Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Greetings

Merry Christmas. I know that is not PC to say in some circles but I prefer it over Happy Holidays.
A two-game winning streak is definitely a nice way to go into the the break. The resiliency of this team is quite remarkable. They did lose 6 of their last 10 games but it could have been worse as twice they snapped 3-game losing streaks by winning 2 in a row. Just when you think you're out, they pull you right back in again!

I know some will say beating Portland loses some of the shine because three big offensive cogs were missing from the Winterhawks lineup but what would they be saying had the T-Birds lost? Certainly the 'Birds 3-0-0-1 record so far this season against Portland has been accomplished against a Portland team not quite at full strength in most of those games (although Portland had pretty much a full compliment of players in the two games that went to a shootout down at the Rose Garden), but Seattle doesn't have any say in who is in or who is out of the Winterhawks lineup. Besides, the T-Birds have not been at full strength in any of the games they've played against Portland either. Simple fact is those are seven crucial points earned by Seattle. Tell me another team in the league that has to play 12 games head-to-head against arguably the league's best team? Remember, there are still seven games left in the series. No need for the T-Birds to apologize for earning those points.
The record going into the Christmas break is better this season then last but the situation is eerily the same. A year ago, despite a sub par first half of the season, the 'Birds were still in the hunt for a playoff spot. They were only a few points out of the 8th and final playoff position in the Western Conference. Games right after the break were crucial. As you know though, Seattle didn't answer the bell and fell out of contention.

This season the T-Birds are again in a tight battle for a playoff spot at the break. Once again they have crucial games coming out of the layoff. Will they answer the bell this time around?

Here are some things to look forward to after the break when the season resumes: 1) the potential return to the lineup of Brendan Troock. Can the 16 year-old have an impact in the second half of the season? Can he stay healthy and in the lineup? 2)The January 10th trade deadline; will GM Russ Farwell stand pat, make a minor move or try for a big splash? 3)Home games; the T-Brds ended a six-ame home ice losing streak when they beat Portland the last game before the break, can they keep the winning mojo going on home ice with 22 home games left? A playoff spot may hang in the balance. 4)Games against their U.S. Division foes. 25 of their remaining 39 games will be against either Portland, Spokane, Tri-City or Everett. Again, the difference between making or missing the postseason may hinge on their effort against those four teams. So far Seattle is 6-6-0-3 against their division rivals. Will .500 against the U.S. Division be enough to garner a playoff spot? Fortunately they only have four games left with Tri-City. The T-Brds have yet to beat the Americans in five tries this season (0-3-0-2). 5) The 'Birds have 13 games remaining against the B.C. Division and nine of them will be at the ShoWare Center. So far the T-Brds are 4-2 against B.C. Division teams. These are teams Seattle will battle for a playoff spot down the stretch so these games will be just as crucial as games within the U.S. Division.

Enjoy the rest of the Christmas break and see you at the ShowWare Center on the 28th against Spokane!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Road Warriors

The T-Birds continue to earn points on the road, gaining four out of a possible six road points on their recent journey up into British Columbia. The trip started with a close 3-2 loss to the red hot Kelowna Rockets, a game in which Seattle had opportunities for more than the two goals they scored but ran into solid goaltending from the Rockets Adam Brown.

The team ventured north to Prince George for a pair but before they arrived in P.G., they made a pit stop in 100 Mile House for a practice. I still contend the name of the town should be changed since Canada switched to the metric system a few decades ago. I guess 160.9 Kilometer House just doesn't have the same ring. This small community has one of the nicer arenas the T-birds have practiced in on their road treks over the years, especially for a town of it's size. The rink is only six years old but is immaculately kept up and looks brand new. Once again, just like in Moosomin, Sask. on the eastern swing, the community was excited to have a WHL team come to their town and welcomed them with open arms. Because of the time of day of the practice not as many of the local youth got a chance to come on the ice at the end of the practice and skate with the 'Birds, but those that did had a blast. I posted a video of the practice on the Thunderbirds Facebook page.

The two games up in Prince George were very entertaining affairs. It wasn't necessarily the best hockey the T-Birds have played but what's most important is they left town with two wins, in the process snapping a three-game losing streak. With 18 goals it only seemed like there were more goals scored between the two teams in these games then we'd seen in all the previous games combined.

