Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Helmet on; Pedal to the Metal

"We know that if we play 60 minutes like that, we're tough to beat. I don't think there's a team that can keep up with us if we play like that. That's the standard for us the rest of the season."

That's a quote from Matt Barzal, as told to T-birds beat reporter Andy Eide, after Seattle ended their three game losing streak Tuesday night with a 6-0 throttling of the league-leading Kelowna Rockets. And Barzal is right, that has to be the standard for the rest of the season. The T-birds have to break free from their up and down play so far in the second half and find a consistency to their game for sixty minutes every game going forward.

There is no better blue print for that model of consistency then the win over Kelowna. Seattle put the key in the ignition at the start of that game, revved up the motor, put the foot on the gas and for the next three periods of hockey went fast and furious. They were relentless in their pursuit of the puck in all three zones and if they ever skidded off the road even the slightest, goaltender Logan Flodell was there to keep them on the track.

This effort Tuesday was reminiscent of so many of their games the first half of the season, when they were winning six in a row, 7 of 8 or 9 games out of 12. We've seen glimpses of it at times during the season's second half. Even Monday afternoon in Kelowna when the T-birds built a 1-0 lead after the first period with a similar effort. But they couldn't sustain the effort the rest of that game and lost a late lead and the game, 7-4.

We've seen this team, using two different goalies, post five shutouts in their last 14 games. We've also seen games over that span where they've surrendered 7, 6 and 5 goals against. An effort each game like they displayed Tuesday against the Rockets should take care of that. No pun intended, but it is not rocket science. When they play the way they played for a full sixty minutes against Kelowna, with that non-stop aggressive style, they'll put themselves in position to win most games, no matter the opponent. Again, it doesn't guarantee they'll win every game but if they don't play that way you can almost guarantee the result won't go in their favor.

Winning, as Cam Newton will tell you, is so much more fun then losing. But winning comes with a price tag. Seattle was willing to pay that price Tuesday and they were rewarded handsomely. But the goal isn't to pay the price for just one win, but to win every time you play. You have to be prepared to pay the toll each night you step onto the ice.

In the never ending pursuit to find secondary scoring, head coach Steve Konowalchuk continues to search for line combinations that will spark more offense. The thought that Seattle can be consistently successful with just one line scoring would be misguided. Opposing teams will key on the top line to shut them down.

Maybe, just maybe, the latest experiment with the line combos has discovered the winning forumula. Over the past two games the top line of Barzal, Scott Eansor and Ryan Gropp has combined for 14 points (6g, 8a), but Seattle has also picked up secondary scoring from the second line (1g, 2a), the third line (1g, 1a) and even the fourth line (1g, 1a) while the depleted back line has chipped in with five points (1g, 4a).

Seattle has had to play a lot of games since December shorthanded. Whether it was not enough forwards with three players away at World Juniors, or not enough defensemen because of injuries or suspension, The T-birds have had more then one key player out of the lineup almost every night over the past two months. They say that which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. As we approach mid-February Seattle is still alive and kicking and getting key players back.

Jarret Tyszka played his first game since before the Christmas break Tuesday night. Turner Ottenbreit will be back in the lineup this weekend. Andreas Schumacher has returned from illness. The T-birds still await the return of goalie Landon Bow and captain Jerret Smith, so they are not a complete team again just yet but like Barzal said, when this team is 100 percent, and playing 60 minutes of hard-nosed hockey, they are tough to beat.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. With Jerret Smith sidelined with injury, Hauf has been the veteran presence on the back end for Seattle. The T-birds don't rely on him for offense, his game is defensive zone coverage, big hits and physical play. Monday in the loss, there were a lot of minus players on the scoresheet for Seattle, Hauf wasn't one of them. When Kelowna captain Rodney Southam tried to spark his team Tuesday by dropping the gloves with Hauf, Hauf got the better of him. The Rockets never got back in the game after that early second period tilt.

2nd Star. Goalie Logan Flodell. The scoresheet may say Flodell allowed six goals in the loss Monday but the reality is his team hung him out to dry in that game. It was Flodell's 21 save effort in the second period Monday that even allowed the T-birds a chance to have a lead in the third period. Flodell displayed the maturity necessary to shake that game off and come back the next day to post a 31 save shutout. In his three career wins against the potent Rockets offense, going back to late last season, Flodell has allowed just two goals while facing 98 shots. Until Bow returns from injury, the job is Flodell's.

