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. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Better Half?

With the home-and-home against Portland to wrap up the month of December behind them, Seattle has finished off the first half of their schedule and begun the second half.  The Thunderbirds sit at 19-14-3-1 after 37 games with 35 more to play.  After next weekend they should get two big pieces of the puzzle back in their lineup and be whole again, something they haven't been a lot the first half of the season. 

Five games into a stretch of 12 straight games against the U.S. Division the T-birds are 3-1-1-0 and have done it so far without two of their top centers Mat Barzal and Alexander True, who are away at World Juniors.  And they've done it while transitioning their back end, replacing two defenseman who left the team and mixing in two new d-men into their top four. Both Aaron Hyman and Austin Strand logged big minutes despite just joining the team this week.

Strand's first game Saturday in Portland was quite the adventure.  While he arrived after the trade Friday from Red Deer, his gear did not.  He played the game against the Winterhawks with a mix of equipment, including Wyatt Bear's skates.   Despite not having a practice with his new team, there he was, late in the game, helping kill off a Portland power play with Seattle clinging to a one goal lead.  He had an important clear of a loose puck in front of the Seattle goal. 

As far as I know, Seattle had no intention of dropping Bryan Allbee from the roster and were counting on Brandon Schuldhaus to be a top six defenseman the second half of the season, just as he was the first half.  The decision to leave was the players' in both instances.  Seattle GM Russ Farwell had to scramble to find two replacements.  That said, I think Seattle's top six defenseman are better today then they were when the team broke for Christmas back on December 17th.   Along with acquiring winger Tyler Adams from Swift Current earlier in the month, The T-birds are now better overall then they were three weeks ago. 

Speaking of Wyatt Bear, the 17 year old winger from Hodgson, Manitoba hasn't needed his skates the first half of the season while recuperating from minor surgery and a lower body injury.  Now though, he'll need to sharpen the blades.  He told me he has begun skating again and soon will be in the mix for minutes on the fourth line.  Last season, as a 16 year old, Bear got into nine games, registered one assist and was +3 before being re-assigned to his Junior A team after Christmas. 

What difference does a year make?  Last season at this time with their top three centers at World Juniors in Helsinki, Finland, Seattle went 2-5-1-0 through the first eight games and were outscored 16-28.  The T-birds allowed six power play goals on 29 chances. 

So far this season, in similar circumstances, Seattle is 3-4-1-0  (but 3-1-1-0 in their last four games). Three of those losses were by one goal as they were only outscored over that stretch 21-23.  The two goal difference?  Two empty-netters.   Additionally the T-birds have killed off 27 of 29 power plays including 16 straight. 

In his last five starts, dating back to December 16th, Seattle goaltender Rylan Toth has fashioned a 1.82 GAA and a SVPCT of .944.  For the month of December Toth put together a 2.55 GAA and .915 SVPCT.  He's been at his best recently with Seattle's best offensive weapon, Barzal, out of the lineup. 

I'd like to take credit when credit is due.  Before the New Year's Eve game in Portland Saturday night I chatted with Zack Andrusiak about taking advantage of the ice time he was getting in the absence of Barzal and True.  Andrusiak did just that, scoring the tying goal and assisting on the game winner.  The goal was his third of the season but second of the week.  He also scored Wednesday in the T-birds 5-4 overtime loss in Spokane. 

Luke Ormsby has great affection for the Moda Center in Portland.  He's scored two goals in his brief WHL career and both have been in that building.  He has one goal at each end of the ice, having scored his first career goal there back on opening night, September 24th. 

With the acquisition of two defensemen, Hyman and Strand, who figure to get top six if not top four minutes on the Seattle blue line, it would appear rookie d-man Anthony Bishop would be the odd-man-out.  But the versatile Bishop will now get into the mix for those available fourth line minutes.  He played quite a bit on the wing the first half of the season. 

His speed and aggressive style make him a good fit in that role.  And, as he showed in the first three games Post-Christmas, if need be he can play his natural position as a defensemen when such a situation arises.  He acquitted himself quite well back on the blue line in those three games and picked up one assist.   