The two high scoring games were in stark contrast to the first time that Seattle played Prince George back in October at the ShoWare Center. In that game it was scoreless until the third period when the Cougars struck twice to post a 2-0 win.

After winning Friday's game, 5-4, in regulation, the 'Birds could have been satisfied and settled for a split, especially after falling behind 3-0 in the first period Saturday night. Once again though, the team's character came to the forefront and they battled back to earn the 5-4 win in the shootout.

I don't think Calvin Pickard would categorize either game as his best but boy does he have a knack for shutting down opponents late. Some athletes just have that "something" that puts then on a different plane when the game is on the line. Like a Peyton Manning or Brett Favre leading a team to a 4th quarter game winning drive, a Mariano Rivera coming out of the bullpen in the 9th inning to shut down the middle of the opponent's batting order or a Michael Jordan hitting the jumper at the buzzer to put his team over the top, Pickard may just be developing that "something" that sets him apart from other netminders.

Pretty nice weekend for Colin Jacobs as he pots the hat trick in Friday's win and then scores the game winning shootout goal Saturday. The effort I liked the best on this road trip though, came from Travis Toomey. He may not be racking up the points (although he did pick up a couple of assists) but his strong play, on the penalty kill in particular, both nights in Prince George were instrumental in picking up the four points over the weekend.

Don't overlook the contribution of Conner Sanvido. He may not be getting a lot of ice time but his shootout goal was huge. It was a "do or die" moment and the rookie showed ice in his veins, delivering a clever goal to keep the T-Birds alive. PG's Nick Buonassisi had just scored (and celebrated as if he had won the game for the Cougars I might add) meaning Sanvido had to score to keep the shootout and the 'Birds chances alive. While Buonassisi was still overcelebrating in front of the Cougars bench, Sanvido calmly stepped up and snapped in a cheeky little goal. After Pickard stopped the next PG shooter, Jacobs finished it by scoring for Seattle and the real celebration was on.

Seattle has now won four straight at the CN Centre in Prince George and in two of those games they came back from 3-0 first period deficits. So, while the trip north is long, at least recently it has been worth it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

This is a bit like trying to find the silver lining to the dark cloud that was Saturday's 6-2 loss at home to Kootenay but the season did get 24 games old before the Thunderbirds had a real "stinker". Seriously, in what other game this season has the team not been in it with a chance to win or tie at the very end? There have been games prior in which the team may have not played their best hockey, but their compete level was always top notch.

That said, there is no excuse for the effort in that loss. It just wasn't there after the 'Birds fell behind, 3-1, at the end of the first period. They lost way too many puck battles and there were far too many situations where they stopped moving their feet in that second period. It was the" perfect storm", if you will; the Ice were coming in having lost their last two games by a combined score of 9-0 and the T-Birds may have been feeling a little too comfortable after a nice road win in Everett the night before.

The next concern for the T-Birds is their recent play on home ice. Since coming off the road trip out east, the team has played four home games and has not been at their best in any of those games while accumulating a record of 1-2-0-1. An argument can be made too that the one win they got (a shootout victory over Spokane) was a bit fortunate. The win in Everett shows they continue to play well on the road but they need to bring that same effort to the ShoWare Center.

Don't let the two-game losing streak they had coming into Saturday's game fool you though. Kootenay has a very good hockey club, as evidenced by their #9 ranking in the CHL Top Ten poll. They have the majority of their team back from last season. The Ice seem to consistently win 40+ games a season and are a testament to building through the bantam draft. I think this is what the Thunderbirds are keen on doing with their recent draft classes. They have put together a nucleus that will hopefully mature together with players like Wells, Pickard, Jacobs, Alos, Elliot, Fleming, Hickman and Troock, import selections like Noebels and Sutter and drafted players in their system that will impact the near future such as Evan Wardley, Taylor Green and Jared Hauf.

As a G.M. Russ Farwell is always going to look for players that he may acquire through a trade or two to help his team but as he has said on a couple of occasions recently, especially concerning older players, you prefer them to be home grown. The reason is simple; you want those players to grow up in your organization and develop a chemistry with each other, both on and off the ice. Just look south to Portland where I believe every player on that current roster is someone they drafted or listed. Kootenay is very similar.

