Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New? Or Just Improved?

What a difference a year can make. A season ago Roberts Lipsbergs led the Thunderbirds in scoring with 58 pts. (30g, 28a) in 64 games. Lipsbergs is on pace for a similar finish this season. Currently he has 30 points (22g, 8a) at the midway point. A season ago Connor Honey finished second on the team in scoring with 54 points(16g, 38a)in 57 games. Honey has missed the last 30 games due to an upper body injury. As a result he's only been able to contribute six points (2g, 4a) in seven games.

Luke Lockhart was Seattle's 4th best scorer last season with 49 points in 72 games. He was second on the team to Lipsbergs with 25 goals. Lockhart, of course, is no longer on the team. Oh, did I mention they traded away their 7th leading scorer from a year ago?

So, with their leading scorer from a season ago only on pace to register the same number of points as last year when the team averaged less then three goals a game, their second leading scorer from last year out with injury most of the first half of the season, their 4th leading scoring from the 2012-13 season graduated out of the organization and their 7th leading scorer sent off to another team, the offense has suffered considerably, right? Wrong! Both the offense and the defense are on the upswing. Just a couple of indicators as to why this team is playing so much better.

Through the first 37 games of the season the T-birds are giving up 3.4 goals against per game, which doesn't sound that impressive. But over the past 12 games, as the team has shown a more concerted commitment to team defense, the goals against average is just 2.6. Remember, a season ago the T-birds allowed four goals a game to the opposition. With the better defense has come better results as Seattle is 10-1-1-0 over that span. Meanwhile the commitment to playing better defense has not come at the expense of the offense. In fact, the scoring has improved. For most of the first half of the season the T-birds were averaging about 3.4 goals a game. That is now up to 3.7 thanks to a 4.4 goals per game clip over the last dozen games.

So I guess to make such a dramatic improvement Seattle GM Russ Farwell traded away the future for a bona fide superstar goal scorer, yes? Wrong again. the improvement has come from within. Defenseman Shea Theodore is just seven point away from equaling his entire point total from last season. A healthy Branden Troock is on pace for 36 goals and 81 points. Alexander Delnov is just three tallies away from equaling the 20 goals he potted in 69 games last year. Then there is rookie Mathew Barzal who has lived up to the billing with 30 points through the first half of his rookie campaign. So, despite being on pace to equal his last season's team leading point total, Lipbergs right now would finish 5th on the team in scoring this season.

Meanwhile team captain Justin Hickman has already equaled his goal total from last season with 12. While Seth Swenson's scoring is down he's still contributed eight goals (19 pts.) from the team's checking line. Another rookie, Ryan Gropp is starting to get his offensive game going and now has 13 points (6g, 7a) in 24 games. While Theodore is getting the headlines as the top scoring defenseman in the WHL, the other five primary d-men for Seattle are chipping in with a combined 57 points (12g, 45a).

One of the significant trades the T-birds did make earlier this season was to acquire Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowksi from Lethbridge. A season ago the two combined for 50-plus goals with the Hurricanes. So far with Seattle their biggest contributions for the T-birds have been on the defensive side, teaming up with Scott Eansor to form a shutdown line. Still the trio has combined for 19 points (9g, 10a). Yakubowksi's recent injury has broken up that trio but once he's back I'd look for the offensive production to increase in the second half of the season.

The WHL trade deadline is looming. This season it is January 10th, just as the T-birds come off of a five game road trip. Hopefully by then, some of the walking wounded are back. Seattle does have an opening on the roster for a third 20 year old. They could try to fill that spot with a trade or they can stand pat with what they have. The price tag on an acquisition, plus team chemistry, will figure prominently in that decision. Seattle has a lot of young, quality talent on the current roster and in the pipeline and I'm not sure they want to deal any of it for a short term rent-a-player.

Whether or not Farwell makes a trade deadline deal, the best acquisition the team could make would be getting Connor Honey his health. Honey makes this team better in every facet of the game, especially the power play.
It would give Seattle even better depth and put less pressure on young players like Keegan Kolesar and Calvin Spencer. It would give them another leader on the ice and on the bench. It would make them that much harder to play against.

The second half is underway and the T-birds fate is in their own hands.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Still "Pointing" in the Right Direction

Most weekends, getting three out of four points will be an occasion for celebration, but I get the feeling the Thunderbirds aren't happy letting the game slip away from them Saturday night and getting just a single point.

The T-birds were fairly in control of the game against Everett, leading 2-0, and hadn't taken a penalty all night, when all of a sudden they were whistled for three infractions in the final six minutes of the second period. No penalties before, and none after. The Silvertips cashed in by scoring twice on the man advantage to get back in the game. The two teams traded goals in the third period. Seattle could have had more as they dominated most of the action in the final period but could only capitalize the one time despite 21 shots on goal.

The T-birds were equally as strong in the overtime period but unfortunately a pretty pedestrian shot beat Seattle goalie Danny Mumaugh and Everett left with the win. I'm sure Mumaugh we'll be the first guy to admit he should have had that one. Just an unfortunate bounce. Mumaugh's been very good the last month. I'll take him winning five of every six starts any time and twice on Sunday. This just happened to be that one game. Instead of taking four points on the weekend Seattle settled for three. But I think it is the two they gave up in the loss that smarts the most.

As we've mentioned many times before, the WHL is a developmental league for these players. The task is to prepare the players for the next level. Part of that preparation is developing good habits. Hockey is a team sport, it's 25 players sticking to the game plan and working as a unit. You can't stray from that concept if you want to advance to the next level. You can't worry about your ice time or individual stats, only team goals. I applaud Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk for instilling that idea in his players, even if it means sitting one of your better players in the third period of a tight game, against a division rival. It's not to prove a point, it's a teaching moment.

Despite the overtime setback, it's an incredible month and a half of hockey the T-birds have gone through. After that 0-5-1-0 stretch at the beginning of November, the T-birds have put the engine back on the rails. They've earned points in 14 of their last 16 games. That's 26 points going back to their overtime loss November 15th in Victoria. With the exception of the 5-2 loss November 22nd in Vancouver, they've been in position to win 15 of those 16 games. Even more impressive is everyone of those games, save one, was against a team with a winning record and all but one have been against a Western Conference opponent.

Ten of those 16 games have been versus their U.S. Division rivals, arguably the best division right now in the WHL. It is currently the only division in the league where every team is .500 or better. In those ten games, Seattle is 8-1-1-0 and half of those eight wins have been earned on the road. In their last five games the T-birds, because of injury and players away at international tournaments, haven't been able to field a complete team yet they've still managed to go 3-1-1-0.

Congrats to Calvin Spencer on earning his first WHL point with an assist on Branden Troock's third period goal. And while we're at it, kudos to GM Russ Farwell for jumping on this prospect, getting him in and getting him signed in a matter of a week's time. I like Spencer's game more every time I see him. His skillset fits this roster. A very good pickup.

So, as frustrating as the loss Saturday night was, let's keep our eyes on the big picture. You're not gonna win them all but over the long haul this team is proving it not only can win more then it loses, it also can beat the best the WHL has to offer, and that's because they are one of the best. Despite the overtime loss, Seattle still owns the 5th best winning percentage in the WHL. They tasted adversity with that six game winless streak, fought through it, learned some hard lessons and ended up a better team as a result. Outside of that early November skid, the T-birds are 22-5-1-3. That's not a fluke. that's almost half a season, enough of a sample size to say this team is a contender.

Most importantly, no one can say this team is not getting better as the season moves along. They need to get through this stretch of injuries and absences but once they are whole again, I like the makeup of this roster. Roles have been defined and players are buying into those roles. We're half way through the season and I believe the best is yet to come.

First things first, the Thunderbirds need to finish off a very solid month of December. So far it has been one of the best months of hockey this team has had in a number of years. With one game to go before the calendar turns to January and 2014, Seattle is 7-1-1-0. Up next is Kamloops on New Year's Eve. No one knows more then Seattle you can't take any opponent in this league lightly; the T-birds fell to the Blazers back in mid-October, 3-1 up in Kamloops. Seattle is a different team now then they were back then but you can't overlook the Blazers, especially with a five game road trip coming up to start the New Year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Troock For Tuesday

Branden Troock notched a pair of third period goals to go along with his first period assist, and thus led the Seattle Thunderbirds to their 5-2 win over Tri-City Tuesday night. Troock was a beast on the ice all night and came close on a couple of occasions to getting a hat trick. On a night when the Thunderbirds dressed two under the limit, they needed their best players to be the best players on the ice and, led by Troock, they were. Alexander Delnov chipped in with a goal and three helpers and Shea Theodore scored a key second period goal that seemed to put the game out of reach for Tri-City.

Troock is now second on the team in goals scored with 17, passing Delnov on the list, which is quite an accomplishment seeing how Delnov scored last night. Only Roberts Lipsbergs, with 21, has more. Meanwhile the Edmonton native now sits atop the scoring chart for Seattle with 40 points (same number of points as Theodore)on 17 goals and 23 assists. After his +4 performance against the Americans, he is also now the team leader in plus/minus at +11. You want the Troock? You can't handle the Troock!

