Monday, February 20, 2017

Tyler Adams for President

What. A. Win. 

By the time the 72 game regular season is over, Seattle's 5-4 shootout win Sunday in Portland will be mostly forgotten and the two points they earned are no bigger then any of the other points they've earned this season. 

Yet that come-from-behind victory may be Seattle's signature win this season. They started the game knowing that, once again, they would dress one skater under the limit because of a spate of long term injuries to three of their top nine forwards.  Then, after taking warm ups, Keegan Kolesar, who was dinged up in the game the night before, was a late scratch.  This meant the T-birds would play the Sunday evening game in Portland with only 16 skaters.  Four of their top nine forwards would be missing.  In other words, 133 points, including 54 goals, were not dressed for the third game in three nights and fifth game in seven days. 

It was the third straight game Seattle would not be able to suit up a full roster (18 skaters, two goalies).  In reality it was the fifth straight time the T-birds went with a less then full lineup.  In two games earlier in the week Seattle brought in 15 year old prospect Cody Savey but he played only a few shifts.  Sunday they were playing a healthy Portland team that, like Seattle was playing its third game in three nights, but two of their games on the weekend were at home.  There only road game a quick jaunt up I-5 Saturday to face the T-birds in Kent.  Seattle had begun the weekend with a road game into Eastern Washington to face Tri-City. 

Under all those circumstances it would be easy to dismiss this game for Seattle, to understand that the injury situation may have finally caught up to the team.  It's one game out of 72 where you're playing with less then ideal conditions and so completely understandable if you lose after playing twice already on the weekend.   Even the best teams, champions, don't go through an entire season without a loss when facing adverse conditions.

But this is a different kind of team, this 2016-17 version of the Thunderbirds.  Even when they didn't play their best Friday night on the road against Tri-City, they were still coming on strong at the end.  Down two goals they were still fighting to get back in the game with just minutes left.  And if not for a post and a couple of spectacular saves by Tri-City goalie Rylan Parenteau, they may have accomplished that comeback.

Saturday night at home against Portland they fought hard to get a lead only to surrender it early in the third period.  Time to lay down right?  All these injuries, they just don't have the horses to overcome the adversity, do they?  Yet Seattle roars back for the 5-3 win. 

Which brings us to Sunday, less then 24 hours after expending all that energy in the come-from-behind home win, the last minute scratch of Kolesar, the 16 skaters and only 10 forwards, one a converted defenseman.  There's no way possible they can muster up enough for a road win. 

But here they are, grabbing an early lead on a fluky power play goal.  At least it will be respectable when they fall in this one.  There they are getting the lead back early in the second period on a great rush to the net by Alexander True. Okay, so they'll go down fighting.  Moral victory. 

Ah, here comes the inevitable, the Winterhawks strike for three goals to take a 4-2 lead midway through the third period. It was a game effort by Seattle but no shame losing this one. Come on, no Kolesar, no Eansor, no Volcan, no Wedman, certainly no comeback. 

But this team doesn't think that way. So many on the roster went through the wars a season ago that got them to the brink of a championship.  They know the sting of falling short of the ultimate prize.  This team is playing with focus, determination.  Short bench?  So what.  Third game in three nights?  Who cares?  Back up goalie in net?  He'll stand tall for us, we'll battle for him.  Down two goals with only half a period left?  Still time.  Final, Seattle 5 Portland 4.  Don't. Count. Them. Out.  The Comeback Kids.

Despite all the adversity, Seattle ends the weekend tied with Prince George for the most wins in the Western Conference and now own the conference's second best winning percentage, behind only Everett.  20-4-0-1 in their past 25 games. 25 games played in 50 days.   And now we exhale, if ever so briefly.  A week without games until another three-in-three nights next weekend. 

What was most remarkable about the just completed three game weekend was how this injury depleted Seattle team, playing with their shortened bench, was the better team in the third period all three games.  At the point of the game when the situation should dictate that you're the team that should be overtaxed and energy depleted, you are instead controlling the play.  Seattle outshot their opponents in the third periods of the three games by a combined 42-25 margin and outscored them 6-2. 

What a nice bounce back in goal for Matt Berlin.  Took until February 13th before a team could beat Seattle's back up goalie.  And even then it took a monster third period from Kelowna to accomplish that.  He was at his best late versus Portland, preserving Seattle's chance to get the shootout win with a big stop on an Evan Weinger penalty shot with just over three minutes left in the game.  At the time Portland was up, 4-3.  If Weinger scores, it's a two-goal Portland lead and Seattle's chance for a comeback probably evaporates.  He followed that with another game preserving save on Caleb Jones in overtime.   For the price of a late round draft pick, the T-birds have gotten 14 of a possible 18 points in Berlin's nine starts.

Tyler Adams, Winterhawks slayer.  Each of his three goals for Seattle have been scored against Portland.  Two have opened the scoring, one was a game winner. Adams was acquired to shore up Seattle's fourth line.  Sunday he finished the night playing along side Mat Barzal and Ryan Gropp on Seattle's first line. 

