Monday, January 23, 2012

Chance-ing It

I wrote at the end of last season that if there was one returning player on the T-birds roster who could do what Brendan Dillon did, play his way into a pro contract as a 19 or 20 yr old, I though that player would be Chance Lund.

I always felt Chance had the physical tools to succeed. He's a natural athlete (plays baseball at a high level in the summer) with good size, stamina and skates well. His issue has always been finishing his scoring opportunities. Well, this year he seems dedicated to taking his game to the next level, in particular in his past three games he separated himself from the pack. Lately Lund has been the offensive leader for a team struggling to produce offense. He has three goals and two assists in that span and just missed a fourth goal when he rang one off the post last Friday at home against Kamloops. He's already one of the leaders on the team in minutes played thanks to his hard work on the penalty kill. Now he's getting more power play time and produced a power play goal Sunday in Vancouver.

Lund's career high in goals (12) plus his 13 assists puts him second now on the team in scoring with 25 points, just two behind Burke Gallimore. More amazing, considering all the ice time he logs, he's only a -2 after 43 games. Additionally he's only been assessed two minor penalties all season. At the very least his play should earn him an invite to an NHL training camp next fall.

Calvin Pickard now stands alone when it comes to career saves by a WHL goalie. With 42 saves last night Pickard now has 6,959, surpassing the old mark held by another former T-birds goalie, Danny Lorenz. Some might call the record dubious because Pickard is just facing way too many shots. But the fact of the matter is he's saving over 90 percent of those shots and that is a credit to him.
Meanwhile Pickard is approaching another league standard for goalies. After the game Sunday in Vancouver Pickard has now played 12,639 minutes. He now holds the T-birds franchise record in that category (again bypassing Lorenz in the process) and is only 135 minutes (just over two games) behind former Swift Current Bronco netminder Kyle Moir for the WHL record.

As for the results on the ice lately? Well, January continues be the bane of this team's existence. The T-birds have played ten games so far this month and have only one win, and just three points for their effort (1-8-1-0). There are four games left before we turn the calendar page. So still a chance to salvage some points but this is the third straight season the team will have limped through January.

Remember, when January rolls around the T-birds schedule gets loaded with divisional and conference games. Those teams just happen to be among the best in the league right now and the T-birds are playing them multiple times. With the exception of Everett, every team the Thunderbirds have faced this month has been above .500. In fact outside of the Silvertips, no team the T-birds have played in January has a winning percentage below .615 The combined win-loss record of the T-birds opponents this month is 161-84-8-17. Remove Everett from the equation and the record of Seattle's January opponents is 151-56-7-9.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Are You Snow-mageddon it?

The concern after Tuesday night's game in Kennewick was whether or not the team would be able to safely travel back west to Kent through the impending snow storm. Well, the bus pulled into the ShoWare Center lot at about 3:30 in the morning after encountering zero storm related issues. In fact it just began snowing about 20 minutes out from the rink. Snoqualmie Pass was in great shape and other than having to dial it back to about 45 MPH it was just a typical return trip.

Now the question is can I get out of my neighborhood and make it back up to Kent for Friday night's game? The storm eventually dumped about seven inches of snow at my home down south of Tacoma, but once the snow stopped, temperatures warmed up just enough to create slush...and then the temperatures dropped overnight Wednesday and into Thursday to turn everything to ice. I mean it looked like someone had put a glaze over my pickup truck. Then things got worse as the snow stopped and it began to sleet, hail and rain. Sadly I must report that the heavy snow/ice combination once again attacked my Magnolia tree and I lost a few more branches, which has become a semi-annual occurrences when it does snow here. This happened despite my best efforts to save the tree. Wednesday afternoon I braved the elements and sent my 11 year old son, Conner, out and had him knock as much of the snow off the branches as possible. Unfortunately being 11 years old and on the small size he couldn't reach the higher branches, no matter how much encouraging I gave him when he jumped. Eventually Conner gave up and decided it would be more fun to use the shovel to find the dog poop buried in the snow. Mind you, when it isn't snowing this is a kid who wants nothing to do with the dog poop. Of course, by next week at this time all the snow will be gone and forgotten, until July when my kids are still in school making up the snow days.