So, Seattle heads into the holiday break with 21 first half wins. That's just three shy of their entire win total from last season. They've also won nine of their last ten, are 6-1 in December and, after their 0-5 start to November, have gone 10-2-1-1 since, earning 22 out of 28 points in that span. This run of good play has come against teams with a combined record of 147-90-9-14 (.612 winning percentage), giving the T-birds a .785 winning percentage since November 12th.

Lane Pederson made his Seattle debut last night. He didn't see a great deal of ice but held his own when out there. He's the fifth member of the Thunderbirds 2012 Bantam Draft class to suit up for at least one game. Of those, only Logan Flodell, who suited up for two games as a backup goalie last December, hasn't played in a regular season game. Besides Pederson and Flodell, the other three are, of course, Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear. The latter three have been integral parts to the team's first half success. All five will participate in the U-17 tournament later this month. We could see a sixth member of that draft class practicing with the team after Christmas. Stay tuned.

How tight are things in the Western Conference at the mid-point of the season? While Kelowna, thanks to their current 12-game winning streak, has an eight point lead on the field with games in hand, just nine points separates second place Portland from 7th place Vancouver. Seattle, with 46 points, currently sits in the 5th spot but are just two points out of 3rd and only four points from 2nd. Because of games in hand the T-birds have the Conference's 4th best winning percentage and are 6th best in that category in the entire WHL.

Getting to this point has been a total team effort. Seven players have 20 points or more. Seattle is just .003 away from having four players averaging a point a game. Still let me take a crack at selecting three stars for the first half:

Third Star: Mathew Barzal. The former first overall selection in the 2012 Bantam Draft is that fourth player just shy of averaging a point per game (.097). He has been as advertised, a complete player who makes those around him better. He's just 16 and has had a few rookie moments but overall you'd have to grade out his first half season in the WHL as an A-. Again. I contend it is the things he does on the ice that don't end up on the scoresheet that make him such a dynamic presence. His line mates most of the season have been Lipsbergs and Justin Hickman. Together those two have 32 goals. Barzal is a big reason for that. Despite all the attention Barzal had gotten from the Canadian media, he seems to be very humble and a terrific teammate...just one of the guys.

Second Star: Shea Theodore. Ever since returning from the NHL camp of the Anaheim Ducks early in the season, Theodore has been a strong presence at both ends of the ice. The third year defenseman is tied for the team lead in scoring with 40 points on 13 goals and 27 assists. He's vowed to be a plus player this season and so far he is second on the team at +9. He logs a lot of time on the back end, especially late in games, and as a result is becoming a better two way defenseman.

He has the skills to change the complexion of a game with his ability to go end to end with the puck. While publicly he says he'll bide his time until next season, I think the first round NHL draft pick did play much of the first half of the season with a chip on his shoulder, after not being invited to play in the Subway Super Series for Team WHL against Russia. What's scary about Theo is I don't think he's hit his stride yet. I think he's poised to break out in the second half.

First Star: Branden Troock. When he plays as he did last night against Tri-City, he can take over a game and look like a man among boys. He's showing a complete 200 foot game this season, especially over the last month. He's been the trigger that shot the team to nine wins in their last ten games. More importantly I think he's been the right influence for Delnov, who has picked up his play at both ends of the ice since being teamed up on Troock's line. He's helped rookie Ryan Gropp assimilate into the WHL after joining the team in mid-October. Troock is a powerfully fast skater, a physical force with good hands. He can beat you off the rush, with a wicked snap shot from the slot or by going to the net and redirecting shots or pouncing on rebounds. He's become a tremendous force on the back check as well. He's an athlete who happens to play hockey and right now he's playing it very well. This is the Troock we saw glimpses of over the past two seasons. This is the Troock the NHL's Dallas Stars believed they were drafting in the 5th round two years ago, and that's the Troock!

Honorable mentions: The T-birds goaltending tandem of Justin Myles and Danny Mumaugh. Before the season began there was clamoring that the T-birds should go out and get a seasoned 20 year old netminder. This duo has put that thought to bed. Each has already recorded ten wins as they continue to share duties between the pipes. Mumaugh is 4-0-0-0 in his last four starts with a 1.75 GAA and a save percentage of .941.

Scott Eansor. Ever since Steve Knowalchuk decided to give Eansor a regular shift on the team's checking line, teaming him up with Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowski, the scoring chances and goals against have decreased as have the shots allowed by Seattle. Coincidence? I think not. "Upchuck" Eansor has been a catalyst for that. And let's not forget to mention the number of key face offs he's been winning. Of all the offseason and in-season moves made by GM Russ Farwell so far, getting Eansor to come from Colorado to play for the T-birds may turn out to be the biggest. Besides, how can you not love a guy who pukes all over himself and still gives 100 percent!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seven Ate Nine

The Thunderbirds eight game winning streak ended Saturday night in Portland with the 5-3 loss to the Winterhawks. The Thunderbirds will never use it as an excuse but it was pretty obvious by the third period the injury depleted roster was running out of gas after so few players logged so many minutes over the course of two games in two nights. The T-birds started taking those penalties you get when your feet stop moving. Seattle initially dressed just 16 skaters and by games end were down to only 15. A very gutty effort but in the end it ended up just out of reach.

Seattle had its chances though. Shortly after Portland had closed to within 2-1, Seth Swenson rang one off the post while the team was shorthanded that would have restored the T-birds two goal lead. Had it gone in it might have been enough to keep Portland at bay. In the third with the game tied at two and skating 5-on-3, Alex Delnov missed a wide open net from point blank range. A few minutes later Seattle had another shorthanded chance but couldn't finish. And of course, the T-birds were assessed three minor penalties while skating on a five minute major power play midway through the third period. It's a game of inches and the T-birds came up just short.

The compete level was there though and there's no way you can fault the effort. Every player pushed hard for sixty minutes. If Seattle keeps up that work rate the rest of the way; if they keep showing up with their lunch pails and hard hats, then winning streaks like this will be the norm and not the exception. This was one of those games, where even in defeat, I'm sure the coaches were proud of the effort. When the team gets back to full strength at some point in early January (after the U-17 tournament) they should be fighting for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Right now though, the T-birds are limping toward the Christmas break. Another injury last night to Keegan Kolesar. Hopefully he's okay but I would be surprised if he was available for Tuesday's game. With the league's protocol for upper body injuries I believe he has to sit for at least one week. I hope fans realize this isn't the NHL where you can just call up a player from lower levels to fill the void. Those players on Seattle's protected list have commitments to their own teams back home and they're also in school. Not all are yet committed to the WHL and not all are available at a moments notice. Maybe the Thunderbirds get a Barzal or Yakubowski back in time for the game against Tri-City and then the team gets healthy over the break but I'm not expecting any "call up" until after Christmas.

The legend of Scott Eansor continues to grow. Come to find out the reason he upchucked on his jersey during the second intermission Friday night was because he was suffering from a touch of the flu. Despite that he played the entire weekend and did so with his usual high energy. And finally, he scored his first WHL goal. It was the perfect way to score his first goal too as he set it up himself by stealing the puck at the Portland blue line and breaking in 2-on-none with Branden Troock. If that was Eansor at just 80 percent, more players should get a touch of the flu. When he and Sam McKechnie are on the ice together it is like watching a couple of buzzing bees.

Adam Henry had a solid weekend and finished it with two goals in the loss. His goal in the third period was part finesse and part determination and it gave Seattle a chance late. Jared Hauf was very good too. He is really starting to play a much more physical game and using his size to his advantage. The Thunderbirds went primarily with just five defensemen in the absence of Ethan Bear, although when he did take a shift Kevin Wolf played a simple, solid game. He did his best to keep everything in front of him. If he could just find a way to pack on another 20 pounds to his slender 6'6" frame!

If there were NHL scouts in either building this weekend how could they help but not notice Calvin Spencer.
His size, speed, skating and puck handling had to have put him on somebody's radar. I'd be surprised if he and Eansor don't end up on one of those scouting lists by season's end. Spencer's play this weekend only showed a glimpse of what he can do. He's only going to get better the more ice he sees. In fact, I think three T-birds could hit the CSS rankings by season's end as goalie Danny Mumaugh has gotten better with each start.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Another Win is Gr-Eight

Control the controllables (if that's even a word). It's something I've heard from different coaches in various sports. Some say it in different ways. It simply means each player is responsible for their own performance and the results you get are based on that effort. Prepare the right way, give 100 percent, pay attention to detail, follow the game plan and, win or lose, you should be satisfied with your game. You, not the opponent, should dictate the way you play.

That also means controlling your emotions. Don't get too high or too low. You can give 100 percent but if you're too "amped up", you can get out of control and hurt your team. It's just my own opinion but I felt at points in time, over the first two periods, of last night's game the T-birds were just a tad "amped up". Maybe it was the injuries and depleted bench but they put that emotion in check for the third period and played the final 20 minutes the way they've played most of time over the course of this, now eight game, winning streak; controlled.

Branden Troock was robbed on the doorstep Tuesday night in Kennewick by Tri-City goalie Eric Comrie and thus ended that game without a point. He made up for it last night with two goals and an assist and now has 11 goals and 12 assists in his last 16 games. He's the Beast Mode of hockey in a city famous for its Beast Mode.