First Star: Center Matt Barzal. It just wasn't the hat trick Tuesday that puts Barzal at the top of list, but the highlight reel effort of all three goals, in particular the third goal, faking a wrap around and tucking it inside the post. After being held off the scoresheet in three straight games he has five points (4g, 1a) in his last two.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A What Might Have Been Weekend

The Thunderbirds came through Sunday to salvage a three game weekend with a 2-0 shutout of the Kelowna Rockets at the ShoWare Center. As a result, the T-birds end the weekend exactly where they began it; five points behind Everett for first place in the U.S. Division. But, oh, what could have been had they gotten a little bit of puck luck Saturday up in Everett or held on to a lead Friday in Spokane. There is still plenty of time, plenty of games and plenty of head-to-head matches with the Silvertips remaining to try and catch the top spot in the division, but they certainly can't afford to miss more opportunities like they had this weekend.

With Everett losing 4 of 5 Seattle had a chance to climb back on top but they dropped 3 of 4. Certainly a chance missed but with five games over a seven day span this coming week, including another game against the Silvertips, Seattle will get another crack at it.

Friday over in Spokane the T-birds lost a two goal lead for the second straight game. They had done the same in their previous outing when they lost to Portland back on January 23rd. The common denominator in both losses? Seattle built their lead, were in control of the game and took their foot off the gas allowing the opponent to get back in the game and steal momentum. The moral of the story? Finish what you started.

And finishing has been an issue lately. Not just finishing games, but finishing scoring chances. The T-birds dominated the Chiefs in the first period but left too many scoring chances on the ice, including hitting the post twice. Instead of being up three or four goals after the first, Seattle enjoyed just a 1-0 lead. They added a shorthanded goal early in period two to increase their lead but again missed a few more opportunities to stretch it. That included ringing another shot off the crossbar. Too often when you let a team hang around they get this idea they can come back on you and that is exactly what Spokane did with four third period goals enroute to their 5-4 comeback win.

Seattle put the loss to the Chiefs behind them and came back with another strong effort Saturday up at Xfinity Arena. It was a really good road effort against the Silvertips as Seattle had a good deal of the puck possession and put 35 shots on goal. But the god of puck luck was not in their corner on this night. A beautiful wrap around by Scott Eansor somehow didn't go in, riding the goal line from post to post before sneaking out the back side. A couple of juicy rebounds eluded their sticks in front of the Silvertips goal and Everett goalie Carter Hart came up with big, timely saves. Then, with the game in the last two minutes and appearing headed to overtime, a clearing attempt by the T-birds in the defensive zone deflected off a skate and caromed to the 'Tips Graham Millar all alone in front of the Seattle net where he backhanded in the game winner.

A loss such as that, in fact back-to-back-to-back losses such as the T-birds suffered on their three-game losing streak, could certainly weigh you down mentally. How do you get back in the right frame of mind after you lose a game you probably feel you deserved to win? Especially when the next game is less then 24 hours later on the back side of a busy 3-in-3 weekend? I think you need to credit the coaching staff. They won't let the team dwell on the last game, whether it is a win or a loss. They work to get the team's attention re-focused on the next game. We are talking teenagers here so often that is easier said then done but after each recent loss, the T-birds were ready to go from the start.

That paid off Sunday with the shutout win over Kelowna. Were the Rockets a tired team playing their third game in three nights including an overnight bus ride to get to Kent? Sure. But it was also Seattle's third game of the weekend, with the first two having been played on the road while the Rockets just finished playing two at home. The T-birds also played the game with just five healthy defenseman after Jerret Smith was injured the night before up in Everett. Let's not forget that another of Seattle's top six defensemen, Jarret Tyszka, is still on the mend from his hand injury and wasn't available either. So, the playing field was fairly even for both squads.

The T-birds came out strong, peppered the Kelowna net with shots and midway into the first period scored the only goal they would need when Ryan Gropp put back a ricochet of an Ethan Bear shot that kicked off the end boards. Seattle continued their onslaught of shots and during a mad scramble in front of the Rockets goal in the middle of the second period, added an insurance goal thanks to Bryan Allbee. From their it was just solid team defense and top notch goaltending that put this one in the win column.

Even strength goals have been rare lately for Seattle so it was nice to see both goal Sunday were of the even strength variety. Even more significant was how they were scored; one off a rebound and the other off a net front scramble. The T-birds have been inconsistent going to the net this season so it was good to see both goals scored off second chance opportunities. A couple of greasy goals for the win!

With Smith now joining Tyszka on the sidelines as injured T-birds defensemen, rookie Brandon Schuldhaus has been given a bigger role and responded well Sunday. The Calgarian rotated into the game along with the other five healthy d-men and also saw time on the penalty kill. It was probably the most minutes he's played in a game this season and he took advantage of the opportunity to play one of his best games. Kelowna has some highly regarded young defensemen logging lots of minutes on their blueline, but Schuldhaus was the one who impressed me the most on Sunday.

