Thursday, January 31, 2013

Coming Into Focus

In each of their last two games, last Friday against Kelowna and this past Tuesday against Prince George, the T-birds seemed to be a more focused group on the ice. As a result Seattle pulled out three of a possible four points in those two games. It was the same focus they had two weeks ago when they hosted Portland and beat them, 4-3, to snap their 15 game winless skid. They were singularly a very determined squad in those game and it produced positive results.
I think they had that focus in Kennewick back on January 22nd, maybe not as much, but it was there. They just couldn't score despite many good chances and dropped that decision to the Tri-City Americans. Last Thursday up in Kelowna that focus and determination was missing and thus they lost, 8-0 to the Rockets.

What it means is this; when the T-birds bring their "A" game onto the ice, when they focus on playing as a team and working their systems the right way, they can skate with any club in the WHL. It means they're a pretty good hockey team when they do all things the right way. It's just that the train doesn't make it down the track if the entire crew isn't on board. It works that way for every team in every sport. Each player has too mentally decide they're going to be a hard working crew member on that train, and not a passenger just along for the ride.

A season ago, the T-birds finished one win short of the postseason, edged out by Everett for the last postseason berth. Two points behind them in the Western Conference standings and also missing out on the playoffs, were the Prince George Cougars. For both teams, it was close but no cigar. The two teams are in a similar battle with Everett again this season. Thre teams battling for two spots. in 2011-12 Seattle went just 1-3 against PG, including losing both games to the Cougars at the ShoWare Center.

Well, Seattle wasn't about to let that happen to them again this season. They played Tuesday's game with a mission. They treated it like it was a playoff game. They had their eye on the prize and they were very dominant at times in posting the 6-1 win. The T-birds seem pretty focused on not letting what happend last season, happen again this year. As a result, the T-birds now lead the season series with the Cougars, 2-1, with one game left to play head-to-head. That will be March 8th, back at the Sho.

Three stars are usually awarded to players who pick up all the points. It was tempting though, on Tuesday to toss a star on Riley Sheen. Sheen didn't register a point in the win over Prince George but he was all over the ice and created some good chances in the attacking zone. The same can be said for Connor Sanvido, who did pick up one assist. Sanvido was particularly strong on the PK. At times I had to check the jersey because he plays like Luke Lockhart when he kills off penalties.

Plus/minus is a flawed stat. You can get a minus when a teammate makes a turnover that leads directly to a goal. Your only crime is being on the ice at that time. Same can be said about earning a plus. A teammate makes a great play and scores and you could be standing on the ice admiring it and earn a plus. That said, it was nice to see d-man Jared Hauf lead the team Tuesday night with a +3.

Hauf sits at -24 on the season but I still contend he is the most improved player on the team from a season ago and his improvement continues as the season wears on. He's got so much more confidence now then he did early in the year, he's actually taking shots and attempting to score! It'll come Haufer, it'll come!

The T-birds will need that focus and determination they've shown in recent games because they've got four tough games coming up in the next six days, starting Friday at home agains the Winterhawks.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rebooting for the Stretch Drive

The hardest part about writing this blog? Remembering the password to access it. And I'm too paranoid to write it down, because the first thing a burglar would do when breaking into my home is search for the password for my blog.

A busy January ends Tuesday at home versus the Prince George Cougars. This game should have a playoff-like intensity to it as these teams are separated by just four points in the standings.

A bit of an up and down effort from the T-birds in their home and home series against the Kelowna Rockets. Seattle got off to a slow start Thursday north of the border and never recovered in the 8-0 loss. Things just kind of snowballed on them.

A much, much better effort Friday at home in the 4-3 overtime loss. Certainly you want to be able to hold a two goal lead on home ice, but let's remember who the 'Birds were playing. Kelowna has lit a fuse and is, well, skyrocketing right now. They can do no wrong. After hosting the T-birds Thursday and traveling to Kent for Friday's game, the Rockets got back on the bus after the overtime game, headed back home and beat Prince Albert, 6-2 24 hours later. If I had any connection to that Rocket team right now, I'd be heading to the corner store to buy lottery tickets. Everthing they touch is turning to gold.