For the first time since 2007, the Thunderbirds now have two goaltenders on the roster with at least ten wins each. Danny Mumaugh joined Justin Myles in the ten win club last night. Mumaugh has won his last three starts surrendering just five goals over that span, a GAA of 1.66. Once again Mumaugh was at his best, a calming influence, in the second half of the third period as the T-birds protected their one goal lead.

Seeing is believing. Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk told me 17 year old winger Calvin Spencer was fitting right in with the team, having solid practices since being added to the roster just over a week ago. Still he had yet to play in a game and, well, practice is practice. An actual game is a whole new animal at this level. It's just one game but after making his debut last night, Spencer is a keeper. His style of play fits perfectly what the T-birds do. A very good skater, Spencer used his size to win puck battles and showed he can play a 200 foot game. He also displayed a good, strong and accurate shot and, more importantly, didn't hesitate to shoot. Seattle scored three, gave up two. Spencer finished the night +2. Oh, by the way it was Spencer who created the penalty against Portland (his stick was slashed out of his hands) that led to the T-birds game winning power play goal. Solid debut.

It will be interesting to see how many healthy bodies the Thunderbirds suit up tonight for the rematch down in Portland. By game's end Seattle was down to just ten forwards. That's what makes the win more impressive. They did it shorthanded with a lot of double shifting over the final 25 minutes. For a good stretch they also had only four defenseman as two were serving out ten minute misconducts after that dust up towards the end of the second period.

I think you have to be impressed that both teams put out an entertaining product for the fans considering what each side was missing from their lineup. That's what rivalry games should be like.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Seventh Heaven

Tri-City goalie Eric Comrie is good, real good. He's "How come he's not getting a crack at Canada's World Junior team" good. He's I-almost-stole-a-game good. Yep, he's good. Last night in Kennewick though, Seattle's effort was just enough better to earn the Thunderbirds their seventh straight win.

Against Comrie, you have to persevere. You have to keep shooting and going hard to the net. You must put traffic in front of him. And when you do that and still don't score, because he's making an out-of-this-world save, you can't get frustrated, you have to try again. The T-birds did that just enough to get two pucks past him enroute to their 3-1 win at the Toyota Center.

Tri-City is banged up and missing some key defensive personnel at the moment but they still dressed a full roster of hard workers. Seattle just outworked them. Early in the game you had the feeling this wasn't going to be like some of Seattle's other wins in this streak. They weren't going to skate away from this one with five or six goals. They could have, if not for Comrie keeping his team in the game. Fortunately, Seattle has learned some good habits in this winning streak and they used them last night. Chief among them, a high end compete level for sixty minutes. They cut no corners. Played good team defense and they pushed the pace. They never stopped working hard.

No one epitomizes that more then Scott Eansor. Back in mid-November when the T-birds released 20 year old Erik Benoit, the cries of protest from some sections of the T-bird fan base were loud, in some cases vitriolic. I wrote back then one of the reasons Seattle could afford to dismiss Benoit was because they needed to get Eansor consistent ice time. They knew what they had in the Englewood, Colorado native, they just needed to get it into the lineup every night.

Last night he and Mathew Barzal were all over the ice. They earned two of my three stars on the radio broadcast. They are perpetual motion machines. I lost count of how many times they stole the puck off the stick of a Tri-City player. In the third period, nursing a one goal lead, Eansor was at the end of a shift and needed to go off but unfortunately, Seattle had just iced the puck, so there was no opportunity for a line change. Unable to leave the ice, Eansor lined up between the circles in the defensive zone, letting linemate Sam McKechnie take the draw.

But when Seattle wasn't set in time McKechnie got waved out of the circle. So the exhausted, totally gassed Eansor stepped in to take the draw against an Americans player fresh off the Tri-City bench. Eansor leaned over, shortened up on his stick, tied up the Americans player and won the draw back to his defemseman and Seattle was able to clear the puck and make a line change. He may have not scored a goal, but in that instance he may have prevented one.

While Danny Mumaugh didn't face as many quality chances as Comrie did, the Seattle goalie was sharp, just as he was in the previous win over Spokane. The Americans got half their 23 shots (11) in the first period when it was still a scoreless game. It's tough to win in Kennewick and even tougher if you fall behind. Mumaugh made some important saves early. Then, late in the game with Seattle holding a slim 2-1 lead, he came up with a few more quality stops before the T-birds iced it with an empty netter from Roberts Lipsbergs.

You don't win seven in a row without quality goaltending and Seattle is getting it from both Mumaugh and Justin Myles.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chompin' on the Chiefs

I'm not trying to rile up the people at PETA, but we've all heard the saying "There's more then one way to skin a cat". Last night the red-hot Thunderbirds found another way to win a game. Seattle had ridden its high powered offense to five straight wins, averaging almost six goals a game over that stretch, including wins of 5-1 and 7-3 in a pair of road wins over Spokane. Last night at home at the ShoWare Center, the T-birds used strong goaltending, a solid penalty kill and timely scoring to grind out a 4-2 win over the Chiefs, extending their winning streak to six.

Let's face it; a couple of weeks ago looking at the schedule and seeing three straight against the Chiefs with the first two over in Spokane, not many foresaw a three game sweep by Seattle. When all is said and done though it is Spokane thinking the schedule makers did them no favors. Not only did the T-birds win all three games, outscoring the Chiefs 16-6 in the process, but the 'Birds also climbed past Spokane in the Western Conference standings and moved within a point of the 4th place Victoria Royals. In fact the T-birds now have earned 16 points in their last ten games and 11 of those points came at the expense of two teams, the Royals and Chiefs, who are battling Seattle for playoff position and potentially home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason come springtime. In a stretch of ten games dating back to November 15th, the Thunderbirds went a combined 5-0-1-0 against those two Western Conference opponents.

Seattle has outscored the opposition 33-15 over the course of the six game winning streak. That's an average score of 5.5 to 2.5. Even with a high powered offense like the T-birds have displayed here recently there will come a time when you'll have to grind out a win. Last night was one of those occasions. Last night Spokane did a good job of slowing the T-birds down through the neutral zone, making Seattle fight for every inch of ice. The T-birds never got frustrated though as they kept grinding away and eventually earned the win.

Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk said recently that there will be times when you don't have your "A" game but you can still win if you bring a high compete level on the ice. Last night was one of those games. My guess is Konowalchuk was pretty happy his players found another way to "skin that cat".

In games like that, you need solid goaltending and the T-birds certainly got that from Danny Mumaugh. Neither team was getting a lot of shots through but Spokane did outshoot Seattle, 30-22. We've mentioned before Mumaugh's lightning quick glove hand but last night we saw him flash the pads, especially on a nice kick out save on a shot by the Chief's Mitch Holmberg that looked destined for the back of the Seattle net. I keep hearing or reading about how Seattle has to settle on one goalie as the number one guy but the current process of splitting time between Mumaugh and Justin Myles is working and, as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Early in the season the Thunderbirds were getting little scoring from the back end. Over the course of the six game winning streak though the T-birds defensemen have contributed 28 points (5g, 23a) and are a combined +23. It's not all Shea Theodore either as Adam Henry and Jerret Smith have each had multiple point games during the streak.

This is no "cheap" winning streak either. The combined record of the teams Seattle has beaten in this stretch; 70-56-3-7 and that is skewed by Saskatoon, the only team with a losing record in the win streak. Take the Blades out and the record of the other teams they beat is 60-36-3-5.

While everyone up and down the roster is contributing, the catalyst for the team's recent success has been that shutdown checking line of Jamien Yakubowksi, Scott Eansor and Sam McKechnie. Seattle tried to match up that line as much as possible against Spokane's top line featuring Holmberg, the league's leading goal scorer. In 180 minutes of hockey the T-birds, and that line in particular, limited Holmberg to just one power play goal in the second period Sunday night; what was essentially a 5-on-3 goal. Before the first meeting last Sunday Holmberg was averaging 2.29 points per game. After last night's Seattle win Holmberg's points per game average is down to 2.09.

When I see that trio on the ice I think of the Tom Petty song, I Won't Back Down, especially the lyrics that go like this:

Well I won't back down, no I won't back down. You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, But I won't back down. No I'll stand my ground, won't be turned around, And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down, gonna stand my ground. And I won't back down. Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out, I won't back down. Hey I will stand my ground and I won't back down.

It's like the scene in the movie "A Few Good Men" when the the Demi Moore character is asked why she likes the accused Marines so much and she says something to the affect of because they stand on a wall each night and say, not on my watch. That's Yakubowksi, Eansor and McKechnie...a few good men.

Was I the only one who thought the second period last night took a fortnight to play? It was equivalent to one of those tennis matches where the servers keep double faulting. Just hard to establish a rhythm or flow to the game. Too many whistles for penalties, offsides, pucks deflected out of play and icings. Again, not the prettiest of hockey games but sometimes you gotta win the ugly ones. By the way, a fortnight is two weeks, so I get two minutes for embellishment.

There's no break in the schedule between now and Christmas. Seattle has four games against two opponents, Tri-City and Portland, with a combined record of 39-18-3-4.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Troockin' Along

Coming into this season Seattle right winger Branden Troock had registered 41 points in his injury abbreviated WHL career with 19g and 18a in 77 games over three seasons. After last night's four point performance in a 7-3 win in Spokane against the Chiefs, Troock has 31 points (13g, 18a) after just 29 games. His 13 goals is one shy of his best season in the WHL when he scored 14 goals in 58 games for the Thunderbirds in 2011-12. Remember, he missed all 72 games of his rookie campaign and played in just 19 contests a year ago.