Now that said, Seattle has some gaps in their recent draft classes; players who just didn't work out here. So Russ filled those holes with some very good acquisitions. I doubt the T-Birds would be having the season they are having without players like Ramsay, Gallimore and Toomey in that locker room. It's critical for them to come forward with their leadership after that loss to Kootenay, especially with a red hot opponent coming to town Tuesday night. The 'Birds next opponent, the Medicine Hat Tigers, are riding a seven-game winning streak, including recent wins on the road against Everett and Portland. They boast the current WHL Player of the Week in Linden Vey who had 4 goals and 5 assists (+6) in his last three games and they've scored a whopping 99 goals in just 24 games or 4.12 goals a game.

Finally, congratulations to Calvin Pickard who has been invited to Canada's World Junior training camp in Toronto. Camp begins December 11th. Should he earn a roster spot Picks will most likely miss at least 10 games. Also Marcel Noebels (Germany) and Dave Sutter (Switzerland) will participate at World Juniors in Buffalo in late December/early January and both are rightfully excited by that opportunity.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Not How You Start...or is it?

The disappointment in splitting a pair of home games this weekend isn't so much in the failing to earn a full four points on home ice, but rather the fashion in which the T-Birds did it.

Seattle has struggled with their starts much of this season and Saturday against Everett that poor start finally reared up and bit them. Sure you love the urgency in which they played in the third period, trying to overcome that early three-goal deficit, but they need to play with that level of desperation for the full 60 minutes. Reality is they were fortunate to get two points out of the weekend (thanks to the shootout win over Spokane on Friday) because in six periods of hockey I felt they only played one really good one and that was the last period against Everett.

For a team that doesn't score a lot of goals, the T-Birds need to bang in a few greasy ones. As well as they played getting pucks to the net in that third period against the Silvertips, had they crashed the net a little harder, they might have gotten that tying goal because there were a number of opportunities for rebounds left around the 'Tips crease.

The past few years we've lamented the futility of the T-Birds power play. So far this season, that is not a problem as both the power play and the penalty kill are ranked in the top ten at #2 and #7 respectively. But 5-on-5 has been an issue. Seattle has scored only 60 goals in 21 games and over one-third (24) have been PP goals. Actually, the T-Birds have only scored 55 goals in 21 games (2.6 per game). The other five goals are team goals, earned as a result of winning five shootouts. So the reality is the team has scored almost 50 percent of it's goals on the man advantage. Throw in a few 4-on-4 goals and the number of goals scored 5-on-5 dips further.

The saving grace has been the fact the team has only given up 53 goals against or an average of 2.5 per game. With Calvin Pickard, that's a pace I think the team can continue at the rest of the season. Somehow, some way, these 'Birds need to find a way to average just a half goal more per game. It doesn't seem like much but if they can continue, led by Pickard, to keep opponent scoring down then that half a goal a game more could be the difference between a 35 win season and a 40+ win season. Right now they are on pace for about 32-33 wins. Also, averaging another half goal a game could keep them from another 20-25 OT/So games. With just a few out of conference games left on the schedule, they can't afford to be giving up points to the opposition, even when they are winning games.

So, how do they get that extra half goal per game? Well, they need more players to step up and start putting the puck in the net. Players like Alos, Elliot, Lund, Toomey and Rouse have to start scoring more consistently. A player like Lund especially. I look at Chance and I see a guy with all the tools. He has the size, good speed, he plays physical and he can win puck battles. He needs to complete the recipe by adding that final ingredient; scoring. Believe you me, no one is more frustrated by his lack of offensive production than Chance is. I'm sure his confidence in that area is not very high right now but maybe if he gets that first one, the flood gates will open.

As we approach the one-third point of the season, it's a tightly bunched group in the Western Conference standings and the T-Birds are right in the thick of it. While Portland stands out from then all, only six points seperate second place from tenth. If Seattle wants to maintain its current position in the conference standings (3rd) I think finding a little more offense is imparative.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Boys Are Back in Town

Another road trip through the east is complete and this particular one was the most successful I can remember over the past decade as the T-Birds earn 8 of a possible 12 points. If not for one particularly baffling video goal review decision in Brandon the team would have had at least nine points from the six games and potentially 10. In fact, if not for that mysterious decision, the 'Birds would have garnered a point in all six games.

