle is biding it's time in goal until Carl Stankowski returns.  But with  no definitive return date for Stankowski, the T-Birds current goaltending tandem of Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes are giving the team the opportunity to win every game.  Hughes has really settled in since Seattle acquired him at the start of the season from Edmonton.  he ended up starting four of the six games against the Central Division and went 3-0-1-0.

Thanks again to all the former players and parents who jumped onto our broadcasts during the road trip. All brought their own unique spin to our coverage of the games.  It's always great to meet up with former players such as Steve Chaffin and Travis Toomey, and see how they've matured into adulthood.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the second half of the road trip:

Third Star:  Goaltender Liam Hughes.  He went 1-0-1-0 in his last two starts, 3-0-1-0 on the trip and has now improved his overall record on the season to 4-2-1-0.  The road trip was a great chance for the coaches to get him lots of time between the pipes and get a better feel for his game going into the meat of the schedule.

Second Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  In the last three games on the trip Volcan picked up four points (2g, 2a) and was +4.  He plays a complete game and is very aggressive on the forecheck which helps create turnovers. His motor starts in fifth gear and never stops.  After a bit of a slow start in the scoring department  he is now close to averaging a point a game with 15 points in 16 games.

First Star:  D Austin Strand.  After finishing the first half of the road trip with a late, game-winning goal in his hometown of Calgary, he started the second half of the trip by scoring a goal and adding an assist in a win against his former team in Red Deer. He added a big power-play goal in the 3-1 win in Edmonton and had an assist on the game tying goal in Medicine Hat.  He picked up four points (2g, 2a) and was +2 the final half of the trip and now is second in the league with eight power-play goals.  He's also second in the WHL among defenseman in scoring with 22 points (9g, 13a) which also tops his own team's leaderboard.  Don't be surprised if NHL scouts are taking notice.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Three Up, Three Down the Road

Halfway through their six-game road trip through the WHL's Central Division, the Thunderbirds sport a 2-1 record following back-to-back wins in Calgary and Lethbridge.  The two wins were a terrific response after Seattle dropped the first game of the nine-day journey last Friday in Cranbrook, 4-2, to the Kootenay Ice.

In reality, the T-Birds have played their last four game on the road.  Before heading east they made a stop in Everett and beat their division rivals, so Seattle has won three of four in what will eventually be seven straight on the road. 

Conventional wisdom would argue that a young, rebuilding team should struggle on the road where, as the visitor, they don't get last change and the chance to line match. But so far Seattle has bucked convention and are 4-2-0-1 through their first seven road games.  While it is still early, 13 games into a 72 game season, the T-Birds have yet to fall below .500 and it is that road record that is keeping them above break even. 

The team just finished their first 3-game-in-3-nights weekend of the season and you could argue they were better at the end then they were at the beginning.  Their 7-4 win Sunday in Lethbridge over the Hurricanes was their best 60 minutes of hockey so far on the trip.  In each of the first two games Seattle had one subpar period.  In the loss to Kootenay it was the second period when they surrendered three goals, fell behind and never caught up. 

Saturday at the Saddledome in Calgary it was the third period that almost proved the team's undoing.  They allowed three goals to the Hitmen, which erased Seattle's 3-0 lead, a lead they had built by dominating 5-on-5 play through the first two periods.  Thanks to Austin Strand's last minute marker, the T-Birds pulled out a 4-3 victory. Sunday in Lethbridge, while the team was certainly not perfect, they were more consistent from period to period. 

When you lose you want to improve on the mistakes you made in that loss and apply the lessons learned to the next game.  Friday in their loss to the Ice, Seattle had issues with puck management with too many turnovers.  For the most part, they cleaned up that issue in the next two games against the Hitmen and Hurricanes.  From my rather untrained eye, it certainly seemed Seattle controlled the puck for large segments of those last two games and had very few turnovers.

Seattle is currently the healthiest they've been this season.  Initially it didn't appear it was going to be that way for this road trip after both Jarret Tyszka and Aaron Hyman were hurt in the Everett game.  Both missed the Kootenay game but were back in the lineup by the time the team reached Calgary.  Meanwhile, Tyler Carpendale, who suffered a training camp injury, made his season debut Saturday night.  At the moment, only Carl Stankowski remains on the shelf. 

Carpendale certainly showed no rust in the games he played this past weekend.  He's a big bodied, power forward type who can muck it up and seems to excel in those puck battles along the boards. He also seems very willing to go to the front of the net. 