There were times, whether it was during a five game call up as a 15 year old, in exhibition games or training camp scrimmages a few years ago, or in the little we saw of him in regular season action the past two years, when we caught glimpses of the dominating player he was capable of being. Now, in a season when he is playing for that first professional contract, the draft prospect of the NHL Dallas Stars (5th Rd #134 overall in 2012), is finally shining brightly. By staying healthy he's been able to play a consistent 200 foot game. At 6'4", 201 lbs, he's hard to match up against because he's so powerful that at times he's like a man among boys on the ice.

Additionally, he and his linemates have found tremendous chemistry on the ice. He has a potential high NHL draft pick in 2015 draft eligble Ryan Gropp on his right wing and fellow 2012 NHL draft pick Alexander Delnov (Florida Panthers, 4th Rd, #114 overall) at center. There were shifts last night in Spokane when it seemed that line never left the offensive zone. The only time I noticed Troock oustide the attacking zone was when he was stealing the puck away at center ice on the back check or clearing a puck out of his own end of the ice. During the T-birds current five game winning streak it is almost a given that the trio will create at least one scoring chance every shift and Troock's strength, speed and stickhandling ability allows him to create space for himself and thus scoring chances for himself or Gropp and Delnov.

Seattle defenseman Jerret Smith has usually been all guts and no glory. That is, a solid, steady two way d-man who does a lot of the grunt work but rarely lights the lamp to ends up in the spotlight. A lot of the good work he does can often go unnoticed because it doesn't end up on the scoresheet. Last season he had just one goal in 71 games while picking up 19 assists. Before last night he hadn't scored a goal in the first 29 games this season. He had registered ten helpers. It seemed half of those came after a scoring change took a goal away from him, leaving him with the assist instead after a teammate got credit for tipping or redirecting his shot once they looked at a video review of the goal.

All that changed last night when he got plenty of glory by potting a goal, chipping in with two assists and ending his night by sticking up for his teammates and getting a fighting major; the first Gordie Howe hat trick of his WHL career. He received some of the biggest pats on the back I've seen this season from his coaches and teammates when he exited the ice after getting tossed for the late game tilt.

My guess is the fact they weren't around at the end of the game was the only reason Smith and Shea Theodore weren't the 2nd and 3rd stars of the game as that defensive pairing combined for seven points (1g, 6a). Goalie Justin Myles received the 2nd star in the building even though he faced only 15 shots. But in the first five to six minutes of the game the Chiefs came after Seattle hard and had a chance to bust the game open in their favor, after registering five of their 15 shots in the games first four minutes. Myles came up with key saves, allowing his team to weather the storm before taking control of the game. The Chiefs did get on the board first with a power play goal but before Spokane got another past him, on a mid third period shorthanded breakaway, Seattle was up 6-1 and the contest was well in hand.

I wrote before the season started that fans shouldn't expect Mathew Barzal to score highlight goals every night just because he was the first overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and comes with a very impressive hockey resume from his Bantam and Midget seasons. Barzal isn't just a one trick pony and in fact it is the sum of all the things he can do on the ice that make him such a highly regarded prospect. Last night in Spokane he finished with nary a point yet he did so many other things on the ice that affected the game positively for Seattle that I thought it was one of his best games of the year. He's fun to watch.

17 year old forward Michal Holub has left the team, frustrated over a lack of playing time. I understand the frustration. In fact, I'd be disappointed with any player who was just happy to be here. Holub is a solid player who has potential to be an every game player in the WHL. I just find the timing of his departure odd. Holub had just played in Seattle's 5-1 win last Sunday and was in the lineup for two of the last three games after coming off a lower body injury. With tournaments coming this month that will take three T-bird forwards away from the team, plus the injury to Connor Honey, there was going to be ample opportunity for Holub to get ice time over the next four to five weeks.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A T-Birds Trifecta

For the second time this season the Thunderbirds swept a 3-games-in-3-nights weekend. It first happened October 4th-5th and 6th when they traveled East and beat Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Kootenay in successive nights. This time their victims were Saskatoon on Friday, Victoria Saturday night and, last evening, Spokane.

This second sweep was probably more impressive, especially when you consider the last two teams, the Victoria Royals and the Spokane Chiefs, are directly ahead of Seattle in the standings and had a combined record of 35-19-2-3 when the weekend started. In the process they struck for two power play goals against the top ranked penalty killing team in the league (the Royals) and stymied the league's second best power play unit (the Chiefs went 0-for-5 with the man advantage). The T-birds also outscored their three opponents this weekend 17-6. While the team averaged 5.66 goals per game this weekend, I'm more impressed that they allowed just two goals per game as they continue to improve their team defense.

Overall Seattle has won four in a row, dating back to their 5-4 overtime when November 23rd against Portland. The Thunderbirds have also earned a point in seven of their last eight games (12 of 16 pts). After starting off November 0-5-1-0, Seattle ended the month with a flourish, going 4-1-2-0. Meanwhile they started December by claiming their first road win this season against a U.S. Division opponent after initially going 0-4-0-1. That's important because Seattle has four more road games this month against U.S. Division teams, starting with a return to Spokane on Friday.

What was most impressive about this weekend was that Sunday in Spokane, after a day of travel that started with an early wake up call because of an early start time against the Chiefs and, after having played the night before, the T-birds put out their most complete effort of the weekend. Instead of wilting and showing signs of exhaustion as the game wore on they got stronger, scoring three of their five goals in the final 20 minutes. They won all facets of that game; 5-on-5 play, special teams, face offs and goaltending.

Goal scorers get all the glory but I really do enjoy watching the line of Jaimen Yakubowski, Scott Eansor and Sam McKechnie and the work they put in to shutdown the opposing team's top line. McKechnie in particular had a tremendous game Sunday in Spokane winning face offs and being strong on the forecheck and penalty kill. They may not be currently scoring in bunches like some of their other teammates but I think if the work rate continues at its present pace the points will start coming. Both McKechnie and Yakubowksi have shown in the past an ability to score. I know Eansor is frustrated that he hasn't potted his first WHL goal yet but he's getting more chances and coming close. It should be just a matter of time.

If you want three stars from the weekend I'd probably go Branden Troock, Alexander Delnov and Adam Henry but the reality is when you're winning it is a total team effort. You can't win consistently if not everyone is playing consistently together. What's the saying? "You're only as strong as your weakest link." Well, there were no weak links in the T-birds chain this weekend as everyone was pulling their weight.

Goaltender Justin Myles had his best game to date this season. He stopped 28 of 29 shots and was at his best when Spokane was at its most dangerous, on the power play. After a couple of rocky games Myles has rebounded to win his last three starts.
He and Danny Mumaugh have created a healthy competition in goal for Seattle. You'd have to go back to 2007-08 (Riku Helenius-22/Jacob DeSerres-20 ) to find the last time the 'Birds had two goalies with a chance to win more then ten games each. I'd say that is very doable now that Myles has nine wins and Mumaugh has seven.

The month of December is going to be a bear. Ten games between now and January 1st and the first nine are against the U.S. Division, arguably the best division right now in the WHL. Not one team in the division has a losing record. Combined, the record for Seattle's opponents in the month of December, outside of the Kamloops Blazers who they host New Year's Eve, is 71-31-7-5. It's going to be like a U.S. Division version of a family feud!

In case you missed our first period intermission interview Sunday with the newest T-bird, Calvin Spencer, here are a couple of highlights. His half brother is former Prince George Cougar, 2010 Stanley Cup winner (with the Chicago Blackhawks) and current Winnipeg Jet, Dustin Byfuglien. And, back in Minnesota he was coached by former T-bird and long time NHLer Mark Parrish. It's going to be a battle to get ice time for the 17 year old Minnesotan but with December tournaments taking a few T-bird players away we should get a chance to see him on the ice sometime over the next 3-4 weeks.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Dilly of A Dely

In the Thunderbirds dressing room before Friday night's game against Saskatoon I joked with Alexander Delnov that I had brought him good luck. Before the previous home game against Portland I had conducted an interview with Delnov for that night's broadcast. Delnov then went out and produced the winning goal in overtime against the Winterhawks. Then a few nights later, up in Red Deer, he picked up an assist on the winning goal as Team Russia defeated the WHL in the Subway Super Series. He was interviewed on ice after that game too.

Well apparently that luck has a good shelf life because Delnov's hot hand produced a five point night (2g,3a, +2) Friday in the 6-2 win over Saskatoon. With his offensive outburst the Florida Panthers draft pick has pushed himself up to third on the team in scoring with 23 pts. (11g, 12a). But last night it just wasn't about his point production. Delnov was all over the ice, backchecking, forechecking, poke checking...express checking. If his recent play keeps up, I'm thinking of doing a nightly feature, "Dialogue with Delnov".

I do think there was extra motivation for Delnov last night, going up against his fellow countryman Nakita Sherbak. The draft eligible Sherbak is generating a lot of attention for his hot start (16g, 21a +8) with Saskatoon. But an even better reason for Delnov's recent success is his linemates. Ever since head coach Steve Konowalchuk put him together with Branden Troock and Ryan Gropp, Delnov and his linemates have been producing, highlighted by last night's nine point performance (4g,5a, +5). All three have good size, handle the puck very well and are quick on their feet. Against the Blades Friday it was a lethal combination.

