Friday, December 30, 2011

A Jaw Dropping Win

To quote that famous wordsmith from the 70's, K.C. of K.C. and the Sunshine Band fame, "That's the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it!"

Just an exciting 2-0 win over a very good Moose Jaw team Friday night before another enthusiastic crowd at the ShoWare Center. It was the very definition of a total team effort as everyone in the lineup gave 100 percent in the win. Loved the confidence that head coach Steve Konowalchuk showed in all his players. It's the third period of a tight game and he doesn't hesitate to put his young defensemen, Theodore, Hauf and Wardley on the ice.

Moose Jaw is a big team; the equal in size of Seattle and I thought early on their game was to try and impose their physicality on the T-birds. But Seattle didn't back down and Jacob Doty going toe-to-toe with Dallas Ehrhardt got the crowd into the game and gave the 'Birds the confidence they needed to skate with the Warriors. Don't underestimate what Doty's efforts in that tilt meant to his teammates. That was a big turning point in the game in my estimation.

But the biggest turning point was Seattle killing off that 1:41 of 5-on-3 power play time Moose Jaw had in the first period. They limited the Warriors 5th ranked PP to just one shot on goal. They T-birds paid the price to keep the puck out of their net, blocking shots cost them Marcel Noebels for much of the game after he took a slap shot in the ribs. "Es tut so weh!"

Prior to Friday night's game the T-birds had gone scoreless in the third period in three straight contest, each time seeing a lead evaporate because they couldn't play add on. That made the Burke Gallimore power play goal early in the third against Moose Jaw huge. It gave them breathing room and they played the rest of the game on their toes rather then back on their heels. Prior to that goal the 'Birds had been outscored 15-5 in the third period in the month of December (three of those five goals came in one game) and as a result had coughed up 3rd period leads four times. For one night at least, they turned the tables.

Calvin Pickard now has three shutouts in his past 16 games. Even more impressive his shutouts have been against Tri-City (Nov 18th), Vancouver (Dec 13th) and Moose Jaw. Those three teams are a combined 75-30-4-2 and have complied 404 goals in 111 games. In those three games Pickard has faced 120 shots and stopped them all.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winning Doesn't Have to be Pretty

After winning just one of their first 15 games after the Christmas break last season, and just 1 of 15 after the break the year before that, there should be no reason for the T-birds to make apologies for winning a couple games after the break this season in less then "beauty pageant" fashion. You win, you get two points and no style points are added or, for that matter, deducted if you don't play in the most scintillating fashion.

I thought the first period Wednesday night in Everett was played at a pretty good pace and there were some scoring chances created by the T-birds forecheck and aggressive penalty kill. After that it appeared playing for the second time in as many nights, after a nine day layoff, began to affect both teams and the play got a bit sloppy and as a result it lacked flow. Still, if you are writing the script for these two games and you have two rivals battling out in a home-and-home series you have to like the fact that the outcome wasn't determined until the final page was turned.

Cason Machacek has been playing some good hockey lately. I thought his last two games before the break were two of his best and the first two after the break have been good as well. I have a feeling if any of the players skated and worked out over the break he would be one.

With Dave Sutter away and Kyle Verdino out of the lineup with an injury, Seattle needed Machacek's veteran leadership on the back end and he gave them that. Chipping in with his first goal of the season was a bonus. Fairly calm off the ice, between the boards Machacek is an emotional player which sometimes gets him into penalty trouble. But lately he's kept his emotions in check and has been playing good, smart hockey.

I'm sure Luke Lockhart has heard the criticism about his lack of offensive production so far this season. I suppose some of that could be warranted considering he potted over 20 goals last year. But all you have to do is look at a tape of Wednesday's game in Everett to see his worth to this team.

I'm not talking about the two goals or the shootout winner either. Instead, watch how many shifts he takes. Watch how many key face offs he wins and look at his defensive zone coverage and how many times he took a puck off an Everett player's stick. I wouldn't be surprised if he logged 40 minutes in that game.

Good; the T-birds winning two games out of the break and earning the full 4 pts and climbing within a point of 6th place in the Western Conference. In fact the T-birds now have the 6th best winning percentage.

The bad; the power play seems to be regressing with each PP chance. Watch the T-birds power play in these two games and you understand the value of a Dave Sutter and, for that matter, a Brendan Rouse as well. But right now sticks are being squeezed too tight and too many mental errors are being made. Gotta clean that up.

The good; the 'Birds didn't allow Everett a power play goal in the two games. In close games like these, one power play goal by the 'Tips could have been the difference between winning and losing and the Thunderbirds coming out of these two games with no points.

The bad; the T-birds have had the lead entering the third period in their last three games only to cough it up, being outscored 7-0 in the process. Good teams own the third period. Good teams "go for the kill" in the third period. That is something the T-birds still need to learn.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Going the Extra Mile

The T-birds came out of the week long Christmas break with a 2-1 shootout win over the Everett Silvertips at a sold out ShoWare Center Tuesday night. There were some missed opportunities to put this game away in regulation but in the end they got the "W."

It was quite the goaltending battle between the T-birds Calvin Pickard and Everett's Kent Simpson. There is a lot of pressure put on both these goalies because neither team has an explosive offense. Both are second round NHL draft picks and because of the lack of scoring both are probably the key player on their respective teams. On this night Pickard got the better of it by stopping all three Everett shots in the shootout while Simpson was beaten by Colin Jacobs.

Pickard was clearly upset on a couple of occasions when Everett players slashed him after a save. I found it interesting that on the first such occasion no slashing penalty was going to be called. Then, when Tyler Alos came to his goalie's defense the referee gave Alos a roughing minor then decided to issue the minor for slashing to even things up. I'm not a fan of that kind of officiating.

Congratulations to Evan Wardley on his first WHL point as he assisted on Burke Gallimore's second period goal. There was nothing cheap about the assist either as Wardley did a terrific job from keeping a puck from escaping the attacking zone, wheeled and fired a hard shot into Simpson's pads.

Gallimore was there to snap in the rebound. After playing a lot of forward in his first few games in the league, Wardley got to play the game as a defenseman (his natural position) in the absence of Dave Sutter, who's away at World Juniors, and Kyle Verdino, who is out with an injury. I thought he did a solid job.

I counted just one shot on goal on the Thunderbirds four power plays (approximately six and a half minutes worth of 5-on-4) and that shot came in the waning seconds of the final man advantage. That's not good. Stop thinking and start shooting.
Great to see the building filled to capacity and the crowd was hungry for something to cheer about. Nice that they got that with the shootout win.

Jacobs has now won two shootouts since coming off his long layoff due to offseason surgery. He used the same move twice and it worked. Don't fix what ain't broken!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Haming it Up

Bah humbug. That's the most PG-13 friendly thing I can print to tell you how I feel about the weekend series against Tri-City as the T-birds dropped both games.
The 5-1 loss in Kennewick was the T-birds 18th straight at the Toyota Center. Seattle had a very good start but then ran into penalty trouble and fell apart, wasting a solid first ten minutes of the game and a 1-0 lead.

If you let an opponent (or a building) get into your head, then you've defeated yourself. Just my opinion but that's what I think it comes down to over in Kennewick. The 'Birds just don't believe in themselves enough in that arena to overcome any adversity against such a good team.

As disappointing as that loss was the 5-3 loss at home Saturday was ten times worse. I'd call it the most devastating home loss in the 11 years I've been with the team. It's hard to understand how the team could play two nearly flawless periods against the top team in the league, building a three goal lead in the process, then fritter it away with such a lackadaisical final twenty minutes. It was their strong forechecking that helped build that lead and in the third period they abandoned that effort altogether. This is a bit harsh but I hope some of these players find some heart under their Christmas tree next weekend because it was sorely lacking on the ice in that final period.

Part of the problem is this team doesn't know how to win. They haven't developed a "killer instinct". Instead of hoping to get through that third period with the lead intact, or believing they had the game in the bag and feeling good about themselves for their effort through the first 40 minutes, they should have come out and played even harder then they did in the first two periods. They should have treated that third period as though it was a 0-0 game and not a 3-0 lead.
Just go back to Tri-City and the way they played the third period Friday night at home with a three goal lead. The came out attacking.