Zack Andrusiak didn't register a point this weekend but his speed and tenacity were on display, especially against Portland.  Fans look at stat sheets to define a player's worth.  Coaches look at the video.  Seattle coaches are going to like what they saw from Andrusiak in the two games against the Winterhawks.

The T-birds are a one line team?  This past weekend Seattle potted 11 goals in three games.  Six of those goals came from their makeshift 2nd and 3rd lines.  Defenseman Ethan Bear had two.  Only three came from their top line.  Do you know how many goals Barzal and Kolesar have combined to score in the series against Portland?  So far just two.  31 goals this season against the Winterhawks, 16 different goal scorers.   Seattle's top line has just six of those 31 goals.  Donovan Neuls, True and Adams have combined for 10. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star,  The Unsung Heroes.  Players like Andusiak, Anthony Bishop, Luke Ormsby and Elijah Brown who have stepped up to take on more minutes with Seattle's injury situation affecting their top three lines. And let's not forget Seattle's back end, the top six defenseman who just do a solid job every night without the limelight falling on them.

Second Stars:  D Ethan Bear, C Mat Barzal.  When you are playing with a depleted roster, the best players, the veterans have to step up.  Bear finished the weekend with six points (3g, 3a).  First Seattle defenseman since the 1994-95 season to hit the 25 goal plateau. And now he follows Barzal by being named the WHL Player of the Week.   Barzal got his points this weekend with assists all three nights to extend his point streak to ten games. But that is almost incidental to everything else he does on the ice.  He controls the game, he controls the puck.  He plays a 200 foot game.  At least three times this weekend he was diving into his own crease to keep a puck out of the Seattle net. And most importantly, with his team shorthanded, he logs a ton of minutes, especially in the third period.

First Star:  Tyler Adams.  His weekend consisted of two goals, including a game winner Saturday.  He scored a  power play goal Sunday in what might have been his first shift on the power play since joining Seattle.   He added a fighting major Friday in Kennewick as he tried to spark his team to a comeback against the Americans. Overall, he had some real strong physical play both nights versus Portland.  Canadian or not, it's President's Day and with the names of three U.S. presidents in his name (John Tyler, John Adams, John Quincy Adams), It's only appropriate Tyler Adams is the first star!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who's LIne is it Anyway?

Since returning from the Christmas break, Seattle skaters have combined to miss over 50 games due to injury.  Not just any players either, we're talking three top nine forwards in Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman.  111 points out of the lineup many nights with that trio unavailable and it coincides with the busiest time on the schedule.  24 games in 50 days with much more to come.

That doesn't even factor in the 17 games Keegan Kolesar missed the first half of the season or all the time out of action for young goaltender Carl Stankowski or rookie winger Wyatt Bear.  And we're only talking games missed due to injury so I haven't included the combined 32 games the T-birds didn't have Mat Barzal or Alexander True because of NHL time or time spent at World Juniors. 

Yet all I hear in some circles is that Seattle is a one line team.  I hear that the T-birds better hope nothing happens to any of the players on that top line because if it does, boy, they'll be in trouble.  Is Seattle the only team in the WHL with a top line?  Isn't that statement true for any team?  Why would it only apply to the T-birds?  Take away one or two of the best players on any team for a month or two and you would expect them to stumble, right?

Only, Seattle hasn't stumbled.  The record will show that without Barzal in the lineup the T-birds are a .500 team.  But when Barzal was missing, so was Kolesar for a portion of that time, so was True for six games.  Seattle played a couple of games without their top two centers.  Go ahead, check the box score January 6th vs. Everett.  No Barzal, no Eansor yet Seattle won.  Do you know who scored in that game for the Thunderbirds?  Donovan Neuls, Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak.  Not exactly first line players.  From December 17th to January 8th, the T-birds went 5-1-1-0 WITHOUT Barzal in the lineup, but yeah, they're a one line team.   

The point is, Seattle is NOT a one line team. Most definitely their top line of Kolesar, Gropp and Barzal is very likely the best line in the league but, when healthy, this team rolls four lines very effectively. The problem as you know, is they aren't healthy.  For much of the past month and a half, they've only been able to roll three lines most nights and their second and third lines are makeshift combinations featuring fourth line players and guys, who when the team is at full strength, would be healthy scratches.  Two thirds of their second line have been out of lineup yet with that and the other injury issues, they are 18-2-0-1 since December 31st and 20-3-1-1 since Christmas. Sure, they are going to rely more on that top line under that situation, what team wouldn't?  But you don't play 16 games over .500 while dealing with long term injuries to key personnel if you are just a one line team. 

You catch yourself thinking sometimes lately, I wonder how they'd be doing over this stretch if they had a healthy Eansor, a healthy Wedman and a healthy Volcan?   Or what would their record be if they didn't miss Turner Ottenbreit for a game and a half or have to play four games while dressing just 17 or 16 skaters?  You contemplate how much further along would they be if they didn't have to bring up a couple of 15 year olds to fill out the roster for a few games?  Then you realize, wait, they're winning in spite of this.  Hard to improve on winning. 