News and Notes: The Thunderbirds continue to lead the league in killing off penalties. The T-birds were a perfect 12-for-12 on the PK in the three games this weekend. Only Kamloops has allowed fewer power play goals this season (27) then Seattle (30), but the T-birds have been shorthanded 38 more times then the Blazers. It should be interesting to see these top penalty killing units matched up Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center.

What do the Thunderbirds last four wins have in common? They've all come via shutout. January 13th, Landon Bow shut out the Cougars, 4-0, up in Prince George. He then put up back-to-back shutouts against Saskatoon (also 4-0) at home on the 19th and versus the Winterhawks (3-0) down in Portland on the 22nd. Logan Flodell's 23 save effort Sunday gave Seattle four shutouts in their last nine games after going the first 40 games of the season without one.

Have the T-birds fully recovered from World Juniors yet? Before their top three centers left for the tournament in Finland, Seattle had won nine of 13 (9-3-1-0). With those three players away, plus a couple of injuries, they went 2-5-1, often playing with a less then full roster through December. Since everyone has returned and players have been added at the trade deadline, they are 6-6. I think January was a month of adjustment, integrating everyone back into the lineup. Let's see if February finds the team rolling again. They'll still need to find consistent scoring and that means getting secondary scoring from throughout the lineup.

One reason for optimism is Seattle seems to have found a combination of players who give them good minutes on the fourth line. Matthew Wedman, Andreas Schumacher, Garan Magnes and Josh Uhrich are becoming hard to play against. They are aggressive and physical with nonstop motors. It was Schumacher driving the net that set up the scramble for Seattle's second goal against Kelowna.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. Kolesar may be have been the unluckiest T-bird this weekend as he hit a couple of posts and had a few shots go off target, but on a team that sometimes seems reluctant to shoot he was shooting pucks all weekend. He still managed a two point night (1g, 1a) Friday in Spokane. He continues to stand up for his teammates as he did Friday when Ryan Gropp got clocked in front of the Chiefs net. I thought he was really strong along the boards Saturday in Everett as well and was big reason why Seattle dominated possession and territorial play Sunday versus Kelowna.

2nd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Seattle, finishing off a busy weekend and trying to snap a three game losing streak, needed Flodell to be at his best against the high scoring Rockets on Sunday and he was. In his first start in three weeks, he made 23 saves to earn his first career WHL shutout while picking up his 14th win of the season. With Flodell and Bow, Seattle is one of just two WHL teams with two goaltenders in the top 11 statistically. the other is league-leading Lethbridge.

1st Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Gropp scored a goal in each game this weekend, including the game winner Sunday. He now has 24 goals on the season and that ties him for the team lead with Kolesar. With points in ten of his last 11 games the New York Rangers prospect has 46 points in 46 games (24g, 22a). Gropp also had a good weekend defensively as he continues to work on improving that part of his game. He, Kolesar and Matt Barzal seem to have it going again which is good news for the T-birds going forward.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Some L. Bow Mac-OH-roni and Cheese

It was mostly a sweet week for the Seattle Thunderbirds, it just had a little sour ending. Seattle went 2-1 in three games, including back-to-back shutouts. It seemed like they might be on their way to a third Saturday night but forgot to play a full 60 minutes and dropped a key game to Portland.

Let's start with the good. The T-birds posted consecutive shutouts, and made it three shutouts in their last six games, when they blanked Saskatoon Tuesday and Portland Friday. Landon Bow was in net both nights, stopping a combined 47 shots. He wasn't tested much against Saskatoon as the Blades mustered just 17 shots thanks to Seattle's extended puck possession game and solid d-zone play. Bow was at his best that night late, preserving the shutout as Saskatoon tried everything to avoid being blanked but it was to no avail as Seattle picked up the 4-0 win.

It was the opposite Friday down in Portland. Bow was on top of his game early, facing 12 shots in the first period including a breakaway, and stopping everything that came at him. The T-birds then struck twice in the second period enroute to the 3-0 win. After getting on top in that game, the T-birds controlled the puck for much of the third period but did have to kill off a couple of late Portland power plays to keep the goose egg on the board.

Saturday night back at the ShoWare Center, again facing Portland, Seattle started off well. Their hard work in the first period was rewarded with a late power play and Scott Eansor capitalized by redirecting a Jerret Smith shot into the net for the game's first goal. Seattle would add a second power play goal early in the second from Keegan Kolesar to double their lead. At that point the T-birds had outscored the opposition 10-0 over their last 157:55 minutes of play.

But then, I think, the team got complacent. They stopped working the way they had the previous two and a half games. They got soft on pucks, made some careless plays in the defensive zone and pretty much lost their intensity and focus. As we seem to always find out in games like this, once you turn that switch off, it's not easy to flip it back on. The T-birds played the rest of the game back on their heels and Portland took advantage, scoring five straight in their come-from-behind win.