He may not have the most goals or the most points and he still takes the occasional, ill-timed penalty, but there is a reason why, from time to time, 17-year old Justin Hickman is wearing an "A" on his jersey. It's because he plays the system the way the coaches want it played and he plays all out. He's immensely coachable, sticks up for his teammates and he shows natural leadership.

His backchecking is was led to the Colin Jacobs goal that gave Seattle the 3-0 lead in the second period. He's the kind of player this team needs more of and the type of player this team needs to build around. Conner Honey, once he gets comfortable here, is going to be the same type of player and along with Branden Troock, Seattle has a solid trio of 17 year old forwards.

When Colin Jacobs arrived on the scene a few years ago I took the first syllable from his first name and the first syllable from his last name and nicknamed him CoJac, similar to the Kojak character Telly Savalas played on the TV detecive show from the 1970s.

The other day T-bird defenseman Cason Machacek asked me, "Who's Kojak?" If I didn't before I now feel officially old around these players.

Once again the ladies were on the ice after the game, participating in the annual Fred Meyer Chrstmas Ham Puck shoot.

Congrats to all the winners!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Say Hey, Hay

Vancouver Giants head coach Don Hay may have cost his team a win and he wasn''t even at the game last night between the T-birds and the Giants. Hay is the head coach of Canada's National team, and he's away from the Giants preparing Team Canada to play in the World Juniors up in Alberta, right after Christmas, so he wasn't behind the bench for last night's game.
Hay and the coaching staff made the decision this past summer not to invite Seattle goaltender Calvin Pickard to the main camp. Picks is regarded, in most circles, as the best goalie in the WHL and thus, one of the best in all of junior hockey, yet no invite for him this season after being in Team Canada's camp a year ago.

Maybe Hay should have checked the schedule. With Calvin in goal last night, instead of at the tryout camp, the Thunderbirds shutout his Giants, 3-0 as Pickard made 37 saves. Calvin has nine shutouts now in his WHL career, including two this season, but circumstances may have made last night's blanking just a tad more sweeter than the other eight.
This effort reminded so much of the other shutout that Pickard and the T-birds registered this season. That was back on November 18th at home when, ironically they blanked the Tri-City Americans, 3-0. In that game as in last night's game the T-birds were physical, finished their checks and wore down their opponent. They played solid team defense as well.

Brendan Troock's game winning goal was a thing of beauty. Just a great individual effort and an off-balance shot that seemed to catch Vancouver goalie Adam Morrison by surprise. Up to that point, with about four and a half minutes left in the game, Morrison was matching Pickard nearly save for save. I do think Troock is still frustrated that his offensive numbers aren't trending upward and as a result I think he tries to do too much on his own. He certainly has the talent to put up big numbers but I think he just needs to let the game come to him and not force the issue.
With that goal to break the scoreless tie coming so late in the game, I wondered if the T-birds would go into a defensive shell to protect the one goal lead. That was answered just a minute later when Chance Lund made an aggressive move into the offensive zone, skating hard to the net with the puck, eventually leading to Luke Lockhart's rebound goal and a 2-0 Seattle lead. Lund had been aggressive all night and three or four times he had made similar strong rushes up ice. His perseverance was rewarded with that huge assist.

Lund has to be intriguing some NHL scouts with his size, speed and hard work. Hopefully it pays off with, at the very least, an invite to an NHL training camp next fall.
As nice as the shutout win over the Giants must be for Pickard, he and the T-birds still have an albatross hanging around their necks. Pikard has never beaten Tri-City at the Toyota Center in Kennewick during his time in the WHL; three and a half seasons. Sometimes it has been rotten luck but more often it's because the better team wins. Picks gets another crack at winning over there when the T-birds travel to Kennewick Friday in the final road game before the Christmas break.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Alos At Last!

I think if you met Tyler Alos just walking down the street, and didn't know he was a Seattle Thunderbird, I think you'd like him. He's a pretty humble guy, even self- deprecating at times. More importantly I think he's a team-first, not a me-first, kind of guy and that makes it easy to root for him.
So his struggle to score a goal, any goal, the first half of the season was frustrating...for him, for the fans, heck probably even for the Zamboni driver. You really want a guy like that to succeed.
I don't think anyone picked Game #28 or December 10th in the office pool as the first time he'd score but now that the task is out of the way, let's hope he relaxes a bit and more goals start coming his way. Nice that it came on a night when he also contributed with a big assist and the T-birds won the game.
The team certainly doesn't want to make a habit of losing a 3-goal third period lead and having to win in a shootout, but when you're riding a three game losing streak you don't care how you win, just as long as you win.

It was a night of firsts for the T-birds. Conner Honey earned his first WHL point and Like Alos, Colin Jacobs scored his first goal as well. CoJac sure doesn't look like the time off for surgery and rehab affected his game. He looks to be in mid-season form.

Don't blame Calvin Pickard for the three goals the Royals scored on that 3-minute power play. Those were some well placed shots through screens. Once again Picks was fabulous in goal and made some huge saves once momentum had swung in Victoria's favor.

You may not have been happy that the Royals were awarded that 3-minute power play (I thought the Walker penalty deserved more than two minutes. I don't believe the hit was with malice but its the kind of play the league and hockey are trying to eliminate) but if the T-birds are better than 1-for-9 on their own power play chances, then it's all a moot point. Even knowing the results of that three minute advantage in which the Royals scored thrice, I'm not going to criticize Justin Hickman for sticking up for his teammate, and the team's leading scorer, Burke Gallimore.

Back to Connor Honey for a moment. Two games is a small sample size (I don't think he's had a chance to practice with the team yet, basically off the plane and into the lineup) but I like his physical, attacking style. I think its only a matter of time before he pots his first WHL goal.

Connor has a twin brother Curtis, who is a goalie (he's on the protected list of another WHL team so unless there is a trade we won't have Honey, Honey playing for the 'Birds). Connor says they are not identical twins, so if they were side-by-side you'd be able to tell them apart.
When Honey was playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL earlier this season he billeted with a local Green Bay family that had season tickets to the Packers. So, while he was there he got to go to a few NFL games at Lambeau Field. There are a lot of envious Packer fans as those tickets are hard to come by.
I doubt he mistook the Packers for his hometown Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL but they do sport the same green and yellow color scheme.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cougin' It

The up and down, hot and cold streaky team that is the Seattle Thunderbirds are down and cold again. The offense that seemed to be coming around has disappeared once more. The effort Friday against Prince George was okay. The problem is that a just okay effort isn't going to win you a lot of games. you need a very good effort every night in this league if you want to win.
For the second home game this season against the Cougars the T-birds let the opponent dictate the flow of the game. The result was predictable; a Prince George win, the same result as two weeks ago.
Seattle needs to find a way to get more shots on goal. Too many of their shots were blocked again. They need to improve their passing through the neutral zone and do a better job of puck possession once in the side the opposing team's blue line. Also, adopt a shoot first ask questions later attitude. And when they get a shot, please put the puck on net!
Good to have Colin Jacobs back in the lineup. He didn't look rusty after missing the first two and a half months of the season. I also liked what I saw from Connor Honey in his first game as a T-bird. He brings an aggressive offensive game to the table. Most importantly, he was not afraid to shoot the puck. The T-birds now have three 17 year old forwards on the roster (Hickman, Honey and Troock) who should be able to score at this level. With their young defensemen (Hauf and Theodore) they have something to build around, but if they want to find success this season they'll need more from a group of players struggling to score right now. Guys like Lockhart, Alos and Sanvido are struggling in that department. They all need to find away to fight out of their personal slumps.
All that said, I'm impressed with this young Prince George team. They battle for every puck and they work hard every shift. They earned this win and I have a feeling in the next season or two they'll be earning a lot of wins

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Wake Me Up Before You Go Go

What's the old line? If you don't have something nice to say, say nothing at all? Something along those lines. Well, following that rule I won't be penning much about the T-birds 7-1 loss Saturday night in Portland.
I will say I liked the way Justin Hickman responded to Steve Konowalchuk's "pep talk" at the bench after Portland had gone up by three goals. Hickman actually came out with a little fire in his belly on his next shift. Too bad it didn't wake the rest of the team up.