Only once in that stretch has that short bench caught up with them.  That was Monday afternoon in Kelowna, playing their fifth game in seven days with no days off in between because of travel, when they were unable to hold a late 3-2 lead.  You could see they didn't have any legs left the final 8-9 minutes of that game but still were just eight minutes away from another "W".   The team's response to that loss?  They said they needed to dig deeper, keep their intensity longer and hold on to their desperation.  No excuses, only disappointment they couldn't get it done.   One time over the course of 50 days, playing on average a game every other day with a depleted lineup, they had a hiccup.   If you want to complain about that, you're too much of a perfectionist.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect  has put his early season injury behind him and is starting to pile up the points.  Nine points in the last four games (4g, 5a) including another game winning goal, his fifth this season.  As a result he is now averaging a point a game (40 games, 40 pts.). 

Second Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  The Kamloops native and New York Rangers draft pick is hotter then a cup of McDonald's coffee right now.  Goals in eight straight games and 31 points over his last 14 games.  In his last four games he has 11 points (5g, 6a).   On the season he now has 61 points in 51 games. 

First Star:  Center Mat Barzal.  Simply playing the best hockey of his Thunderbirds career the second half of this season, highlighted by a six point night Saturday vs. Portland.  His big week earned him both WHL and CHL Player of the Week honors.  There are a lot of really good hockey players in the WHL including future NHLers.  Barzal is just a notch above them at the moment. He is now averaging over an assist per game in his career with Seattle (196 assists in 192 games).  Despite playing in just 31 games so far this season, he is second on the team to Gropp with 58 points. 


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Next Man Up

Injuries in sports are often the great equalizer.  They can reduce a great team to being just a good team, a championship caliber club into a playoff also-ran or slide a good team back into mediocrity.  Injuries can disrupt a well oiled machine and turn it into a sputtering mess.  That is, if you let them.  But it doesn't have to be that way and the Thunderbirds, this past month, heck this entire season, have proved that. 

Maybe it's because Seattle is used to playing so many games with so many players missing from the lineup, and key players at that.  It seems the past three or four years that it has become routine for them, the rule and not the exception, to have top players watching from the stands. 

Over his T-birds coaching career head coach Steve Konowalchuk has become a master at juggling his lineup.  He has lost top players like Branden Troock, Connor Honey, Justin Hickman, Shea Theodore, Alexander True, Mat Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor, Jarret Tyszka, Ryan Gropp and Matthew Wedman to long term injuries. It's hard to remember them all but I'm sure there are a few other names I'm forgetting that could be added to that list.  And they are the kind of injuries that end up being week-to-week rather then day-to-day. 

Some of them have been season or even of the career ending variety. In some cases multiple players on that list are, or were, out of the lineup at the same time, and some of those players were out for a lengthy spell on more then one occasion.  Yet despite the injury setbacks, the Thunderbirds have persevered.  Over the past three seasons Seattle has still averaged 41 wins and are in line for another 40-plus win season this year.   It's out of situations like this we get clich├ęs like "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

Usually though, the getting stronger part comes after the near death experience.  The injuries mount and the team's win-loss record suffers until players return and the club bounces back to top form.  It's played out that way each of the past two seasons.  With injuries and World Juniors, Seattle has nose dived only to kick their way back to the surface from the bottom of the pool the second half of the season.

This year has been different.  With Barzal in the NHL or with Team Canada and Kolesar injured, and losing True to World Juniors, the T-birds still did more then tread water through the season's first half.  They competed every night and gave themselves a chance to win most every game. Seattle made it to the Chirstmas break at 17-13-2-1 then went 4-1-0-1 after the break, before Barzal returned.

Then of course, no sooner did Barzal and True get back Seattle then lost first Eansor, then Wedman and Tyszka, to injuries that have so far cost them a combined 31 games over the past month.  That's 75 points out of the lineup.  In the second period Saturday down in Portland they lost Nolan Volcan and his 36 points.  111 points sitting on the sideline. Woe is us, right?  Not in the least.  Over the last 12 games the Thunderbirds are 10-1-0-1.  Twice in that span they finished a game one skater under the limit, still earning three of four points in those games (1-0-0-1).

Yes, it doesn't hurt that the Thunderbirds have quality players, NHL drafted players, at the top of their roster.  But they've also drafted and traded well lately, acquiring good depth to get them through trying times. 

So, instead of falling back in the standings, the T-birds have forged ahead.  They've moved into second place in the U.S. Division and have gained 11 points on the first place Everett Silvertips in a span of three weeks.  Quietly they've crept within eight points of the top of the Western Conference with four games in hand. 