My T-birds three Stars for the four post-Christmas games:

Third Star:  Defenseman Jarret Tyszka.  Tyszka must have gotten a boost of confidence for Christmas this year.  He seemed to bring his game up another level lately.  The draft eligible, Langley B.C. native is shooting more, doing a good job of keeping pucks from leaving the offensive zone and playing with a more physical edge in the D-zone too.  It culminated with two big assists in Portland New Year's Eve, one the tying goal and one on the winning goal, in the third period comeback. 

Second Star:  I'm gonna split this between two big forwards, 20 year old winger Ryan Gropp and 17 year old  center Matthew Wedman.  Both are prime examples of how you can affect a game without getting points.  Gropp was all over the ice the past four games.  I think that is what the New York Ranges want to see from their 2015 2nd round draft pick; the Kamloops native affecting games away from the puck.  He had some key backchecks New Year's Eve and was strong along the boards.

Wedman, meanwhile, is becoming a physical force.  He is really starting to use his size and strength to his advantage.  It's becoming very difficult for opposing teams to knock him off the puck.  He's become one of the best forecheckers on the team.   The best part about his game is he is still growing and filling out his 6'3" frame.  When challenged after delivering a huge, clean hit Saturday, he held his own.

First Star:  Goalie Rylan Toth. As noted above, he's played his best hockey in his most recent games, as he finds a consistency from start to start that wasn't there early in the season.   He still faces more "ten bell" scoring chances then you would expect on a team as talented as Seattle but his rebound control has improved from the first part of the season.  Despite facing some grade A scoring chances from opponents, he has allowed just six goals in his last four starts. 

Sunday, December 18, 2016

We'll Have a T-bird's Blue Christmas

That was an important win for Seattle Saturday night to close out the unofficial first half of the season.  Going into the Christmas break on a high beats the alternative of being gone for ten days with a four game losing streak hanging over your head.  It was a fight to get that win but props to the team's leadership for grinding their way to that 3-0 blanking of Tri-City and giving T-bird fans a nice early Christmas present. 

With the exception of a lopsided loss in Kelowna back on December 7th, Seattle has been competitive in every game so far this month.  It hasn't equated into enough wins as the T-birds are just 4-4 so far in the month but in seven of the eight games they've been in position to win or at least earn a point.

Consistency continues to be an issue.  Some nights it's the lack of a timely goal and on other occasions its the want of a timely save.  Seattle's up and down power play has let them down in some instances and in rare situations that need of just one more penalty kill has eluded them.

The good news is that the majority of Seattle's season still lies in front of them.  Unlike some teams, Kamloops and Tri-City for example, the T-birds reach the Christmas break having only played 33 games, not 36 or 37.  They won't begin the second half of their schedule until New Year's Eve down in Portland.    They still have another four or five games to play without two of their top three centers (Barzal, True) but they've shown they can compete without those two in the lineup. 

One player Seattle will not have for the second half of the season is Layne Bensmiller.  Bensmiller suffered a lower body injury after just seven games and has not responded well enough through treatment to resume playing.  Instead he'll go home to Alberta and use the second half of the season to rehab so he can resume his career next year.  At 19 years of age, he has one more year of WHL eligibility so he could be in the mix for a 20 year old spot with the T-birds in 2017-18.

The Bensmiller situation certainly explains why the T-birds found it necessary to acquire 19 year old Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  The early returns on the newest Thunderbird are positive if not glowing. In chatting with Adams it is clear he knows what his role is with this team.  He's not going to be relied on for offense.  He's going to be an energy player who brings a little physical edge to the roster. 

Right now he's playing on the third line and playing well.  He may stick as a third liner but when Barzal and True return, Adams gives the coach's option to use him up and down the line up.  He, Luke Ormsby and Matthew Wedman showed good chemistry in the win over the Americans. 

I've seen comments on this blog that put a good amount of blame for some of Seattle's first half issues on goaltending.  Let me say that I think Rylan Toth would be the first to tell you he can be better, that he's had an inconsistent first half performance.  The reality is though, that Toth enters the break with the sixth best GAA in the league.  Sure, you can argue that this is more of a team stat and that the real measure of a goalie is his save percentage and right now that doesn't look good for Toth sitting under .900.

But Seattle's goalies don't face a lot of shots.  So, for instance, if you give up two goals on just 18 shots, your save percentage is going to be .888.  Three goals on 24 shots?  .875.  That doesn't look good.   Unfortunately while allowing so few shots against, too many are top end scoring opportunities. 