Konowalchuk is quoted as saying his team showed Portland too much respect and I'd agree with that assessment. At times it seems like they were standing around watching the game rather than participating.
And while Calvin Pickard didn't have his best game, he was good enough. He shouldn't have to bring his A++++++ game every night in order for this team to win. His teammates need to remember that they need to bring their A game each time out as well.
Linesman Ryan Gibbons, the former T-bird player, had too be cringing inside to see his old team lose the way they did. Gibby did a very nice job. He has big feet though and I do remember on one occasion where his big boot got in the way of a puck. Other than that he looks to be a solid addition to the WHL officiating stable.

Okay, I've seen it all now...a wedding ceremony on the ice AFTER the game started. The couple was united at center ice while the Teddy Bears from the teddy bear toss were being collected off the ice.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Home Cooking Burnt on the Stove

The T-birds saw their streak of earning at least one point in five straight home games snapped Friday night with a, 4-2, loss to Tri-City. In my opinion the streak should have been kept alive with at least a point earned if it had not been for a controversial 5-on-3 power play chance awarded to the Ams in the 2nd period. Tri-City would use that 5-on-3 opportunity to tie the game at one.
Still the T-birds could have overcome that had they again not failed to get to second chance scoring opportunities, or had they been better with their own power play or if they hadn't taken a penalty just seconds after they tied the game at 2-2 in the 3rd period. Their inability to get more than 12 shots on goal over the final 40 minutes was big too, especially after they had 13 shots on goal in the first period.

Seattle played well, just not well enough. They didn't have the same finishing effort they had Tuesday in the come-from-behind win over Swift Current. Still, considering they are missing one entire line (Rouse, Troock, Jacobs) they were the equal of the Americans for most of the game. It's a positive sign.
Loved the gritty effort all game of Sean Aschim. He's a hustle player and was rewarded for that with a two point night (1g, 1a)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Late Show

Often I've heard Steve Konowalchuk say that no matter if you are up by a few goals or down by plenty, you still play through to the final whistle. Don't worry about the score, worry about the effort. So why is that such a big deal? I mean if you are trailing 6-2 with two minutes left, what's the point? Well, the point is you need to create good habits and one of the best habits a team can have is playing a full 60 minutes. So what if you are down by 3 or 4 goals, keep playing hard. That way, when you get into a tight game or a game where you are trailing late but aren't out of it, you'll have the work ethic to bring your team back.

That is why the T-birds won Tuesday, 4-2, over the Swift Current Broncos, because the coaches have taught them you have to play a complete game. Your shift isn't over until you're on the bench and the game isn't over until the final horn sounds.
Late in their 8-2 loss up in Kamloops Saturday they could have just phoned it in but I noticed guys still playing hard even down by six goals. They weren't going to come back and win that game but the final minutes of that game were instrumental in setting up the succes they had in the final few minutes against the Broncos.

Tuesday's game was odd in the sense that when the T-birds put a shot on goal and it caromed off the goalies pads it didn't go their way. If the shot hit the pads softly and fell around the crease the Seattle players were too far from the goal mouth to get the rebound. If the shot was hard and the rebound kicked out into the high slot the closest T-birds players were too close to the crease to get a stick on it. Finally, on the winning goal, they got a Goldilocks was just right and Chance Lund was there to sneak it in.

What a night for Luke Lockhart. With three forwards out with injury he got double shifted a lot and it seemed like he was on the ice every other line change. He and Tyler Alos won some key face-offs, especially on the three successful T-bird penalty kills but none more important than the one Alos won to set up Shea Theodore's tying goal.

Don't look now, but Calvin Pickard is 4-0-0-1 in his last five starts. Again, when the team was struggling to score for the game's first 57 minutes he made save after save to keep his team within striking distance. He made two huge pad saves on the Broncos Adam Lowry with Swift Current poised to extend their lead from 2-1 to 3-1. A third goal by the Broncos and it is probably game over. Picks prevented that from happening.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What the Blazes?

The conistently inconsistent tendencies of the T-birds will drive you mad if you let them. A three game winning streak in which they looked like they could beat all comers is followed by a two game losing skid that brought bad habits back to the surface.
First, I think they didn't show up with any energy or sense of urgency in the shootout loss Friday at home to Prince George. And credit the Cougars because they did bring a sense of urgency to their game. Still, Seattle did create enough chances to win but goalie Drew Owsley stood tall for PG.
By the way, should it really take 5-7 minutes to review a goal? That was an excruciatingly long wait on that waved off Cougar goal in the second period Friday.

Saturday in Kamloops there were a number of factors. One, a long overnight bus ride. I don't know how that doesn't zap some of your energy or throw your biological clock off. Sure I'm older then the players but I was dragging all day so I know it has to affect the players. No excuse though because every team deals with those situations on their schedule. It is how you prepare yourself in those situations that makes the difference between winning and losing.

Second, the injury situation to Branden Troock had to weigh on his teammates. How could it not? You see your teammate lying on the ice for 10-12 minutes not knowing his condition. It affects you. Still, it is your job to get refocused. The T-birds never did.
Speaking of the Troock injury let's give T-birds athletic therapist Phil Varney a big round of applause. I think we take the team trainers for granted. Years ago it was just some guy (usually an equipment manager) handing out ice packs and rolling up ace bandages or taping ankles. But now we get trained professionals with medical backgrounds. These guys have to be certified before they get the job. Some have advanced degrees. Phil, with assistance from the Kamloops staff, treated Troock the right way on the ice to mitigate further injury.

I continue to be impressed by defenseman Shea Theodore. I think we need to check the birth certificate. Is he really just 16? He's still learning how to be a better defensive zone d-man but he takes giant steps in the right direction every game. Please, someone tell me the criteria to make the roster for the U-17 tournament because I want to know why Theodore was passed over for Team Pacific.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Pats on the Back'll hear that word a lot when discussing these Seattle Thunderbirds. It is something that has been missing for good parts of the first 20-plus games this season. It's one of the reasons why this team is hovering around
Head coach Steve Konowalchuk uses the "C" word often when discussing his teams play. Specifically he mentions the teams need for more consistency, or its lack of enough consistency. What he wants is the same effort from this team game in and game out. Not from just the top line or from his #1 goalie or the top defensive pairing, but from every player; 24 guys all on the same page.
If the last three games are an indication, this team may have found that consistency. It started with a great 60-minute effort on Friday against Tri-City. Maybe it wasn't there for the full 60 minutes last Saturday against Portland but there was enough of it to carry the team to a 6-3 win.
Then Wednesday night against Regina it was there. Even down, 2-0, in the first period, it was the body, finish the check, win puck battles and get shots on net. Dropping behind the Pats by two goals this team could have easily fallen into some old bad habits. Instead they stuck to the game plan. They continued hitting, and forechecking and grinding. They went hard to the net and as a result they scored 5 unanswered goals. They wore Regina down, forcing turnovers that led to goals. It is the formula for how this team must play. It doesn't guarantee they will win every night but it does give them the best chance to win.

Did any player have as big an impact on the game without registering a point then Justin Hickman? He was absolutely relentless. I can't remember a shift where he didn't influence the flow of the action in a positive way for the T-birds.
When you play with consistency from shift to shift then an injury shouldn't affect your team that significantly. So when the T-birds lost Brendan Rouse early in the first period to an upper body ailment, Brendan Troock stepped up and had a monster two goal effort.
If Troock and Hickman continue to develop at this rate, Seattle will have two big power forwards who will be hard to contain. I hear a lot of complaints about the T-birds drafting but these two were the clubs top two picks from the 2009 draft. Then you have Jared Hauf and Shea Theodore, two of the top picks from the T-birds 2010 draft. Hard to complain about the play of these two 16 year old defenseman over the past three games.
Back to Brendan Rouse, you hope the injury is not serious because he's been playing so well over the past month.
Not a bad night for Burke Gallimore Wednesday. He delivered a few more crunching hits and then a backbreaking, game winning goal.
Clavin Pickard had another solid game in goal but what else would you expect from the Vaughn CHL Goalie of the Week. When Pickard has his rebound control working he becomes almost machine like. It's when he's at his best. He's had it working the past three games.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Turkey Shoot

Quite often in the WHL, when one team is struggling...especially oppenent will use that opportunity to get their #2 goalie into a game. Seattle has been the lowest scoring team so far this season in the league so both Friday night and Saturday night their opponents started their young back up goalie. Both teams may think twice about that the next time they play the 'Birds.