Another young player who showed some positive signs this weekend was Samuel Huo.  He just missed scoring his first WHL goal Sunday.  He had a couple of real good chances in front of the 'Canes net.  He seems to read the ice well, and not just in the offensive zone but in the defensive end as well.  For a young player, he made a couple of nice back checks in both Saturday's and Sunday's game.

It might be the emergence of players like Huo and Carpendale, along with Dillon Hamaliuk, and the need to develop younger guys like Holden Katzalay and Nikita Malukhin, that cost Luke Ormsby ice time and, eventually, a roster spot.  In this league that often happens when a younger player passes you on the depth chart.  Make no mistake though, Ormsby was a consummate team player and didn't complain.  He was the local kid thrilled to be a part of the local team he had watched growing up. He will always be a part of that first championship team in club history.  His name is forever etched on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  He just saw the writing on the wall this season. I know he'll work hard to earn his ice with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL. 

Let's hope this is a trend.  In each game this weekend the T-Birds basically doubled their goal out put from the previous game, going from two to four to seven goals.  Overall, they tallied 13 goals in the three games, which is an average of just over four goals per contest.  More encouraging is that Seattle continues to create a ton of scoring chances each night.  Because of the youth of their forward group there will still be nights when they struggle to finish but at least they've been consistently creating opportunities to score every game.  It is frustrating to watch sometimes as they leave a rebound sitting in the crease rather then burying it in the back of the net but often we're talking about a 16 or 17-year old battling a 19 or 20-year old on the other team for that loose puck.

Red Deer, Edmonton and Medicine Hat remain on the trip. One more win guarantees a .500 swing through Alberta.  Two more and the team would equal their win total from last season's trip through the Eastern Division. Considering the roster change over from last season, to get to at least .500 on the trip would make it a success. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star:  C Donovan Neuls.  Seattle needs Neuls to score to be successful and he potted goals in the last two games of the weekend, hopefully a good sign moving forward.  Despite the lack of offense he always plays hard at both ends of the ice and continues to be solid in the face off circle and the team's best penalty killer.

Second Star:  D Austin Strand.  Strand had the big last minute goal Saturday night in his hometown of Calgary, helping Seattle snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat after blowing a three-goal third period lead.  He also sored in the loss to Kootenay and added three assists on the weekend.  He's averaging well over a point a game on 7g, 11a through 13 games.

First Star:  LW Zack Andrusiak.  It's been a great start to the road trip for the Yorkton, Sask. native highlighted by his hat trick Sunday versus Lethbridge.  He added an assist for a four-point night.  In the three games on the weekend he finished with six points (4g, 2a).  He's already tied both his goal total and total points from last season.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Heading Down the Highway

After a 1-1weekend, the Thunderbirds are ready to embark on their longest road trip of the season, their bi-annual trip through the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, a trek that will have them play six games in just nine days.

The journey actually begins Wednesday with a bus ride up to Cranbrook, B.C.  That's where they'll begin the action with a Friday night game against the Kootenay Ice.  The battle against the Ice marks the start of a 3-games-in-3 nights weekend.  The T-birds will be in Calgary to face the Hitmen on Saturday before a Sunday stop in Lethbridge versus the Hurricanes.

Seattle gets a slight respite before resuming the trip next Wednesday in Red Deer against the Rebels, followed by a Thursday game in Edmonton as they take on the Oil Kings.  The trip ends in Medicine Hat on Saturday, November 4th versus the Tigers.  The T-birds finally make their way back home in time for a November 10th game at the accesso ShoWare Center for their third meeting of the season against divisional rival Tri-City.

By the time the Central Division road trip ends, the T-birds will have played seven straight games on the road.  It started this past Sunday up in Everett with a well earned 4-3 win in the first of ten meetings this season with the Silvertips.  The win completed a two game weekend that began Saturday with a frustrating 3-1 home ice loss to Moose Jaw.

Seattle played extremely well both nights.  In fact, I actually thought the effort in the home loss to the Warriors was slightly better then the road win over the 'Tips.  The team was more consistent over the course of the sixty minutes in the loss, then they were in the win.  They certainly created more ten bell scoring chances against Moose Jaw then they did against Everett.

A late neutral zone error, and their inability to cash in on those  numerous scoring chances, is what did in the T-birds in the loss to Moose Jaw.  They played well enough to earn at least a point in that game, and in fact were 75-seconds away from overtime, when a costly, late miscue turned into a game winning goal for the Warriors.   Add to that, the T-birds hit a post just seconds earlier.  If that Zack Andrusiak shot is an inch lower, Seattle is up 2-1.  Alas, the hockey gods did not smile upon the T-birds at that moment.