Yes, you want your goalie to make that one big, game saving stop, something I'm sure Toth would readily agree with.  But look at the last week and you'll see he did that. In the two games in Prince George alone, Toth faced two shorthanded breakaways from Jesse Gabrielle.  He stopped one of two.  That's actually pretty good in that situation.   He stopped a point blank chance Saturday night versus Tri-City when the game was still 1-0.  Seattle overpassing the puck is leading to turnovers and odd man rushes.  As a result the T-birds just give up too many of those Grade A chances. 

Seattle has enough fire power though, that they should win most games when only allowing two or three goals against.  In my opinion, Seattle's biggest issue the first three months of the season hasn't been goaltending.  No, it has been their inability to finish prime scoring opportunities.  Most nights Seattle is outchancing and outshooting their opponent.  Too often the first half of the season they were getting 40+ shots a night and losing.  A prime example was a 4-3 overtime loss in Kamloops.  Seattle had 50+ shots and 29 were ten bell scoring chances, yet they lost.  Finish a few more of those top end scoring opportunities and no one is talking about Seattle's goaltending. 

When you lose 2-1 or 3-2 I find it odd to place all the blame on goaltending.  You win as a team, you lose as a team. 

Despite their inconsistency over the first 32 games, Seattle still hits the break four games above .500 and just seven points out of the third spot in the Conference with games in hand.   There is still the trade deadline and a chance to improve the roster. 

Their best player, Matt Barzal has played in only 13 games, less then half their schedule.  Keegan Kolesar less then that.  They counted on more games from Bensmiller, another WHL veteran. The T-birds have winnable games on the schedule before Barzal and Alexander True return from World Juniors. They need to find a way to win those games.  I believe their best hockey is ahead of them.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend. 

Third Star:  LW Tyler Adams.  Tough thing to do, play one night for another team, in another town, get the news after the game you've been traded then board a plane to a new city and be asked to contribute big minutes with a new team your unfamiliar with.  Adams kept it simple, provided the energy his coaches asked from him.  In doing so he endeared himself to his new teammates and quickly became a fan favorite.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  It's not just the offense as the Finnish rookie now has 11 goals and 25 points in 30 games.  It's how physical he plays with his 5'8" frame. No opponent is too big too throw a check at.  No opponent is too strong to strip a puck from.  Would have loved to see him get invited to the Top Prospects Game.  Seattle was denied on four breakaway chances this weekend.  Not on the fifth where Moilanen scored shorthanded against Tri. 

First Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls is like the utility player in baseball.  He can play a variety of positions well. With Barzal and True gone he moved up from third line winger to center the team's top line.  He was excellent on the PK in both games and earned a big assist on the Moilanen shorty. I was most impressed by how often he planted himself in front of the opposing goal, something Seattle has lacked this season. 

Merry Christmas to all! 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Point-ing in the Right Direction

Seattle ends November and opens the month of December by taking five of a possible six points from their last three games. A few too many casual moments in the first of those three games cost them another point, even though they were up against one of the CHL's top goalies. By gaining 18 of 22 points in their last 11 games, Seattle is now just three points out of third place in the Western Conference with three games in hand. It's is eerily similar to where they were in the standings last season at this time.

Seattle opened the week on the road in Kamloops against the Blazers and goaltender Connor Ingram. Ingram has been invited to Canada's World Junior selection camp and I've heard buzz he could be Canada's #1 goalie for the tournament that begins just after Christmas. The T-birds knew they would have to work to score on him, but work they did. Seattle put 55 legitimate shots on goal and upwards of 30 of them were grade "A" scoring opportunities. Ingram made a number of acrobatic stops and a few pucks caromed of posts and crossbars but the effort from Seattle was there.

I didn't take issue with Seattle only scoring three goals on those 55 shots. Where I was more concerned is that Kamloops scored three even strength goals on three rather egregious defensive zone sins by the T-birds. The 'Birds limited the Blazers to just 21 shots in the game. Most of those came in the third period but Seattle allowed two goals against in just nine shots through the first two periods. Maybe Seattle had so much puck possession and spend 90 percent of the game in the Kamloops end of the ice, they forgot about defensive zone responsibility. Still Seattle earned a point in the overtime loss and road points are hard to come by. So far this season, the T-birds have earned 18 away points out of a possible 30.