Now Friday Eric Comrie actually played well in net for Tri-City, allowing just two goals. Still, the T-Birds won the game, 3-0. Saturday night it was a different story as the T-Birds lit up young Brendan Burke of the Portland Winterhawks to the tune of six goals in less then two periods of play before he was finally pulled. By then it was too late; the damage had been done and Seattle skated away with a 6-3 victory. I was a bit shocked that Portland waited until the 6th goal to pull Burke. I would have thought the 4th goal; the long range bomb from center ice by Dave Sutter would have spelled the end of Burke's night. Burke really struggled with the high shots. Not sure if it was an issue seeing the puck in his first start ever at the ShoWare Center or if he just had a bad night but those were some soft goals.

Hard to fathom, before the weekend started, that low scoring Seattle would beat the high flying offenses of these top two Western Conference teams. Not only did the T-Birds win both games but they outscored the Ams and Winterhawks by a combined 9-3 score.

Any win is a good win but these two this weekend might be just a little more meaningful. First, Seattle had struggled through their first seven home games, going just 2-5. So it was important to right the ship. Now with a pair of home games this coming week they have a chance to get to .500 at the ShoWare Center. It's important to make your home ice a tough place for the opposition.

Secondly, the T-Birds have a the vast majority of their remaining games against the U.S. Division. They need to believe they can win against their rivals.

Finally, when you beat quality teams you gain confidence you can beat anyone. I think the win against Tri gave them the moxy to beat Portland.

Congrats to Shea Theodore on his first WHL goal and to all the ladies who put one in the back of the net after the game and won a free Turkey courtesy of Fred Meyer at the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Shoot. Some of those women could help the T-birds power play!

Friday, November 18, 2011


Not once last season did the Seattle Thunderbirds do what they were able to do Friday night against the Tri-City Americans. Nine times last season these teams met and nine times the T-Birds lost. Not one win, not in regulation, not in overtime and not in the shootout. But Friday night, before an energetic Pub Night crowd at the ShoWare Center and behind the stellar goaltending of Calvin Pickard, the T-Birds not only beat the Ams, they shut them out 3-0.

And while Pickard deservedly gets a bulk of the credit, stopping 43 shots in the win, this was the very definition of a team success story as everyone was willing to play a physical brand of hockey for 60 minutes. The T-Birds were very active with their sticks, especially in killing off six Tri-City power plays, blocking, redirecting and deflecting shots all night long.

Seattle is statistically the biggest team in the WHL and Friday night they finally used that to their advantage by out hitting and outmuscling the Ams. Surprisingly it was Burke Gallimore leading the way in that department as he threw the body around more than I've ever seen him do. It allowed him to force a turnover deep in Tri's end of the ice that led to Seattle's second goal. I had Gallimore as my second star even before that well earned assist or his empty net goal that sealed the win.

The T-Birds did it even with one of their more physical players sidelined as veteran defenseman Cason Machecek was a late scratch with a lower body injury that flared up before the game. Young Jared Hauf stepped in and, while he wasn't perfect, made some crucial defensive zone plays just on hustle alone.

I'm guessing if the coaches could draw up a blue print of how they want this team to play every night, a lot of what we say in Friday night's win over the Americans would be in that game plan.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A New Era Dawns

There are those that believe you get a good read on a team about 20 games into a season. Well, the T-birds will reach the 20 game plateau with a pair of home games this weekend against Tri-City and Portland. Going into the weekend, the team sits at 7-11 having just gone 2-4 on their six-game road trip through the Central Division.

Frankly, because of the transition into a new coaching staff, I don't think the 20-game mark is a good barometer for this team. I think the midway point of the schedule would be a better benchmark for this club. I think it will take that long for the players to get fully engulfed in the new regime and for coaches Steve Konowalchuk and Darren Rumble to fully understand what they have with this roster.
If you just looked at the first 18 games you would think that not much has changed from a year ago. The team is still struggling to find an offensive identity and the goaltenders are still facing too many quality shots because the puck is inside the T-Birds blue line too much. There are times when the team can punish the opposition with a good fore check yet there are still times when they get pinned down in their defensive zone by a good puck cycling opponent.

But there have been glimpses of what this team can eventually become. To find those glimpses you need to look at the young players; the ones the coaches will have the most impact on. I'm not discounting the veterans. Their job is to stabilize the roster and lead. Players like Luke Lockhart, Burke Gallimore, Kyle Verdino and Cason Machacek have to set the example both on and off the ice, but if this team is to push for a playoff spot this season then it is the younger players who will have to step up and show improvement between now and March.

It begins with the group of 18-year-olds who need to take that next step from role players to solid contributors. I'm talking about the likes of Tyler Alos, Mitch Elliot, Connor Sanvido and Jacob Doty. If your goal is to make it to the next level or to have a pro career somewhere, this is the age where you have to put the burden on your back and run with it. You have to become a player who is relied upon, not one who relies on others. Otherwise younger players start to pass you by.
We're already seeing that from Justin Hickman. Hickman was goal-less in his rookie season a year ago but has already stepped up with four goals this season and three of those came in the last few games. If you could sit down and talk with Hickman I think you'd come to the conclusion that his ability to read the game is improving with each shift. He's developing good hockey smarts. He's a power forward in the making; someone who can take the punishment in front of the opposing net and get greasy goals. He's still going to take the odd bad penalty but that's part of trying to create a physical nature.

We should start seeing it soon in Branden Troock. A year away from the game is a year's development lost. To me, Troock is still the equivalent of a 16-year-old rookie. I also know that what I saw from him in his short stint here as a 15-year-old was no aberration. He is a major prospect. Right now he's like a race car in the pits. Get the fuel in, get the proper tires and make the adjustments on the body then once everything is aligned, watch him go. Troock just needs a few laps around the oval to get the feel for the track.

We're catching a glimpse of it from Shea Theodore and Jared Hauf as well. The two 16-year-old defenseman are going to suffer their growing pains. We've already seen some highs and lows with these two. There are no training wheels on either of them though. Theodore is already a staple on the power play. The ice time they get now will only speed up their development down the road.

Remember too, this team is evolving. Over the summer General Manager Russ Farwell brought in two 20-year-old defensemen in Verdino and Machacek. After the season began two more seasoned defensemen, 19-year-olds Braeden Laroque and Brad Deagle, were added to the roster via trade. Four of your top six d-men were not on this roster at the end of last season. Two of them weren't with the club opening night.
More recently the club added another veteran center by picking up Sean Aschim from Moose Jaw. By the way Aschim reminds me a little of Andre Herman, another trade acquisition by the Thunderbirds a few years back. Aschim's a guy I think can create some offense for both himself and his linemates. More importantly it allows Marcel Noebels to be shifted back to left wing.

Eventually Colin Jacobs will finish the rehabilitation from his offseason surgery and join the team and so will defenseman Evan Wardley after suffering a long term injury in training camp. All this has created competition for ice time and that should create a better hockey team as the season moves forward.

Strange thing, of all the games played on the recent road trip, I though the last game (the 5-1 loss in Kootenay) was their best overall effort. Yes, they struggled to get shots through to the Ice goal, sure they gave up another late goal at the end of the first period and they didn't get any puck luck when they rang two shots off the post in the third period when they still had a chance, but it was the most consistent of the six games from start to finish and their third period was one of their strongest. They are still a work in progress but hopefully they are progressing in the right direction.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

There's a Draft in Here

An early dental appointment kept me from being glued to my computer Thursday for the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. I had my iPad with me but it's hard to watch things upside down and with a couple of fingers in your mouth so I didn't get the chance to view the league's first ever free webcast of the first round. I did see the video replay of the team's Director of Player Personnel, Colin Alexander, announcing the first pick. I've never seen Colin looks so dapper!

