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

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