The Moose Jaw game was eerily similar to the game Seattle played against Victoria a week earlier.  Just like versus Moose Jaw, Seattle created plenty of scoring opportunities against the Royals but failed to capitalize and it resulted in a 6-1 loss.  These are the so called teachable moments for so many of the young players who occupy so many spots on the roster this season. When you think you are doing enough, the situation may actually call for just that extra bit of effort.  So often it can be the difference between winning and losing.

Seattle's penalty killing has been exceptional in the early going this season, but even the best penalty killing teams will have an off-night.  That happened to the T-birds Sunday up at Xfinity Arena as the Silvertips cashed in on three of six power play chances.  But because Seattle was the better team 5-on-5 they were able to keep the 'Tips from generating much at even strength.  Meanwhile the T-birds struck for three even strength goals and added one power play marker of their own.

In the second period Sunday Seattle got into some penalty trouble.  They were also upset with the officiating.  Their emotions started to get in the way of their game.  They got to the end of the second period tied at 2-2 and then used the intermission to collect themselves and get their emotions in check.  As a result the T-birds were able focus on their game and came out and dominated the first half of the third period and built a two-goal lead.  It was enough of a cushion to carry them through the back end of that game.

With injuries and penalties Seattle played a good chunk of the final 20+ minutes in Everett with just three available defensemen, prompting them to move their jack-of-all trades forward Donovan Neuls back to the blue line for a few shifts. He held his own and Seattle held off Everett down the stretch.

Despite the 1-1 record on the weekend, Seattle's two goaltenders combined to stop 62 of 67 shots.  Both Liam Hughes Saturday and Matt Berlin Sunday, did what you ask your goalie to do, give your team a chance to win.  This weekend the opposition scored just two even strength goals, three were scored with Seattle shorthanded and the other was into an empty net.  I like their chances when that happens.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star.  The goaltenders, both Liam Hughes and Matt Berlin.  As stated above they put their team in a position to win.  Hard to fault your goalie when he only allows two goals against as Hughes did in that loss to Moose Jaw.  Against some pretty potent offensive players Hughes showed a really good ability to track the puck.  Berlin did a good job Sunday of getting onto pucks and letting his centers win defensive zone faceoffs. He seemed to eat up every puck that got remotely near him.  I don't recall too many second chance opportunities for Everett in that game.

Second Star.  W Sami Moilanen.  One goal, two assists and a +2 rating on the weekend for the feisty Finn who also delivered some massive checks, particularly Saturday against Moose Jaw.  Moilanen continues to prove that size doesn't matter, heart does.  In the fist ten games of this season (nine goals) he is almost half way to his goal total of 21 goals in 70 games last season.  So far in his 80 game T-birs career, the 18 year old has already amassed 57 points.

First Star:  W Dillon Hamaliuk.  The 17 year old rookie had quite the weekend, registering the first 2-goal game of his WHL career Sunday in Everett.  He added an assist on Saturday as well and finished with a +3 rating in the two games.  Listed at 6'3", 182 lbs. and growing, when he gets moving, he's like a locomotive roaring down the tracks.  The offense was great, and hopefully a sign of things to come, but watch him play both ends because he's very cognizant of needing a 200-foot game. He does a good job of getting back up ice into the defensive zone.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What the Blazes? A Giant Win

In an early season schedule with very few games, Seattle got a taste of what's to come when they played three games in four nights this past week.  Despite a stumble at home in the first game, the T-birds came out of the week with a pair of wins and four points.

The ten spot allowed to Portland in the loss last Saturday is concerning but not as much as you'd think since the Winterhawks have been scoring at will against most of their opponents. It's not just a Seattle thing.  Seattle did not play well though, especially after an early Zack Andrusiak goal put then on top.
Portland's game is up tempo, push the pace, run and gun hockey.  For it to work they have to have puck possession.  To minimize it, you have to eliminate turnovers.  Way too many Seattle turnovers in that game.  The T-birds still scored five goals and that should be enough to win most nights.  This was not one of those nights.  In their two games against Portland, Seattle has allowed 17 goals against.  In their other five games, they've only allowed 11.