As for the two road games to start the week? Well, there was no fluke about the win in Spokane Monday afternoon that snapped the T-birds six game winning streak and provided them with their first win of 2012. For the most past I thought the team outworked the Chiefs. Penalties were a problem but they did a good job on the penalty kill, highlighted by Justin Hickman's shorthanded, game winning goal.

The win over Spokane was the way this team must play to win games. It's why most of their wins this season have been low scoring, one goal affairs. Unfortunately they couldn't duplicate the effort Wednesday in Kennewick and they were shut out by the Americans, 4-0. Calvin Pickard was brilliant in goal but was just under siege too often and Tri-City must have had 20 good scoring chances among the 40 shots they took.

More troubling is the lack of offense from the T-birds since coming back from Christmas. They have been shutout now three times since the break, twice in the last three games. They barely averaging a goal per game in the 11 they have played seem resuming action on December 27th.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jan-no win-uary

What the heck is it about the month of January that keeps the T-bird from winning games? They had very few wins (less then five) the last two January's combined and now they are off to an 0-5 start to the 2012 version of the month. Maybe we should just peel that month off the calendar in 2013.

Really though, no secret to why Seattle has now lost six in a row. The defensive zone coverage continues to be lacking consistency over the full sixty minutes and the offense has evaporated. The T-birds are barely averaging a goal a game (1.3) during this losing skid. The offensive chances generated aren't many either which means there's greater pressure to score on those you get and Seattle just isn't doing that.

You also can't give up 5 goals a game and win very often. During this losing streak opponents are scoring, on average, 4.8 goals. And with each goal that is scored it just seems that the teams psyche takes another hit and the effort level drops.

Still hard to figure out how this team can play a solid first period and not respond the right way off that effort in the second. I don't want to repeat myself ad nauseum but it takes every player going hard for 60 minutes to win. You can't think you've got it figured out after playing well for 20 minutes. Just one guy taking one shift off can be the difference between winning and losing.

So, now what? Well, all they can do is push forward, hope for a lucky bounce of a puck maybe, and try to right the ship. There's still plenty of hockey left, 32 games.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Ach Du Lieber

I admit I had to do a double take when I saw what the T-birds got back in the deal that sent Marcel Noebels to Portland. I thought it must have been a typo or that something was missing. Let's see, Noebels to Portland for Swenson. Okay. Then two first round draft picks, wait...that was it. The two first round draft picks were part of the Noebels deal! Seriously, I thought part of the headline was missing from the press release. Wasn't Christmas last month? I guess the Winterhawks gift to the T-birds just got hung up in the chimney!

You might ask why would Portland pay such a steep price? Well, the Winterhawks have done a very good job of recruiting players. They list some good players and convince them to come play for their organization. So they probably feel they can afford to send two high picks our way. That is what winning does for your organization. Well, if the T-birds can turn these picks into gold, and gold into winning, they can do the same in the future. Winning breeds success throughout your organization.

I know what you're gonna say. Portland's first round draft picks are going to be at the tail end of the first round so they are really like second round draft picks. Uh, no, if they were second round draft picks they would be in the second round. These are first round draft picks and I don't care where in that first round they fall. It's two EXTRA high picks you didn't have two days ago. And if they were second round picks, I'd still be giddy getting two of them for a player who won't be in the WHL next season.

But, you say, Seattle hasn't done well with first round picks lately. Yes, there were a few down years but I think their last three first round picks (Troock, Hauf and Gropp)are going to turn out just fine. I realize Gropp hasn't committed to the team yet but I think this move will help convince him that the team is focused on building a strong team around him.

