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).