You can lament injuries and feel sorry for yourself.  There's no arguing that injuries to key personnel on any team are not easy to overcome and make the task of winning a little more difficult.  There is no guarantee you will overcome them no matter how hard you play.  You can leave everything on the ice and still get saddled with a loss.  There may come a point when the injuries mount up and Seattle can't overcome them, but, as Andy and Red said in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption",  you can get busy living or get busy dying.  the T-birds have chosen to get busy living. 
Seattle finishes another busy week by earning five of six points.  All three games went beyond 60 minutes and the T-birds found a way to win two of them.  When you are chasing the top of the division or the conference, any win is a good win, any point is a good point.  At the end of the season they don't ask how, they ask how many. 

The Thunderbirds top line of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar continues to set the pace.  You can make a strong argument they are the top line in the WHL. Regina has a good one in Steel-Brooks-Wagner but I like the way the T-birds top line is playing their 200 foot game right now.

To win games though, you need a complete team effort, shorthanded or not.  This week Seattle got nine goals from six different players.  They got a game winning shootout goal from a fourth line winger.  They got outstanding goaltending from the WHL Goaltender of the Month and earned points in all three games while using fourth line guys on the third and second lines and fourth line players on the third line. 

You have to love the dedication of Tyler Adams.  Knowing his team is already missing players, he blocks a shot in the second period Saturday in Portland, and you can see it stung him, but he doesn't miss a shift despite being in obvious pain.  He hobbled and limped around for a few shifts before the feeling in his foot finally came back.  That's twice since Seattle acquired him in early December from Swift Current, that he's done that. 

My T-bird Three Stars of the Week:

Third Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The Frenzied Finn was all over the ice Saturday in Portland, scoring a goal, killing off penalties and drawing a penalty against the Winterhawks, sending his fellow countrymen Henri Jokiharju to the box no less.  He also scored a goal and was assessed his first WHL fighting major earlier in the week versus Kamloops. Pretty good rookie season so far with 33 points (16g, 17a).  Listed at 5'8" but plays like he's 6'5".  This is a player who knows if he is to get to the next level, this is the way he has to play. 

Second Star:  Defenseman Ethan Bear.  Bear finished the week with four points (2g, 2a) and a +4 rating.  Seattle now with power play goals in five of their last seven games and it is usually he and Barzal who key Seattle's attack with the man advantage.  When he hits the net with his shot, if he doesn't score he usually creates a nice, juicy rebound. 

First Star:  Goalie Rylan Toth.  Toth was named WHL Goaltender of the Month for January by posting a 10-1-0-0 record along with a 2.05 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.  He then opened February by going 1-0-0-1 in the first two games, stopping 72 of 77 shots in 130 minutes of hockey then 13 of 16 shootout attempts. His huge stop on a couple of Cody Glass point blank chances down in Portland this weekend were a big reason Seattle earned a point in that game. In the three games this week he was 2-0-0-1, logging 195 minutes in goal while posting a .921 SV PCT and a GAA of 2.48. 


Monday, January 30, 2017

Top of the Line

There is no question that Seattle's depth has been a major reason why they have won 11 of their past 12 games and gone 14-5-1 in their last 20. They started a bit slow, when they first lost a couple of players to World Juniors, playing .500 for the first week.  But once players adapted to new roles and more ice time and the coach's showed their confidence in them, they have been on a nice roll. 

At no time in that stretch, dating back to early December, has Seattle had a full, complete and healthy roster.  In fact I don't believe that has existed once this season.  Whether it was Mat Barzal and Alexander True representing their countries at the World Junior Championships, or more recently the injuries to Scott Eansor, Matthew Wedman or Jarret Tyszka, the T-birds have played that entire stretch with key components missing.  Yet, they have not missed a beat.  And Sunday, when Zack Andrusiak left the game in the first period with an illness, the T-birds, down to 11 forwards, played most of that game against Tri-City one player under the limit.  The result?  A 5-1 win to complete a three game weekend sweep. 

Saying all that though, it is undeniable that the T-birds have been led by their top players, in particular their top line of Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar.  In the three wins this weekend that trio combined for 19 points (5g, 14a) and were +15.  In Seattle's current five game winning streak those three have produced a total of 31 points (7g, 24a) and together are +27. 

Let's throw defenseman Ethan Bear into that mix as well, because along with those other three, that makes up Seattle's NHL-drafted-players pool.  During the current winning streak, that foursome has racked up 36 points (11g, 25a) and are +34.  To be at your best, your best players have to be the best players on the ice every night.  Over the past three weeks, Seattle has been able to check off that box. 

Remember, until his recent injury, Scott Eansor was the team's leading goal scorer and point producer.  Until Ethan Bear (41 pts.) and Ryan Gropp (40 pts.) recently passed him on the stat sheet, Eansor led the way with 37 points in 38 games.  But Eansor, who still tops the team with 18 goals, has missed eight straight games and 10 of the last 12 while dealing with a lower body injury. So Seattle has essentially played the month of January with their leading scorer on the sideline.

