Monday, February 25, 2013

Count to Ten

It's down to the final ten games of the 2012-13 regular season for the T-birds to determine their playoff fate. This past weekend didn't go as well as the previous one as Seattle earned just one of a possible four points (after getting 5 of 6 pts a week ago). Still, the T-birds sit in 7th place in the Western Conference standings and they are the chasee and not the chaser.

Meaning? Well, it means the teams behind them, Everett and Prince George, are trying to catch them for one of those final two playoff spots and not vice versa. The Thunderbirds don't need help to get into the playoffs, they only need help themselves. That means winning some games, picking up points whenever and where ever they can. Six of their final ten games are on home ice. Seattle needs to take advantage of that. The team has earned at least a point in nine of their last 11 home games. Keep up that pace and they'll be in the playoffs.

Seattle really missed having their leading point producer on the ice the past two games. Conner Honey was out of the line up with an upper body injury and his absence was quite noticeable. Meanwhile the team's leading goal scorer, Roberts Lipsbergs, is in a bit of a scoring funk. He did get robbed on the doorsteop twice in Vancouver Sunday but hoepfully he'll shake out of the slump down the stretch.

After this weekend's results, the T-birds are now on pace to finish the season with 58 points. Everett, currently one spot behind Seattle is on pace to finish with 57 points and Prince George, which sits in 9th place after the weekend, is on pace for a 51 point season. All three teams have ten games left. Not one of these three teams has an easier schedule then the other. The rest of the way all are primarily playing teams with winning records. Seattle's only two games left against sub .500 teams are one game against both the Silvertips and Cougars, both on home ice. Besides the Seattle game Everett has one left at Vancouver. Besides the Seattle game, PG also has one left at Vancouver.

This week Seattle hosts Edmonton on Tuesday, then travels for games Thursday in Kelowna versus the Rockets and Friday in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans. The 'Birds are back home Saturday to host the Ams.

Everett is home for three this week, playing host to Spokane on Wednesday, Edmonton on Friday and Portland on Saturday. The 'Tips finish the weekend with a road game up in Vancouver.

Prince George has just one game this week. A Friday night home tilt against the Kamloops Blazers. The Cougars do host Tri-City twice early next week (Monday and Tuesday).

In case you're wondering, the T-birds do have a "magic number" to clinch a playoff spot. It's 14. Any combination of T-birds points earned from wins or OT/SO losses and points PG fails to earn, between now and the end of the season, equalling 14 would guarentee Seattle of at least a one game playoff for the 8th seed. For instance, if Prince George went 3-7 down the stretch, Seattle wouldn't need to earn another point to tie the Cougars for 8th. If the T-birds win three more games (or earns six more points), the Cougars would have to go 6-4 the rest of the way to force a tie for 8th. Either way, it's nail biting time!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Get the Point(s)

No matter how you look at it, this busy weekend has to be deemed an unmitigated success for Seattle. They won two of three games, earned five of a possible six points and moved from 8th place to 7th place in the Western Conference playoff race. Four days ago if you offered up that scenario to the team, I'm guessing they'd have gladly taken it. Sure, it would have been nice to win the Friday overtime game versus Vancouver, but right now the T-birds need points, points and more points. The fact is they got points in all three games so, mission accomplished.

Penalty killing was a big reason why the Thunderbirds earned two wins and five points. In the three games this weekend the T-birds were shorthanded 16 times, yet surrendered just one power play goal against. It starts with your goalie and Brandon Glover was very good in his two starts and Danny Mumaugh played well Friday. The T-birds also showed a big willingness to block shots and they hustled to retrieve loose pucks and clear the zone. Of course their excellent penalty killing Sunday led to the game winning, shorthanded overtime game winner.

That goal by Luke Lockhart should easily end up on the WHL "Plays of the Week". What a tremendous pass by Seth Swenson to get that puck to Lockhart. And then Lockhart was able to fend off a hook from a Vancouver player to get the puck to his backhand for the score. By the way, after a video review after the game, Seattle's first goal Sunday has also been credited to Lockhart, so he had both goals and now has 18 on the season.

Really liked the work Saturday and Sunday by Mitch Elliot and Justin Hickman. They were excellent in winning the battles behind the net and along the half boards. Hickman in particular Sunday was a beast, constantly taking the puck off a Vancouver stick in the offensive zone. Their play seemed to make Alex Delnov more effective at both ends of the ice.

Did you know Seattle has now outshot 14 of it's last 20 opponents going back to mid-January? The next step now is to finish off more scoring chances. It also means Seattle is cutting down their opponents scoring opportunities. Both are steps in the right direction. The T-birds allowed just five goals against in over 180 minutes of hockey this weekend.

Kudos to Zach Brooks and Kevin Boris, the two linesmen Sunday night. When it was game time and linesman Ryan Gibbons and the two referees arrival was delayed, the game started without them and Brooks and Boris did a superb job of managing the action in the first period. I hope both the T-birds and Giants make a note of contacting the WHL home office in Calgary and praising the work of these two officials, especially Brooks who was not slated to work the game.

So, after the busy weekend of hockey, here is the updated pace to the playoffs among the three teams battling for the final two playoffs spots in the Western Conference:

7. Seattle 49 pts thru 60 games. Earning .816 pts per game. With 12 games left, currently on pace for a 58.8 pt season
8. Everett 47 pts thru 60 games. Earning .783 pts per game. With 12 games left, currenly on pace for a 56.4 pt season.
9. Prince George 44 pts thru 59 games. Earning .745 pts per game. With 13 games left, currently on pace for a 53.69 pt season

The T-birds are off until next weekend when they play twice. They are home Saturday against Everett, then face the Giants Sunday afternoon in Vancouver.
Everett plays Friday in Kennewick against Tri-City before traveling to Kent for Saturday's game at the ShoWare Center
Prince George finishes their trip through the Central Division with a stop Monday in Edmonton against the Eastern Conference leading Oil KIngs. PG then returns home next Friday and Saturday for two games against the Western Conference leading Portland Winterhawks.

