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?