The loss of the two goal lead was not for lack of trying to play add on. The Thunderbirds didn't sit back on that two goal advantage. They just continue to miss out on scoring chances. Sometimes it is a bad bounce and often it's not going to the net hard enough to knock that bouncing puck in. Getting greasy goals is something the team is still working on perfecting. I think they just need to muck it up a bit more in front of the opposing goal.

The power play is one area where you can get those type of goals. The T-birds are slumping right now with the man advantage. In the first half of the season the power play was their bread and butter. They need to get that clicking again. They did a good job of drawing penalties against the Rockets Friday and generated seven power play opportunities. They did some good work on the power play but only generated one goal. The same thing happened last Tuesday in Kennewick in Seattle's 5-1 loss to the Americancs; seven power play chances, just one goal.

There are two significant reasons why the Thunderbirds are drawing those penalties on the oppositon. One, they have re-established their strong forecheck in recent games and two, their depth allows them to roll four lines and sustain the pressure from tha forecheck. It's a good situation to have when this team is healthy and the coaches are foreced to sit an older forward.

Seattle seems to have re-established it's solid play on home ice, earning 5 of a possible 6 points in their last three home games at the ShoWare Center. That's good news because they are in the midst of a four game homestand and 8 of their 13 games in February will be on home ice.

Remember the last 2-3 seasons with the T-birds getting consistently outshot every night. Well, that is no long the case. In fact, the T-birds have outshot their opponent in 5 of their last 8 games. They were only outshot twice and once the shots were even. So the opportunities are there, just need to finish better.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise

Thank goodness that's over. That Tiger Budbill sure does like to draw out the national anthem...oh, and the T-birds put a halt this weekend to their 15 game winless skid with a 4-3 win over Portland Saturday. Then, for good measure, they won again Sunday, 6-5, in a shootout over Lethbridge.

One reason for Seattle's two game winning streak is their health. Going into the home game Saturday against the Winterhawks, Seattle finally had all their skaters healthy. Every teams likes to think they can get by when one or two players go down with injury, but those injuries affect your depth. For Seattle, injuries cost them their two leading scorers for a while. That's hard to overcome. It affects your continuity. It also cost them some depth. Now, with everyone healthy it means competition for ice time and that should make everyone sharper as they play to earn ice time.

The win over Portland was probably Seattle's best 60 minutes of hockey on the season, especially when you consider the circumstances (facing a possible 16 game losing streak) and the opponent (the top ranked team in the WHL). the T-birds really kept it simple; no wasted energy trying to make an extra pass or a highlight reel pass. They just put the puck on net. Friday in their loss up in Everett I saw too much of the former and not enough of the latter.

It was an emberrasment of riches in the shots on goal department for the 'Birds this weekend. In the three games Seattle totalled 143 shots on goal, highlighted by a season high 59 on Sunday. That's about 48 per game, on average. Do that and most nights you're gonna win games. Now the downside is the T-birds only scored 10 goals on thos 143 shots so they need to continue to work on their finishing. The encouraging sign is that with each subsequent game they scored more goals (1 @ Evt,4 vs. Port. and then 5 against Leth.), so they were trending in the right direction.

Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opposing goalie. Ty Rimmer is one goalie who has seemingly had Seattle's number in his WHL career. Whether with Brandon, Prince George, Tri-City or Lethbridge it seemed he was just unbeatable when the 'Birds played against him, so getting the win Sunday is pretty impressive.

I think the game Saturday was the first time this season where Seattle showed no fear playing against the Winterhawks. Maybe part of that is they had nothing to lose. Maybe part of it was they stopped worrying about the opponent and just focused on their own game. Whatever the reason, they outplayed Portland, if only for one night, and made the 'Hawks look like mere mortals for most of those 60 minutes. Whatever game you play you really have to live by the credo, respect your opponent, fear no one.

Seattle made no blockbuster deal at the trade deadline but the subtle moves they did make are working out well. In five games since the trades, the T-birds new acquistions Andrew Johnson and Adam Kambeitz have combined for 3g and 2a with one of the goals being a game winner.

