Sunday, December 30, 2012

Watcha Gonna do When the Well Runs Dry

There's no question what is ailing the Thunderbirds right now. Their offense has gone stone cold. 74 shots in two games against Everett and just two goals; 0-for-9 on the power play since their return from the break. Since their six goal outburts December 14th in Spokane (a 7-6 SO loss), the T-birds have scored just five goals, on 131 shots, in their last four games. They are priming the pump, but the well has gone dry.
And while they are averaging 33 shots a game in those four contests, the shots just don't seem to be that dangerous. They seem to be overthinking things, looking for a perfect scoring opportunity and bypassing more shooting opportunities. Nowhere is that more evident then on the power play where hesitation and some not so perfect passing is leading to too many of their shots being blocked.

The lack of offensive punch, from a team that had been averaging 3.3 goals per game, is wasting some fine goaltending from Brandon Glover. Glover stopped 28 of 30 shots each of the last two nights. When your goalie limits the opposition to just two goals in two straight games, you should win most nights.

Seattle has to rediscover the scoring touch and stop the bleeding that has seen their winless streak stretch to seven games.
The Thunderbirds clearly are missing their leading goal scorer, Roberts Lipsbergs, who is in Ufa, Russia competing in the World Juniors for Latvia. It also didn't help that their leading point producer, Conner Honey, left the game Saturday in the first period with an injury and didn't return. But their should be enough leadership and offense to get this team through that adversity.

This might seem like deja vu' all over again; another post-Christmas swoon that costs the T-birds a playoff spot. There is just one difference this time around, at least that I see. Other then Portland, the rest of the pack in the Western Conference is not running away from Seattle. Despite the seven game skid the T-birds are still just eight points out of fifth place in the conference playoff race and they have plenty of games left with those teams directly above them. But it is gut check time. They need to put their finger in the leak and limit the damage now.

With the WHL trading deadline fast approaching, I also believe this skid will be the impetus for a trade of some kind. The losing streak has shown that this team still is a piece or two away from making serious postseason noise. So, in that regard, if it had to happen, maybe the skid couldn't have come at a better time.

It doesn't get any easier for Seattle with the next two games on the road against the league's best team, Portland, and B.C. Division leading Kamloops. But remember, it is always darkest before the dawn.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Juuuuust a bit Outside

There's outshooting your opponent and then there is shooting yourself out of a game. The T-birds did both last night in their 2-1 loss to Everett. Seattle was credited with 39 shots (to Everett's 30) but it was the shots Seattle had that didn't end up on goal that were the difference against the Silvertips.

First, the Thunderbirds must have had at least 10-12 shots from prime scoring areas that didn't even hit the net. Shea Theodore's gun sights must have been off because he put at least four shots wide of the goal. Secondly, how many shots did the T-birds pass up, especially on that 5-on-3 power play, looking for the perfect shot or the "cute" goal?

In those situations, you can't be too finicky. Just shoot the puck and go hard to the net and bang in a rebound. Until it was too late, the T-birds got very little traffic in front of Everett goalie Austin Lotz.

Once again, a bad defensive zone turnover (are there any good ones?) led to the winning goal. They've really got to cut down/eliminate these unforced errors inside their own blue line. They're killing them.

For the second straight home game the T-birds have a strong start but don't build off it, but rather fall off from it. Yes, they did finish the game with an unsuccessful flourish but that was desperation hockey after they fell behind. They need that mindset for 60 minutes.

Seattle has now dropped four in a row at home. After a strong start at home this year, Seattle is now just a game above .500 at the ShoWare Center. They have to do a better job of using the home rink to their advantage. Once again there was a big crowd on hand, waiting to explode, and the 'Birds didn't feed off of that. And while they were in it until the bitter end, you just got the sense they weren't doing enough things well to pull it out.

It was encouraging to see Branden Troock come out after a two and a half month layoff and play a, mostly, strong game. But late in a one goal game you can't take a two and a half minute shift, especially when the other team is getting fresher legs on the ice with quick line changes.
I'm sure after missing so much ice time, Troock just wants to contribute; do something to change the complexion of a game, but he has to stick to the systems and not go rogue. That said, I liked his first period. He did some good work on the forecheck and created a few scoring chances. If he can stay healthy, plus the return of Roberts Lipsbergs in a week or so from World Juniors, The T-birds will have four solid forward lines.

Meanwhile, fellow Edmontonian Conner Honey just keeps getting better and better. He now leads the team in scoring with 33 points (10g, 23a) and is on pace for a 66 point season. He's solid at both ends of the ice and compliments his natural skills with hustle and smart play. He's the prototype of what this team needs more of.

It was nice to have Steve McDonald, the brother of my late broadcast partner Bruce, sitting up in the booth for the game. Next time he'll need to bring a little puck luck with him.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

One Break Comin' Up

After a season best four game winning streak, the T-birds limp into the annual holiday break on a five game winless skid. It reached five games with Seattle's, 4-1, loss to Tri-City last night at the ShoWare Center.
It wasn't that the T-birds played poorly, they just ran into a very good goalie and were very undermanned. By the end of the game, that depleted roster took its toll as it appeared the 'Birds ran out of gas. But for most of the game, with some big guns out of the lineup and using a defenseman as their third line center, Seattle was right there with a chance to win. I was a little disappointed some of the young forwards didn't step up to fill the void but I'm not too worried. Seattle has already shown, when they are at full strength, they can beat the Americans.

Instead of dwelling on last night's loss, or the losing streak. Let's look at the first half of the season as a whole. I actually feel very good about the direction the team is going. The offense is ahead of where I think they need to be and will only get better through the second half. Seattle has scored 116 goals so far this season. They are averaging 3.31 goals per game. At different times during the first half that average was up to nearly 3.5. I stated before the season began that they would need to average three goals a game to be a serious playoff contender and they are ahead of that pace.

Maybe the biggest surprise is the special teams play, particularly the power play. Last season the T-birds finished 21st out of 22 WHL teams on the power play, scoring just 47 time on the man advantage over the course of 72 games. Seattle already has 32 power play goals in 35 games this go round. They've been a top five power play team throughout the first half, including a few weeks at number one. They enter the break ranked third. They've reached that ranking despite being one of the teams in the WHL that generates the fewest power play chances. Just by comparison, Portland has been on the power play 40 more times this season then Seattle yet the Winterhawks have just three more power play goals.

And while the Seattle penalty kill ranks just 11th in the league going into the break, the 26 goals they've allowed while shorthanded are among the fewest in the league. Remember, coming into the season Tyler Alos was going to be a huge part of the T-birds penalty kill. Of course, he played very little and then had to retire so the 'Birds are doing it without a key component they expected to have. More on that later.

Seattle's biggest issue at the midway point of the season is keeping the puck out of the back of their own net. We knew they had a young group of defensemen when the season started and we expected growing pains. While the offense is doing its part averaging 3.31 goals per game, defensively the T-birds are not holding up that end of the bargain. The Thunderbirds have surrendered 135 goals through the first 35 games (3.88 per game). They are on pace to surrender 280 goals this season, which is only slightly better then the 296 they allowed last year.