Additionally you now have that extra 2013 first round pick in your back pocket. You now have some bait for next season's trade deadline if you so choose. You'll have the ability to acquire established young WHL talent if you're in a position of need. Or you keep the pick and select another top prospect.

Don't forget too, you should be able to replace Noebels with a fairly high pick in this spring's CHL Import Draft. A chance to add yet another young talent as you build this roster for the next 2-3 years.

This was an absolute home run of a deal by GM Russ Farwell. This should go along way in putting this team in position to compete in the Western Conference in the coming years.

Obviously Portland really wanted Noebels to pay that price. Sad to see him go. I really like him and his no nonsense attitude. But to paraphrase The Godfather, they made an offer Russ couldn't refuse.

I don't know what to expect from Seth Swenson. He's always seemed like a hard working player. Difficult to tell from his stat line what the T-birds are getting but Portland is so deep in forwards this will give him a chance to become a more int regal part of a team's offense.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

It's Gonna Be a Bumpy Ride

It's funny how a six game road trip to the Eastern Division doesn't wipe you out as much as going back-to-back nights within your own division with a road game in Kennewick followed by a home game. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the time I got home after the Spokane game Saturday night. But I think I have recovered enough of my energy to post a few thoughts.

Obviously the team continues to play inconsistently, almost maddeningly so. They start the post-holiday break with a three game win streak only to follow that up with four straight losses. But maybe that win streak was a bit misleading. Two of the wins came via shootout against the team with the worst record in the league, Everett, a team they have since lost to, 5-2. The third was a nice, gritty 2-0 victory at home over Moose Jaw behind stellar goaltending from Calvin Pickard. But if you look at Moose Jaw's road trip through the U.S. Division as a whole, the Warriors struggled to score goals against all but the Silvertips, were shutout twice on the trip, and managed just 10 goals in 6 games.

The T-birds continue to find scoring a difficult proposition. Since returning from the nine day layoff they have played seven games and scored just ll goals or 1.57 per game. But now they are starting to give up way too many. They have allowed 16 goals in the past three games and 18 in the four game losing streak. That's over four goals a game during the skid. Most of those goals can be attributed to issues that have plagued them all season long; poor defensive zone coverage and an inability to clear the puck out of their end of the ice.

Are there some positives out of this latest down turn? Yes. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk continues to increase the minutes for younger players such as Connor Honey, Justin Hickman, Evan Wardley and Branden Troock. As a result they continue to develop their game in a positive manner. It may not be as tangible as an increase on the stat sheet but you can see how hard they work and that should bode well for the future.

Meanwhile a couple of the players in the 18 year old age group are also starting to step up. Colin Jacobs is rounding into form after missing half the season due to offseason surgery. While there is room for improvement he's been so much better in the defensive zone then he ever was a year ago. He's smart enough to know that to get to the next level that part of his game must become better.

Is it just me or is Jacob Doty starting to assert himself more? Not just the physical play but I'm seeing him get his stick on pucks more now and win a few puck battles along the boards. I know he works hard on improving his skating but that is still something that has to get better. Connor Sanvido sees limited ice time but he's made the most of if, earning a pair of assists recently.

Statistically it would seem a leap to say Daniel Cotton played very well the other night in goal. If all you looked at was the stat sheet and saw that he allowed seven goals to Tri-City you would look at me cockeyed if I said it was a very good performance. But in this case the stats are deceiving. The more he plays the better he'll be and I think he's already a pretty good one.

If you find yourself in Ellenburg on your travels, go out of your way to find the Ellensburg Pasta Company. This eatery looks fairly nondescript on the outside but, as they say, it is what's on the inside that counts and inside you'll find some great food.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nothing Special

The inability to score on a five minute power play early in the third period Wednesday in Everett just shed more light on the biggest issue the T-birds are having this season. There special teams have been anything but that this season. The T-birds lost by three goals and the difference was all in the special teams play of the two teams. Everett scored two power play goals and then added the shorthanded goal on that five minute power play the T-birds had. That was the game in a nutshell.