One final note. Maybe it's short term memory on my part but I have to say the sold out building for Saturday's game versus Portland was the best crowd since Seattle moved into the ShoWare Center. Not just because it was big; there have been sold out games before. Not just because it was Teddy Bear Toss Night, though that too was part of it and it brought in a lot of first time fans. No, there just seemed to be an energy about that crowd and the players seemed to feed off of it.

That crowd just wouldn't let the team get down on themselves after a mistake or a Portland goal. They stayed behind the players the whole night. It says a lot about the people coming to the game, selling out the building for a team riding a 15 game losing streak. I think it's a sign of things to come as this team builds for the near future. So hats off to the 6,009 T-bird crazies.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Monday, January 14, 2013

Definitely Tri-in'

The Thunderbirds played a pretty good road game in Kennewick Sunday, only to lose to the Americans and have their winless streak reach 14 games. Seattle had a very good start and grabbed the lead on Brendan Troock's goal six minutes in. Even though they fell behind by the end of the period, they were in the game and got the early goal in the second and tied it back up at two.

The difference in the game turned out to be the power play. Despite generating some quality scoring chances with the man advantage, Seattle couldn't finish when skating 5-on-4 while Tri-City did. The Ams finished 2-for-6 with the power play and ended up winning the game by two, 5-3.

The game turned though on a questionable call that cost the 'Birds a tying goal in the third period. Seattle's forecheck created a turnover at the Americans blue line and with Troock in front of the Ams net creating a screen, Taylor Green wristed a shot through traffic that found its way into the back of the net.

Game tied 3-3, right? Well, no because the referee immediately waved off the goal, claiming Troock made contact with the goalie, preventing him from making a save. I never even thought this was a question of contact between Troock and the goalie, I never saw that. I thought initially that they ruled Troock had redirected the puck with a high stick. Troock was adamant immediately after the play, and for that matter much of the rest of the game, that he had done nothing wrong. He continued to argue his case with the referee well after the goal was disallowed.

Now, after the game T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk told ESPN 710 blogger Andy Eide that he looked at the video of the play in question and that there was no contact (this is a play that is not subject to video review during the game).

I understand this is a developmental league for officials, as well as players, but if true and there was no contact, that is a severely egregious error in judgement by the referee. You just can't make that call at that time of the game, with the outcome still in question, unless you are 150 percent sure. I hope he was right because he completely changed the complexion of the game with that call.

You teach these young players to go hard to the net, screen the goalie so that shots from the points can get through or can be redirected. At the very least you put yourself in position to get to a rebound. When a player does everything right in that situation yet still gets penalized, what have you taught him? In this case the call says to Brandon Troock he did everything right but he cost his team a goal in doing so?
So again, I hope the referee got the call right.
I also hope the points Troock has earned in the last few games means he is heating up. Seattle needs his offense. He's getting better with his puck management as well, picking his spots as to when to make the individual play while doing a better job of puck distribution.

You can't say the trades made by GM Russ Farwell at the deadline aren't working out. In two games newcomers Andrew Johnson and Adam Kambeitz have already contributed three points (1g, 2a). Kambeitz plays to the final whistle as is evidenced by the perfect pass he made to Seth Swenson for the late shorthanded goal with the T-birds down three goals. The game was already decided at that point but Kambeitz battled to win the puck along the boards and create something rather then just freeze the puck against the wall.

Hopefully Conner Honey and Roberts Lipsbergs are back healthy soon. At full strength the T-birds forwards can be a dangerous group. There is good depth when at 100 percent. Seattle should easily be able to roll four lines the rest of the season with Lockhart, Kambeitz, Lipsbergs, Troock, Honey, Johnson, Sheen, Delnov, Hickman, Swenson, Sanvido and Elliot or Green with youngsters Michal Holub and Daniel Wray getting games here and there.

What's even better is you can probably expect at least nine out of that group to be back next season as 19 and 20 year olds. In fact, You'll have pretty much the entire roster back next season, so playing winning hockey the second half and getting playoff experience is a big goal between now and April.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Baker's Dozen

Another slow start doomed the T-birds to their 13th straight setback. Maybe converting on that early power play might have changed the complexion of the game. They looked good on the power play too. Just no puck luck.