Defensively, they simply have to do better, from the goaltender on out. Why are they riding a five game losing streak at the break? Because they've given up 26 goals over the course of that skid. You just aren't going to win a lot of games giving up five goals a night. Know how many goals Seattle allowed in their recent four game winning streak? Just eight. That's right, just eight. It can be done. I had an observer at a recent game, watching Seattle play for the first time this year, ask "Why are they so non-chalant with the puck in their own zone?" They have to be more decisive with the puck inside their own blue line. They have to cut down on the defensive zone turnovers.

Seattle enters the break playing a game under .500 hockey. Is this an improvement over the past few seasons? From the naked eye I want to say yes, they seem to be playing at a higher level. But we know what has happened in the last three non-playoff years. The 'Bird have been slightly under or just above .500 at the midway point. Thus their fate has been decided in the second half, usually in the month of January. Over the past three seasons the Thunderbirds January record has been abysmal, winning fewer then 10 games combined over that span. That means in about 40 games worth of January hockey, the last three January's, the T-birds record is about 30 games under .500. A year ago they suffered through a lengthly losing streak in January. They can't have a repeat of that. January has to be at least a 6-7 win month.

This time around the T-birds have 13 January games. Seattle will play nine different teams over the course of January. Seven of those teams have winning records. At the moment, the combined record of their opponents in January is 169-110-8-13.

Still I like the Thunderbirds chances. They did some good things in the first half while still showing both need and room for improvement.

They played much of the first half of the season without two veteran players who they were counting on for big contributions this season; 19 yr old Tyler Alos and 18 year old Branden Troock. Alos' injuries forced him to retire and the T-birds haven't replaced him on the roster. Troock has been out since mid-October and there's no knowing when he'll be healthy enough to return. His potential hasn't been replaced on the roster either. And yet without them they played .500 hockey.

Alos would have been a huge component to team defense, just where the T-birds need help the most. Troock is a gifted offensive player and was conservatively on pace for a 20 goal season.

Both players would have helped cut down on the goals against in the first half and probably provided another 15 goals to the team on offense. I guess the question now is, will general manager Russ Farwell look to replace that lost production, or at least Alos' skill set, at the trade deadline? Or will he go with the hand he's been dealt and get the young players all the experience and hope to ride the current team into the playoffs and into next season.

Seattle also has the burden of playing Portland 12 times. They still have five games left against the WHL's top team. No other team, especially those teams Seattle will be battling for a playoff spot such as Victoria, and Prince George, has to face that.

So, enjoy your holiday season, then buckle in and get ready for a wild ride in the second half!

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Lesson Learned?

Maybe on any other day, I'd be grossly upset with how the Thunderbirds squandered their 4-goal third period lead to Spokane and eventually lost, 7-6, in a shootout. but in light of the tragic events back in Connecticut, I'm just going to be tepidly disappointed. There's the game of hockey, and then there is the reality of life and that reality took precedence yesterday.

Let's accentuate the positive. Seattle played a tremendous road game for 45-50 minutes. For two and a half periods their penalty killing was phenomenal. With their physical play, they made Spokane, with one of the top records in the WHL, look pedestrian.

Another positive? Seattle has now earned 5 of a possible 6 points in their last three road games, all against U.S. Division teams. Third period collapse aside, I'll take 5 out of 6 points on the road every week. Furthering that point, in their last three road games, the 'Birds have scored 19 goals.

I really like the way Taylor Green played along side Mitch Elliot and Daniel Wray. Green, normally a defenseman, centered that fourth line and did a good job on faceoffs and in winning some puck battles in the offensive zone. Seattle is top heavy now with 17-year old defensemen.
If Green's move up to forward is permanent, it helps alleviate that logjam moving forward (no pun intended). If not, it still gives the coaches an option from game to game because they can use Green in a number of situations.

I don't want to dwell too much on the negative. Obviously getting only two shots in the third period was not good. They took silly, after the whistle, penalties. The last thing you should do when holding a four goal lead is give the opponent an easier opportunity to get back in the game.

The T-birds have to do a better job defending late in games. In their last three games Seattle has surrendered 18 goals and half of them have come in the third period, with the game still on the line. The T-birds have been outscored 8-2 in the third period during their current three game losing streak.

Lastly, learn how to win. When is the last time the T-birds had a 4-goal lead with almost 20 minutes left? This was almost a new experience for this group. I think there were some players who thought this game was over once they established that 4-goal cushion. Team play turned into individual play. They need to develop a killer instinct. When you have a team down, finsish them off.

In the end it wasn't anything Spokane did differently that turned the tide in that game. No, it was all the things Seattle did wrong that snathced defeat from the jaws of victory.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Royally Flushed

Well, that was just not a well played game by the Thunderbirds last night. They never found their mojo. They were very flat most of the game, especially after Victoria scored the two quick goals midway through the first period.

No, it was Victoria that played a near flawless game. After the first couple of shifts, in which the T-birds did create some sustained offensive zone pressure, it was the Royals who took over the game. They set the tone by being physical. They clogged up the neutral zone and made it difficult for Seattle. They won most of the 50/50 battles for pucks. And when the T-birds made a mistake, and unfortunately there were many, the Royals pounced on them.

Seattle's special teams, which have been very good for them, especially as of late, couldn't produce and had an off night. Yes, there was that big penalty kill at the start of the second period, when Victoria skated with a two man advantage for well over a minute, but Seattle couldn't even take advantage of that and swing momentum their way. Right after that, Seattle got three successive power plays and ended up with a power failure, going oh-fer. The 'Birds were just 1-for-7 on the power play Tuesday and surrendered three power play goals to Victoria.

Despite not playing their best, Seattle still had life after Connor Sanvido's goal closed the gap to 4-2 midway through the third period. But no sooner had the T-birds scored when they took an awful bench minor for too many men on the ice and Victoria quickly scored to end the suspense.
Sanvido by the way, with goals in the last two games, now has eight on the year and has surpassed both his goal total and point totals from all of last season. Sanvido currently has 19 points (9g,10a)in 32 games. A season ago he registered 17 points (8g,9a) in 58 games.

Hopefully it was just one of those games and the T-birds bounce back, They need to with three pretty tough divisional games on the schedule to close out the pre-holiday portion of the schedule. Seattle has road games in Spokane and Portland this weekend (T-birds are a combined 2-8 against those two clubs so far this season) before returning home next Tuesday to face Tri-City at the ShoWare Center.

Seattle was three games above .500 after their recent four game winning streak. Now they sit just one game over .500 after back-to-back losses. If they want to finish better then .500 going into the holiday break, they'll have to win two of those three games. Even more disappointing, they've lost their last two home games by a combined score of 12-4. Additionally, they had a chance to leapfrog past Victoria in the Western Conference standings had they won last night. Instead, it was the Royals who served notice with a solid road win that put Seattle a little further back in their rearview mirror.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

T-birds get Windexed; Streak Gone

The Thunderbirds win streak came to a halt at home. Did the T-birds play some good hockey Saturday night against Portland? Sure, there were some positives; a strong start, 37 shots on goal, another night of excellent penalty killing and some noteable shifts in which they got some sustained offensive zone pressure, but the good play couldn't overcome their mistakes and that is why they lost, 6-2.