Seattle has survived Eansor's absence for a couple of reasons.  One, they got Barzal and True back from World Juniors.  The return of two of your top three centers helps alleviate the loss of one. 

Two, they have a versatile player like Donovan Neuls.  Neuls has stepped in between Sami Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, to center Seattle's second line and capably fill the void caused by Eansor's injury.  While Neuls doesn't produce the points like Eansor, he still was a plus player (+2) centering the second line the past eight games and contributed a game winning goal and  two assists.  More importantly he provides the same level of penalty killing as Eansor, helping the T-birds PK rise to third overall in the league. 

Under ideal conditions, Neuls would be playing wing on the T-birds third line with True and Wedman.  But over the past month the coach's have used him to center the top line, when Barzal was away, and now the second line with Eansor out.  

The truth be told, if every thing was perfect, Seattle's line combinations would probably look like this: 1.  Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar, 2. Volcan-Eansor-Moilanen, 3. Wedman-True-Neuls and 4. Tyler Adams-Luke Ormsby and either Elijah Brown, Andrusiak, Anthony Bishop or Wyatt Bear.  But it's not a perfect world.  In a physical game like hockey, injuries occur.  To keep playing your best under those circumstances, you have to adapt.  Seattle has. 

When Seattle acquired Adams from Swift Current in early December, it was to shore up their fourth line.  But with player absences and the injury to Wedman, Adams is playing exclusively on the third line with True and Ormsby and playing well. This is just another of those under-the-radar trades made by GM Russ Farwell that works out so well for the Thunderbirds. 

It's nice to see Wyatt Bear finally get back to playing games.  A lower body injury that carried over from last season, cost him over half this season as well. He's given the team some valuable shifts on the fourth line the past week.  He's got good size and plays physical.  You can see he has the ability to win battles along the boards. 

Fun fact time now.  Seattle's back up goalies have helped the team earn a point in every game they've started.  Combined Matt Berlin (4-0-2-0) and Carl Stankowski (1-0-0-1) have not lost in regulation this season.  Stankowski continues to rehab from a lower body injury suffered at the World U-17 Challenge but it appears there is a chance we'll see him play at some point in the final two months of the regular season.  Berlin, meanwhile has earned wins against Moose Jaw, Victoria, Tri-City and Everett this season, four teams that have, so far, combined for 119 wins.  In those four wins, he's allowed just five goals. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  After a slow start following the first half surgery, the goals are starting to come now for the big forward.  Double digits in goals after the weekend with ten and 26 points in 31 games.  Seems most of his goals end up being game winners. 

Second Star:  Center Mat Barzal.  Really, we could play musical chairs with these three players but we'll give Mat a break from the top of the ladder this week.  Just type the following line when describing his game and you'll be spot on every time:  He makes the players around him better.  Seattle has five power play goals in the past four games and he's assisted on all of them. 

First Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Quietly has started to play at another level.  The 20 year old New York Rangers prospect, like his linemate Kolesar, is starting to rack up the points with 40 in 42 games, but he continues to consistently affect games now in ways that don't hit the scoresheet; a strong forecheck, timely backchecks and solid penalty killing. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Toth-ing the Line

After having one of their mid-week games postponed due to poor road conditions in Eastern Washington, the Thunderbirds got back on the ice and played two strong games this past weekend, and thus completed a 2-1-0-0 week.  If not for a disallowed goal (more on that later), the T-birds could be looking at a nine game winning streak or, at the very least, points in nine straight games.

Mark Twain popularized a phrase that went something like this; there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.  In other words, statistics are often used to prop up a weak argument.  If you go back to Friday's loss in Everett, Seattle outshot the Silvertips by a whole bunch the final two periods (26-9) and 33-14 for the game.  This would indicate they had the vast majority of puck possession and more time in the attacking zone. The conclusion from this?  Seattle was the better team on the night, right?  Well, at the end of the night Seattle lost, 1-0 so those statistics don't tell the complete story. 

The following night the T-birds did pretty much the same against Vancouver, outshooting the Giants 46-16.  Again this would indicate Seattle had most of the puck possession and spent more time inside the Vancouver blue line.  At the end of the night Seattle won 6-1. 

Obviously there are other stats (PP, PK) that come into play but at the end of the game, there is only one statistic that matters, goal for/goals against.  It is still all about putting the puck in the back of the net.

Of course, Seattle thought they had done that late in the third period Friday up in Everett.  The truth is they did.  Luke Ormsby banged in a loose puck that seemingly tied the game with the Silvertips at 1-1. Unfortunately, the referee in behind the Everett goal lost sight of the puck (rather quickly I might add) and blew the play dead just as Ormsby was scoring.  

A simple but frustrating explanation that has happened to many a team and will, at some point happen again.  There's nothing malicious about what the official did.  That's what they are trained to do in that situation.  Players make mistakes in games and so do officials.  They're human.  It happens. 