Seattle's penalty killing has been pretty good the second half of the season. But you're bound to have an off-night and tonight was the night. Victoria, ranked just 17th in the WHL on the power play, ended up going 3-of-5 with the man advantage and that was the difference. I wonder if getting a couple of new players up to snuff on the team's PK systems threw off the chemistry?

The more I see of young 16 year old goalie Danny Mumaugh, the more I like. His game need refinement but you can see the raw talent. No question he can be a productive 'tender at the WHL level. He's not the biggest goalie but he seems very athletic and agile. He reminds me a bit of Cheveldave up in Kamloops.

I like this Andrew Johnson. One game is too small a sample size but if tonight was a glimpse of the way he plays, then that's a really nice trade. I think he can be a real big addition to Seattle's special teams, especially the power play. A good face off guy too and he seemed to have some early chemistry with Branden Troock. When this club is healthy and at full strength, look at the group of '94 born forwards (18 yr olds) they've assembled: Johnson, Troock, Hickman, Sheen, Honey, Lipsbergs and Delnov. That should equal two good scoring lines, plus one...for the rest of this season and next year as well.

Sometimes a change of scenery is all a player needs. By his own admission Johnson wasn't having the best of seasons with Moose Jaw. This is a player who was selected 23rd overall (first pick of the 2nd rd) by Moose Jaw in the 2009 Bantam Draft, so he was almost a first rounder. He was everywhere the puck was Saturday night. The T-birds have done well in trades with Moose Jaw in the recent past (Laich, Mojzis, McKenzie, Herman)so maybe this will end up the same way.

What I liked most about the T-birds moves at the trade deadline is they added without giving up significant assets. Yes, they did have to release Brendan Rouse and trade away a future 3rd and 4th rd Bantam pick, but Seattle held on to the two first round picks they'll have this spring and their high second round pick as well. So for the second straight draft, the Thunderbirds should end up with three of the top 30-35 picks.

Off to Kennewick to face the Americans on Sunday.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Time for Round Three

After playing the Spokane Chiefs in back-to-back home games, separated by two off days, Seattle hits the road for tonight's third consecutive game against their division rivals. The two teams square off again tonight at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
Last night the T-birds nearly overcame a slow start with some tremendous offensive push in the game's final five minutes but, alas, got no puck luck and fell 4-3. It was a very intense and entertaining game most of the way as the lead changed hands a few times and the action was back and forth. There was a lot of punch and counterpunch throughout the evening.

Nice job by Daniel Wray to try and light a spark under his team late in the first period. Wray and Spokane's Adam Smith went toe-to-toe. Not a lot of punches thrown but just a few minutes later Seattle got their first goal of the night from Shea Theodore.

I liked the way the T-birds finished out the first period. Instead of coasting to the end of period horn, they played to the buzzer and it resulted in that tying goal. That attitude nearly paid dividends at the end of the game. Plus, Seattle needs to get their offensive defensemen, Shea Theodore, going again, so it was nice to see him pick up his 8th goal.

Mitch Elliot has been showing lately that he's not just a big bodied enforcer. He's started to show just how well he can skate and handle the puck too.
He was rewarded with his second goal of the season last night, an unassisted marker giving Seattle their first lead of the game at 2-1. Props to Michal Holub for forcing a Spokane turnover in the neutral zone that led to that goal. In fact I've liked the spark the combo of Wray-Elliot-Holub have provided since they were put together on the same line.

As the game wore on Seattle did a better job of moving the puck up ice, especially getting through the Spokane defense in the neutral zone. This was something they did very well the first half of the season. A good sign moving forward.

Brandon Troock has only played in 13 games but he has nine points, including two last night with a goal and an assist. He still needs to work on puck management and distribution but he definitely is an offensive force and could be a point a game player in this league. Getting him back and healthy at the midway point of the season, after missing most of the first half due to injury, is like adding a player at the trade deadline...only at no cost to the T-birds.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Keeping the Glass Half Full

This might seem a strange thing to write, with the team in the midst of a nine game losing streak, but while I'm as frustrated and disappointed as any die hard T-bird fan right now I'm also still very optimistic.

This current run of bad form doesn't look or feel to me as it has the past few years. I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and while many of you may think that is the headlight from the oncoming locomotive, I see the better future. And I don't mean next seaon or a few seasons beyond. I'm talking about the rest of this season.

