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.