Seattle has learned some lessons playing Portland and improved in some areas against the league's best team, but they haven't learned the most important lesson yet. You can't let up against that team for one second. Portland only has one gear in their motor and it's high octane, rev the engine and go hard and fast. You have to match that intensity. If you let your foot off the gas for one moment, they will race right by you. That's why Seattle is consistently getting beat by the Winterhawks by an average score of 6-2. Portland treats the ice like the racing oval at Daytona and runs hard until they see the checkered flag. Meanwhile the 'Birds are racing on city streets. they're still seeing stop signs, red lights and yield signs.

Give the T-birds an A+ for their start, they came out aggressively and it led to the early 1-0 lead on the Jesse Forsberg goal. But as soon as they ran into some adversity, and fell behind 2-1, you noticed that familiar doubt creep in. It was just enough that they started thinking too much and stopped playing the way they had played to start the game.

The Thunderbirds are still giving Portland too much respect, especially against the Portland penalty kill. Skating 5-on-3 for over a minute in the second period, Seattle got just one shot on goal. They were timid, passing up too many shooting opportunties. It seemed to me they appeared to be more concerned about a possible negative outcome, such as Portland blocking a shot and going the other way on a shorthanded breakaway, and showed less faith in their own potentially positive result (a power play goal). You can't play that way, you have to have confidence you can score.

Before the game I talked to head coach Steve Konowalchuk about Seattle's recent offensive success. During their four game winning streak Seattle piled up the goals and as a result they went into last night's game averaging almost 3.5 goals per game on the season. He said part of that recent offensive success was from a more concerted effort to go hard to the net. Then last night, it was absent. Portland goalie Mac Carruth is, well let's just say, very active with his stick. Players camping out in front of him are going to pay the price with a few hacks on the back of their legs. At critical times in last night's game, it seemed Seattle players weren't willing to pay that price. Far too many of Seattle's 37 shots came with little traffic in front of the Portland goal.

The one line that seemed not to be intimidated was the Elliot-Holub-Wray combo. They made the most of their ice time. They were physical. They finished their checks and if they got hit, they hit back. They were strong on the forecheck and as a result created some offensive opportunities. While they didn't score last night, neither were they scored upon. I like the physical example Mitch Elliot is setting for the two younger players. Wray and Holub definitely followed his lead.

Roberts Lipsbergs 11 game scoring streak came to a crashing halt. Not only was he held off the scoresheet, but he finished the game at dash three. It was a good streak while it lasted but last night he was nearly invisible.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, December 8, 2012

I'm All Four it

Seattle made it a perfect 4-for-4 this season against the rival Everett Silvertips with a 5-1 win Friday night up at Comcast Arena. In the process they also ran their overall winning streak to a season best four games and pushed their season record to a high water mark of three games over .500.

It wasn't the prettiest of games for Seattle, but you don't always have to win with style points. No, this one may have lacked the emotional edge Thursday's comeback victory in Kennewick had, but it was an effecient win. You know, one of those games against a team below you in the standings that you need to beat if you want to be a serious playoff team.

These are the type of games on the schedule that can trip up a lesser team. Seattle had the strong performance on the road the night before against Tri-City. They had traveled much of the night to get back across the mountains. Everett was banged up, coming off an emotional loss in their last game and they were playing at home. The T-birds responded well enough to earn the win. TCBY, takin' care of business.

The clear cut star of this game for Seattle was goaltender Brandon Glover. Starting for the 12th straight game, Glover was clinical in goal. He seemed to be moving effortlessly from side-to-side. It looked like he was squared to every shot and rarely had to scramble or flop to make a save but when he did he got to the right spot quickly. He was 6.7 seconds away from a shutout when, with Everett on the power play, a puck was tipped behind him off his own teammate's stick. The sickest person in the building at that point had to be defenseman Jared Hauf. Hauf, trying to break up a pass across the mouth of the Seattle goal inadvertently deflected it past Glover.

Up to that point Hauf had played another in a string of strong games on the back end. he continues to be more physical but I know he feels bad for his goalie. Hopefully, he can buy him dinner as a way of apologizing. I know Glover won't be too hard on him.

We'll have to dig back deep in the T-bird annals to see when the last time a Seattle player had a stretch of play like the one Roberts Lipsbergs is having right now. With another goal last night, his team-leading 15th, Lipsbergs has now registered a point in 11 straight games.

Congratulations to Mitch Elliot on his first goal of the season. Elliot parked his large frame in front of the Everett goal midway through the second period last night and then pounced on a rebound, banging it home to give the T-birds a 3-0 lead.
Before the game, in his pregame radio interview, head coach Steve Konowalchuk went out of his way to praise the efforts of Elliot in recent games. Elliot is one of those players who does a lot of the dirty work without getting the public praise because he's not scoring highlight reel goals. Last night he rewarded his coach for believing in him.

No rest for the road weary as Seattle returns home tonight to the ShoWare Center to take on the WHL's top dog, the Portland Winterhawks. This will be the sixth of 12 meetings between the long time rivals this season. After winning on opening night down in Portland, the T-birds have dropped four straight to the 'Hawks, being outscored 25-7 in the process. If the Thunderbirds want to stretch their winning streak to five games, they'll need to bring their best effort to the ice.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Friday, December 7, 2012

Slaying Dragons

What has Brandon Glover accomplished in less then half a season with the T-birds that Calvin Pickard never did in his four seasons here? He won a road game in Kennewick as Seattle beat the Tri-City Americans, 8-4, Thursday night at the Toyota Center. It's the first meaningful win in that building since Seatte won a playoff game their in April of 2008. Here's another trivia tidbit for you; combined number of goals in the 'Birds last two road wins in Kennewick? Fifteen. The 'Birds won that 2008 playoff game 7-1.

This is not a slight against Pickard, far from it. Pickard had an outstanding WHL career with Seattle, one of the best to wear a Thunderbirds jersey, and did all he could to get Seattle a win in the Tri-Cities.

No, this just points out that the talent around Glover this season is deeper. Seattle had quality players on the roster in Pickard's time here, just not enough of them. You also have to take into account that the Tri-City talent pool is not as deep as it was the past four seasons, but that should take nothing away from Seattle's win last night, coming from two goals down late in the second period.

Most importantly though, there has been an attitude adjustment with this team and it shows in the way they have gone about winning three in a row over teams with a combined record of 57-23-3-4; teams that are a combined 17-8-1-1 in their last 27 games against teams other then the T-birds. Remember, on Sunday the T-birds snapped a 12 game losing streak to Kamloops that dating back to the 2009-10 season. To paraphrase the famous Peter Finch line from the 1976 movie Network, "The T-birds are mad as hell, and they're not gonna take it anymore!"

Thursday the T-birds were led by the line of Rouse-Swenson-Sanvido line that put up nine points (4g, 5a) and was +13. Seth Swenson came close to a hat trick and did a good job going hard to the net.
The 19 year old from Parker, CO has quietly reached the ten goal plateau. Swenson now has 17 points (10g, 7a) in 29 games. Those are the same numbers he put up for the T-birds in 34 games last year after being acquired at the trade deadline last January from Portland. In his last 63 games with Seattle he has 34 points (20g,14a). In his previous 132 games with the Winterhawks he had 21 points (5g,16a).

It's enjoyable to watch a different "hero" step forward each night, but it's even better to see multiple "heroes" putting their weight into each game. Thursday, four different players recorded two or more points. When is the last time Seattle had five players at +2 or better in a game? it happened last night.