While that line was grabbing the headlines, don't think the lack of point production from the other lines meant they had an off-night. The Lipsbergs-Barzal-Hickman line seemed to have the puck on their sticks for long stretches inside the attacking zone. Meanwhile the Yakubowski-Eansor-McKechnie line did exactly what they were tasked to do; shutdown the Blades top scoring line. That is back-to-back games now that the Eansor line was given the assignment of putting the clamps on the opponents top line and they passed the test each night with flying colors. They were rewarded when McKechnie's relentless forecheck created a turnover and he scored the night's final goal.

At some point you have to believe Connor Honey will make his way off the weekly injury report and back into the lineup, right?. How is this for a fourth line? Swenson-Elliot-Honey. Until that happens that fourth line isn't too shabby with Keegan Kolesar or Michal Holub in Honey's place.

We've talked about the team needing an adjustment period while they worked recent acquisitions into the lineup; players like Gropp, McKechnie and Yakubowksi. It appears they have found the right "chemistry" for those players. The same can also be said for defenseman Adam Henry. Henry was actually the first player the T-birds acquired during the season, coming to Seattle from Lethbridge back on October 9th in exchange for Griffin Foulk.

Over the past week my opinion is that Henry has been the team's best overall defenseman, playing well at both ends and sparking a resurgence in the team's power play. Paired up with 16 year old Ethan Bear they have helped steady Seattle's back end. Henry's start with the T-birds was a bit up and down and there was a recent stretch when his D-partner was out with injury, but he seems to have dialed it in. Let's hope he keeps it up so he can get the +/- on the right side of zero.

Speaking of working players into the lineup, while the T-birds were taking care of business on the ice last night, off the ice they were confirming what had been rumored the past 24 hours; the signing of 17 year old Champlin Park, Minnesota native Calvin Spencer. You know, with Twitter, there's no keeping a good secret anymore! Spencer, a 6'2, 192lb winger is a player the T-birds recently listed. He came out from the Twin Cities a few weeks ago and practiced with the team. Apparently he liked what he saw and earlier this week made his decision to commit to Seattle and the WHL.

Outside the T-birds organization, there's not much known about Spencer by those of us on the periphery. The little tidbits that are out there say he is a physical player with some offensive upside. Spencer was playing with Team Northwest in the Upper Midwest Elite (high school) League. If you are not familiar with that level, think Shattuck-St. Mary's, the Faribault, MN. program that has produced so many quality hockey players. Current Medicine Hat Tiger Tommy Vannelli played for Team Northwest last year. I think this signing fills the void in the '96 born forward group left open when the T-birds traded Carter Folk to Lethbridge in the Yakubowski-Mckechnie deal.

Now though, Seattle has a dearth of forwards on the roster (15). They are also still carrying eight defensemen. WHL teams are allowed to carry a 25 man roster but most seldom do. With the addition of Spencer, Seattle is at 25 right now but you have to believe more moves will follow at some point. With the T-birds losing players to December tournaments though, I wouldn't expect further moves of significance until after Christmas.

Had the opportunity to spend a few minutes chatting with new Saskatoon head coach Dave Struch before the game. Really liked his message; the way he talked about his team (coaching staff). He has a plan for the long term but is still is focused on this season, despite working with a team transitioning from a Memorial Cup host to a younger club. Remember, this is a team with new ownership as well but the Struch hire seems to be the right move.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Paging Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde

So what's more surprising? That the Thunderbirds can play toe-to-toe for sixty minutes (or 65) in back-to-back home games against the likes of Kelowna and Portland, or that their compete level and consistency drop off in a game like Friday night up in Vancouver or earlier this month against the Winterhawks or Regina? For me, I'm more surprised when they DON'T bring the compete level every night for sixty minutes, against every team. I'm an optimist and believe this is a very good hockey team that has a chance every night.

Okay, maybe that is unrealistic. There will be nights over the course of a long season when you just don't "have it", for whatever reason, be it the third game in three nights or when a flu bug goes through the locker room. But any team should be able to do that 90 percent of the time. It should be right there on top of the game plan; compete hard for 60-minutes. I think it is realistic to be on your "A" game 60-65 times a season.

I talked to an NHL scout who's seen every team in the Western Conference multiple times and in his opinion Seattle's roster has the third or fourth most skill among the teams out West. Now, that's one man's educated opinion. I think you have to take "compete level" and "consistency" into account because I believe those are a part of a players "skills" package as much as skating or stick handling. And the T-birds higher end skill may be younger then the skill level on other rosters. But, what I think that scout was saying was Seattle has enough talent and ability on the roster that they should be able to compete for 60 minutes night in and night out, whether that opponent is Portland or Kamloops.

This is the message head coach Steve Konowalchuk has been delivering every night. So far this season I've conducted 26 pregame interviews with the coach and I'm guessing he's talked about "compete level" at some point in all 26 of those conversations. If he's talking to me about having the right compete level, you know he's emphasizing that with the players as well. He's not the only coach I've heard it from either. I've heard it in some form or another in interviews with Don Hay up in Vancouver, Ryan Huska of Kelowna, Kevin Constantine with Everett and Mike Johnston in Portland. In other words, it is not a secret formula guarded in a locked vault by winning teams. It's right there on the directions to Hockey 101, like the recipe for Tollhouse cookies on the back of the Nestles bag of chocolate chips.

So, I'm not sure why the players don't come with the effort they showed against the Winterhawks last night, every night. It is not a guarantee of wins over losses. It doesn't always mean you leave the ice with the two points. Tuesday's shootout loss to Kelowna proves that. But it is a formula for season long success. You won't win every game, but if you compete hard every night you put yourself in a position to win as we witnessed last night. I'd rather be frustrated by putting out my best effort and losing a 4-3 shootout game than disappointed by not giving my best effort and falling 6-3 in lackluster fashion.

Now I don't know if this is a valid argument but part of the issue might be the lack of previous success at the WHL level. No one currently on this roster has been part of a team with a winning record at this level, with the exception of 20 year old Seth Swenson two years ago with Portland. Some have had success at lower levels but at the midget or bantam level I think you can win many games just on skill alone but as you rise up to the level of the WHL and beyond, team chemistry, consistency and compete level become a bigger part of the winning package. Why? Because every team at the WHL level has players with high end talent and skills. Even during their recent losing seasons the Thunderbirds were having players on their roster drafted or signed by NHL clubs.

The hope is that as this group of T-birds play together more, as they learn to win and understand the total effort and commitment it takes to win in the WHL on a nightly basis, they will become more consistent with their compete level from game to game and that games, like the one they played Tuesday against Kelowna and last night against Portland, become more common place; the rule and not the exception. We know they can play with and beat the best teams. We just witnessed it. Now we need to see them do it every night.

To me, that is what is separating Seattle from the likes of Portland, Everett and Kelowna at the moment. Not the level of talent on the roster, but the compete level and consistency from game to game. It's attention to detail, sticking to the game plan, trusting your teammates and not cutting corners.

I heard a rumor that Connor Honey may return to the lineup next weekend. Fingers crossed! Honey has missed 19 games with an upper body injury. Remember, this guy was second on the team in scoring last season and was off to a good start this season, averaging nearly a point a game (2g, 4a) before the injury. Honey is a combination of a lot of things on the ice. A leader, an energy guy, a skilled offensive player, a two way forward, a key cog on special teams, but his best attribute may be his utter disdain for losing.

The questions now becomes which forward sits when Honey returns? I'm guessing it won't be Scott Eansor. How can you watch this guy play and not appreciate the amount of energy he exhausts on each shift. I swear the only reason he goes to the bench is to get a refill of unleaded. More importantly he's become maybe the most consistent T-bird in the face off circle. I doubt it will be Ryan Gropp who loses ice time, as he gets more comfortable with each game played, he shows why he was considered one of the best players available in the 2011 Bantam Draft. He's starting to remind me of a younger version of Branden Troock!

Meanwhile, defenseman Adam Henry has quietly put together three straight games of sixty minutes of hockey, playing hard at both ends. Henry has been a key to the team's recent power play success. Even though the T-birds went 0-for-5 on the power play last night against the 'Hawks, I thought they were generating plenty of opportunity, with the exception of that 5-on-4 late in the 2nd period. Henry's ability to knock down clearing attempts is a big reason why Seattle has power play goals in 3 of their last 4 games.

Don't underestimate what Mitch Elliot and Evan Wardley did to get the crowd into the game early and set the right tone on the T-birds bench by winning those early tilts. Two of the more one-sided fights I've seen in a while.

Raise your hand if you knew Portland would have some fight-back in them in third period with the T-birds up by two goals. I see a lot of hands raised. Champions don't fade away, they go down swinging. I actually didn't think the 'Birds played that poorly in the third as their lead was erased. But they need to expect that from, not just Portland, but all teams. No game is over until the final whistle. In a strange way, I'm glad that happened because I wanted to see if Seattle could respond to the adversity. Great response too, led by their captain Justin Hickman.

Another part of the compete package is tenacity. How tenacious was Matt Barzal in winning the puck from two Winterhawks players to set up the Alexander Delnov game winning goal. It's what playmakers do.