I did see an argument that claimed it was waived off due to goaltender inference which was not the case.  Had there been interference with the goalie there would have been a penalty on Seattle (there was not).  If the contact was unintentional, instead of a penalty, the face-off would have come back to the neutral zone which it didn't.

Here's what I didn't like about that play.  The referee who blew the play dead is not the official who offered up the explanation to the Seattle coaches as to why the goal was being disallowed.  He left that up to his partner.   In a tight game like that, when you make such a call, confidently go to the bench and explain yourself.   Are you most likely to encounter a coach with a sour disposition?  Most likely, but it's part of the job.

I actually liked Seattle's response to that disallowed goal.  They didn't pout or complain too vociferously.   Instead they went right back on the attack and created a few more, good scoring opportunities.  Just on this night, 'Tips goalie Carter Hart was able to keep them at bay with some solid and spectacular saves. 

I also loved Seattle's response the next night to their first game in over a month against a team outside the U.S. Division.  After 11 straight games with a playoff like atmosphere, including four against the division leading Silvertips, it would have been easy for the T-birds to let down their guard and look past a Vancouver team that sits in last place and outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference.  It was just the opposite.  Maybe it being Teddy Bear Toss Night helped the team keep their focus.  I'd like to think they are playing to their strength and not worrying about the opponents weaknesses. 

Hard to fathom why Seattle's power play is so inconsistent and as a result sits just 19th in the league.  Seattle has basically the same power play personnel that finished third best in the league with the man advantage a season ago. Currently the T-birds have scored a league low 27 power play goals.  Last year Seattle finished with 70, so over halfway through the current season, they don't even have half as many as they did in 2015-16.  Amazing to think they are ten games over .500 without a major part of their arsenal contributing much to their attack.  Just 16 percent of their offense so far comes with the extra attacker.  Let's be glass-half-full optimist and believe they'll get the power play untracked.  How much more dangerous will they be when that happens!?

Jumping back to those damn statistics now.  Seattle and Rylan Toth, who was just named the WHL Goalie of the Week, (2-1-0-0, a 1.01 GAA and .944 SV %). have allowed just three goals in their last three games. It is hard for opposing teams to score when they don't have the puck or can't get shots through.  In their last nine periods of hockey the Thunderbirds have outshot their opponents by a combined 112-54. In seven of their last nine periods the T-birds have limited the opposition to seven or fewer shots and in six of those periods, it has been five shots or less.  When you don't face many shots, a goalie has to stay on his toes to stay engaged in the play.   Toth was very good in that category as well. 

Most encouraging about that is Seattle's ability to limit shots with one of their best players on the sideline.  Scott Eansor is not only the team's current leading scorer but also one of their best defensive forwards, yet he missed all three games with a lower body injury.  Let's also not underestimate what the absence of Matthew Wedman means to this team.   The 17 year old center was really starting to come end to his own, particularly on the forecheck, when he suffered his own lower body injury earlier this month. 

Three players have really stepped up their game in the absence of those two; Donovan Neuls, Tyler Adams and Luke Ormsby.  Neuls has taken Eansor's spot,  centering Sami Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, and that line hasn't missed a beat.  With Wedman out and Neuls moved up to the second line, Adams and Orsmby have moved up to the third line to form a formidable physical presence with Alexander True.

Adams has taken up the role that Andreas Schumacher had for Seattle in the second half last season. He isn't going to light up the scoreboard, but he's big, physical, is winning 50/50 puck battles along the boards and chips in with the occasional point.  I think one advantage he has over Schumacher is he appears to be a better skater. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit. Come on, you have to have the guy who scored the Teddy Bear Toss goal on this list.  Seriously though, Ottenbreit's a big reason so few shots are getting through against the Seattle defense.  He's one of the best at blocking those shots.  He also was +6 in the three games this week and is head and shoulders above the rest of the team on the season at +25.  The next closest is Ethan Bear at +17.

2nd Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  After having his five game point streak snapped Friday, he got right back at it Saturday with a three assist performance.  Even in the loss to Everett he came close on a number of scoring chances only to be robbed by Hart.  He's also become on the team's top penalty killers.  Five assists and +5 for the week.  With 33 points in 38 games, he's methodically creeping up to being a point a game player again.

1st Star:  C Mat Barzal.  I'd be surprised if he doesn't sit in this spot every week from now until the end of the season.  28 points in just 18 games this season.  Three goals, two assists and +5 for the week.  He's tallied nine points (4g, 5a) in his last four games.  Starting to become reminiscent of last season when the majority of his 27 goals came in the final 30+ games. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

A High Five

With their two wins this weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds are now riding a, season best, five game winning streak. Seattle is also nine games over .500 for the first time all year and, since December 17th, are 7-1-1-0. 

Through that stretch the T-birds had checked the box on almost every aspect of their game save one.  They had been getting strong goaltending, timely scoring and points from all four lines.  They've been winning games at home, on the road, in regulation and in overtime and shootouts.  They've stayed disciplined and the few times they've been penalized, they've had a strong penalty kill.  The missing ingredient?  The power play. 