Seattle didn't play quite as well two nights later at home against Kootenay and once again were forced into overtime. This time Scott Eansor ended the suspense with the T-birds first OT winning goal of the season (in 4 games). I can't read into the players heads, but I know they read the standings and probably saw a five win Kootenay team on the schedule and thought the game wouldn't require the same kind of effort they put out versus Kamloops. Seattle had a slow start and, I think, lacked a bit of intensity. That changed when they found themselves down a goal after two periods. Seattle was pretty much in control the remainder of the game. They outshot the Ice 17-3 in the third period and found a tying goal on the power play before Eansor's extra time heroics sealed the win.

Saturday night may have been the team's most complete effort of the season in a 7-1 demolishing of the Central Division leading Medicine Hat Tigers. It started in net with Rylan Toth playing his best game as a T-bird. He wasn't tested much but he made a number of quality, confident saves including one off the opening faceoff. Seattle then began their barrage by scoring on their first shot, courtesy of Ryan Gropp. The T-birds then not only killed off two Tigers power play chances but held the WHL's best power play unit to zero shots. Shortly after each of the two Medicine Hat power plays ended, Seattle scored. That can be demoralizing to an opponent.

Instead of letting off the gas with that three goal lead, Seattle continued their onslaught in the second period with three goals from three different goal scorers. And while they didn't score on the power play (they only had three PP chances), that too looked dangerous.

Up by six going into the final period might seem an ideal time to coast to the finish line but I appreciated how the team stuck to the game plan, continued to attack, continued to block shots and added to the lead with a second Donovan Neuls goal.

My T-birds Three Stars of the week.

Third Star: C/W Matthew Wedman. Wedman is normally on the third line with Alexander True and Donovan Neuls. On occasion this past week Coach Konowalchuk has pushed him onto the first line with Mat Barzal and Ryan Gropp. Whatever line he's been on this week, he has produced. He's really starting to use his size and physicality around the opposing goal. As a result he finished the week with five points (1g, 3a) and was +4.

Second Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear is riding a five game goal scoring streak and in that streak he has two game winners. He compiled six points in three games this week (3g, 3a), averaging two points a game. He is now currently second on the team in scoring to Eansor and is approaching point a game status for the season.

First Star: Center Matt Barzal. No coincidence that Seattle's success over their past 11 games coincides with Barzal's return to the lineup. Since he rejoined the team from the NHL they are 8-1-2-0. The trick will be for them to keep it up when he leaves here shortly for World Juniors and won't return until early January. Over his last three games he's earned eight points (1g 7a) over his last five games he has 15 pts. (2g, 13a).

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pass the Gravy, then Pass the Puck

A busy Thanksgiving week saw the Thunderbirds play four games in five nights and come away with three wins. The Turkey Week success finds Seattle a season best four games above .500 as they head into the final game of November, Wednesday up in Kamloops. And while it has taken them a bit to find their legs and chemistry, the T-birds are now 6-1-1-0 since the return of Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar to the lineup.

Minus getting shutout Wednesday in Everett, Seattle has started to find it's offense, although even in that road loss to the Silvertips, they still put 37 shots on goal, including 18 in the first period. In their three wins they tallied 15 goals scoring exactly five times each night in besting Edmonton, Tri-City and Victoria. They have been at their best offensively early in games outshooting opponents in the first 20 minutes by a 2-to-1 margin in the past four games (60 shots to 30) while outscoring them in the first period over that stretch, 9-2.

This is occurring even though the team is still not at 100 percent health. Seattle's top two goalies are on the shelf and Layne Bensmiller hasn't played in over a month. As I said in my last blog post I don't expect Seattle to have its full roster available consistently until after World Juniors in early January. Seattle will play about 6-7 more games before they lose Barzal to Team Canada and Alexander True to Team Denmark. But, as they proved the first month of the season, they are capable of winning games with big guns absent from the lineup.

Even with Bensmiller unavailable Seattle has shown, especially the past two games, what they are capable of when their top three lines are playing at their optimal level. After a sluggish start since being reunited, the combo of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar is starting to hit their stride, accounting for 10 points (4g, 6a) and a +10 in the wins over the Americans and Royals. Not to be outdone, the line of Volcan-Eansor-Moilanen chipped in 8 points (3g, 5a) and were a combined +8. In the Tuesday win over the Oil Kings the T-birds third line did the damage and a week ago third line center Alexander True was the WHL Player of the Week as Seattle went 3-0-1-0.