And what is it about controversial goals going against the T-Birds in Brandon? Five years ago the T-Birds lost an overtime game there when a goal that was never a goal gave the Wheat Kings the win. In that instance the puck never got within three feet of the net. In this latest incident the puck was clearly kicked in. I've already started to conjure up the next way the team will be jobbed of a point or a win the next time we visit Brandon in 2012-13. My guess? Brandon is awarded a goal during intermission while two pee wee teams are on the ice.

This was also the most "drama free" road trip east in a while. No flu bug ravaging the team as happened last season; no cell phone devouring bus like two years ago and no major injury to your star player befell, like Aaron Gagnon a few years back in Saskatoon. No, the biggest issue was whether Athletic Trainer Phil Varney should shave his beard.

He did and the team promptly went on a three game winning streak.

More importantly the team continues to play good, competitive hockey. Even in Regina, when they were down 4-1 and looked like maybe they just didn't have it that night, they roared back to win 5-4.

In the final game of the trip against Swift Current, the sixth game in eight nights when they could have hit the wall, they battled on and earned a point. Heck, if not for a puck hitting a post or two they might have pulled out the win there too.
We also found out that the team will be just fine if they want to give Calvin Pickard a rest now and then. I thought goalie Michael Salmon was the best player in training camp and he picked up where he left off in his first action of the regular season. He was the best player on the ice against the Broncos on Saturday too and he made a number of phenomenal saves at the start of the third period of that game to keep it tied at 1-1.

The team also got a little healthier with Justin Hickman, who injured his hand in training camp, finally well enough to get into a game. He didn't disappoint. He was very noticeable on the ice (in a positive way) and came very close on a number of occasions to scoring his first WHL goal.

I thought I'd talk a bit about the team's very successful power play but I don't want to jinx it! Even when they don't score on the PP they still get good puck movement and quality chances; not like in recent years where they had issues even getting the puck in the attacking zone.

The next month or so of hockey, leading up to the holiday break, is going to be very interesting because with two exceptions, every game will be against a Western Conference opponent and while the T-Birds currently sit tied for third in the conference (with the 2nd best winning percentage) just seven points separate 2nd place from 10th place in the conference standings. So with things that tight, one bad stretch of games could cost teams 4 or 5 spots in the standings. Conversely, put together a little winning streak and you could jump from the bottom to the top.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Another weekend another point

It really doesn't feel like the T-birds are on their first "losing" streak of the season. I put that in parenthesis because the two losses have come after regulation; a 3-2 loss in overtime to Calgary and a 2-1 loss to Portland in a shootout. So it hardly feels like a defeat when the 'Birds earned a combined two points in those games and have gone six games in a row without a regulation loss.

What also makes it feel more like a win than a loss is the way the team is playing. The T-Birds are giving themselves the opportunity to win every night. There hasn't been one game in the nine played so far this season when the team hasn't been in a position to pick up a win going into the final ten minutes of the contest. I said in an earlier post that this team would compete every game and so far that has been the case.

I felt Dave Sutter played his best game of the season in that SO loss in Portland. At least it was his most physical effort. I think he's really adjusting well to the smaller ice surface and the more physical play of the North American game. Sutter is a very intelligent young man (anyone who can speak seven languages should be) and his learning curve should be pretty high.

Speaking of smart players, Brendan Rouse qualifies as well. On a team of big bodies he's not one of them but he continues to impress me with his ability to fore-check and win puck battles along the walls. He did take one offensive zone penalty Friday but I doubt the coaches will complain too loudly because he was being aggressive, trying to finish off his shift in a strong fashion.

Beat highly regarded Portland once and you might consider it a fluke but beat them twice and earn 5 of a possible 6 points in three games, including 3 of 4 points on the road, and that's no fluke. The last two games at the Rose Garden have been very intense battles. This is going to be a very entertaining 12-game season series between these two long time rivals.

I watched the replay of the Colin Jacobs hooking penalty that occurred in the third period of the Portland game Friday night. They showed it on the Rose Garden video screens moments after it was called. Maybe it was the angle of the camera but it sure appeared all that Jacobs did was tap Taylor Jordan on the back of his jersey. Maybe the penalty occurred further up ice but I also noticed the ref watching the replay. Maybe he was checking to see if he got the call right. I don't mind that. If the officials are consciously attempting to learn from their mistakes so it doesn't happen a second time, that's good for the league. My eyes aren't so good so I'm going to watch the game again on the WHL's Web TV just to make sure.