With all the points being tallied up by the T-birds forwards it was two defensemen who really impressed me, especially in the second half of that game. Jesse Forsberg epitomizes the effort head coach Steve Konowalchuk wants from everyone of his players. He had a fabulous night at both ends of the ice. He finished at +2 with two assists.

Meanwhile, Jared Hauf just continues to get better. Last night, at times, he looked more like a steady 19 year old NHL drafted player then an NHL draft eligible 17 year old. His skating is improving, although there is still room for more improvement, but he's so much better using his size and reach then he was just two months ago. While Hauf didn't register a point, he was a solid +3 on the night.

Still, the heart and soul of this team is Luke Lockhart. He was the best player on the ice. What he lacks in "finesse", he makes up for with effort and hard work. If the rest of the roster is following his example, then this team is in a good place. In fact, Seattle's two 20-yr old forwards helped push the pace last night as Brendan Rouse finished with three helpers and was a +6.

Now, Seattle can't have a letdown. Travel in the WHL is tough. Seattle bused through the snowy mountain pass to get to the game in Kennewick. After the win, they bused right back through that pass to get home in the wee morning hours. Tonight they get back on the bus to make the short trip through rush hour traffic up to Everett to take on the Silvertips, who haven't played since Wednesday. No excuses though. Go out play hard.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tyler Alos Retires

The news we knew was coming was made official today; Tyler Alos has retired from playing competitive hockey. Doctors advised Alos, who has suffered multiple concussion over the past two seasons, against returning to the ice following his latest. Ironically, I believe this last one was suffered in a game against the Chiefs in his hometown of Spokane.

Alos had tried to return but was never cleared. As you may know players returning from a concussion have to pass a series of tests before they are cleared to resume playing. I don't know whether he passed those base line tests but the advice from the medical people was that it was in his best interest not to continue with his career as a player.

The good news is that Alos will remain with the Thunderbirds at least through the remainder of this season (and hoepfully beyond) as part of the coaching staff. Alos has been a geat ambassador for the Thunderbirds in the Kent community since joining the team as a 16 year old. This past summer he participated in the Kent Relay for Life to raise money and awareness for cancer, and to, in part, support longtime Thunderbirds broadcaster Bruce McDonald who passed away after a short battle with leukimia this past June.

Additionally he will start to utilize his WHL scholarship money by taking some college class work. Maybe, just maybe, we'll get him up in the broadcast booth to provide some expert analysis on T-birds broadcasts.

Alos finishes his career with 19g and 37a in 201 games, all with Seattle.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

What in the Blazes!

Have the Thunderbirds finally hit their stride? Seatle played 3 of the top 4 teams in the Western Conference this weekend and came out of it with a 2-1 mark. They capped it with a strong, 3-1, win Sunday over the B.C. Division leading Kamloops Blazers. More importantly, Seattle's defensive zone coverage is improving. Overall this season Seattle has allowed 14 more goals then they have scored but this weekend they outscored the top three goal scoring teams in the league by a combined 9-8.

Brandon Glover came oh so close to his first shutout of the season versus the Blazers. Over the course of the weekend he faced 122 shots in three games and only allowed 7 goals. 115 saves, or an average of about 38 a game, and a GAA on the weekend of 2.33. He was good and his team played well in front of him.

If you've listened to my interviews with head coach Steve Konowalchuk, you've heard him preach about getting all the players on board; everyone buying into the systems they want to play. I think this weekend we saw more players buying tickets to get on board the Konowalchuk Express. I think it started Friday in Portland. Despite the loss they played hard for 60 minutes. That carried over into the two wins at home against Kamloops and Kelowna.

Prior to last Tuesday's game against Everett I did a radio interview with Roberts Lipsbergs (whose English is much better then he wants you to believe). Since then he's exploded for 7 goals. Before Sunday's game against Kamloops Lipsbergs was trying to convince his teammate and good friend Alex Delnov to step before the mic. Maybe he believes I've brought him good luck! Lipsbergs' personality is so engaging, I thought I should just give him the microphone and audio recorder and let him interview Delnov in Russian. In due time Alex, in due time!

As good as Lipsbergs was this weekend, I was just as impressed with the play of Justin Hickman who now has a 6-game point streak in hand.

Over that span the Kelowna, B.C. native has put up 4 goals and 5 assists. It comes from a renewed emphasis on going hard to the net and committing to a strong forecheck. Hickman, who had 22 points (12g, 10a) in 71 games last season, already has 15 points (7g,8a) in 28 games this go-round.

Eight games from the official midway point of season (36-games) Seattle sits one game over .500 at 14-13-1-0. But let's put that record under the microscope. Half of Seattle's losses so far this season are to two teams; Portland (4) and Spokane (3). They have two losses to Kamloops as well. So 9 of the T-birds 13 losses at this point in the season are to three teams with a combined record of 62-18-3-2. They just happen to be the three teams with the three best records in the Western Conference. Those three teams have 3 of the top 4 winning percentages in the entire WHL. Seattle has also beaten each of those teams once. So, they've played the top three teams in the Western Conference 12 times (or just slightly under half their games played) and are 3-8-1-0. They are 11-5-0-0 against everybody else. By the way, They still have to play those three teams 13 more times this season, including 7 against the best team in the league, Portland.

Its' not an easy schedule but playing the best clubs so often early in the season just might be getting them battle hardened.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

I am Iron Man

Congrats to T-bird captain Luke Lockhart, who played in his 300th WHL game last night (all with Seattle)in the T-birds 4-2 win over the Kelowna Rockets. With 45 games left in the regular season Lockhart is on pace to finish his Thunderbirds career second all-time in games played, behind only Glenn Goodall (399) and just ahead of Tyler Metcalfe (333). To mark the occassion last night Lockhart chipped in with an assist on Seattle's second goal.

Lockhart probably logs more minutes each game then any other Thunderbirds player. In addition to his regular shifts, he's also part of the T-birds power play and penalty kill. Late in close games he'll be on the ice, usually double shifting when the coaches shorten the bench. He battles every shift and takes a physical pounding. Yet, I rarely see him in the trainer's room before the game. Even if he does need treatment, he doesn't let it keep him out of the lineup.

It was a good win for Seattle last night against a very good Kelowna team that came into the game riding a 5-game winning streak. In fact, the Rockets had won 13 of their last 17 games. I didn't like how, for the second straight home game, the T-birds lost a multiple goal lead. Remember, they were up 3-0 on Everett before the Silvertips came back to tie that game last Tuesday.

It just seemed the T-birds lost their way a bit in the second period and the early part of the third. They stopped being aggressive and the forecheck wilted. In both cases, Seattle could have lost the lead if not for some stellar goaltending by Brandon Glover. The good news is they responded with a strong finish in both games and pulled out a win.

The news swirling around is that Tyler Alos may be shut down for the season due to his upper body injury. That would be unfortunate because Alos had such a strong start to this season. The T-birds have played a month now without both Alos and Branden Troock. Together they've missed a combined 37 games. That's a lot to miss from two players expected to be big contributors to your club this season.

