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.

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