Happy Thanksgiving! Celebrate with family and friends, enjoy the football then get ready for more hockey! The T-birds have two more home games next weekend. Friday they host Saskatoon and Saturday it's the final regular season game against Victoria.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

More Then Two For Tuesday

The Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets have met on the ice nine times, going back to last spring's first round playoff series. Seven of those games have gone past regulation. While the previous five games of bonus hockey were decided in overtime, the last two have taken a shootout to determine a winner, including last night, a game in which the Rockets prevailed, 4-3.

So, through the first two games of the four game regular season series it has been a bit of tit for tat. Back in October the Thunderbirds got the shootout win, ironically, by the same 4-3 final margin. Through 170 minutes of hockey this season each team has scored six goals. I'm not a big fan of the shootout. I think it diminishes what both sides did as a team over the course of the game and five minute overtime period. But, that's the way things are set up to decide regular season games. Someone has got to be a winner and someone has to take the loss although I'm sure a lot of you were probably thinking it was a shame either team had to lose last night. Sometimes, I'm okay with a tie.

If every game during the season was played that way; a good, intense, well played affair by both team I'd be satisfied no matter the result. I'd be disappointed if my team lost but if that effort was given each night, I wouldn't complain....too loudly. That was just a very entertaining hockey game. Neither team was perfect but both sides put out the necessary effort on every shift.

Wasn't it great to see the Thunderbirds power play come to life? Two goals scored and against the WHL's top penalty killing unit no less. That's three power play goals for the T-birds in their last two games and they've come against the top two penalty killing teams in the league (Victoria is #2 behind Kelowna in that department). The biggest difference is better, quicker puck movement and no hesitation to shoot the puck. Sometimes shots get blocked, but guess what? Sometimes those blocked shots come right back to you.

I don't know if Danny Mumaugh has put a stranglehold on the job as the team's number one goalie but he has started the past three games and has looked very sharp in going 1-0-1-1 in that span. His goals against average over those three games is a paltry 1.94 and his save percentage over his last three starts is .944. He's allowed just six goals in just under 186 minutes while making 103 saves. In the process he's lowered his season GAA to 3.14 and raised his save percentage to .916.

They will still need to get Justin Myles minutes though. Myles has just gotten into a funk recently, being pulled in each of his last two starts. He's surrendered seven goals in just under forty minutes of work. But we saw earlier this season that he is a very capable goalie. The only way to get him out of his funk is to give him a start or two.

Ryan Gropp scored on the very first shift of his very first game in the WHL back on October 25th. He then went eight games before he scored again, registering a goal in last night's shootout loss. What a goal it was too!
Does he have a quick release or what? I think it took Gropp about six games to start feeling comfortable at the WHL level but he's starting to come on now after solid back-to-back games Saturday up in Victoria and last night against Kelowna. There will still be an adjustment period but he's contributing more and more each night. He skates so effortlessly and works the half wall very well. Like most younger players with a high offensive upside, he'll need to improve on the defensive end but he has shown a willingness to do that the past two games.

I don't know if Roberts Lipsbergs will be suspended for the hit that injured Kelowna's Mitchell Wheaton. In my opinion, he shouldn't be because there was nothing malicious about the hit. Sometimes players receiving hits put themselves in a vulnerable position and injuries can happen as a result. Probably not the best analogy, but when a pedestrian stumbles off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic, do you blame the driver who hits him with their car? Lipsbergs was making a hockey play and it was no more egregious then the dozen or so similar hits I see during the course of a game.

Still, I understand that player safety is paramount and they are trying to police certain types of checks out of the game. I just didn't see this as one of those cases where Lipsbergs did anything blatantly wrong. It was similar to a check that cost Justin Hickman a five minute major in a game back on November 8th. At that time I didn't think that hit looked anything out of the ordinary and after the league reviewed it, Hickman did not receive any further discipline. It wasn't warranted in that case and it isn't warranted in this instance either.

I thought Damon Severson was outstanding for Kelowna last night and I voted him one of my three stars. The good news for the rest of the league is with the way he's playing this is probably the last year in the league for the New Jersey Devils prospect. I'm starting to get the same feeling about the Thunderbirds Branden Troock who continues to be one of the best players on the ice the past 2-3 weeks. Dallas, are you watching?

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Royal Reversal

With a 3-1 win Saturday night in Victoria the Thunderbirds put an end to their six game winless skid and the win, coupled with the overtime loss to the Royals Friday gave Seattle three of a possible four points on the weekend. It also put the T-birds in the win column for the first time this month and it comes right at the beginning of a busy second half of November with the team playing seven games in 17 days.

The biggest take out of the weekend for me was a concerted effort by the team to improve their team defense. That renewed emphasis on team defense limited Victoria to just 59 shots and three goals in 121 minutes of hockey over the two games. Prior to those two games, Seattle was allowing nearly four goals (3.95) a game to the opposition as well as far too many quality scoring chances. Those goals against were masked earlier in the season because the T-birds were scoring at nearly the same clip.

As I said previously, offense often goes into slumps during the course of the season (the 'Birds only scored a combined four goals in the two games up in Victoria) but if you can play consistently strong defense you'll still be in most games, even when the offense is struggling. While offense or the lack there of can sometimes be the result of some fortunate or unfortunate bounces, strong team defense is the residue of being committed 100 percent mentally and physically to defending your end of the ice. A defense first approach may by more physically challenging, you may have to spend more energy and you may be drained when you get to the bench at the end of your shift, but that is the price you must be willing to pay.

You may sacrifice some offense by a hard and fast focus on team defense, but as the T-birds found out Saturday night, a 3-1 win counts just as much as a 5-3 win.

I heard or read a lot of fans wondering about the release of overage forward Erik Benoit. It was nothing Benoit did or didn't do. As far as I could see he was a solid teammate, hard worker and good citizen. If you watched the two games over the weekend against the Royals, you would understand the reasoning behind the decision though. His name is Scott Eansor. The T-birds needed to get the 17 year old Englewood, Colorado native minutes.

His game is similar to what the T-birds were asking of Benoit and Eansor is going to be with the T-birds well beyond this season and Benoit, a cost-free wavier wire pick up in September, was not. Now, with Benoit gone, Eansor will get those minutes rather then be a healthy scratch most nights and his game will start to develop at a quicker pace then it would have had he been healthy but out of the lineup every other game.

With his increased ice time Eansor is getting more comfortable in a league he knew little about until this past summer. He's improving in the face-off circle. He's a grinder, and a great energy guy. I don't know if he'll produce the same offensive numbers but I think his upside is a Luke Lockhart type player, especially as a penalty killer. After going pointless in his first 15 WHL games Eansor, who turns 18 in early January, picked up assists in back-to-back games recently, all due to increased ice time.

Of course, with the departure of Benoit, Seattle has an open 20 year old spot on their roster. I don't expect them to fill that any time soon. Most likely at the trade deadline at the earliest, if they fill it all. Now if a 20 year old they really value becomes available before then, that could change but with the recent signing of Ryan Gropp, the trade for 19 year olds Jaimen Yakubowksi and Sam Mckechnie and the anticipated return back to the lineup of the injured Connor Honey, ice time is booked!

Speaking of Gropp, I thought Saturday night he had his best overall game since joining the team a month ago. While he didn't register a point, his speed down the wing, on the rush,in the first period drew a penalty that led to Seattle's opening power play goal. He was also more attentive on the forecheck, playing the body and finishing checks. He's still adjusting to the league and he still needs to get stronger, but all the signs are there that he will be a big piece of the puzzle moving forward.

I almost hesitate to talk about Branden Troock and how well he is is playing the past 5-6 games. It's funny because I had someone in the press box up in Victoria come up and ask (after the Friday night game) "Where did this Troock come from?" Down here in Thunderbird Nation, we've been asking "When will we get to see the Troock we've all been waiting for?" Injuries have hampered his T-bird career through the first three seasons with the team, but now we are seeing what we've all been waiting for from the Edmonton native. He's big, he's physical and he is fast.

Late in the game Saturday, with the T-birds still clinging to a one goal lead he went hard to the net trying to redirect a shot on goal and took one off the ankle that had him hobbling. It just shows that after all he's been through he's still fearless on the ice. Even better was after the game, seeing his dad outside the team's locker room, not bragging or boasting about the weekend his son just had (1g, 2a and the 2nd star in the win)but just smiling with a lot of pride, knowing what Branden has been through to get to this point. He earned the right to beam that smile.

What to make of Mathew Barzal being a healthy scratch Saturday night? Not much, really. Let's remember Barzal is still 16 years old. Let's also realize that most nights he's going up against the other teams top line, usually consisting of players three and four years older then he is. For the most part he's been holding his own but those players are just naturally more physically mature then he is and in some instances those players are high NHL draft picks who have been in the WHL for a few years and been to NHL camps, competing against older players.

Barzal is still second on the team in scoring. Who's ahead of him? A first round NHL draft pick, Shea Theodore. Who's right behind him? A 5th round NHL draft pick, Troock and a 4th round NHL drafted pick Alexander Delnov. If you spend any time around Barzal, you can see he's got his head on right, he's a quick study. He understands the reasoning behind the healthy scratch. The kid is gonna be alright.