Seattle not only lost the lead and the game, but a chance to narrow that gap on first place Everett in the U.S. Division. The Silvertips lost back-to-back road games on the weekend but instead of pulling within three points of first place, Seattle settled for a five point deficit. A big missed opportunity. especially with a game in Everett on the schedule this Saturday.

One of the issues Saturday, and this is not meant as a criticism of the promotion but rather of the way the players approached it, was the annual Fred Meyer Teddy Bear Toss. Players were so keyed on being the one to score that first goal, they put all their energy and focus into it. Any time a Seattle player had the puck on his stick in that first period, they were throwing the puck on net in hopes they would be the one to light the lamp and begin the rain of Teddy Bears down onto the ice.

After Eansor's re-direct ended the suspense, the T-birds players seemed to be less enthusiastic about the rest of the game. This is not the first time I've seen the T-birds score the Teddy Bear toss goal, then go on to lose the game. Seattle is not alone, I've seen it happen with other team's too. In fact, it wasn't too many years ago I witnessed Seattle do the same to the Winterhawks in Portland. Either the delay to clean the bears off the ice kills the momentum, or in this case, a lack of focus the rest of the game gets players away from the small details that go into winning. It's a great promotion for a great cause. The onus is on the player to re-focus and get back to playing the game the right way.

Seattle's special teams have been terrific as of late. Seattle is now tops in the league on the penalty kill at 84.4%. Over the last month the Thunderbirds have killed off 53 of 60 opponent power play chances (dating back to December 13th), including a streak where they were 34 of 35 on the PK over a nine game stretch. Meanwhile, the power play, which struggled in the absence of Matt Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True when they were away at World Juniors, has re-emerged lately. Seattle is 9 for 26 with the man advantage over the last six games, a success rate of 34%. As a result the T-birds have climbed back up to 7th overall in the WHL on the power play at 21.6% on the season.

The flip side of that though, is the absence of even strength goals for Seattle the last few weeks. So far in the month of January (ten games), the T-birds have scored 28 goals. Only 14 have been even strength, but of those one was a 3-on-3 OT goal and one was scored 4-on-4. The other 12 have been either on the power player, shorthanded (1) or an empty netter (2). Seattle has to generate more scoring 5-on-5. They have just two such goals in their last three games.

It's amazing to think that Seattle has gotten past the midway point of the season and has yet to play three games in three nights, something that seemed to happen with regularity and frequency in past seasons. That all changes this weekend. The T-birds are in Spokane Friday night, Everett Saturday then come back home to take on Kelowna at the ShoWare Center Sunday evening at 5.

My T-birds three stars for the past week:

Third Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. It was only a tip-of-the-glove save by Portland's Aiden Hill in the third period Saturday that prevented Neuls from extended his goal scoring streak to five games. Seattle is in need of secondary scoring and Neuls is starting to provide that. The steak allowed Neuls to establish a new career high in goals in a season with 8 through 46 games, one more then he had all of last season in his 69 game rookie campaign. Neuls is also key to the T-birds penalty killing success and a big part of why they are #1 in the league in that category. Additionally, with Alexander True moved up to play right wing on the top line, Neuls has taken over centering the T-birds third line.

2nd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect is now the team leader in goals scored with 23 after potting four in three games. Those four goals are four more then he had all of last season. Already this season he has established new career bests in goals, assists and points and there are still 26 games left to add to those numbers. Remember, he did most of his scoring this week after being moved off the top line. Three of his four goals were of the power play variety (the other was an empty net goal)so I think he has more to give 5-on-5 but he again is showing he has good instincts around the net.

1st Star: G Landon Bow. Before Bow arrived in Seattle via trade in early January Seattle had played 37 games and registered nary a shutout. Since Bow joined the team they have recorded three shutouts in seven games. This past week alone he went 2-1 with a GAA of 1.51 and a SVPCT of .951. Since arriving in Kent, he is 6-2 with a 1.64 GAA and .951 SVPCT. Those are numbers that give you a chance to win every night. The T-birds have added a new instrument to their band and it is the OH-Bow.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Riding the Home/Road Rollercoaster

Seattle's loss Saturday night in Everett was their week in condensed form. There was the good, the bad and the ugly. The T-Birds had a rock solid start in Everett but once they fell behind, they faded down the stretch. The game turned over the course of just 25 seconds midway through the second period. Up to that point, the T-Birds had really kept the Silvertips at arms length. But a Seattle turnover at the their own blueline and a lost battle along the boards and all of a sudden it was 2-0 in favor of the 'Tips and Seattle never recovered.

Most disappointing was Seattle's response to that deficit. Certainly being two goals down to a stingy Everett team isn't the optimal position to be in but there was still half a game to be played. Yet Seattle seemed to wilt and abandoned their systems. Mentally they looked to be playing as if the result was a foregone conclusion. They lost the intensity they played the first half of the game with. Early in the season Seattle came back on a number of occasions from deficits as large or larger then this one. But Saturday, too many players abandoned the fight when there was still plenty of fight left.