I'll be curious to see where the coaches put Bensmiller once he is healthy. Initially I'm sure he'll be slotted on the fourth line until he gets back up to game speed. Once he is back and ready to take on more and more ice time, does the 19 year old stay on the fourth line or will he be elevated to the third line with True and Donovan Neuls? Matthew Wedman has been pretty effective on that third line and has made a case to stay there. It is a good problem to have. Either way let's hope Bensmiller gets healthy soon. the T-birds could use him when Barzal and True are gone next month.

I really liked the way Luke Ormsby played the last two games. Ormsby registered his first WHL point last December in a game at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. A return trip there Friday must have created a familiar spark. He had a consistent and solid game against the Americans and followed it up with a good effort at home Saturday against Victoria. Playing on the fourth line with Elijah Brown and Bryan Allbee, they were able to keep the Royals in their own end, creating offensive zone face-offs for Seattle's top lines.

Once Seattle has all their parts, namely the return of Bensmiller, the competition for ice time on that fourth line is going to be intense. If Ormsby can continue to play the way he did in the past two games he'll be hard to keep off the ice.

Remember back when Seattle's penalty kill surrendered 12 power play goals in the first eight games of the season and languished dead last in the league on the PK? Since then the T-birds penalty killing units have only given up eight power play goals over a 16 game stretch and have climbed up to #7 overall in the WHL. The power play is still inconsistent, ranked at #15, but going in the right direction after converting on three of seven chances the past two games.

After a slow start, Seattle is now above .500 both at home and on the road. More importantly Seattle already has gotten their longest road trip out of the way with a successful 4-2 trek through the Eastern Division at the start of November. The other taxing road trip on the schedule comes up early next month between December 7th and 10th, a three game trip that will take them first to Kelowna for one and then up to Prince George for two.

In the sports draft dictionary (unabridged edition of course) under the definition of BPA, or best-player-available, there should be a picture of Sami Moilanen. When everyone had Seattle filling a perceived need, and drafting a defenseman with their pick in last summer's CHL Import Draft, the T-birds instead went against popular conjecture and chose Moilanen, a 17 year old, 5'8", winger from Sipoo, Finland. He was taken with the 49th pick. He's on the cusp of being a point a game player with 21 points (7g, 14a) in his first 22 games. He's currently 6th in WHL rookie scoring while playing fewer games then everyone ahead of him on the list. In his last six games he has 10 points (3g, 7a)and is +5.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Thanksgiving Week:

Third Star: Goalie Matt Berlin. Recalled from Sherwood Park of the AJHL when Carl Stankowski came back from the U-17 Challenge with an injury, Berlin was going to back up Rylan Toth. Then Toth got dinged in the first period Wednesday in Everett and Berlin, all of a sudden, became "the guy" in goal. In eight periods of hockey, including two starts, he allowed just three goals, stopped 57 shots, went 2-0 and posted his first ever WHL shutout. Toth appears ready to return soon. I don't know yet about Stankowski's status but either way, Seattle knows they can rely on Berlin when called upon.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor: Eansor scored his fifth goal in five games Tuesday at home in the win over Edmonton. His goal scoring streak was only snapped by the crossbar the next night in Everett. He started a new point streak by accumulating three assists in two games this weekend. He and his linemates, Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, still get the task of shutting down the top scorers on other teams but their offensive production this season shows other team are having a hard time shutting them down. Late in Saturday's game with Seattle comfortably up 5-0 over Victoria, Eansor was on the ice blocking shots to help preserve Berlin's shutout.

First Star: Center Mat Barzal. You knew it was just a matter of time before Seattle's line of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar would get it going. Barzal, of course is the catalyst. He earned first star honors in each of Seattle's last two wins. He picked up three assists in Kennewick versus the Americans, then did himself one better by adding a goal to his three assists Saturday at home against Victoria. Seven points and +4 in those two games. Even when he's not scoring Seattle is a better team with him in the lineup. In the eight game since his return from the NHL the T-birds are 6-1-1-0. In 16 games without him they were 7-8-0-1.