I know a lot of us in the sports media are guilty of overusing certain phrases. Of course that is why they are called clich├ęs. But man, is Calvin Pickard ever "in a zone" right now. I don't want to call him robotic but it seemed as if he was programmed before that game against the Winterhawks and every one of his movements was preordained. He was never out of position, he was always squared to the shooter, he was able to steer the puck where he wanted to on a save and knew when to freeze it for a faceoff. You can't put your finger on any one thing he's doing better but when you see him play, your first thought is "Ah, he's just taken his game to another level".

You'll see the Portland shot totals from that game (43) and think it was a lopsided affair but the vast majority of those shots were from long range (even the few second chances off rebounds) and defensively Seattle kept the crease and slot fairly clear. There were a couple of occasions where Portland players tried to bump Pickard but that's not going to bother him.

Ryan Aasman's tenure as a Thunderbird was brief. Aasman was traded last week to the Swift Current Broncos for a conditional 5th round draft choice. He came to Seattle last January from Prince Albert at the trade deadline. My first thought was, "Too bad, nice young man, always positive and always had a smile on". Then when I asked Rob about the trade his first comments were to the same affect. I wish Ryan the best with the Broncos.

Big test Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center as Seattle welcomes the Tri-City Americans and their high powered offense to town.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

T-BIRDS STAY THE COURSE

After starting the season with 5 games in 9 nights, the T-Birds end up playing just one game in 12 days. As a result, it put extra emphasis on that game Saturday in Chilliwack against the Bruins. One game in 12 days and if you lose it, the sour taste of defeat probably lingers. Win the game and you build off the good work done the previous weekend (2 wins) and keep momentum going into the next weekend when you play two games in two nights.

That was the challenge the schedule and head coach Rob Sumner presented to his team and they certainly answered the bell with the 6-3 win at Prospera Centre. For the second straight game they had a bit of a hesitant start in the first period and fell behind, 2-1. But once again they got stronger as the game progressed. They really took over the contest right from the drop of the puck to start the second period and once they got the lead midway through the second you had the sense they were going to win because they were winning nearly every battle for loose pucks.

Size does matter and the T-Birds used their size to simply wear down the Bruins. This Chilliwack club possesses some very talented offensive weapons; they had seven players attend NHL training camps, but the T-Birds were just the more physical team on this night. Ryan Howse is a star in the making for the Bruins but other than his first period power-play goal Seattle did an excellent job of limiting his scoring chances by laying the body on him.

Despite the fact the Bruins scored two power-play goals, once again I thought the 'Birds penalty killing was excellent, especially in the middle period, when they took control of the game. They continually give up the body to block shots. Charles Wells and Travis Toomey probably spent the bus ride back from Chilliwack comparing bruises.

Alan Caldwell's blog (Small Thoughts at Large) recently broke down each team in the league and discovered that Seattle on average is the tallest and heaviest in the WHL. But don't think of this team as just a bunch of big bodies that get in the way of their opponent. There is skill to go along with that size. This team is big AND strong. They are strong AND fast. I think those attributes will keep this club in most games, even when they are having an off night.

Nowhere is that epitomized more than on the reunited (and it feels so good!) line featuring 17- year-olds Tyler Alos, Mitch Elliot and Colin Jacobs. This line was put together last season when all three were 16-year-old rookies. My guess is they'll still be together next season when they are all 18 and the following season when they are all 19. Saturday's game in Chilliwack was the first time they have skated together this season because Alos has been sidelined with injury. Healthy and back in the line-up for the first time this year all Alos did was contribute two assists as that line picked up 7 points (2g, 5a). In fact, you could credit that line with 8 points because Brendan Rouse scored his first goal while skating a shift with Elliot and Jacobs in the first period.

I had joked with Mitch Elliot that big guys didn't wear single digit jersey numbers. This was after Mitch switched from #25 to #7 following the trade of Brenden Silvester. I told him he had just a few weeks to score a goal or he would have to go back to #25. Since then he has scored twice in two games. By the way, he had the Gordie Howe hat trick against the Bruins (goal, assist and a fighting major) and the first to congratulate him was his mom, who texted him from back home in Prince George. Apparently the text contained just one word; Gordie! Ya gotta love the moms of these players in the WHL.