This group will get the bow of the ship out of the water, stop the listing and get things righted. They may not finish much better then .500 but there is too much young talent on this team. They do need both Conner Honey and Roberts Lipsbergs back in the lineup. They still don't have the depth necessary to get through a tough stretch without their top two scorers.

The one thing about those two players, while very different in personality off the ice, on the ice it is apparent they are the straws that stir the drink. So getting them back is important. But even without them this team probably should have won at least one of the games versus Everett. They aren't necessarily playing poorly, they are just lacking in confidence right now.

In Kamloops Friday, in that first period, they played the way they need to play to be competitive. That was as good a period of hockey as they've played in the past month. Unfortunately they didn't reward their own effort. Too many quality scoring chances continue to turn into shots that miss the net. And when they ran into adversity and fell behind, they stopped skating with purpose. They abandoned their systems, dialed down the hitting and tried to create things that just weren't there. Often times to escape adversity you don't necessarily have to play harder, you just have to play smarter.

If there is one thing I think they need right now, it is leadership from the senior players. I'm not talking a rah-rah lockerroom speech, but just one or two of the veteran players to get the team re-focused; to remind them of the way they played much of the first half of the season. Because after a while the coaches can say the same things over and over again and it stops registering. It's time for the players to take ownership of their actions.

Their 16 first half wins didn't come by happenstance. They came about through hard work and attention to detail. Right now the team is forgetting to do the little things that turn into big results. We've seen glimpses during this stretch of their best but it takes everyone being on the same page to turn those glimpses into a complete sixty minutes of hockey.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

That Same Old Auld Lange Syne

There really isn't much to write about in regards to the Thunderbirds loss New Year's Eve down in Portland. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk said all that needs to be said in his post game interview with Andy Eide. You can check it out in Eide's blog over at
I'm adamant that Konowalchuk is the right man behind the Thunderbirds bench.
He has a plan and his systems work as is evident by the T-birds power play (despite what has happened recently)rising to top five status in the league after dwelling at the bottom in recent seasons. It's up to the players to execute the game plan against each and every team, not just against Team A on Saturday and not against Team B on Monday, but against every team, every night,for 60-mintes.

At least in the first two post-Christmas games versus Everett, the T-birds competed and had opprtunities to win both those games. Against Portland, there was no compete at all, at least not up and down the lineup. It's becoming a familiar refrain when the 'Birds play the Wintehawks. Sure a few players are out there working hard but too many players decided this game was unwinnable before they stepped on the ice. They took a defeatist attitude into that game. It's just one man's opinion but they don't believe in themselves right now when it comes to facing Portland. Too many T-birds looked like they'd rather be somewhere else then on the ice at the Rose Garden last night. As far as I'm concerned, most of the T-birds problems when playing Portland are between their ears. At the first sign of adversity, instead of turning up their intensity, they shut it down.

There were bright spots. Brandon Glover has come out of the holiday layoff playing some of his best hockey in goal this season. When you face 7-8 breakaways and only give up two goals from that, you're playing well. Too bad he's not received any offensive support in these three games.

15 year old Keegan Kolesar's Thunderbirds debut has to be classified as a success. But it's a catch-22. One, he's heading back home to Winnipeg leaving us wanting more and two, he played well and created a couple of the T-birds better scoring chances on the night. The problem is a 15 year old was one of your best players and created a few of your better scoring chances on the night. The T-birds needed 6-7 more Keegan Kolesar's last night.

He skates well, has a nose for the puck, plays physical with a bull-in-a-china-shop mentality and has the attitude necessary to play at a high level in the WHL. I want to say the future is bright for the team with the likes of Kolesar in the system and poised to be a full time player for Seattle next season. But next season is nine months away. The focus has to be the here and now. I'm guessing Thunderbird fans don't want to be the Chicago Cubs of the WHL, always saying the future looks bright and wait 'til next year.

So the winless streak is now eight games. Next up for the T-birds, the B.C. Division leading Kamloops Blazers on the road Friday night. The T-birds need to worry about how they're playing though, not who they are playing.

Here's to a better year in 2013 then we had in 2012.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012