If that's the case, who steps up to fill Alos' role? Well, it appears Connor Sanvido is ready to grab the bull by the horns. Sanvido's reputation coming into the WHL was as a point producer and it seems he's starting to fulfill those expectations.
A year ago Sanvido produced 17 pts (8g,9a) in 58-games. Already this season in just 27 games he accounted for 13 pts (5g,8a). But aside from the offensive production he's playing more physically then he did in the past and is also proving to be a reliable penalty killer.

Speaking of penalty killing, the Thunderbirds have been a perfect 10-for-10 on the PK this weekend. That will need to continue tonight against the Kamloops Blazers who are ranked 4th in the league on the power play at 24.4% but have scored the 2nd most power play goals with 33. Only Medicine Hat, with 36 has scored more.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Power Failure

No question last night in Portland the T-birds inability to capitalize on their many power play chances, especially in the second period, kept them from getting a better result. Seattle ended the game just 1 of 7 with the man advantage. They essentially had four straight power plays to begin the second period but scored only on #3.

Really, the credit has to go to Portland's penalty killers. They came into the game #2 in the league on the PK and they showed why. They were getting their sticks to T-bird passes quicker then the T-birds were. They aggressively challenged Seattle's point men. As soon as a puck got near a 'Birds player in the slot they were physical with those T-birds players.

Brendan Rouse hadn't been on the scoresheet too much lately but last night he chipped in with an assist on each of Seattle's goals. They were both a couple of beauties. Rouse showed good vision and very good decision making on both assists. Seattle needs more of that from him.

Say what you will about the Portland situation this week but that team is well coached. Yes, they are very talented but the players have also bought into that program hook, line and sinker. They run their systems to near perfection. And I also know this, it is what Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk wants from his players too; 100 percent commitment. Want? Heck, he should demand it. It's how he played. To my way of thinking, that starts upstairs, between the ears. You have to mentally committ yourself to the team's plan. That means leaving it on the ice every shift, playing with purpose every moment and worrying about your effort, not the opponents.

Seattle's effort against the Winterhawks last night was much better then the last three times they played. They seemed more committed to playing 60 minutes. After giving up a couple of goals early in the third (that turned a one goal game into a 4-1 Portland advantage), we could have seen a case of "oh no, here we go again". You know, those moments from Portland games in the recent past where the Winterhawks pulled away, the T-birds stop skating and before you know it Seattle is facing a 5-6 goal deficit. That didn't happen last night. Seattle got the game back to within two because they kept playing hard.

That was a big learning moment for this team last night. Sure they didn't push back all the way and eventually lost, 5-2. but they didn't slink away either. Let's hope they take that into the two home games this weekend against Kelowna and Kamloops, the top two teams in the B.C. Division.

Jerret Smith had a good start to his rookie campaing with the T-birds. But lately I hadn't noticed the defenseman on the ice. He wasn't playing poorly, he just wasn't making some of those positive plays that made him standout earlier. Last night I thought he stepped up and had a positive impact.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

From His Lips to Their Goal

Off the ice Roberts Lipsbergs likes to have fun. He seems to enjoy life. He always has a smile on his face. Actually, it is more like a grin and if he's not grinning or smiling, he's laughing. On the ice though, he's all business and right now for Roberts Lipsbergs, business is good. With his hat trick last night, Lipsbergs extended his points streak to six games, a streak that includes 7 goals and 4 assists. The Latvian is, as they say, en fuego!

More importantly his goals are coming because he's going hard to the net. Most of his scoring is from that prime scoring area in front of the opposing goal, between the top of the crease and just below the hash marks. Early on this season the T-birds have been scoring a lot of "pretty" goals; goals off the rush. I think they need more greasy goals off rebounds and second chance opportunities. Lipsbergs and now Justin Hickman, are starting to provide them with that kind of offense.

Was giving up a three goal lead just the actions of a team that hasn't had a lot of experience winning lately, not knowing how to close out an opponent they had on the ropes? I think that might have been part of the problem last night for the T-birds. After scoring the shorthanded goal that gave them the 3-0 cushion, it seemed Seattle played with less purpose. As a result they got too casual with the puck inside their own blue line. That led to turnovers which in turn, led to Everett scoring chances. The first Everett goal though, the shorthanded one, was just a bad break as Riley Sheen lost an edge. As frstrating as it was to see that 3-goal lead erased, the T-birds controlled the action for much of the game. For seven minutes they lost their way but responded well to that with a strong third period.

The T-birds faced their old friend, goalie Daniel Cotton, for the first time. Cotton, who spent all of last season and the first month of this season with Seattle was traded to Everett in late October. The first time the two teams met after that trade, Cotton was parked on the Silvertips bench, a game the 'Birds won up at Comcast Arena, 4-3.

Last night though, Cotton returned to his old stomping grounds and was in net hoping to backstop his new team to a road win. But Seattle came out flying and solved him early with a pair of goals from Lipsbergs. Maybe Cotton was pressing too hard trying to beat his old team. He'd played well since joining the 'Tips, entering last night's game with a sub 3.00 GAA, but a number of the goals he gave up were a bit soft, including the shorthanded goal he allowed to Jesse Forsberg early in the second period that staked Seattle to a 3-0 lead.
Still, when his team fought back to tie the game at 3-3 late in the second, Cotton had a chance for the win. The T-birds though, re-established their strong forecheck early in the third leading to Lipsbergs third goal and Seattle was never headed again.

Cotton isn't the first former T-bird to play for the Silvertips. Winger Marc Desloges spent parts of two seasons with the 'Tips after they selected him off Seattle's roster in the 2003 expansion draft. Meanwhile, Griffin Foulk does become the first former Silvertips player to don a T-birds jersey in a regular season game. Foulk was acquired late last week from Everett. You might remember that Michael Bell, who played in ten games last season for the 'Tips, was in training camp with the T-birds earlier this season and saw some action with Seattle in the preseason but didn't make it on to the regular season roster.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, November 25, 2012

We Shall Overcome

Hockey is by nature a fast game. It is played on ice. The players move up and down the ice by wearing skates with sharpened steel blades. But if you're not moving those skates, the game can slow down. And if one team isn't moving their feet in those skates and the other team is well, it gets ugly. That's what happened last night for the T-birds versus Portland.

Seattle fell behind, got frustrated and stopped moving their feet. Portland on the other hand kept moving...and moving, up and down the ice, seemingly at will. It was like a swarm of bees buzzing around a garden of statues. Unfortunately, it is becoming a recurring theme when these two teams get together. And not just this season but over the past three seasons. This is supposed to be one of the best rivalries in the WHL, but it is not a rivalry when one side consistently dominates the other.

I'm sure we've all heard the expression, "Fight fire with fire". So don't try to beat the bees by standing there flailing your arms, trying to swat them away. Instead, buzz right back. You have to match their intensity. You have to match their all out effort on every shift. You can't wait until the third period to say, "okay, enough is enough", you have to have that mentality from the opening puck drop and if there is a little adversity along the way, you don't hang your shoulders, you fight through it. It has to start by believing you can win, not hoping, believing.

The T-birds were still in the game, even trailing by two goals at the end of the first period. There should have been a re-focusing of their effort during that first intermission. Instead they came out flat in the second period and gave up a couple of early goals and that's when they stopped moving their feet. That's when they got too casual with the puck inside their own blueline. Before you know it, that 2-0 deficit is now a 6-0 debacle. I don't know if it was frustration or if they started feeling sorry for themselves but there is no place for either in this game.

