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.