I think head coach Steve Konowalchuk is very aware of the talent he has in Barzal but he also realizes his responsibility to develop that talent to play not just at the WHL level, but up at the next level as well. Part of that development, not just for Barzal but for all the young T-birds prospects, is creating good habits within their games and Konowalchuk, a veteran of 13 seasons in the NHL, knows a thing or two about the right habits to have for the next level.

Seattle looks to win back-to-back games for the first time since the end of October when they host the B.C. Division leading Kelowna Rockets Tuesday night. The T-birds defeated the Rockets, 4-3, in a shootout back on October 11th up in Kelowna thanks to a nifty shootout goal from Theodore. Seattle will again have to be committed to playing strong team defense. The Rockets enter the game averaging 4.3 goals a game yet don't have one player on the roster with double digit goals. Instead, they spread the wealth around and have great scoring depth.

You can't go all in on team defense for one weekend and fall back into bad habits the next time you're on the ice. This is a great opportunity for Seattle to show they can be consistent from game to game and week to week.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

I had a choice today; rake the never ending leaves falling from the large tree in my front yard or write a blog entry about the slumping T-birds. So, I raked and I raked and I raked...

Seriously though, what we've seen from the Thunderbirds is a team that got off to a good start, but certainly wasn't without its flaws in jumping to a record 8 games over .500. And now we've seen a team that has dropped five in a row, not playing particularly well in 4 of those 5 games and surrendering far too many goals. In other words, a very inconsistent team. So exactly who are they? Probably somewhere right in the middle of the big high they started with and the recent low they've fallen into. I think they can just as easily reel off another 4 or 5 straight wins. We've seen them do it.

Remember Swift Current? they were riding high when they came out west to face the U.S. Division. They promptly lost five in a row and didn't look particularly good doing it. Well, guess what? They are currently riding an 8 game winning streak. It can be done.

Now, the T-birds just have to decide which side of that fence they want to be on after showing us both the good and the bad over the first 21 games. They just need to decide soon, because if they don't, like that pile of leaves I raked up in my yard, if you don't get going the good work you've already done will just blow away.

For awhile there, they were second in the league in goals scored but the offense has gone into hibernation in recent weeks. It's still there though, they just need to wake it up. Most teams will go through spells where the scoring will dry up for a stretch. The T-birds are experiencing that right now.

The difference is good teams will always play good, solid team defense and that can carry you through the offensive lapses and steal you a win or two. Unfortunately, Seattle has not played consistently good team defense yet this season. Even while running out to an 11-3-0-2 record, they were surrendering too many goals against. They need to take care of their own end.

When the Thunderbirds are at their best, they are a grinding, strong forechecking team. early in the season that physical forecheck was their defensive strength because it kept opponents pinned in their own zone. It caused turnovers that created scoring opportunities. Right now, with the exception of last Friday's game versus Victoria, we haven't seen that forecheck to the degree we saw it for much of the first 15 games.

It has been inconsistent at best and non-existent at worst. It's like their offense though, it's still there, lurking. It's still part of their arsenal. They just need to bring it out and deploy it each and every night, each and every period, each and every shift. It's a mental commitment they need to make to playing a physical game.

Remember, you can't make a sandwich without your bread and butter. Otherwise, all you have is a bunch of baloney.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Frustration Nation

When you're winning and everything is going right, it is easy to play a sixty minute game. When you lose a few, face adversity or go into a bit of a rut, it becomes a mental challenge to do all the little things necessary to grind out a win. When it doesn't go right in the first period, you need to work harder...and smarter... in the second period.

Right now, the T-birds are playing "frustrated" hockey. Things aren't going as they were through the first 13-14 games and it appears some players have their heads hanging down a bit, their shoulders are sagging a tad. But the only way to get out of a slump is to work harder, stick with the systems and compete for 60 minutes. You can't take short cuts. It's fine that players understand after a loss they didn't put forth their best effort. The tide will turn back in the right direction when they understand they are not putting out their best effort during the game and correct it before the final horn.

I'm not sure the way the T-birds were playing Saturday night was going to earn them a win, but it was a 2-2 game early in the third when Justin Hickman was assessed a 5-minute boarding major. I watched the play live, it was right in front of me, and then saw the replay and I still can't figure out what in that hit constituted even a two minute minor, let a lone a 5 minute major. To their credit the T-birds were full marks for killing off the penalty, led by their goalie Danny Mumaugh. But they exhausted a lot of energy in doing so and I think they played the rest of that final period with their tanks nearly on empty.

The situation was compounded later when Shea Theodore was assessed a minor cross checking penalty. Again, I didn't see anything that looked like a cross check as two players got tangled up playing the puck in the neutral zone. I would wager a bet that this was probably the first cross checking penalty ever assessed against Theodore.

It may sound like sour grapes to complain about two penalties, especially when the officials got it pretty much right the rest of the game and the T-birds weren't playing their best hockey. But this was the third period, in a tie game and those two befuddling calls tilted the ice heavily in the favor of Regina and they were unnecessary. What's more frustrating is that just 24 hours earlier, in the third period of another close game, the officials kept their whistles in the pocket and let two very obvious penalties go.

I would suggest the WHL do something similar to what the NCAA does for football with their targeting rule. In college football a player is ejected from the game when he is deemed to have "targeted" an opposing player with a hit, usually helmet to helmet, or with a hit of a "defenseless" player. Before that player is ejected though, the play is reviewed and the ejection can be overturned.

It was nice to see Scott Eansor get rewarded with his first WHL point, assisting on Alexander Delnov's goal. Eansor is a high energy player who leaves it all on the ice. He brought his lunch pail with him both nights this weekend. His is the kind of energy the T-birds need from all 18 skaters every night.

Its maddening that Danny Mumaugh gets saddled with both losses on the weekend. He allowed just one goal after coming on in relief Friday but it ended up being the game winner in the 5-3 loss to Victoria. Then he stood on his head Saturday making 49 saves against Regina. Could he be separating himself a bit from Justin Myles in the goaltending battle?

The Thunderbirds are capable of beating anyone in the WHL when they play their "A" game. They've just got to remind themselves to bring their "A" game with them every night.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The One That Got Away

Like all sports, hockey is a results based business. You are measured by wins and losses and in the end, Friday night's game ended in a loss for the Thunderbirds. But it would be difficult to dominate a game anymore then the T-birds did last night against Victoria.

Obviously, Seattle wasn't perfect. They made mistakes and it seemed each of those errors ended up in the back of their net. They missed scoring on some great chances too, particularly in the third period when trailing, 4-3. Still, the compete level that was missing the previous weekend in losses to Portland and Everett was back. The T-birds strength has to be their forecheck. They didn't generate much of a fore check a week ago in the two losses. Last night, their forechecking was at it's best. It allowed them to cycle the puck and keep the puck in the attacking zone for long stretches of the game. They were physical but played under control. Seattle took just a couple of minor penalties that led to power plays for the Royals. One was a high stick. The other I thought was a very "soft" goaltender interference penalty.

Most importantly, the T-birds did what they did a good deal of the first month of the season. When they got down, they didn't give up. They kept attacking and it almost brought them all the way back. Sometimes you don't get the puck luck and sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opposing goalie. Last night was one of those nights for the 'Birds.

Was Shea Theodore sending a message to the WHL powers that be and Hockey Canada? Theodore was not selected to represent the WHL in the Subway Series against Russia. His response was to score a hat trick and if not for the post and cross bar, could have had a five goal night.

The power play went 0-for 3 1/4th but it sure looked much more dangerous last night then it has in the past couple of weeks. The difference? Player were more willing to shoot the puck rather then wait for the perfect scoring opportunity.

Really like the Troock-Barzal-Lipsbergs line. Hard to believe, save for a couple of assists, they were held from scoring a goal. I thought pretty much all the forwards did a good job of coming back and helping defensively, especially in the neutral zone. It was necessary after Seattle lost defenseman Ethan Bear, then had another defenseman, Jerret Smith in the penalty box for five minutes. Seattle played a good stretch of the third period with just four available d-men.

The key now is for the Thunderbirds to build off this effort. They have to play the same way, cut down on the turnovers and get a better result tonight when they host Regina.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lost Weekend

The Thunderbirds had a chance to make a statement this weekend. Well, maybe they did, just the wrong one. It's a long 72 game schedule and hopefully the next time they get this chance, they make the right statement; the one that says they're going to compete night in and night out. The one that says they're in it to win it.

But this weekend, to use the train analogy, there were too many passengers and not enough hard working crew members trying to pull the train up the tracks. So, hopefully, with a hard week of practice everyone gets back on board and the team gets back to what they were doing for most of the first quarter of the season; putting in a hard sixty minutes of work on game night.

I think the first thing players have to realize is that the competition here in the Western Conference is much tougher then what they've seen from the teams in the East. As such you can't cut corners when playing your conference or division rivals. The T-birds have played 13 of their first 18 games against the West and are 6-5-0-2. That's respectable but with 47 games left against the West, including 33 against the rugged U.S. Division, they'll need to be better then .500 against those teams if they want to capture a top four seed and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

To do that, they'll need to be better on the road against the Western Conference where the T-birds are just 2-5, including 0-4 against the U.S. Division. Seattle has 23 road games still to play against the West including 16 U.S. Division road games so there is plenty of time to turn that around. But to do that, they'll have to bring their "A" game every night and on nights when they just don't have that "A" game, they can still bring their hard hats, lunch pails and hard work ethic because giving your best effort on nights when you don't have your best game can steal you a win or at least a point.