The Thunderbirds ended up making nine selections. I liked the first round pick (6th overall) of Ryan Gropp. This isn't the NHL draft where there is a ton of info and video available of these guys but I did read a couple of scouting reports on the top 100 players eligible for this draft, as well as looking at one mock draft, and all three had Gropp as the fourth best player in the draft and the second best forward available (Jake Virtanen, who went number one overall to Calgary was the only forward rated higher).

I was a bit surprised that Gropp got passed up by his own home town team. Gropp is from Kamloops but the Blazers opted to use their top choice on a defenseman (Jordan Thomson) and who can blame them after allowing almost 850 goals against the past three seasons combined. The irony is that Seattle was originally slated to draft ahead of the Blazers until Kamloops won the draft lottery and moved up three spots in the draft order, jumping over the T-birds in the process. It would seem the stars had aligned for the Blazers to choose the local kid,Gropp, but fortunately they went a different direction and the T-birds gladly scooped him up. Playing for the Kamloops Jardine Blazers, a AAA BCAHA bantam team, Gropp recorded 53 goals and 53 assists in 49 regular season games and added 13g and 18a in 17 tournament and postseason contests this past season.

For the second straight year Russ Farwell uses his second round pick on a BIG defenseman, selecting 6'5" Austin Douglas from Winnipeg. Last year he took Taylor Green, who at last report is now 6'6". The knock on these big kids at this stage of their hockey development is that they aren't top end skaters. But Russ mentioned that Douglas is a good skater and I read a scouting report that said he's really dedicated the last year to improving that aspect of his game. The scouting report also mentioned things like "high end potential" and "could develop into a monster on the ice". Douglas is still a month away from his 15th birthday. I mean he's 6'5", 195 lbs as a 14-year old. Imagine what he'll be at age 18 or 19!

One thing we are learning these past two years of T-bird drafting is that size does matter. The vast majority of the 'Birds picks the past two years have been six feet plus. Gropp is listed at 6'2". Their third round pick, winger Michal Holub is 6'0. Nolan Kruizenga, a goalie they chose in Round 7 is already 6'1" while their last two selections, Kevin Wolf and Mark Nelson, a pair of defensemen, are both listed at 6'4". A year ago the team's first two selections, Jared Hauf and the aforementioned Taylor Green were both 6'5", the third choice, James Neil was 6'0", their 6th round pick, Daniel Wray came in at 6'1". Actually you can go back to the 2009 draft when Seattle's first two picks, Branden Troock and Justin Hickman, were both six feet or taller and 6th round pick Evan Wardley, 7th round pick Johnny Dora and 9th rounder Kyle Horsman all measured in at 6'2" or better. Not every pick is going to make the team just because they are six feet tall or above but you can certainly see a belief that bigger is better. It goes back to this; you can teach them how to skate and shoot, how to forecheck and pass but you can't teach size!

When you look at those measurements, don't be off put by the fact a player is well over six feet tall but only weighs a buck-fifty. Remember, depending on their birthdays, these draft choices are only 14 or 15 years old. They are gonna fill out those frames over the next 2-3 years.

As usual, we'll see this group of draft picks at training camp in August. A few will get a couple of games under their belt with the T-birds next season but their real impact won't be felt for a couple of years.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Thanks for The Memories Rob

Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell has made the difficult decision not to bring Rob Sumner back for an eighth season as the team's head coach. This ends a 14 year relationship between Rob and the organization, the first seven spent as an assistant coach.

I haven't spoken to either party involved but this has to be a sad day for both. I know it's a sad day for me. It had to be an agonizing conclusion for Russ to reach. I know he believed in Rob's ability to lead this team. I think Russ would be the first to admit that the roster Rob had to work with at times wasn't what he thought he was giving him, especially recently. Some draft picks just didn't work out.

I know there are some out there who are going to revel in this news. That's because they didn't know Rob. They only see the one dimensional side; the man behind the bench. Most have never spoken with him or had the chance to get to know him. I've been fortunate. I've known Rob since my first year with the organization, 2001. That's ten seasons of riding the bus, sharing pre and postgame meals and conducting countless interviews, not to mention the many conversations off microphone.

I got the chance to see firsthand his passion for the game as well as for the Thunderbirds organization. I remember his first few years behind the bench as head coach and how his emotion would sometimes get the better of him and he'd climb on top of the boards to make a point with the officials, only to end up with a penalty. He learned to tone down that emotion, writing a few checks to the league will do that, but it was always there inside.

I learned a good deal about the game from Rob. He has a very good grasp of the X and O's of this game. He is a solid coach; I witnessed that in practice and during games. I saw him many times jump off the team bus at two or three in the morning, after a long ride late into the night from Spokane, Kelowna or Tri-City, and go immediately into his office to look at video. No one wanted this team to win more than he did and he took every loss to heart and I know these past two seasons wore on him.

More importantly, Rob is a solid citizen. He has a wonderful family with two young boys he absolutely adores. If there is the tiniest silver lining to this, it is that he gets to spend more time with them...that is, until he can find his next gig. And I believe he will coach again. I think it's in his blood, but that is something he and his family will have to sit down and discuss because this profession requires a lot from you and takes a lot out of you.

What's the saying? Coaches are hired to be fired? Very seldom does a coach go out on their terms. As we all know, this is a bottom line, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business and two straight seasons of non-playoff, sub .500 hockey will put any coach, no matter their pedigree, on the hotseat. So, the Rob Sumner era comes to an end with the T-birds. I'm glad to have been along for the ride and wish Rob the best in his future endeavors.

It's a sad day in Thunderbird Nation.

Monday, March 21, 2011


The end of the season (unless you win it all) is always a disappointment, whether it concludes with the last game of the regular season or in the playoffs. We'll find small comfort in the fact the T-Birds were in a battle for a playoff spot up until game 71, after being out of it in February a season ago, but it isn't enough to massage away the pain of missing out on the second season for a second consecutive year. It's too easy to play the "what if" game but the T-Birds know they left some important points on the table through the course of the season.

Sunday's overtime loss to Tri-City put an end to another chapter of T-Bird history. This chapter should be remembered for the remarkable story of Brenden Dillon. Undrafted as a bantam player five years ago, undrafted by the NHL two years ago, all he did was persevere and work hard to improve his craft the past four seasons and that dedication earned him a contract with the NHL's Dallas Stars. Brenden was expected to board a plane early this week, most likely headed to Austin, Texas, and the Star's AHL affiliate, to begin his pro career. Congratulations Dills!

While he's there, he can say hi to Eli Johnson, the T-Birds bus driver retired after a 15-year association with the Thunderbirds, and is also headed to Texas. He may be the most difficult piece of the puzzle for this organization to replace next season; he was that valuable. By the way that move by all the players to come off the bench and join Eli at center ice prior to the ceremonial puck drop Sunday was completely spontanious. The original plan was just to have Dillon present Eli with the framed jersey but then the rest of the team hopped over the boards. Great moment.

You had to feel for Travis Bobbee. He spent too much of the second half of his last season in the WHL with his shoulder in a sling, including the second half of the last game. Numbers don't lie. With Bobbee out of the lineup, the team was well below .500.

The best offseason move GM Russ Farwell made was to acquire Travis Toomey from Saskatoon. Toomey has maturity beyond his years. He provided tremendous leadership, played with an edge and tried to set a positive example for the younger players off the ice as well as on it. He took that role as a veteran on a young team very seriously and he took his role as an ambassador to the community just as seriously, taking time to make a weekly visits to a local elementary school. I don't know what his future plans are. I'm sure he wants to keep playing the game but he is so well spoken and so at ease with his words, I think he'd make a great analyst on TV or radio.

Who gets drafted higher by the NHL this June, Colin Jacobs or Marcel Noebels? Both put up good numbers and drew the attention of NHL scouts. Might make for a friendly wager between the two. Luke Lockhart, Mitch Elliot and Dave Sutter will also draw interest. Even Jacob Doty, who may have the biggest upside because he's still quite raw, could hear his name called.

Is there another Brenden Dillon on the roster, a player undrafted by the NHL who could sign by the time his 20-year-old season winds down? Chance Lund has that chance. He has the size, plays very physical and can skate like the wind, three ingredients the NHL is looking for. But he needs to work on his consistency from game to game and, more importantly, he needs to work on getting his shot on goal. If he can dedicate himself the way Dillion did, there is no reason he can't be a 20 goal scorer in the WHL. Gotta want it; gotta earn it.