As for the week as a whole? The good? Two wins, including their first shutout of the season, on the road no less in Prince George. The bad? Two losses, both on the road where they've been far too inconsistent thus far this season. The ugly? Getting outscored in those two road losses 11-3.

There are a few areas Seattle still needs to improve going forward. One, they have to stop passing up the chance to put pucks on net. The perfect scoring chance is a rare thing. Shots get blocked, shots get deflected, shots get saved and some shots end up in the net, but no shot never taken ends up as a goal. Two, and this really is part of step one, get traffic in front of the opposing net. Seattle's last two goals scored over the weekend were both the result of having a net front presence. If a goaltender can see the shot, he's probably going to make the save. If you screen him or make him have to move the odds of scoring improve.

Saturday night's loss in Everett was a prime example of what screening a goalie can do for your offense. As good as Landon Bow is he had no chance on three of the Silvertips four goals scored against him because he was screened. Everett had plenty of traffic in front of the Seattle net and they were willing to fling pucks toward the goal and get good things to happen as a result. You want the biggest difference in the game? To me that was it. Goalies can't stop what the goalie can't see. Everett goalie Carter Hart was able to see almost every shot that came his way. Not so for Bow.

The third issue, penalties. It wouldn't seem to be a big issue considering Seattle is first overall in the WHL on the penalty kill. But the T-Birds played four games this past week and ended up shorthanded 19 times. On average that's almost five power plays to the opposition each game. It may not seem like a lot, especially considering the T-Birds allowed just two power play goals, both in the loss to Everett, and killed off the other 17 shorthanded situations. To kill off those penalties though, you use your top players and that disrupts your ability to roll four lines.

Saturday night I thought Seattle was controlling the tempo and the puck most of the first period. Then they took two avoidable penalties (a hold and an interference call) within five minutes of each other. Everett didn't score on those power plays. In fact they only registered one shot and were far from dangerous, but after Seattle killed off those penalties, that was when the Silvertips tilted the ice back to a more even playing field as Seattle had to rely on the 3rd and 4th lines to play 5-on-5. Before the penalties Everett had one shot on goal. When the two Seattle penalties were killed off Everett still only had two shots and we were 14 minutes into the game. But over the last six minutes of the first period, Everett outshot Seattle 5-0.

Seattle's power play has come back to life recently. They are 4 for their last 7 with the man advantage and used the power play to beat Regina Friday night, going 3-for-5. Seattle was a top 5 power play team most of the first half of the season and they will need to get back to that level going forward.

Despite the loss in Everett, the T-Birds are still 4-2 since the trade deadline and Bow has been exactly what they hoped for in goal since acquiring him from Swift Current. They've been very good at home when they've had a full roster. Their three regulation losses at home all occurred when their top three centers were away at World Junior and they were dealing with a couple of injuries and thus played undermanned. Outside of that, their home record is 15-0-2-0. Of their remaining 29 games, 16 are at the ShoWare Center.

Definitely Seattle has to improve on the road but they showed this past Wednesday what they are capable of away from home when they put in a complete 60 minutes as they shut out a quality Prince George team. They followed that up with a good road effort over the first half of the game in Everett. In fact Seattle had fashioned a stretch of 90 consecutive minutes of shutout hockey on the road. They just need to find more consistency when away from home.

My T-Birds three stars for the week:

3rd Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. Has scored in back to back games now. His goal Friday in the win versus Regina gave Seattle the cushion needed to earn a 4-2 win. Not only has he scored twice in the past two games but he's also starting to create more scoring opportunities for himself, mostly off of his strong forecheck. Neuls is also a big reason why the T-Birds have climbed to the top of the WHL penalty killing leaderboard.

2nd Star: C Matt Barzal. Barzal is now averaging 1.61 points per game. He had another three assist night in the win over Regina but also looks to want to shoot the puck more since coming back from World Juniors. Despite his time away from the team, he's still tied for 11th in league scoring and number one on the T-Birds in that category with 50 points in just 31 games, 15 games less then the league's leading scorer.

1st Star: Goalie Landon Bow. in six game with Seattle Bow is 4-1 with a 1.81 GAA and a save percentage of .939. It took him just three starts to register the first shutout for a Seattle goalie this season. Project those numbers out over the rest of the season, where he'll get the great majority of the workload in goal, and Seattle will have a chance for the "W" most nights.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Race is on

Another WHL trade deadline has come and gone and a number of players have new addresses as teams bolstered their rosters for the playoff stretch run. Mainly though, a lot of players around the league are just letting out a sigh of relief now that the deadline has passed.