That's when the words of my late broadcast partner, Bruce McDonald, start ringing in my head. Sitting there in his wheelchair, unable to lace on a pair of skates, he would say repeatedly over the years in situations like this, "What I wouldn't give to be able to go on the ice and give it 100-percent every time."

A few weeks back Kamloops came to town. The Blazers had yet to lose a game in regulation. The T-birds were motivated to be the first to knock them from that perch. They came at the Blazers and grabbed the lead and each time Kamloops tied it up, Seattle came right back. They were focused and even though the 'Birds eventually lost that game in overtime, they played the top team tough. It was one of the better games this season, against one of the top teams in the league.

Last night I'm sure Seattle's plan was to do the same against Portland. The difference though was Seattle fell behind early. But good teams fight through adversity. You're not always going to play the game with a lead. Champions overcome obstacles, they don't shrink from them. This is a lesson the T-birds are still learning.

The Thunderbirds are now four games into their five game homestand and their record is 2-2. During the homestand though, the T-birds have been outscored 18-14 and half of the goals they scored came in a 7-4 win over Kootenay. You won't win many games, home or away, giving up over four goals a game. Seattle has got to do a better job defensively. So far this season, only Brandon and Vancouver give up more goals per game then Seattle and the T-birds numbers are trending downward. Yes, the T-birds corps of defensemen is young, but defense is a team game and everyone is culpable, the forwards, the goalies...everyone.

Griffin Foulk, acquired in a trade from Everett late in the week, made his T-bird debut last night. The Broomfield, Co native is described as a skilled defenseman, someone who can handle the puck and make a good first pass out of the defensive zone. I saw glimpses of that from him last night. Tough game to make your first appearance with your new team. By my recollection, Foulk becomes the first former Silvertip to play a regular season game for Seattle.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Thursday, November 22, 2012

T-birds Leave it all on the Ice

Seattle exploded Wednesday night for a season high seven goals in beating the Kooteney Ice in their lone meeting of the season. Not bad considering the opponent had just posted a pair of recent shutouts. The T-birds never trailed in the game although you really never felt comfortable with the lead as the Ice kept doing enough to hang around.

Therein lies one of the problems with this year's T-birds. Each time they would get a two or three goal lead they would make a mistake that led to a goal against. Yes, they had a response every time Kootenay scored but they need to do a better job of putting teams away. The 'Birds had a lot of success in the attacking zone last night but you can't get so caught up in the scoring that you lapse in your own end.

Head coach Steve Konowalchuk mentioned that Seattle had very little presence in front of the Spokane net in the 3-1 loss to the Chiefs last Saturday. The message was received loud and clear by his team against the Ice as the majority of the T-birds seven goals came from the area around the Kootenay crease.
A big reason for that was Justin Hickman who did an excellent job of parking himself in front of Kootenay goalie Mackenzie Skapski, the reigning CHL Goalie of the Week. Hickman was rewarded for his hard work with a three point night (1g, 2a, +2).

Nice to see Luke Lockhart scoring again. He now leads the team in goals with ten and is just six shy of his total from all of last season. Still it had been nine games (Oct. 30 @ Spokane) since his last goal and the two in the third period versus the Ice were his first two in the month of November.

Others, such as Roberts Lipsbergs and Alexander Delnov, have picked up some of the scoring slack, but if the Thunderbirds are going to make noise this season, they need Lockhart scoring.

Riley Sheen continues to be a revelation for Seattle. His three assists in the third period all came as a result of winning puck battles along the boards, usually behind the Kootenay goal. As the smallest player on the T-birds roster, he's usually winning those battles against bigger opposing players. Sheen is averaging just under a point a game (6g, 14a) through the first 23 games. Remember, last season in Medicine Hat he had all of three points (1g, 2a) in 46 games. Whichever scout recommended trading for this guy deserves a raise, or at least a night Christmas bonus!

Rough night for Brendan Rouse who entered the game leading the T-birds at +5 but took a dash-three in the game. Still he is just one of two T-birds who are on the positive side of the +/- ledger at +2. Can you name the other? It is rookie defenseman Kevin Wolf who is also +2 in his ten games.

Last night's game may have been won in the second period even though the T-birds scored just one of their seven goals in that frame. Seattle entered the period leading, 2-1, then added a power play goal to extend the lead to 3-1. They were outshot in the period by the Ice though, 15-6. Goaltender Brandon Glover stopped all 15 shots to preserve the Seattle lead. Glover ended the night with 36 saves to earn his tenth win.

We've almost reached the 1/3rd mark of the season as the Thunderbirds have played 23 of 72 games, compiling an 11-11-1-0 mark. Of the remaining 49 games, 30 will be against their U.S. Division rivals including nine against Portland. If the 'Birds want to finish above .500 they need to do better against the trio of Portland-Spokane-Tri-City then they've done over the past three years. A season ago I believe the 'Birds went 4-26 against those three teams. They can't go 4-26 against that trifecta this time around and expect to finish over the break even mark. It's like starting the season 22 games below .500. Those are holes you just don't dig out of. You might as well be pushing a boulder up Mount Rainier.

Going into the game this Saturday against the Winterhawks, Seattle is 3-5 against those three teams thus far in 2012-13. Between now and the WHL trade deadline in early January, essentially a month and a half from now, they will play those three teams another 11 times. That's 11 of 19 games against three teams that have essentially kept you from the postseason over the last three years. What other team in the WHL, outside of Everett, has to face that schedule as they fight for a playoff spot? That's 23 games left on the schedule against three teams who currently have a combined record 30 games above .500 (49-18-2-1). In fact 37 of the T-birds remaining 49 games will be against teams whose records are currenly over .500.

I only bring this up now to point out the fact Seattle has no room to be complacent; no margin of error. They're playing .500 hockey now, yet the most daunting part of their schedule is still to come. This team can't wait until the second half of the season to start playing "playoff hockey". They have to start playing each game like their playoff lives depended on it now. That means cleaning up the small mistakes that continue to plague them, mistakes like they had in the win last night over Kootenay.

While every game on the schedule is important, how the T-birds do in those games will be a good indicator of the kind of success they could have in the second half.

Happy Thanksgiving to Thunderbirds Nation!

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, November 18, 2012

When Good is not Good Enough

I thought the T-birds played some good hockey last night against Spokane. But sometimes you can play good hockey without looking good while doing it. In other words, they played well enough to lose.

Here's chiefly (no pun intended) what I didn't like about their effort against Spokane; very little presence in front of the Spokane net. Chiefs goalie Eric Williams played well. He was probably the biggest difference maker in the game, but he wasn't perfect and left a few pucks in that prime scoring area in front of the goal. I didn't think Seattle payed the price to get into that part of the ice between the top of the crease and just below the hash marks in order to get second chance opportunities.

The last six times Seattle has outshot their opponent, their record is just 3-3 and I think the biggest reason for that is they are not scoring those greasy goals. They are not going hard to the net, at least not consistently. You just aren't going to score every goal on the initial shot. You have to win the battle for rebounds. The T-birds are now averaging 3.04 goals per game, which is down from 3.4 earlier in the season and getting dangerously close to falling below that three goals per game average I think they need to finish above .500.