Seattle's struggles with the extra attacker saw them drop to 20th in the 22 team league in that category.  Remember, this was a team, with virtually the same personnel, that finished third in the league in that department a year ago.  But they were winning games recently despite a stretch of just 1-for-33 with the man advantage.  While one game doesn't completely cure what ails you, Sunday the T-birds were a perfect 3-for-3 on the power play in their 6-4 win over Spokane. 

You have to actually go back to Saturday's overtime win in Everett to see the seeds of power play improvement had been planted with the return of Mat Barzal and, a now, completely healthy Keegan Kolesar.  Seattle had just one power play against the Silvertips and they didn't score.  But you could see they were on the right path.  They passed the puck crisply and shot quickly.  It would bear fruit less then 24 hours later.

After the T-birds third power play goal against the Chiefs Sunday, with about seven and a half minutes left in the game, pushed their lead to 6-2, head coach Steve Konowalchuk wisely gave his top players the rest of the night off.  I don't think Barzal, Kolesar, Ryan Gropp, Alexander True and Ethan Bear saw another shift.  Knowing they start a stretch of four games in five nights at home Tuesday, it was a chance to give those players an extra bit of rest.  It was also a bit of a reward for his third and fourth lines, who were given the extra ice time.  Seattle doesn't go 7-1-1-0 over their last nine games without those players and their contributions. 

For all the treading water Seattle did the first half of the season, they never were very far from the top half of the Western Conference standings.  And now, after this five game winning streak, they are just five points from the fourth spot with games in hand.  With 23 wins, Seattle is just four behind Everett in the win column. 

The 2017 WHL trade deadline has come and gone.  Seattle made three trades in the four weeks leading up to the January 10th deadline but didn't make a last minute deal like a number of other teams did.  Frankly, after seeing the prices paid for good but not elite players, I can see why GM Russ Farwell held on to his best assets.  Farwell did say he looked into adding a top nine forward but none of the players available were better then what he currently had on the roster. Meanwhile other teams were giving away top prospects and high draft picks for third liners.

Remember to get something, you have to give something.  I didn't see a player moved at the deadline that I personally would have sacrificed a first round pick or top prospect for.  Even Everett, which acquired one of the better players available in 20 year old defenseman Aaron Irving from Edmonton, had to pay a heavy price, dealing away a 2018 first round pick, a top prospect in 16 year old Brett Kemp (a former 2015 2nd round pick) and 20 year old winger Graham Millar. 

For Seattle it just didn't make sense to sacrifice the future for a player who would barely crack your top nine, let alone wouldn't be in your top six. 

Meanwhile Seattle surrendered just a third round pick, a disgruntled defenseman (former 2013 fifth rounder Brandon Schuldhaus) and a mid range prospect (MacKenzie Wight) for Tyler Adams, Aaron Hyman and Austin Strand.  With Adams in the lineup the Thunderbirds are 7-2-1-0.  With Hyman in the lineup they are 6-1-1-0.  With Strand in their lineup the T-birds are 5-0-0-0. 

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  D Ethan Bear.  The highlight of the weekend was Bear's perfect stretch pass to Kolesar Saturday night in Everett that led to the T-birds game winning overtime goal.  The Edmonton Oilers prospect finished the weekend with four points (2g, 2a) and now has three straight multi-point games. 

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  If you were wondering if Kolesar is finally 100% after the surgery that cost him much of the first half of the season, wonder no more. His OT game winner in Everett told you all you needed to know.  Kolesar had logged a lot of minutes in the third period of that game and then a bunch more ice time in the overtime.  In fact he was probably at the end of a shift, yet he had enough juice left to skate away from the Everett defense and get off a perfect shot to beat Carter Hart for the game winner.  He capped the weekend with three assists versus Spokane Sunday. 

First Star:  C Mat Barzal.  He hasn't played but 15 games with the T-birds this season but there can be no question that Barzal has had his impact.  Seattle's record in those games?  11-2-2.  In their two wins this weekend he registered four points (1g, 3a) and was +3.  Even better, with Kolesar seemingly back to 100%, Seattle's KGB line (Kolesar, Gropp and Barzal) was back to hacking away at the opposition (see what I did there?). In the two games they combined for 10 points (3g, 7a) and were +8.  Two of those three goals were game winners.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Dozen and the Division

Back on December 17th, their last game before the Christmas break, Seattle played host to the Tri-City Americans.  The 3-0 shutout win would be the first of 12 straight games against the U.S. Division.  Over a month of hockey for Seattle against primarily Spokane and Everett but also Portland and the Americans. 

The first seven of those games, including that win over Tri-City, would be without Mat Barzal, who would be away at World Juniors with Team Canada.  The first five would also be without Alexander True who was representing Denmark at the same tournament.  Two of them would be without leading scorer Scott Eansor, nursing a lower body injury.  In a couple of instances, they played without all three players in the lineup.