Meanwhile, Colin Jacobs just seemed to be everywhere when good things were happening. The anticipation when Colin joined the team is that he would develop into a top goal scorer and I don't see any reason why he won't, but he's also picking up key assists by just getting the puck to the front of the net.

With this line being together for a second season and beyond, I think it's time to come up with a catchy nickname. Any suggestions? Feel free to post and if I like your suggestion I may use it in a broadcast. Maybe I'll let the players pick the best one.

Brendan Rouse and Erik Fleming may be the two quietest players on this team but their play early this season is speaking volumes. I'd contend Rouse would get serious consideration for the team's MVP during this current three-game winning streak. I know he is a -2 in the plus/minus department right now but he's a microcosm of the team's play to date; he gets stronger and better as the game moves from the first to the third period. Fleming hasn't registered a point yet but I can't recall him registering a mistake either. He seems very focused on his defensive zone coverage. With Scott Ramsay out with injury, Fleming has elevated his play.

One player who is not quiet is Jacob Doty. Don't let his role as the team's enforcer fool you. Oh, he's gonna rack up the PIMs with his share of scraps this season but he's gonna pick up some points along the way too. He has an offensive upside and is hungry around the net. This young Montana native is going to turns some heads.

It's early but I like the play of both Import players on the roster. Marcel Noebels and Dave Sutter are a combined +9. In fact Sutter leads the team in that department at +6. I give both players extra points too because each speaks multiple languages. Rumor is Sutter can speak 7 different languages...and that doesn't include ig-pay atin-lay.

Not to dwell on it (okay, I'm dwelling on it) but the T-Birds are 38-seconds away from being at least 4-1-0-1 or 4-1-1-0, if not 5-1, but I think if you had told me they would be 4-2 after the first six games of the year, I'd have taken it in a heart beat considering the early schedule.

Last season I believe the team's longest winning streak was 4 games. If I recall three of the wins were on the road including a victory in Vancouver. Well, the T-Birds can equal that winning streak this Friday with a road win against the Giants in Vancouver. This is what the T-Birds have to do to be a playoff team this season; earn some road wins, take care of their home ice, put together a few winning streaks while avoiding losing streaks. Pretty simple, eh?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

In sports, the phrase "game of inches" applies to almost any game be it hockey or horseshoes. It means one play, move or shot goes even slightly different and the final results could be altered.

It was that kind of weekend for the Thunderbirds. A 2-0 lead at home late Friday against Lethbridge dissolves but the T-Birds find a way to prevail. Which early save, poke check or deflected shot in that game, that seemed fairly routine at the time, was big later on?

Then Seattle is under seige for the first 20 minutes Saturday night down in Portland. They catch a break when a couple of Winterhawks shots miss a wide open net. But the T-Birds regroup during the first intermission and, after being outshot 22-3 in the first period but only down a goal, outshoot Portland 31-24 the rest of the way, find a way to tie the contest late in the second period, control the tempo for a good portion of the third and win the game in a shootout. What's the old adage? It's not how you start but how you finish.

I think the lesson learned by the T-Birds in both games is the same; you play to the final horn. I'm not sure but it's possible that a young team that hasn't won a lot recently may have felt a late two-goal lead against the Hurricanes was safe and eased up a little at the end Friday. It almost came back to bite them. A year ago it probably would have, but these aren't your cousin's T- Birds. They just don't dwell on it or let it linger in the back of their minds. They push forward, learning and moving on.

Saturday in Portland there was probably a vast majority in that building (everyone outside the Seattle locker room) that thought that game was over after the first period. But Seattle recognized there were still 40 minutes left (45-plus as it turned out) and they were only down a goal. There was plenty of time for them to make adjustments and get back in the game. That's exactly what they did. I said on the air during the first intermission that it was their own mistakes the 'Birds had to clean up and felt if they did that they would be fine. It goes back to something I've heard coaches say in the past; control the controllables. In other words, take care of your game and don't worry too much about the opponent.