The T-Birds will have the 5th choice in the 2011 Bantam draft coming up in early May. After selecting three defensemen in the first three rounds last year (Hauf, Green and Theodore) it would seem logical that they would be looking at a forward with their high pick this time around. I subscribe to the best-player-available theory though and if that happens to be a defenseman, so be it. I think if the last two non-playoff seasons have taught us anything, it is that you can never have too many defensemen. Only one every day defenseman on this year's roster, Eric Fleming, came to Seattle through the Bantam draft (Dillon was listed, not drafted) and Fleming missed much of the season due to injury. Aside from Dave Sutter, selected in the Import Draft last June, every other T-Bird defenseman who played significant minutes this past season, came to the team via trade. It's time to develop home grown talent for the blue line corps.

Offense shouldn't be a problem next season. The team should have four of its top five point producers back, including leading scorer Burke Gallimore. All four produced 20-plus goals and all should improve on those numbers next season. The elephant in the room is the status of Branden Troock and I don't have an answer to that question.

Seattle finished the year playing .500 hockey over its last 15 games (7-7-1-0). Everett went 1-8-2-0 in their last 11. Everett is moving on to the playoffs, the T-Birds are not. How can that be? Going 4-14-1-1 coming out of the Christmas break was too much for Seattle to overcome. The rest of the season the T-Birds played close to .500 hockey. It was the second year in a row the team came out flat after the holiday break (just 1-15-4-0 the year before). That will need to change next season if they want to advance to the playoffs. Somehow, some way, they need to be better prepared to restart the season after that two week midseason layoff.

As we go through withdrawal symptoms this offseason, remember, training camp is just five months away!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tri, Tri, Tri Again

Entering the month of March, we knew the T-Birds were going to have to play almost error free hockey over the final nine games in order to secure a playoff spot. We also knew that, well, that was a near impossible task because no one, not even the best teams, play error free hockey.

It's just that the T-Birds margin for error is so much slimmer than the other teams in the Western Conference playoff chase because they currently reside in last place in the ten team field. So, the fact the T-Birds have gone 3-2-0-0 so far this month, or the fact that over their last 10 games they have won twice as many games (6) as any of the other teams (Everett, Prince George and Kamloops 3 wins each) they're battling for those final two playoff spots, gets lost when you lose in the fashion the team did Saturday to the Cougars. It was a must-win game, a chance to pull within a point of a playoff spot and they didn't expend the effort needed to win the most important game of the season.

I'm going to expand on a subject I brought up last week; the bane of the T-Birds existence and the reason they may be left out of the playoff picture; the Tri-City Americans. Here's the breakdown for Seattle's season excluding Tri-City. Seattle is 8-8-2-1 against the B.C. Division with one game remaining Wednesday at Kelowna. That's a .500 record. Through March 5th, The Thunderbirds are 13-15-0-1 against the U.S. Division teams not named Tri-City; just slightly under .500. Against the 12-team Eastern Conference the 'Birds are 5-4-2-1 or, you guessed it,
around .500. That puts their overall record at nearly .500; 26-27-4-3...until you add in their numbers against the Americans. Seattle is 0-6-0-2 versus Tri-City with one game remaining. If the T-Birds could have done against Tri-City what they did against the rest of the league, which is to play a game under .500, they would probably be fighting for the 5th or 6th seed in the Western Confernce, rather than fighting for their playoff lives.

I bring this up because I'm kind of hoping it comes dowm to that final game of the regular season for Seattle. One game with a playoff spot on the line. Because the T-Birds final game of the regular season this Sunday is against Tri-City. What a great way to finish the year; earning a playoff spot on the last day and exorcising a demon in the process.

Here is the final pace to the playoffs chart. The numbers in parenthesis is the points earned, on average, per game so far this season. The number after that is games remaining An "X" denotes that team has clinched a playoff spot:

1. XPortland is on pace for 102.7 pts (1.426) 4
2 XKelowna* is on pace for 88.7 pts (1.23) 3
3. XSpokane is on pace for 101.647 pts (1.411) 4
4. XTri-City is on pace for 91.05 pts (1.26) 4
5. XVancouver is on pace for 75.17 pts (1.044) 4
6. XChilliwack is on pace for 74.08 pts (1.028) 3
7. Prince George is on pace for 67.88 pts (0.942) 2
8. Everett is on pace for 68.82 pts (0.955) 4
9. Kamloops is on pace for 64.8 pts (0.90) 2
10. Seattle is on pace for 64.58 pts (0.897) 4

* Kelowna, by winning the B.C. Division will get the #2 seed in the first round.

Still too tight to call for the top seed as Portland and Spokane may come down to their last meeting of the season, on the season's final day, to decide it. Of course the T-Birds could have a say in who gets the conference's top seed because they play both the Winterhawks and Chiefs once more each. Additionally the T-Birds could affect seeding for the second round as well. Kelowna could still pass Tri-City for the 3rd best record in the conference and that would come into play in determining which of those teams gets home ice in Round 2 should both advance and one of Portland or Spokane gets upset by a lower seed in Round 1. Seattle plays both the Rockets and Americans once more this season.

Even though the T-Birds have more games remaining then Prince George, the loss to the Cougars on Saturday means Seattle no longer controls their own fate, meaning if the 'Birds were to finish 4-0 they would need help getting into the postseason.

Games remaining:

Prince George: 2 (home and home series this weekend against Kamloops)

Everett: 4 All on the road (@ Portland, @ Spokane, @ Chilliwack and @ Vancouver)

Kamloops: 2 (home and home series this weekend against Prince George)

Seattle 4 2 @ home (Portland, Tri-City) and 2 on the road (@Kelowna, @ Spokane)

While the top four seeds in the Western Conference have been determined, it may not be until Sunday evening until we know the first round playoff pairings. Only two teams have locked in their first round seeding; Kelowna is the #2 seed and Tri-City is the #4 seed. Portland and Spokane have guarenteed home ice in Round 1 but like the Rockets and Ams, neither knows who its first round opponent will be. Likewise Vancouver and Chilliwack, even though both have earned a playoff berth and will start on the road, neither knows yet where to book the hotel reservations.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Closing the Gap

By winning three of their last four, and six of their last ten, the T-Birds have closed to within three points of a playoff spot with six games left. Meaningful hockey games in March, ya gotta love it.

From the strange-but-true department: Two seasons ago in early March, the T-Birds lost a game to Portland by the score of 9-1. They came back the next game to beat Everett (10-0 behind Kyle Jarhaus!). This year, they lose to Portland 9-1 in early March but rebound the next game to beat Everett (Gallimore with the OT game winner!). Deja vu' all over again! With that victory the 'Birds finish the regular season 5-5 against the 'Tips, reaching the .500 mark against their U.S. Division rivals by winning the last three head-to-head meetings.

Also, was that not just the most fitting end to a game you've witnessed? Gallimore misses the game the night before in Portland because of the passing of his grandfather. He returns from his home in Edmonton in time for the game against the Silvertips and scores the winning power-play goal in the overtime period, and immediately looks to the heavens as if to say, "Thanks for the assist gramps!" You couldn't have written the script any better. Well done Burke. And kudos to Ryan Button for acknowledging his good friend Burke and the relationship Burke had with his grandfather in the post game interview down on the ice. Like Gallimore, Button is from Edmonton and the two have known each other for many years.

Meanwhile, is Button running for Mayor of Kent? Great salute to the crowd in his postgame comments as well.

I'm going to make this suggestion for the T-Birds when they are putting together next season's schedule at the league meetings this summer. When it gets to the point where league president Ron Robison says, "Okay now let's fill in the January dates." A T-Birds representative must stand up and say something to the affect of "Mr. President, if you don't have any objections, the Thunderbirds are gonna skip January. We'd prefer to call it December II or December Squared, anything but January." Why? Well, Seattle's record in the month of January over the last three seasons is just 9-24-4-2; 3-18-4-1 the past two seasons alone. They've recovered well enough through February and March during that time span to play close to .500 hockey (22-24-2-2), but January has become their Achilles heel. The only other option might be to invoke the Grinch Clause, cancel Christmas and keep the player in town for the holidays. I don't see that happening.