Through the first seven games of the 12 straight against the division, Seattle has gone 5-1-1-0.  That includes three straight after a 3-2 win New Year's Eve down in Portland, a 4-3 shootout win Friday at home over the Silvertips and a 2-1 win on the road in Spokane Sunday. 

This coming weekend, facing Everett and Spokane yet again, may be the first time since a 3-2 win December 9th up in Prince George, that the T-birds have all three players back together in the lineup.   I bring this up because last season, under similar circumstances, the T-birds won just twice with those conditions.  It probably is what prompted GM Russ Farwell to make certain trades, that brought in Landon Bow, Andreas Schumacher and Cavin Leth. 

This time around Seattle had players on the roster who stepped up, probably none bigger then goaltender Rylan Toth, who has improved his season numbers by bringing down his GAA to 2.79 and his save percentage up to .902.   But Toth is a WHL veteran and his improvement should be expected after an up and down first half.

The real work to pick up the slack created by the absence of Barzal, True and Eansor, was done by rookies and second year players such as Matthew Wedman, Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak, to name a few.  Working in concert with the remaining veterans and new trade acquisitions, they helped Seattle play a complete team game most every night.    Instead of relying on one or two lines, Seattle was able to roll four.  That was something Seattle didn't do until after the trade deadline last season.

So often players at the end of the roster covet more ice time, believing if the coaching staff would give them that chance they will prove they are worthy of a regular shift.  Often times though, we find out these players are at the end of the bench for a reason, whether it's too young or too inconsistent.  But these past few weeks these particular T-bird players showed their value  With the return of Barzal, True and Eansor these guys are going to see their ice time trimmed, but not the confidence the coaches now have to use them.

Yes, Seattle did surrender three power play goals to Everett Friday, and with them their three goal lead, before coming back to win that shootout. The issue was Seattle took some very preventable penalties.  Through most of the past month Seattle has done well to stay out of the box.  That night, hopefully was an anomaly. Seattle didn't have it's best penalty killer in the lineup for that game in Scott Eansor, and then two of Seattle's other top penalty killers, True and Turner Ottenbreit, took those avoidable penalties to start the third period. 

It often sounds odd to call a 19 year old player a seasoned veteran but in this league where most players graduate out at that age or at age 20, those are your most experienced players.  And despite still being a teenager Ottenbreit has been able to impart his WHL elder statesman status to younger players.  17 year old rookie defenseman Reese Harsh told me it wasn't until he was paired with Ottenbreit in mid to late October, that he felt comfortable on the ice and that he felt he belonged in the WHL.  Just two years difference in age between them but a world of difference in experience.  It's enough to make, well, all the difference in the world.   It's another reason why, in Barzal's absence, you've seen Ottenbreit sharing the "C" with Eansor. 

Tremendous weekend of hockey for two NHL drafted T-birds.  Both Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp have picked up their game since the team returned from the holiday break.  Gropp in particular has really started to show he can be a physical presence, a trait Kolesar has always had on display.  Teamed with True Sunday in Spokane, that line presented a physical challenge for the Chiefs.  It was no surprise then that Kolesar and Gropp scored the two goals that brought the T-birds from a goal down to a 2-1 win. 

Where did that come from?  In the first period Friday versus Everett new Seattle d-man Aaron Hyman went coast-to-coast with the puck, weaving through the 'Tips usually staunch defense before having his shot saved by Mario Petit.  Just wasn't expecting that from the big guy.  I'm not sure Everett was either. 

The only downside of the Thunderbirds weekend?  An upper body injury in the second period Sunday to Sami Moilanen.  Too early to tell if it will be long term or not.  The young draft-eligible Finn loves to play and is a terrific two way player who, despite his small stature, plays with grit.  He was sincerely bummed on the bus ride home.  Get well soon Sami!

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  The big 6'2", 220 lb. power forward got Seattle's comeback started with his game tying goal six minutes into the third period.  You could almost see it coming though, the way he had played most of the game up to that point. Really strong along the boards, then constantly going to the front of the net.  He was on the ice for both goals and earned a +2 and was +3 for the weekend.  Of course this came after providing the only goal of the shootout in the win Friday against Everett.

Second Star:  G Rylan Toth.  Four straight starts, a 3-1 mark and in the only loss, he surrendered just two goals in a 2-1 setback.  This weekend he was 2-0 with a 1.92 GAA and SVPCT of .942.  That included a 38 save effort against Everett.  he hasn't allowed a 5-on-5 goal in over 148 minutes. 

First Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Gropp finished off the weekend with a game winning goal in Spokane, a very un-Gropp like goal at that, as he went to the front of the net and tipped in a hard point shot from Ethan Bear.  So often if Gropp is scoring it's off the rush or a snap shot from the slot or the face off dots.  It's his stepped up two-way, physical game that has impressed me the most lately and that includes a strong backchecking effort. Finished the weekend with two points and a +3 rating.