Head coach Steve Konowalchuk talked before the game about getting back to that energy level the team had the first three games after Christmas. He didn't think they had that same energy in the New Year's Eve loss down in Porltand and he wanted his players to get back on the horse. Unfortunately, very few did.

There are times you want to send this team collectively to see a shrink. Their Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality is confounding. It's as if they have a split personality and have trouble controlling the two. One game, as in the 2-0 win over Moose Jaw December 30th, they look they can skate with any team in the league. Then they have a game like they did Wednesday against Everett where they can be outplayed by a team with only six wins.

I'll give credit to opposing teams when they beat the T-birds. Everett was hungrier or more passionate up at Comcast Arena and they go the result they deserved. But when I watch the T-birds play sometimes I am reminded of the cartoon character Pogo who once famously stated, "We have met the enemy and he is us".

Too many times this team beat itself or, maybe it's more of a case where they don't give themselves a chance to win.

Monday, January 2, 2012

When a Half Becomes a Whole

A look at recent T-birds history will tell you how important the second half of this season is to this team, specifically the first 15 games. I believe it will determine the T-birds 2012 playoff fate.

Two seasons ago the team went into the Christmas break just two games out of a playoff spot but then promptly went 1-14 and fell well out of contention. Last year the T-birds were actually above .500 and comfortably in the battle for a postseason spot when the Christmas break arrived. But no sooner did the season resume and the team went 4-11 and were fighting for their playoff lives; a fight they lost.

So, despite the 2-0 loss down in Portland New Year's Eve, Seattle has come back out of the break this time around and won 3 of 4. The results have pushed them from the 8th spot to 6th in the Western Conference playoff chase. A pretty remarkable fete considering they played 4 games in 5 nights following a nine day layoff. They did it without a full roster that got thinner as the week progressed, finishing the game in Portland with only 16 skaters, including just 5 defensemen, none of whom were their two 20 year olds.

Of course they did it because they had Calvin Pickard in goal. Pickard allowed just six goals in those four games and it would have been only five had he not flubbed the save on Everett's lone goal last Wednesday. That's 145 saves on 151 shots and for good measure he stopped all six shots in two shootouts. That equates to 36.25 saves per game since resumption of play. After New Year's Eve's 46 save performance he now leads all WHL goalies in shots faced (1163)and saves made(1067).

But, you don't compile a 3-1 record solely on the play of your goalie. If that were the case the T-birds would sport a better record then they currently do because Pickard has been their best player all season. I think as the season has progressed more players have come on board and bought into what head coach Steve Konowalchuk is preaching. Most importantly its players who are ticketed to be here the next few years who are punching their ticket on the Konowalcuk Express. Colin Jacobs has greatly improved his play in the defensive zone. Tyler Alos has really become a minutes eater and Justin Hickman has been a passenger on that train most of the season. Now Conner Honey is on board along with young defensmeman Jared Hauf, Shea Theodore and Evan Wardley.

I wasn't sure what the team had in Wardley. he missed much of the first half of the season recovering from a lower body injury suffered in training camp. Then the first few weeks he was active he was either filling a spot on the bench as a forward but rarely playing or he was a healthy scratch. But with injury and absences affecting the back end we've seen what he can do as a defenseman and I like what I see. He's not a finished product but he's physical and, more importantly, doesn't try to overextend himself.

Seattle still needs to get through this recent spate of injuries that has put a few key players on the shelf for an extended time (Noebels, Rouse and Troock). The absence of Rouse, in particular, seems to have affected the team the most. It is apparent now how important he is to the team's special teams success. It's a case where you don't realize what you have in a player until he's gone from the lineup.

Now, if the playoffs were to start today, the T-birds would face the Vancouver Giants in the first round, a team they've beaten twice in three games this season including a home ice shutout and a road win. But no matter which team Seattle plays in round one should they reach the postseason they're going to need to create more offense and reduce the number of shots their goalies are facing. That will be another thing to watch for in the second half of the season.