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.