Seattle was busy on the trade front and this coming Thursday I'll chat with T-Birds GM Russ Farwell, on the Weekly Seattle Thunderbirds Coach's show, about the moves he made to strengthen the club for the second half of the season. So tune in at 6 pm Thursday on 1090 The Fan.

The T-Birds trades were like playing with dominos, one deal falling into the other; sort of a chain reaction. Even though they were announced in a different order, the key acquisition was goaltender Landon Bow. Seattle needed to shore up their play in between the pipes. It had been too inconsistent the first half. But in order to bring in Bow, Seattle had to send out a 20-year old. The options were two 20-year old defensemen, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, or 20-year old winger Jamal Watson. Now, if you're shoring up your back end by bringing in the goalie, you don't jettison one of your top two d-men. That would be a lateral move.

So unfortunately Watson was the odd man out. So Watson is dealt to Swift Current, along with goalie Taz Burman, but that leaves a hole on your second line. To fill that, Seattle sent defenseman Sahvan Khaira to the Broncos for winger Cavin Leth. Leth is almost a Watson clone; fast, and a 200-foot player who can chip in offensively. I think the one edge for Leth is he may be a bit more physical than Watson. It was a very simple solution to just plug him in on the second line with Volcan and Eansor and not miss a beat.

Of course by trading away Khaira, Seattle was now thin on their blue line, down to just five healthy defensemen with Jarret Tyszka on the shelf for at least a month with an injury. So the T-Birds remedied that by sending a 5th round draft pick to Kootenay in exchange for Bryan Allbee. While Khaira had just started to come into his own, Allbee is a year older and will play a similar role. He'll be on the third pairing and can also slot into the second power play unit. He can carry the puck up ice and doesn't appear shy about taking shots.

Add in the Andreas Schumacher deal that went down right after Christmas and the Josh Uhrich trade in early December and I believe Seattle has improved their depth while adding experience as they got a little older in the process. The T-Birds played two games this weekend, winning them both, with a fourth line that featured two 19-year olds. Before the deals Seattle's fourth line was usually a couple of rookies and a second year player.

One unfortunate note for the T-Birds is the loss of Owen Seidel for the second half of the season, with an upper body injury. Seidel was really starting to impact games as he got more consistent ice time. To fill his roster spot Seattle made one final move Sunday, acquiring 18-year old LW Garan Magnes from Edmonton for a seventh round draft pick. This move gets Seattle back to 14 forwards and gives them depth going forward.

Seattle accomplished all these moves, plus the return of their top three centers from World Juniors, without surrendering top end assets. The biggest asset they give up that could impact the future is a conditional second round draft pick to Swift Current in the Bow deal. Other than that Seattle still has all their signed prospects and their first round draft choices.

Overall, there weren't many blockbuster deals in the WHL this season. The one team that made the most noise was Red Deer, but as host team they are the only WHL club guaranteed a spot at the Memorial Cup in May, so that makes sense but they did pay some hefty prices to ensure they would have a competitive at the Cup. Meanwhile a look a the WHL standings will show that every team in the Western Conference is still within striking distance of a playoff spot and out East is almost as tight with 10 of 12 teams having a legitimate shot at the postseason. I think a lot of general managers were reluctant to trade away their best players with the playoffs still within reach.

On the ice this past weekend, with Seattle back at full strength after playing most of the past month shorthanded, the T-Birds took two from two division rivals. They beat Portland Friday then won a hard fought battle against Everett Sunday thanks to Matt Barzal's overtime beauty. As close to a complete effort both nights, with everyone contributing, as you can get. I would expect, as the returning players and the players added via trade, get back into the swing of things 100 percent, the play will only improve.

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Center Scott Eansor. Back to playing a 200 foot game, check. Back to killing penalties, check. Back to winning faceoffs, check. Back with a big grin after winning a bronze medal with Team USA at World Juniors, check. His line was the big offensive producers versus the Winterhawks.

2nd Star: Center Matt Barzal. Like Eansor, Barzal had a strong World Juniors for Team Canada. He also hadn't done much skating since Canada's loss to Finland in the quarterfinals. As a result probably not 100 percent in the win Friday over Portland, but he was at his best Saturday against the Silvertips. Gonna put the paycheck on the line and say his OT winner is going to be in the Top 10 plays of the week. His first goal was just as pretty. Nice to see him looking to shoot more.

1st Star: Goalie Landon Bow. When you're THE big trade deadline acquisition, that has to put pressure on you. When you get traded and thrown right into the fire against your new team's top two rivals, that amps the pressure up even more. When your perform at the top of your game both nights, that's priceless. 56 shots faced, 53 saves made and two win

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The T-birds Have Spokane

The T-Birds season to date: first 25 games, zero versus division rival Spokane. Last 10 games, five versus Spokane. Next 20 games, just one against Spokane. Not the strangest schedule out there though. Take the case of the Vancouver Giants. They recently played four straight against Victoria, followed by three in a row against Everett and are now finishing off three consecutive games against Prince George. Life in the WHL!

