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.

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