The T-birds didn't get the best goaltending in that loss either. But both Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes bounced back with solid efforts in Seattle's two wins.  Berlin made 32 saves Sunday in Kamloops, in a 4-3 win over the Blazers, and Hughes earned his first win as a Thunderbird on Tuesday with a 33 save effort (plus two more in the shootout), in a 3-2 win over Vancouver at the accesso ShoWare Center.

Seattle is getting solid early season play from their special teams.  The power play is clicking at just under 31 percent on 8-for-26 success.  The T-birds have been shorthanded 30 times in the first seven games but have only surrendered seven goals and two of those were scored while the opposition was skating 5-on-3.  

The T-birds got down to the 20 year old roster limit by placing Tyler Adams on long term injured reserve.  Adams needed hip surgery and has gone back home to Regina where he'll face a long recovery. By not releasing him Seattle could bring him back at some point later this season, although I'm not sure whether this type of surgery will allow Adams to play again at this level. 

Seattle GM Russ Farwell has made many under-the-radar trades over the last five or six seasons.  Taran Kozun comes to mind, but the Kozun deal still cost Seattle two players and two fourth round draft picks.  Meanwhile, Adams only cost Seattle a prospect, Mckenzie White.  Adams addition seemed to settle down the Thunderbirds when he came over last December. He became a multi-purpose tool as the T-birds were able to use him up and down their top four lines.  The ability to plug him in anywhere in the lineup when other players were out was a key to Seattle's run to the championship.

You don't want to toot a rookie's horn too loudly so early in the season.  You wouldn't want them to start reading their press clippings and begin thinking they've got it all figured out.  I don't think Dillon Hamaliuk is the type of player who would let praise go to his head.  At least for now it appears he's found a spot on the T-birds second line with Noah Philp and Matthew Wedman.  First and foremost, he works hard at both ends of the ice.  He's strong on the boards and in the past couple of games has shown a knack for being around the front of the net when pucks are there.  His game still has a lot of developing left but he's on the right track.  Along with another rookie, defenseman Jake Lee, Hammer leads the team with a +3 rating.

The good news for Hamaliuk is that, while this is his 17 year old season, he is a late birthday and thus not eligible for the NHL draft until the spring of 2019.  This means he still has two seasons to impress the scouts, instead of one.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week:

Third Star:  Defenseman Jarrett Tyszka.  The Montreal Canadiens prospect
 had four assists in three games and is currently riding a five game point streak.  He has taken on a bigger role this season on the Seattle power play and that is one reason it is currently top five in the WHL.

2nd Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  Four goals in the three games and now has eight on the season to lead the team.  In fact, as of Thursday his eight goals tied him with three other players for second most in the WHL.  The native of Finland looks very comfortable out there at the start of his second season in North America.

First Star:  C/W Noah Philp.  Snake bitten in the first few games of the season with his new team, he's come on lately and picked up five points (2g, 3a).  Listed as a center by trade, he is playing wing on the second line with Wedman the pivot.  He, Weds and Hamaliuk have created some very good, early season chemistry. Facing defeat, his shootout goal against Vancouver Tuesday pushed the T-birds fortunes around.  Had he missed, Seattle would have lost.  By scoring, he gave Andrusiak, and Hughes, a chance to win it.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

One and One Equals Two

In their first multiple game weekend of the season the Thunderbirds earned a split, winning at home Friday and falling on the road Saturday, thus earning two points and leaving the month of September with a 2-1-0-0 record.

There were equal parts good and not so good elements in both games.  Friday, in their 5-1 win over Prince George at the accesso ShoWare Center, the T-birds had a solid start and 25 minute into the game had built a four goal lead.  As so often happens in a game you dominate on the scoreboard early, players start getting away from the structure of their game plan and start looking for individual reward. This got Seattle into trouble with turnovers and penalties.  It almost allowed the Cougars back into the game.  Seattle survived and earned a 5-1 win.  Hopefully a lesson learned by the young team going forward.  A similar scenario against a stronger team might result in a different outcome.

Saturday down in Portland the Thunderbirds compete level kept them in the game well into the third period before a few negative elements of their game caught up with them.  A postive?  Surprisingly, while deploying an entirely new top unit from a year ago, the T-birds power play has been solid in the early going and provided them with both goals against the Winterhawks. 

One negative?  Puck management, especially on breakouts.  Seattle just turned the puck over too often in all three zones on the ice.  Part of that was due to Portland's aggressive nature.  They employ a very good forecheck and use speed and quickness to create an in-your-face style to get Seattle off pucks.  This is all the more reason then for the T-birds to pay attention to the small details that go into puck management.