As we know, Seattle's other bane of existence the past three seasons has been road games in Kennewick. The 'Birds haven't won a regulation game there in three-plus seasons. But, if the T-Birds miss the playoffs this year by a point or two, they may look back to two first half home games against Tri-City in which they held late third period leads. In both cases Seattle failed to hold the leads (in one instance it was a two goal lead with 2:30 left) and lost in a shootout each time. Ironically the T-Birds playoff hopes could come down to the final regular season game this home against, you guessed it, Tri-City.

With their playoff lives on the line, The T-Birds have risen to the occasion. Whether they finish in or out of the postseason, they are not going down without a fight. With the exception of the clunker down in Portland, the 'Birds have competed hard in every game lately and are 6-4 in their last ten, going from five points out of a playoff spot to just three out with six games remaining. Over the last 10 games they've earned more points (12) than any of the other bottom four teams in the Western Conference. They've captured wins in three of their last four overall and they've also won five of their last six games at home, a home winning percentage they must continue with four home games remaining, especially with a red hot Chilliwack team coming to the ShoWare Center Friday.

Here is the updated pace-to-the playoffs heading into this week's action. The number in parenthesis is the points earned on average each game. The number after that is games remaining:

1. XPortland is on pace for 101.5 pts (1.41) 6
2. XKelowna is on pace for 85.3 pts (1.18) 7
3. XSpokane is on pace for 99.7 pts (1.38) 7
4. XTri-City is on pace for 92.25 pts (1.28) 8
5. Vancouver is on pace for 78.64 pts (1.09) 7
6. Everett is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 7
7. Chilliwack is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 8
8. Prince George is on pace for 67.63 pts (0.94) 6
9. Kamloops is on pace for 66.62 pts (0.925) 5
10. Seattle is on pace for 64.36 pts (0.893) 6

X denotes that team has clinched a playoff spot. Kelowna, as the first place team in the B.C. Division, is in position to earn the #2 seed in the conference for the first round of the postseason.

Seattle still has work to do and needs help to make the playoffs. Prince George (home vs. Red Deer Tues.), Everett (at Spokane Tues.), Kamloops (home vs. Tri-City Tues.) and Chiliwack (at Vancouver Weds.) all play one game before Seattle takes the ice again this coming weekend. So until Friday the T-Birds are fans of the Rebels, Chiefs, Americans and Giants.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Marching On

The month of February is now complete, as far as scheduled games, and the T-birds now enter March and their final nine games of the regular season. The big question, of course, is whether their will be playoff games to follow. We may not know the answer for another three weeks.

One thing we do know is that the T-birds are playing much better hockey lately. They are competing in most games, as they did the first half of the season. They have won 3 of their last 4 at home and are 4-3-0-0 in their last seven, including two wins over Spokane and one heartbreaking loss to Portland. Those are the top two teams in the Western Conference. That's good because Seattle will play those two teams a combined three more times (2x Portland and 1 vs. Spokane) in their final 8 games. In fact, in all but two of the T-birds last nine games they will be facing a team that, as of the end of February, has a .500 or better record.

Also, more good news as the T-birds special teams have come back to life, highlighted by a two power play goal effort Sunday in the 5-1 win over Everett. More importantly the 'Birds have allowed only two power play goals against in the last five games and in most of those games they were up against one of the league's top five power play units.

Speaking of coming to life; Connor Sanvido has quietly picked up 3 pts (1g, 2a) in his last 4 games. Meanwhile, after a four goal outing Sunday against the Silvertips, Marcel Noebels has put himself within striking distance of a 30 goal season. He now has 25, only three behind team leader Burke Gallimore. Noebels is also just four points shy of a 50 point rookie season.

The T-birds still have a mountain to climb to make it to the postseason, and they will need help. But they've entered the month of March with meaningful games to play. They are still the one team in the Western Conference that has yet to put together a significant winning streak. Have they saved their best for last?

Here is the updated pace-to-the-playoffs standings. Entering the final three weeks of the regular season only two teams (Portland and Spokane) have secured a playoff berth. So six spots are still up for grabs. The number in parenthesis is the points earned, on average, each game. The number after that is games remaining.

1. Portland is on pace for 101 pts (1.40) 10
2. Kelowna is on pace for 84.8 pts (1.18) 10
3. Spokane is on pace for 98.3 pts (1.37) 9
4. Tri-City is on pace for 92.1 pts (1.28) 11
5. Vancouver is on pace for 82.5 pts (1.15) 10
6. Everett is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 9
7. Prince George is on pace for 69.8 pts (0.97) 8
8. Kamloops is on pace for 69.8 pts (0.97) 8
9. Chilliwack is on pace for 67.28 pts (0.934) 11
10. Seattle is on pace for 62.9 pts (0.87) 9

Portland remains in the driver's seat for the conference's top seed. Seattle certainly helped the Winterhawks cause with two recent wins over Spokane. Kelowna currently has the edge over Vancouver for the top spot in the B.C. Division and the automatic #2 seed in the first round.

Prince George and Kamloops are in a virtual dead heat for the 7th playoff spot. Those teams end the season with a home and home series against each other.

Here are the remaining schedules for the bottom five teams in the conference, currently separated by just eight points in the standings, as they battle for the final three playoff spots.

Everett: 2 at home, (2x Portland). 7 on the road (2x Tri-City, 1x Seattle, 1x Spokane, 1x Portland, 1x Vancouver and 1x Chilliwack).

Prince George: 4 at home (2x Spokane, 1x Red Deer and 1x Kamloops). 4 on the road (1x Seattle, 1x Kamloops, 1x Vancouver and 1x Tri-City).

Kamloops: 5 at home (2x Kelowna 1x Lethbridge, 1x Tri-City 1x Prince George). 3 on the road (1 each @ Chilliwack, Kelowna and Prince George).

Chilliwack: 6 at home (1x Lethbridge, 1x Kamloops, 1x Portland, 1x Vancouver, 1x Kelowna and 1x Everett). 5 on the road (1x Seattle, 1x Kelowna, 1x Vancouver, 1x Spokane and 1x Tri-City).

Seattle: 6 at home (1x Vancouver, 1x Everett, 1x Chilliwack, 1x Prince George, 1x Portland and 1x Tri-City). 3 on the road (1x Portland, 1x Kelowna and 1x Spokane).

Of those teams, The T-birds and Chilliwack have the most home games remaining (6), Everett the fewest (2). Kamloops, has only 8 games left but half are against teams with sub .500 records. By contrast the T-birds have only 2 of their final 9 games left against teams with sub .500 records.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Locked and Loaded

The T-birds employed the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid plan in Sunday night's shootout win over the Chilliwack Bruins; they came out guns ablazin' and poured 67 shots on goal. It doesn't necessarily guarantee victory, in fact the 'Birds were trailing by a goal with just a few minutes remaining in regulation, but when your backs are up against the wall and you are fighting for your playoff lives, I'd rather go down emptying the chambers then lose as the team did Friday in Vancouver, with only 19 shots on goal.

The win came at a cost though as Seattle, which started the weekend with Travis Bobbee back on the sideline with more shoulder issues, lost defenseman Erik Fleming to an upper body injury early in the second period. This after winger Marcel Noebels was lost back in the first period after he blocked a shot with the back of his hand. That came on a critical penalty kill as the Bruins skated 5-on-3 for nearly a minute. The extent of Noebels injury is not known as the team awaits the results of x-rays but Noebels' hand was wrapped in a splint after the game.

Then the line brawl late in the second period left the team's bench even shorter for the start of the third period. With Fleming out and Erik Bonsor and Ryan Button in the box, the T-birds started the period with only three defenseman. Additionally they had two of their top scorers, Burke Gallimore and Travis Toomey, in the box as well and another (Noebels) in the infirmary. Oh, and they trailed on the scoreboard, 3-1.

So it was up to the rest, including a good many of their young players, to hold it together until those players who could, slowly trickled back out of the sin bin and back into the action. A great goal by Mitch Elliot to pull the team back to within one; a goal set up beautifully by Jacob Doty and Tyler Alos. And when the penalty box finally emptied, the T-birds began to dominate and finally got the tying goal on the power play from Colin Jacobs.