That is where the T-birds lost these games this weekend. Not because the skill level of their opponent was such that the T-birds couldn't compete with either Portland or Everett. Instead, those two teams just outworked Seattle. The Thunderbirds need to have that same appetite for hard work that their opponents did and they have to have it every night of the season.

The rest of November should tell us a lot about this team. There are ten games on the schedule the rest of the month and all but two are against the Western Conference. The combined record of the Western Conference teams the T-birds will be facing is 42-23-1-5. It starts this Friday when the T-birds host the Victoria Royals. Get those hard hats and lunch pails ready.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

He Who Hesitates...

I'm not sure why the Thunderbirds have made a habit of having slow starts recently, especially against Portland. Believe me, Portland is the last team you want to have a slow start against. It's as if the T-birds want to go into a "feeling out process" to see how the other team is going to play before they have a response. But there's no great mystery in what the Winterhawks are going to do. They are going to attack. If you sit back at the start of the game they are going to put you on your heels.

The T-birds didn't take a lot of penalties against Portland, but the ones they did were significant. Two penalties within 20 seconds of each other early in the first period gave Portland a huge opportunity to get on top and they capitalized quickly on the 5-on-3. Then early in the second Seattle's Evan Wardley is hit with a five minute charging major and the Winterhawks would score a second power play goal. When I saw the replay I didn't think it warranted more then two minutes but in this day and age, when leagues are trying to curb injuries and dangerous contact, officials often error on the side of caution.

Meanwhile, while the Winterhawks went 2-for-4 on the power play, the T-birds only had two power play chances and went 0-for-2. They were okay on the second 5-on-4 but the first power play, in the first period, didn't even generate a shot on goal. At some point they're gonna have to do a better job generating scoring chances with the man advantage.

I like that coach Konowalchuk mixed up his lines in the third period, looking for an offensive spark. He found some by putting Branden Troock and Justin Hickman together and they became a dangerous combination. The T-birds played very desperate hockey in the third period and almost fought there way back into the game but you can't wait until it is almost too late to play with desperation. That has to start from the opening face off. If you can play like that in the third period, you should be able to play like that in the first and second periods as well.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Another Good Sho'-ing

Early in this new season the Thunderbirds are enjoying the home cooking. Seattle has earned 11 of a possible 12 points on home ice through the first six games at the ShoWare Center following Saturday night's 5-3 win over the Vancouver Giants. Not that it's been easy, with three of the first six games home games decided in the shootout, but you want to make your home ice a difficult place for opposing teams to play.

Saturday night's game maybe was a little tighter then it needed to be as the Thunderbirds built a 4-1 lead early in the second period only to see the Giants cut that lead down to a single goal, 4-3, by early in the third. For the second straight night the T-birds lost their momentum by taking too many avoidable penalties. As a result, Vancouver scored twice on the power play to make it interesting before Seth Swenson's empty netter sealed the deal in the game's final minute.

Vancouver came in to the game with the worst record in the WHL's Western Conference and after the loss still sit 10th out of ten teams at 3-9-1-1. That record is a bit misleading as the Giants have been plagued by multiple injuries, especially among their forwards. They are starting to get some of those players back healthy and it is improving their team. They had back-to-back wins recently before suffering a couple of close losses; Friday at home to Everett (6-5) and last night to the T-birds.

They are no pushover. In fact if you look at their roster, even with the players they are missing, they do have a solid group of older players led by 20 year old defenseman Dalton Thrower. Similar to Seattle, they have nine 19 year olds on the roster though a couple are out with injury. They also have six 18 year olds along with the prerequisite three 20 year old players. So this is not a young Giants squad. Overall their roster averages about the same age as the Thunderbirds. They might actually be slightly older on game nights because the T-birds use three 16 year old players extensively. If and when the Giants get their roster completely healthy, they are going to be a tough team to play against.

How tight is the U.S. Division through the first month of the season? One point separates first from fourth place and just six points separates first and fifth place after last night's results.

Speaking of tight, the fight for ice time for the T-birds is about to get tougher. Newcomer Jaimen Yakubowski got his first game action for Seattle in the win last night and I think we can expect Sam McKechnie to be ready to go Tuesday night against Brandon. With the addition of Ryan Gropp into the mix earlier in the week and the eventual return to the lineup of the injured Connor Honey, the coaches will have some tough decisions to make each night. Right now I don't see anyone among their 15 forwards who doesn't serve ice time. Problem is you can only dress 12.

Yakubowski may have been operating on pure adrenaline as he arrived in Kent less then three hours before game time. He wasted little time mucking it up, showing his new team he's here to compete and do whatever he's asked. he actually got stronger as the game wore on and he was at his best in the third period.

How do you keep 16 year old right winger Keegan Kolesar out of the lineup? He scored his first WHL goal against Vancouver and finished with 1g,1a and was the game's third star.
But Kolesar has played well all season and his big body parked in front of the opposing goal may be a key to getting the Seattle power play on track. In fact last night the T-birds three 16 year olds, Kolesar, Matt Barzal and Ethan Bear, combined for 1g,3a and were +1. It's scary to think that at 6'1" and 216 lbs at age 16, Kolesar is not a finished product. He's going to get bigger and stronger and all indications are that he's a very coachable player.

Meanwhile, the M&M boys, Thunderbird goalies Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles, continue to play well as they alternate starts. This weekend it was a bit of "anything you can do I can do!" Friday night in Kennewick Mumaugh made 41 saves in helping the T-birds earn a road point in the 3-2 shootout loss to Tri-City. Saturday night at home, Myles made....you guessed it...41 saves in earning his 6th win of the season against Vancouver.

The Thunderbirds goaltending pair faced a total of 88 shots and allowed a combined five goals against in the two games. But consider this; three of the goals were power play goals (Seattle was shorthanded 14 times this weekend), including one scored 5-on-3. One was a penalty shot goal and the 5th goal allowed was just after a Seattle penalty expired, so while not technically a power play goal, it might as well have been. And that 5-on-3 power play goal? The T-birds inadvertently knocked it into their own net after the initial save had been made.

Prior to the start of this season the Thunderbirds goaltending tandem had played in a combined 26 games and both had earned just one WHL win apiece. This season in 15 games they have combined for ten wins.

Count to Ten...And Keep Going!

Despite giving up the early penalty shot goal, the Thunderbirds came out of the gates last night in Kennewick like gangbusters. They had great energy and were buzzing inside the Tri-City blue line. That energy and effort created two early goals and numerous other scoring opportunities. They had Americans goalie Eric Comrie moving, creating wide open chances. At one point the shots were 8-1 in Seattle's favor and the scoring chances were probably 8-to-1 in their favor as well. For half the first period, the T-birds owned the ice.

Then they stopped. The energy level disappeared. They stopped going hard to the net, the scoring chances evaporated. The passing was less then ideal and they were now turning the puck over which led to penalty trouble. They allowed the Ams to regroup and get back in the game. When Seattle did have a scoring chance, they missed a wide open net. Instead of being up by two to three goals at the end of the first, the game was tied.

More significantly, they had a chance to deliver an early knockout blow to one of the best goaltenders in the WHL, but instead, they allowed Comrie to get back up off the canvas and that's what he did, stoning the T-birds the rest of the way including three times in the shootout. And after limiting Tri to one shot for nearly half of the first period, Seattle allowed 42 shots the rest of the way.

I guess the good news is the Thunderbirds still earned a point, so they are keeping pace with the top teams in the Western Conference while they learn some hard lessons along the way. It's a sixty minute game and you should never feel comfortable with the way you're playing until the final horn sounds.

Hollywood, Ryan Gropp called and he's got a script for you! Could Gropp have written his WHL debut any better? First game, first shift, first goal. Gropp still has some rust on him after having missed time with a lower body injury but you could see why he is highly regarded. He made a nice pass later in the game on a 2-on-1 rush with Branden Troock. Unfortunately Troock's one timer went wide of the open net. Gropp also used his speed late in the game to draw a hooking penalty on a strong rush to the net.

Don't look now, but Danny Mumaugh is throwing down the challenge to Justin Myles! Both of Seattle's goalies are off to good starts as head coach Steve Konowalchuk continues to rotate them in goal.
Last night was Mumaugh's turn and he was excellent in making 41 saves, showed good puck control and continues to flash his glove. A year ago in limited play I don't think he ever got comfortable in net, but this season, knowing for now he's going to play every other game, you can see his confidence growing. With his recent play, he has lowered his GAA average to 3.04 while increasing his save percentage to .918. Goaltending was big last night for both teams late and Mumaugh stood toe-to-toe with Comrie and got the well deserved second star.

Not sure what they will do about their struggling power play. It should be better then the bottom four in the WHL. They had a chance to win the game last night late in regulation if they just could have converted with under two minutes to go. It seems to be one issue is still a reluctance to shoot the puck but this is also the second time this season on the road against the Americans that they didn't get any traffic in front of Comrie when skating 5-on-4. That made it too easy for the Tri-City penalty killers to stand in front of their net unhindered and block shots.