Seattle entered the weekend ranked number one in the WHL on the power play then promptly went 1-8 in the two games with the man advantage. When you are the top dog at anything, it puts a bullseye on your back so you have to work harder or adjust to retain your lofty status. Seattle looked very dangerous on the first PP against the Chiefs but were anything but dangerous on the next three chances. They finished the game 0-for-4 on the power play when just one goal would have probably earned them at least a point.

Look, every team's power play goes through peaks and valleys but when you are struggling to score 5-on-5, one power play goal can be the difference between winning and losing. It was last night. Spokane took the penalties but the 'Birds didn't make them pay for their transgressions.
I love the passion of Jesse Forsberg but in a close game the T-birds need him on the ice, not in the penalty box for 15 of the last 20 minutes of a one goal game. Forsberg can be a difference maker in a game like that but you can't make plays from the sin bin.

You want your best players to be the best players on the ice. Win or lose, on most night's this season I notice the effort of Brendan Rouse and Luke Lockhart. No matter the score, they play hard through every shift. Last night I didn't notice either player too much. Just one of the games through the course of a 72 game schedule where maybe both were just a little off their game.

Sometimes you can see a light bulb go off over a player's head and you think, I believe he's figuring it out. I hope it's the case with defenseman Evan Wardley who I think played two very solid games back-to-back. I talked to Wardley before the game last night and he essentially admitted he's got to play the game smarter, keep it simple and cut down on mistakes. His decision making over the past two games was much better then it has been. As Yogi Berra once said, "baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical." The same is true of hockey and the sooner you figure that out the better player you will be.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Home Cookin'

That's a nice way to come off an elongated road swing and begin a 5-game homestand. The T-birds and Medicine Hat played a very entertaining game before a very enthusiastic Pub Night crowd. As the game went on the sense was the last team to score would win and fortunately it was Seattle.

You might think that getting a chance to play for Team Russia in the Super Series vs. Team WHL earlier this week is the impetus for Alexander Delnov's big night against Medicine Hat. Actually though, Delnov caught fire in the last game of the recent 7-game road trip, the T-birds 6-2 win over Saskatoon, in which he scored a goal and was dangerous any time the puck was on his stick. Delnov seems to be getting more comfortable with the North American style of play and the smaller ice surface.

Both goalies were good last night but in a close game like that there comes a point when a goalie makes a save that is a difference maker. That happened late in the game when Seattle's Brandon Glover made a nice post-to-post move in the crease, sliding over to make a save while the Tigers were on the power play threatening to tie the game.

I thought Roberts Lipsbergs was fighting the puck most of the game but his game-winning goal was a beauty. He didn't hesitate after pouncing on a rebound. He just got it on his stick and without looking whipped it, with his back almost to the goal, inside the right post. He knew he had the goalie down and out of position and gave him no chance to recover. If he waits to get square to the goal, he probably doesn't score.

Shea Theodore ended up with just one point, assisting on the Thunderbirds second goal, but he was very strong on the puck most of the night, carrying the puck away from danger or starting a few odd man rushes.

He sees the ice very well and a few of his stretch passes came oh-so-close to springing his teammates on breakaways. Scouting services have him ranked as a potential first round pick for next spring's NHL Entry Draft and games like last night can only help his stock.

I thought Evan Wardley had one of his stronger games of the season. He was very physical, throwing the body around and finishing his checks without taking a penalty. He also kept it very simple when he had the puck on his stick, making the quick and right decision.

I didn't see much on that last penalty called against Jared Hauf. He was whistled for a slash and protested rather heatedly. Maybe it was justice then, that that was the only Medicine Hat power play the T-birds were able to kill off.

Since being shutout in Prince Albert, the T-birds have responded with ten goals in their next two games, both wins. The T-birds and Tigers are similar in a number of ways statistically and both are .500 teams. But where they differ is in how they produce offense. Medicine Hat relies on their top line of Shinkaruk, Pearce and Valk while Seattle spreads the wealth among three lines. While it's nice to have that high top line of reliable scorers, I like the Seattle model. If that Tigers top line gets shut down or has an off night, I didn't see a second line that could pick up the slack while Seattle was able to generate chances from all four of their lines last night.

Seattle put 37 shots on goal last night, which is exactly what they are averaging over their last six games. That may be their best six game stretch for shots on goal in a couple of seasons.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Monday, November 12, 2012

Back From the Prairies

I can sit here and write about how the Thunderbirds played some very good hockey on their just completed seven game road trip. I can say don't believe the 2-win 5-loss result is reflective of how this team played or that they deserved a better fate. The reality is though, that this is a results based business. You are judged on your win-loss record and the fact is the T-birds did win just two games on the trip. They may have outplayed a few of the teams they lost to but, unfortunately, they didn't outscore them.

It is a long season, but that thought just creeps into the back of your mind that points not earned out on the prairies in November will come back to bite this team in March. You certainly hope not.

The trip did provide some building blocks for the immediate future. I will say this, when this team is playing at its best, they are fun to watch. Some of the best hockey I've seen in a few years from the T-birds took place on that road swing. The way they shut down Moose Jaw over the final two periods in their come back win over the Warriors. The utterly desparate and dominating way they played the third period in Brandon, the relentlessly strong play in the first 40 minutes against Regina and the nearly complete 60 minutes in the win over Saskatoon.

And don't underestimate that win over the Blades in the final game of the trip. This team could have done an "el foldo" after the shutout loss the night before in Prince Albert, along with the frustration of losing so many "winnable" games. Instead they came out with vigor and a sense of purpose. Instead of wilting as the game moved into the third period, they got stronger and pulled away for the win.

As you can see, Seattle's problem is putting it all together over 60-minutes. They continue to have those lapses of 4-5 minutes in most games that are killing them. Usually it is a defensive zone breakdown or turnover capitalized on by the opponent. Even when they are playing at their best they are committing errors, many self-inflicted, that point the results in the other team's favor.

Here's a positive; Seattle averaged 33 shots per game on the seven game trip. Three times they registed over 40 shots in a game and they outshot their opponents in five of the seven games.

Yet another postive? Special teams. Specifically the power play which is, as of this writing, the top power play unit in the WHL. When is the last time we've said that about the T-birds power play this late into a season? Early on this season, when they got a power play, the 'Birds were effective. They just weren't on the power play very often. Now they are starting to draw more penalties and the power play is becoming a very effective weapon. One third of their offense is coming from the power play. That's good but I would like to see them generate more scoring 5-on-5.

I think they can learn from the hard lessons they are getting early on. Stumble early, correct the mistakes and play better hockey as the season progresses. You can lament the points given away but despite some of these egregious miscues, the team is essentially playing .500 hockey, not bad, all things considered. You would like to think that as they play better and become more consistent, they will improve on that.

No one likes to use injuries as an excuse. All teams deal with them, although in the end the team that can remain healthiest probably wins more. I still contend that had Portland not lost Oliver Gabriel and Brett Ponich to injury two seasons ago, they and not Kootenay, would have have been WHL champions. Seattle is feeling the affects of not having Tyler Alos and Brenden Troock in their lineup. They are playing well without them, they'd play even better with them. Both were on a pace for about 20 goals and that's the low end, conservative estimate.