I think the T-Birds might have been too intimidated at the beginning of that game in Portland. The Winterhawks had all those players back from NHL camps and Seattle's not supposed to be able to skate with them. So, the T-Birds started to make unforced errors in their own end of the ice, turning the puck over and failing to clear the zone. They played a bit panicky in that first period. I could envision coach Sumner in the lockerroom during the first intermission telling his players to keep it simple, take care of the defensive zone and forecheck, forecheck, forecheck!

A lot of deserved and justified praise was heaped on Calvin Pickard after that game. What was amazing was Picks didn't have to make too many acrobatic saves on the 46 shots he faced. Unreal that he was in perfect position to stop so many shots. And he was also very good in the shootout. I wonder what secret technique goaltending coach Paul Fricker has imparted to his charges because they've looked very good stopping shots in shootouts in both preseason and the regular season.

Let's not forget though that the T-Birds penalty killers were phenomenal in this game. There were at least a dozen times over the weekend when players like Luke Lockhart, Charles Wells or Burke Gallimore went down, gave up the body and blocked a shot. I saw Travis Toomey hobble to the bench on one leg after taking one off the boot. I'm sure, come Monday, you'll be able to play connect-the-dots with the welts and bruises they've earned.

Both Seattle goals in Portland were hustle goals. Chance Lund sprinting down the wing to get to a puck in the corner and feed Gallimore for the tap in and Mitch Elliot crashing the net on the hard dump in off the stick of Colin Jacobs for the game tying goal in the second period. Early on this season Seattle is scoring a lot of goals from within 4-5 feet of the goal mouth.

Unsung hero of the weekend for me was Brenden Rouse. He won some key puck battles along the boards in the third period at the Rose Garden, took some key face offs late in that game and won them as well, and when the coaches shortened the bench in the third Seattle's 4th line center was still getting plenty of ice time. In both games this weekend Rouse got stronger as the game moved along. That says a lot for a player who, at 6'1", 183 lbs, is one of the smaller players on the roster.

Next up for the T-Birds another road game as they travel to Chilliwack this coming Saturday to face the Bruins, a team like Portland, that send 6-7 players to NHL camps. The Bruins have some fire power in Howse, Horak and Sundher so Seattle will have to play another strong defensive game if they want to come away with their second straight road win. After starting the season with five games in nine days, this is the only action of the weekend for the T-Birds.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Normally I wouldn't sing high praises coming off a three game weekend that saw the T-Birds go 1-2, especially when you are a team that mustered only 19 wins the previous season. But there is a different feel to this team. There is no lack of confidence...and it is not overconfidence either, it's just a belief in each other. Each player in that locker room believes in each other, and more importantly they are buying in to what the coaches want them to do. They could very easily have finished the weekend 2-1 but they are not dwelling on that heartbreaking loss in Everett. They realize it is what it is and they are moving on. Even the loss Sunday to Tri-City was not as lopsided as the final stats may show.

What did show Sunday though was fatigue. The T-Birds were the only team in the WHL to open with three games in three nights and two of those were on the road. That's a tough way to come out of camp. It's like asking your car to go from zero to 60 mph in two seconds before you have a chance to put all the air in the tires.

That fatigue led to many of the penalties they were assessed against the Ams. Still, I thought the T-Birds did a more than credible job on the penalty kill. It's tough when you spend the middle portion of a game constantly shorthanded but they almost made it out of that situation. To be down by only a goal heading into the third period was a testament to their grit while undermanned. And the two power-play goals Tri-City scored? Well, the first was just a great shot through a screen by Kruise Reddick. The second one, the eventual game winner, was controversial in the eyes of T-Birds goalie Calvin Pickard who thought he was interfered with.
This was also the first game where the T-Birds missed the depth they will have with a full, healthy roster. Hopefully Scott Ramsay, Tyler Alos and Branden Troock are back in the lineup soon.

The T-birds are a team that I believe is going to show great growth over the course of the season. I believe they will be vastly better in March than they are now and I like the way they are currently playing.

Here's why; this roster has not played together very much yet and they are still adjusting to each other on the ice. Lets break this roster down and you'll understand what I'm getting at.