The effort was there from Seattle but effort does not always equal execution.  There was a need for the T-birds to make better passes and a better job of carrying the puck out of the defensive zone.  It's not the amount of shots on goal by Portland that will be worrisome to the coaching staff, it will be the amount of extra puck possession time given to the Winterhawks by the lack of consistent puck management by Seattle.

These are some of the growing pains this team will go through with their young forward group.  Its a need to be more consistent from shift to shift.  It's no surprise that Seattle's first and second lines, their older lines, were more consistent with the puck in both games. The bottom six forwards, the young first and second year players, are getting their on the job training. The goal?  To be better tomorrow then they were today, to be better at the end of the season then they are at the beginning.

One young forward whose game I liked this weekend was Dillon Hamaliuk.  Hammer actually caught my eye at the start of last season too when, as a 16 year old, he played in 17 regular season games and recorded his first WHL goal before being sent down when all the older players like Ryan Gropp, Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar returned.  He did come back up and play in two postseason games, including the Chynoweth Cup clinching Game Six in Regina.

Listed at 6'3" and 182 lbs, the Leduc, Alberta native may still be filling out his frame but he is already a physical presence.  He's a strong battler along the boards and seems well on his way to becoming a prototypical WHL power forward.  In fact, Seattle has a number of young players who seem to fit that same physical mode.  The T-birds currently have nine rookies on the roster, either 16 or 17 years old, who average 6'2" and 189 lbs. and they are still growing.  They offer lots of promise.  Of course size means nothing without the skill and that is the task before these players, to develop their game to best utilize that size.

I have no problem with the third period Turner Ottenbreit hit on Joachim Blichfeld being called a penalty. Bang-bang play and in real time you have to give the official the right to make that call as he sees it.  I don't believe it was a check to the head though.  Interference was probably the more proper call as it looks like the puck is past both players at the point of contact.  But after seeing the replay from two different camera shots, Ottenbreit never leaves his skates, tucks his right arm into his body and delivers a shoulder to shoulder check.

The pass up ice put Blichfeld in a vulnerable position.  He's reaching for the puck with his head down.  Ottenbreit's job is to separate the player from the puck and prevent him from entering the defensive zone cleanly.  It's a timing play and Otto's timing may have been off by a mere fraction of a second. Is it a dirty play?  No.  Is it an intent to injure play?  No.  It's a hockey play.  To not make the hit would be asking Ottenbreit to give Blichfeld a potential breakaway opportunity.  Does Ottenbreit play the game on the edge?  Yes, but so do most of those who play this game.  The WHL, and hockey in general for that matter, would like to get those high hits out of the game.  Player safety should be paramount but its a contact sport and the hit delivered by Otto is taught throughout the game.

What isn't up for debate is the response by Portland's Alex Overhardt.  In the heat of the moment he races up ice to deliver a two-handed baseball bat-like swinging slash to the back of Ottenbreit's knees.  This is not a hockey play.  This is a play with one purpose, intent to injure.  Suspend Ottenbreit because you deem him a repeat offender?  Fine, but Overhardt deserves a suspension as well.  A crime of passion is still a crime. Do I think Overhardt is a dirty player?  No, he got caught up in the heat of the moment and tried to deliver frontier justice.  But the league needs to come down hard on his actions otherwise, they are condoning it. You can't complain about the Ottenbreit hit then look past Overhardt's actions.  That would be the height of hypocrisy.

My T-birds three stars for September:

Third Star:  Goalie Matt Berlin.  Carl Stankowski injured?  Call the Wall.  All Berlin does with Stankowski on the sideline is win games or earn Seattle points in the standings.  He's now 9-2-2-0 in his T-birds career which isn't yet one year old.  That includes 2-0 and 64 saves on 68 shots to begin the new season.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The Sipoo, Finland native is off to a strong start in his second season, scoring four goals in three games, including a hat trick in Friday's win over PG.  What sometimes gets lost in his offensive numbers is his ability to play a complete 200-foot game and be a strong penalty killer. He's a definite candidate to represent Finland this winter at the World Junior Championships.

First Star:  Defenseman Austin Strand. Through three games he's Seattle's top scorer, averaging two points per game with six points (2g, 4a) and a +3 rating.  At least early on he's filling the void on the power play created by the departure of Ethan Bear.  His second power play goal Saturday in Portland was WHL Plays of the Week worthy.