Could the win over Saskatoon be a "break out" type game for Alexander Delnov. The Russian winger had one goal and finished at +3 but he was dangerous all night and could have had 2 or 3 more goals with a little puck luck.
More importantly he seemed to take the job of forechecking more seriously in this game and it resulted in creating turnovers by the Blades. Delnov is a terrific skater, puckhandler and has a good offensive mind but to get to the next level he will have to play both ends of the ice. Saturday in Saskatoon was a step in the right direction.

Seattle has played well at home so far in the new year with a 3-1-1-0 record. They just haven't played a lot of home games. There five home games are the fewest in the league going into play this week. That changes with a five game homestand beginning Friday against Medicine Hat. I've already documented in earlier posts that the T-birds home record over the past three seasons is well below .500. They need to continue to play well at home this year if their goal is a record above .500 and a postseason berth.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2013.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Isn't That Special

By now we all know that success or failure on special teams usually decides the outcome of the game. Case in point, the Thunderbirds last three games. Yes, even the first game of this road trip in Spokane, an 8-2 loss to the Chiefs, was significantly affected by special teams play.

With Seattle down, 2-0, in the first period against Spokane, the T-birds were on the power play pressing to get back in the game. A Connor Honey shot wrang off the crossbar. There were a few other opportunities but the 'Birds couldn't capitalize. Then, as the power play expired, Seattle turned the puck over and the Spokane was off the other way on a breakaway, scoring to make it a three-goal lead and pretty much seal the T-birds fate.

Friday in Swift Current it was more obvious. Seattle went 0-for-4 on the power play, gave up one power-play goal against and surrendered two shorthanded goals. The result, a 4-3 loss. Seattle played a good road game, they had chances to win but their special teams didn't do the job. The irony is that Seattle killed off a Swift Current 5-on-3 advantage in the first period to gain some early momentum.

Saturday at Mosaic Place in Moose Jaw, it was just the opposite. Seattle fell behind early, 2-0, then got into a little penalty trouble. Moose Jaw got two chances on the power play to extend their lead to three but the T-birds penalty killers did yeomans work and thwarted the Warriors. Then, the 'Birds wemt 2-for-3 on the power play in the third period, then killed off yet another Moose Jaw power play in overtime, before winning the game in a shootout.

Win the special teams battle and good things usually happen.

One thing the T-birds must work on as this seven game road trip continues is their start. Seattle has come out slowly in all three games thus far. It led to a 5-0 deficit they couldn't climb out of against Spokane. They survived an early onslaught by Swift Current because their goalie, Brandon Glover, was sharp early and in Moose Jaw they fell in to a two goal hole they fortunately climbed out from. But, they are living dangerously.

Tuesday's game in Brandon will have a nice subplot as T-bird Connor Honey is expected to face his twin brother Curtis, a goalie with the Brandon Wheat Kings. There should be pleny of Honey family members in the crowd, the question is who do they cheer for?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Winning Weekend

It may have ended on a slight down note, with the overtime loss to Kamloops, but that was a great weekend of hockey by the Thunderbirds. Earning 5 of 6 points is nothing to sneeze at, unless you're allergic to winning. More importantly the T-birds are making their home ice at the ShoWare Center a tough place for opposing teams. After dropping their home opener to Portland back in September Seattle has now gone 3-0-1-0 at the Sho, earning 7 of 8 points in the process. With a schedule that has more home games on the back half, that's good news.

Through their first 13 games the T-birds have played opponents who have a combined record twenty games over .500 at 59-39-3-3. To be above the break even mark themselves facing that opposition is another positive. Seattle has already played five games against the two teams with the best winning percentages in the WHL, Kamloops and Portland, and earned three points in the process.

You can quibble about getting a two goal lead on the Blazers Sunday only to give it right back, but Kamloops came into the game averaging five goals a game. They had the top three scorers in the league and the #1 power play. They can score goals in bunches. The 'Birds played them even for 60 minutes. I'm not going to look into nooks and crannies to find fault with their effort. They played a solid hockey game against the league's top team at the end of a busy weekend and deserved the point they earned. Quite honestly, except for about a 5-7 minute span the first time the two teams met back in early October, the T-birds have played the Blazers even up.

Shea Theodore's unassisted goal in the second period was more then an end to end rush. He picked up the puck just inside his own blue line, skated behind and around his own goal and then all the way down the left wing before scoring. He must have covered 260-plus feet on the goal.
Brandon Glover, with 16 third period saves, was a big reason why Seattle gets that point. He also survived an early barrage at the start of the game when the Blazers had eight shots about four minutes in. Just doesn't feel right putting a loss on his record after a performance like that.

Seattle now heads out on the road for seven games beginning Tuesday in Spokane. The T-birds aren't back home until November 16th when they host Jacob Doty and the Medicine Hat Tigers.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Given an Inch They Take a Myles

Congratulations to Justin Myles on earning his first WHL win. And I do mean earn it as he turned aside 27 Silvertips shots, including many quality chances in the waning seconds of the game as he preserved the T-birds 3-2 road win before a packed house at Comcast Arena in Everett.

Myles could just as easily be 3-0 as 1-2 (his current record). he played well in his previous two starts only to lose by a goal, 4-3, in Prince George and then 2-1 in Spokane. All three of his starts have been on the road before a hostile environment and that's a tough task for a seasoned WHL goalie let alone a rookie. Myles even alluded to the fact, in a postgame inteview, that nerves may have gotten the best of him early in Everett as he gave up an early goal before settling down.

I'm guessing he's never played before a crowd of that size before last night. His early numbers though show he can handle whatever the WHL throws his way. As I said, he's had three starts but also played in parts of two other games. His stat line reads: 5G, 1W 2L 2.74 GAA and a .907 SV %. Last year's backup, Daniel Cotton got only 8 starts all season. I think it is safe to say Myles should at the least double that, playing behind the 20 year old, Brandon Glover.

Right winger Conner Honey was rightfully dumbfounded when he received one of the three stars in Friday night's home win over Tri-City. He played well against the Americans but had no points and his +/- was zero.

Just call it a clerical error! There was no shock when he was awarded the first star Saturday up in Everett as the Edmonton native scored twice, including the game winner agains the 'Tips. He came dangerously close to attaining a hat trick. His two goals were both things of beauty, of the proverbial highlight reel variety. He now has nine points (5g,4a) and is on pace for 54 pts.

A lot has been made of the tall Seattle defensive corps, which averages 6'3". But it was the two shortest players on the roster who made a big difference in last night's win. Center Conner Sanvido, listed at 5'10", made a nifty chip pass off the boards to set up Seattle's second period shorthanded goal from Alexander Delnov. Meanwhile 5'11" right winger Riley Sheen may have been the hardest working T-bird all night and by jumping up in the third he helped keep 'Tips goalie Austin Lotz honest, opening up just enough space for Honey to score the game winner.

Speaking of size, the T-birds get a tall task tonight at home as they face the red-hot Kamloops Blazers. The Blazers have yet to lose in regulation, sporting a 14-0-0-1 record and boasting the top three scorers in the league. They score in bunches. Seattle can attest to that having lost to the Blazer, 7-2, up in Kamloops back on October 5th. They average just under five goals a game (4.93). But they are pretty stingy too, giving up just 2.2 goals against per game.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012