Seattle came out of the Christmas break and played two very similar games against Spokane in a home-and-home series. I liked that the T-Birds were ready to play from the drop of the first post-holiday puck. There were no passengers, everyone was helping to pull the freight. Just some good hard-nosed, gritty hockey and that was necessary because Seattle played under the limit both nights, dressing just 16 skaters Sunday and 17 on Tuesday.

Effort like that doesn't always equal wins but it does usually put you in position to win. The T-Birds ended up splitting the pair of games, losing 3-0 on the road before the 2-1 home ice win. The simplest difference in the two games was Seattle's ability to cash in on a couple of opportunities in the second game. In the loss Sunday in Spokane the T-Birds were dominating puck possession through most of the first period but failed to capitalize on numerous scoring chances.

Tuesday's game seemed to be following the same path until Nolan Volcan went hard to the net and banged in a rebound. Then, Seattle's game-winning goal was just a matter of Keegan Kolesar flinging a puck on net and finding some space between the goalie and the post. Too often the T-Birds aren't getting traffic at the net to score greasy goals. Too often lately they are missing the net with their shots or passing up scoring chances in favor of an extra pass. I think Tuesday's two goals were a matter of not overthinking the game. Just keep it simple, crash and bang, get pucks on net and good things can happen.

After a six goal outburst in their final pre-Christmas game in Kennewick versus the Americans, Seattle has mustered just two goals in two games since. It's not for a lack of opportunity, but more a lack of finish. Certainly missing the top three centers is affecting the offense's ability to score goals. And sometimes you just go through offensive slumps or don't get any puck luck. The old saying in sports though is that while offense can go through droughts, with consistent hard work defense maintains. In the first two after-the-break games, Seattle has been working hard and stayed very focused in the defensive zone, limiting the scoring chances against. When your offense is struggling to score, defense keeps you in games.

With the shortened bench, players not used to it, are getting more ice time. Some are showing that are ready to step up. Nic Holowko stepped in to center Seattle's second line. The T-Birds have struggled in the face-off circle in the absence of their top three centers. Saturday Holowko helped stop some of that bleeding, winning a number of draws. With young defenseman Jarret Tyszka now out until February at the earliest with a hand injury, two other young d-men are being asked to man the blue line on Seattle's third pairing. 17-year olds Sahvan Khaira and Brandon Schuldhaus need to play well enough to give the coach's confidence to keep putting them out there and not have to wear down their top two pairs. So far so good. Both are keeping it simple and not overextending themselves.

It was a solid T-Birds debut for Andreas Schumacher (the Swede with the German name!). Schumacher is a an older player than the guy he replaced, fellow Swede Gustav Olhaver, and he's been in the league for over a year. In his first game he was physical, willing to crash and bang and not afraid to mix it up. Despite their lofty expectations coming into the season, Seattle was still a relatively young team. Now, in the past month the T-Birds have gotten a little older by trading for two 19-year olds, Schumacher and Josh Uhrich. Right now they are playing 2nd and 3rd line minutes. But the thinking here is that when Seattle gets everyone back from World Juniors, these two older veterans slide back on to your 3rd and 4th lines, creating matchup issues for opposing teams.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. I just liked the way he played with a little more aggression then usual these past two games. He was throwing some pretty solid checks around and doing it with authority. With just six healthy defenseman currently on the roster, the T-birds will lean a little more heavily on their veterans and Hauf seemed to understand that in the two games against Spokane. While he didn't register a point I think he understands that Seattle needs to get more pucks on net and has been shooting more in recent games.

2nd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell has actually been pretty solid and consistent in his last four games. It seemed with Seattle struggling to pot goals the last two games he needed to stop everything that came his way and did his best in saving 53 of 56 shots faced. His effort in those last four games has pushed his save percentage back to .900 and he has the sixth best goals-against average in the league now at 2.68. The quest now is to keep playing with this consistency the rest of the way. One thing Saturday night proves is you don't have to make spectacular saves to preserve a lead or earn a win, just be positionally sound and you'll make the stops you need to make. Flodell was less acrobatic in net both nights and as a result was in the right place at the right time on most shots.