But the young player I want to throw kudos at didn't appear on the score sheet. That would be 17 year old rookie defenseman Austin Frank. Frank was that third healthy d-man to start the third period along with Brendan Dillon and Dave Sutter (another rookie). Up until Sunday Frank had appeared in only 17 games and sometimes he only saw one or two shifts in those games. Yet despite the lack of playing time, he's never complained. He's continued to work hard in practice waiting to get his chance. Last night it paid off as he gave the coaches solid shifts in the third period. He didn't over extend himself and made smart decisions with the puck and was physical when he had to be behind the Seattle net. He was a big reason why the Bruins never added to their three goal total. I hope his teammates appreciate his efforts and his attitude because like Michael Salmon, Frank has been the consummate teammate.

It was an important win. You hate giving up the point to Chilliwack but a loss would have severely crimped the T-birds playoff hopes. They are still on the outside looking in when it comes to the postseason and they'll need help down the stretch but the two points kept them within striking distance.

Here are the updated pace to the playoffs for the Western Conference as of Monday afternoon. Portland and Spokane have already secured playoff spots (as indicated by the "X") but continue to fight for the top seed along with Tri-City. The number in parenthesis is the points earned, on average, per game and the number after that is the games left for each team in the season:

1. X Portland is on pace for 100.55 pts (1.39) 14
2. Kelowna* is on pace for 83.2 pts (1.155) 14
3. X Spokane is on pace for 98.4 pts (1.37) 12
4. Tri-City is on pace for 96 pts (1.33) 15
5. Vancouver is on pace for 81.8 pts (1.136) 13
6. Prince George is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 13
7. Everett is on pace for 72 pts (1.00) 13
8. Kamloops is on pace for 66.10 pts (0.92) 11
9. Chilliwack is on pace for 65.8 pts (0.92) 14
10. Seattle is on pace for 62.24 pts (0.864) 13

* As the top team in the BC Division, Kelowna is automatically slotted into the #2 seed position.

So, even with the win over Chilliwack the T-birds still have work to do to catch that 8th and final playoff spot. Continuing to win at home is a step in the right direction. Seattle has won its last two at the ShoWare and have eight of their final 13 games on home ice.

Portland has gained a little breathing room in the race for the top seed while Kelowna and Vancouver continue to go back and forth with that 2nd seed.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Eight is Enough

Great way to end the eight game, home-ice losing streak, beating a team that has had far too much success on the ShoWare Center ice. Not sure but that may have been the T-Birds first regulation win against the Chiefs in Kent.

So much of Sunday's win over Spokane reminded me of the first half of the season, when the T-Birds were earning points and, in many cases, winning ugly. The make up of this team is such that it's not going to win a lot of games playing "pretty" hockey. They are going to have to grind out victories, get those greasy goals and have a very high compete level. And that's what it was Sunday as they beat Spokane...60 minutes of hockey wherein the T-Birds competed hard every shift, kept sticking their noses in to every battle and while they didn't win them all, they won enough for the 3-1 victory.

How about a few new nicknames? Like Ryan "Superfly" Button. Heck of a save; maybe a game saver, when he dove behind Calvin Pickard to deny Levko Koper a goal with the tip of his stick. Nice three assist effort as well. Then there's Dave "Boom Boom" Sutter. His first fight in the dub and it's a unanimous decision.

So how did the win help the T-Birds playoff cause? Well, they moved within three points of the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They still have some hard work to do to garner a postseason berth but hopefully this is a start in that direction. It should at least make this coming Sunday's game at home against Chilliwack meaningful, but first they have to travel up to Vancouver Friday to face the B.C. Division leading Giants.

Here is the updated "Pace to the Playoffs" standings. the number in parenthesis is the points earned, on average, per game. The number after that is the games remaining on the schedule for that team:

1. Portland is on pace for 99.79 pts (1.386) 15
2. Vancouver* is on pace for 83.57 pts (1.16) 16
3. Spokane is on pace for 95.14 pts (1.32) 16
4. Tri-City is on pace for 99.17 pts (1.377) 19
5. Kelowna is on pace for 82.47 pts (1.15) 17
6. Prince George is on pace for 74.53 pts (1.04) 15
7. Everett is on pace for 70.71 pts (0.982) 16
8. Chilliwack is on pace for 68.07 pts (0.945) 17
9. Kamloops is on pace for 63.31 pts (0.88) 14
10. Seattle is on pace for 61.90 pts (0.86) 15

As you can see, the T-Birds are still about six points behind the pace of Chilliwack, which currently occupies the 8th and final playoff position. Before these two teams meet at the ShoWare Center Sunday, Chilliwack faces both Tri-City and Portland on the road. Still, a nice winning streak and beating the Bruins twice is probably a must for Seattle at this point. Even with that in mind, they are most likely going to need help, perhaps from a team like Vancouver which still has four games remaining against Chilliwack.

The race for the top seed is still a three horse affair but Spokane has fallen a bit behind the pace being set by Portland and Tri-City. I still think Portland's remaining schedule puts them in the driver's seat. That and the knee injury to Tri-City goalie Drew Owsley. How serious is it and how long will he be out? The battle for the #2 seed between Vancouver and Kelowna remains tight.

* As the top team in the B.C. Division, Vancouver is automatically slotted into the #2 seed.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The GR8 Race

The race for the 8th and final playoff spot is on! It gets a a marquee billing when the T-Birds travel to Kamloops Wednesday to face the Blazers for the final time this season. Kamloops currently occupies that 8th and final playoff spot out west. They are just two points up on the T-Birds though which means a Seattle win would push the T-Birds back into the #8 seed.

Here are the updated pace to the playoff projections with points earned per game in parenthesis and games remaining in the column after that.

1. Portland is on pace to finish with 100 pts (1.38) 18
2. Vancouver is on pace to finish with 82.47 pts (1.145) 17
3. Spokane is on pace to finish with 96.92 pts (1.346) 20
4. Tri-City is on pace to finish with 99.36 pts (1.38) 22
5. Kelowna is on pace to finish with 83.07 pts (1.153) 20
6. Prince George is on pace to finish with 76.10 pts (1.057) 20
7. Everett is on pace to finish with 72 pts (1.00) 18
8. Kamloops is on pace to finish with 63 pts (0.875) 16
9. Chilliwack is on pace to finish with 66.46 pts (0.923) 20
10. Seattle is on pace to finish with 62.66 pts (0.87) 18

As I said, if the T-Birds win in Kamloops Wednesday, they would vault up past both the Blazers and Chilliwack to the 8th spot in the conference standings. More importantly, their PPG would increase to 0.89 and they would be on pace to finish the season with 64.14 pts. That would put them ahead of Kamloops' pace (which would fall to 0.859/61.90 pts). Their PPG and points pace would still trail Chilliwack; the Bruins are idle until Friday when they play at Kelowna. Remember too, the T-Birds have two more head-to-head games remaining with the Bruins and both will be at the ShoWare Center.

For arguements sake, lets say the T-Birds defeat Kamloops and win both home games versus Chilliwack. That would give the T-Birds a PPG average of 0.929 and put them on pace for 66.947 pts. Chilliwack would then would have a PPG average of 0.888 and would be on pace for 64 pts. So you can see even with success in the final three games against the two teams directly in front of them in the standings, Seattle is still going to have to earn points in the other 15 games left on their schedule. Beyond the three games against Kamloops and Chilliwack, here is what's left on the T-Birds schedule: Portland(4), Spokane(3), Tri-City(2), Everett(2), Vancouver(2), Kelowna(1) and Prince George (1).

Here is Chilliwack's remaining schedule beyond the two against Seattle: Kelowna(4), Tri-City (3), Portland (2), Vancouver (4), Prince George (1), Lethbridge (1), Kamloops (1), Spokane (1) and Everett (1).

Here is Kamloops' remaining schedule beyond Wednesday nights game against the T-Birds: Vancouver, Chilliwack, Edmonton, Red Deer, Medicine Hat and Kootenay 1 each, Tri-City (2), Kelowna (3), Lethbridge (2) and Prince George (2).