Very few of the players on the current roster were with the team just 12 months ago.
#1 Calvin Pickard-entering third season with organization.
#2 Travis Bobbee-obtained via trade two days before the start of this season.
#3 Scott Ramsay-obtained via trade at the start of the 2009-10 season.
#4 Erik Bonsor-obtained via trade middle of the 2009-10 season.
#5 Brenden Dillon-entering fourth season with the organization
#7 Mitch Elliot-entering fourth season with the organization
#8 Connor Sanvido-entering first season with the organization
#9 Justin Hickman-entering first season with the organization
#10 Glen Goodall-back with the team after a 15+ year absence (just kidding!)
#11 Branden Troock-entering first full season with organization (played in 9 games as a 15-year -old, primarily at the end of the year)
#13 Tyler Alos-entering second season with organization
#14 Charles Wells-entering fourth season with the organization
#15 Marcel Noebels-entering first season with organization
#16 Brendan Rouse-obtained via trade October 2009
#18 Dave Sutter-entering first season with organization
#19 Colin Jacobs-entering second full season with organization (played 5 postseason games at the end of the 2008-09 season).
#20 Luke Lockhart-entering third season with organization
#21 Austin Frank-obtained via trade January 2010 but played just two games at end of last season. Entering first full season with organization.
#22 Burke Gallimore-obtained via trade in January 2010
#23 Chance Lund-entering third season with organization
#24 Ryan Aasman-obtained via trade January 2010
#27 Erik Fleming-entering third season with organization
#28 Jacob Doty-entering first full season with organization (was on roster for 3 games last yr).
#29 Michael Salmon-joined team in January 2010 after being released by Prince George
#33 Austin Baecker-obtained via trade February 2010 but did not play with Seattle last year. Entering first season with organization.
#37 Travis Toomey-obtained via trade one week before start of this season.

Of the 25 players 15 were not with the team when they broke camp prior to the start of last season. Essentially 2/3rds of the squad were not here exactly one year ago. You think the Seahawks have had a great deal of roster turnover? Well, so have the Thunderbirds.

Additionally only six players with the team today were with the club two seasons ago when the 2008-09 regular season ended, and not one of those six players was among the top 12 scorers for the team that year. As you can see, there is still some "meetin' an' greetin'" going on in the T-birds locker room.

So, once these players get more comfortable and familiar with each other both on and off the ice I believe they will improve their play on the ice. In fact I believe that among all the teams in the U.S. Division they have the potential to show the most growth from now until the end of the season and I say this firmly believing they are a solid contender for a Western Conference playoff spot now.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

ONE DOWN, 71 TO GO!

While the end result wasn't what they were aiming for, the T-Birds performance on opening night in Everett has to leave you with a taste of optimism in your mouth. Seattle did a lot of good things despite the, 4-3, setback. Many of those things they did are things that the coaches have been preaching throughout camp and the preseason. I know it's only one game but the effort was a carry over from a lot of the good habits learned in the exhibition games.

Again though, after just a 19 win campaign a season ago, the T-Birds are not looking for moral victories. They were 38 seconds away from earning at least a road point against a division rival and made a cardinal blunder that led to their defeat. I can live with the failure to score on the five minute power play because they were creating chances; Luke Lockhart was on the doorstep with the puck twice and couldn't get it in. But you have to clean up the mistakes in your own zone. Failure to do that on so many occasions last season led to disastrous results and it reared its head again last night. Now, I'll barely tolerate it on opening night but if the same issues are popping up in game 35 then there's a problem. But I have a feeling, as this team plays more and more together, this won't be a chronic issue like it was a year ago.

Speaking of Luke Lockhart, I've always liked his play. He gives maximum effort every shift. He has an enthusiasm and frantic pace on the ice that reminds me a bit of Aaron Gagnon. But what I saw in preseason and in the first game is a player who has taken a giant step forward in his development. He and Charles Wells were relentless all night on the forecheck. In fact I can't single out one player who had an off night. Even Jacob Doty did a nice job to create a Seattle power play by forcing an Everett penalty. I have no problem right now forecasting 25-plus goals for Luke.

So, even though it was a loss on the scoresheet their were a number of small victories for Seattle. They didn't erase the big ghost from a season ago (snatching defeat from the jaws of victory) but they eliminated a lot of small ones (for example, they only allowed 28 shots against).
Anyone who takes this team lightly this season does so at their own peril. This team is going to compete.