1st Star: LW Nolan Volcan. While he admitted he took time off from skating during the Christmas break and it bit him in the first game back in Spokane, Volcan was the best player on the ice Saturday but not because of his skill and talent. Lots of talented and skilled players were on the ice in that game. What separated him was his tenacity and effort; his willingness to get dirty and battle. A big goal to open the scoring and get Seattle off the schneid after being shutout the game before, then a big assist on the game winning goal. His goal Saturday gives him nine on the season in just 22 games, with three in the last three games coming off an injury that cost him a baker's dozen games. Those nine goals equal his total from his rookie season when he scored nine times in 67 games.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Have Yourself a Merry Little T-Birds Christmas

The Thunderbirds, along with the rest of the WHL, have reached the Christmas break and will now take a week off to celebrate the holiday with family. The T-Birds scattered after an impressive come-from-behind win in Kennewick Saturday, beating the Tri-City Americans 6-3 behind two goals each from Ryan Gropp and Nolan Volcan.

It didn't start out well as the T-Birds fell behind, 2-0, within the first six and a half minutes. Taz Burman didn't have a good start in goal and was pulled after allowing two goals on five shots. But the deficit was a team effort as the whole team didn't appear ready. Seattle was able to get one back on a Gropp breakaway midway through the period. That, and the play in goal of Burman's replacement Logan Flodell, seemed to settle the team down and get them back on the same page.

I don't know if there was a message delivered to the team in the first intermission. If there was, it may have been the most important message of the season delivered by head coach Steve Konowalchuk. Whatever was said, or whoever said it, it worked like a Christmas miracle. The Thunderbirds completely turned their game around as soon as the puck dropped to start period two. The next 40 minutes was an example of the T-Birds at their finest. A strong, aggressive forecheck, lots of puck possession and crisp passing as they carried the puck up ice.

Seattle took the lead thanks to goals from Gropp and Volcan on the power play. They hiccupped at the start of the third period when the Americans tied the game at three just 40 seconds in, but after that it was all Seattle. Just the night before in Seattle's 3-2 OT loss at home to the Americans, Owen Seidel had missed scoring his first WHL goal when, as he told me, he got stopped on the door step by a toe save. Saturday at the Toyota Center he was not to be denied, banging in the rebound off a Luke Ormsby shot at 3:53 of the third period. Not only was it his first WHL goal, it was a game winner. Meanwhile Ormsby showed why observers were excited about his prospects at training camp this fall, getting an assist for his first WHL point (in just his 3rd game) by winning a puck battle along the wall and driving the net.

Seattle would strike twice more before all was said and done. Volcan tallied his second of the night and Matthew Wedman polished it off with a highlight reel wrap around goal with six minutes remaining. The win was Seattle's 19th of the season, pushed them back in to first place in the U.S. Division and helped them avoid a four game winless streak going into the break. Instead the Thunderbirds earn three of four points on the weekend. That's a nice stocking stuffer!

So far, Seattle is 3-4-1-0 in the month of December. If they can maintain a .500 clip or better the rest of the month without their top three centers in the lineup, I'd call that a win. Matt Barzal (Canada), Scott Eansor (USA) and Alexander True (Denmark) are all in Helsinki, Finland, representing their countries at the World Junior Championships. They'll most likely all be there through the first week of January so the T-Birds will have to do without them for a while longer.

Seattle is now off until December 27, when they regroup in Spokane to take on the Chiefs. The first post Christmas home game is at the ShoWare Center on the 29th, a Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday, also against Spokane. While Seattle doesn't officially hit the mid-point of their 72 game schedule until Game 36 New Year's Eve down in Portland, let's call the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule the first half. With that in mind, here are my three stars for the first half of the season:

3rd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. His goal scoring has dropped off from a blistering pace he started the season with but he's still contributing points, coming up with some big assists in the two games this weekend. Overall he's tallied 39 points (16g, 23a)in 33 games, meaning he's averaging a solid 1.18 points a game. He's second on the team in scoring and tied for 15th in the WHL. Sunday the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him last spring in the third round, announced they had signed him to a standard three-year entry level contract.

2nd Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear has been a model of consistency so far this season for the T-Birds. While his offensive numbers get all the publicity, he's been very solid in his own end as well. At the break he leads all WHL defensemen in scoring with 36 points (11g, 25a). With a powerful and usually accurate shot, he's always a threat to score on the power play. He's third on the team in scoring and is averaging 1.09 points per contest. He's on pace for a 79 point season.

1st Star: C Mathew Barzal. Not only is Barzal the best player on this team, but he is one of the top four or five players in the WHL and among the best in the entire CHL, as evidenced by his selection to play for Team Canada at World Juniors. He's been among the league leaders in scoring all season, compiling 43 points in just 25 games, averaging 1.72 points a game this season. Depending on when he returns to Seattle he's still probably on pace for a 90-plus point season, something that no T-Bird players has accomplished since Brooks Laich put up 94 points in the 2002-03 season. There's even a good chance he could reach the 100 point mark, which hasn't been accomplished since 1998-99 when Bret DeCecco did it.