***Quick update, PG lost Monday afternoon to Edmonton so they are now on pace for 52.8 pts per season with 12 games remaining.***

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Pace to the Postseason

With the season down to just over a dozen game, I'm going to do what I've done each of the past couple of seasons and track the pace to the playoffs for the T-birds as well as the teams they are in a battle with for a playoff spot. In this case those teams would be Everett and Prince George.

It's a fairly simple formula of figuring the points each team is, on average, earning for games played and projecting that out over a 72 game schedule. Obviously it fluctuates from game to game. But it gives you sort of an idea of what each team needs to make the playoffs over their remaining games.

Right now, Seattle is in the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They have earned 45 points in 58 games. That means they are earning, on average .776 points per game. They have 14 games remaining. .776 x 72 = 55.9 points. Rounding it up, they are currently on pace to finish with 56 points. A win tonight in Everett would increase that pace to 57.35 points, a loss would drop it to 54.9. Earning one point would put them on pace for a 56.1 pt season.

Everett, currently in 7th place in the conference standings, has played one more game and has earned 47 points thus far. On average they are earning .796 points per game. They have 13 games left. .796 x 72 = 57.35, basically they are on pace to earn 57.4 pts.

Prince George currently sits 9th in the standings. Through 58 games they have earned 42 pts. Like Seattle the Cougars have 14 games left on their schedule. On average PG is earning .724 pts per game. .724 x 72 = 52.13, so the Cougars are on pace for 52 pts.

Here is what is left on each of the schedules for those three teams:

Seattle (14 games) Three against Everett (2 home, 1 away), two against Vancouver (1 home, 1 away), one home game vs. Edmonton, one road game at Kelowna, three against Tri-City (2 home, 1 away), one game at Spokane, one home game versus Prince George and a home and away to end the regular season against Portland. The T-birds, with nine, have the most home games remaining of the three teams and Seattle has earned at least a point in seven of their last nine home games (10 pts earned over that span). So if Seattle continues to play the final nine home games the way they played the last nine at the ShoWare Center, they should be in line for another 10 pts. But they stil have road stops in Tri-City, Spokane, Kelowna and Portland.

Everett (13 games) Three versus the T-birds (1 home, 2 away), two against Tri-City (1 home, 1 away), two versus Spokane (1 home, 1 away) one home game versus Edmonton, two versus Portland (1 home, 1 away) one game at Vancouver and two games against Victoria (1 home, 1 away). The Silvertips have 7 of their final 13 at home but they do have a stretch of five straight on the road including stops in Portland, Spokane and Victoria as well as Vancouve and Kent.

Prince George (14 games) one game at Lethbridge and one game at Edmonton, two home games versus Portland, three versus Kamloops (2 home, 1 away), three against Tri-City (2 home, 1 away), one at Seattle, and one game each at Vancouver, Spokane and Kelowna.

All three teams have tough schedules remaining but Prince George may have the most difficult road. PG has just six home games remaining. After they finish a swing through the Central Division (two games left) they come home for five straight against Portland (2), Kamloops (1) and Tri-City (2) then are back on the road for six straight before ending the regular season at home against the Blazers. Of course last season, I thought Victoria had the toughest road to climb to get into a playoff spot but the Royals got hot at the right time and passed by everyone to get into the postseason.

For the T-birds and Silvertips, who play each other three times, getting points out of those head-to-head games is crucial. Who ever gets more points in those three games proably controls its postseason fate.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Twisting the Night Away

I liken the T-birds right now to someone trying to get that pesky lid off the jar of pickles. You know the process it takes to do it, you try hard and you almost get it. Maybe you're missing a step though. Then someone else comes along and gives it a twist and off comes the lid. It's frustrating to put in the hard work and not get rewarded.

Last night was another great example of what the T-birds are capable of doing when they bring their "A" game against one of the top teams in the league. For much of that game against Calgary, the Thunderbirds dictated the tempo and controlled large stretches of play, primarily due to their strong forecheck. It led to a number of Calgary turnovers. It led to a dozen quality scoring chances. For the fifth straight game, Seattle outshot their opponent. I'm guessing Seattle didn't outshoot the other team much more then five times all last season.

But that's only step one in the process. The T-birds need to finish on those chances. Against the Hitmen they hit a couple of posts and Calgary goalie Chris Driedger was excellent in goal but the T-birds still need to do a better job of putting the puck in the net. The same was true the night before against Red Deer. There were a couple of chances in the first period for the 'Birds to score a few more times against the Rebels and possibly change the complexion of that game but it didn't happen.
Defensively, Seattle was much better Saturday against Calgary, then they were Friday against Red Deer, in their defensive zone coverage. They seemed to make a more concerted effort against the Hitmen to clog up the slot and get sticks to pucks in the passing lanes. They were better inside their own blue line winning those 50/50 battles along the boards. They took quite a few icing calls in clearing the puck but they were doing a good job of winning defensive zone face-offs, especially Luke Lockhart, so the icings alleviated the pressure.

The line combo of Roberts Lipsbergs-Alex Delnov-Conner Honey was back together Saturday and they produced by coming up with 2g, 4a 6pts +3. Seattle needs their top point producers to take the lead down the stretch run for the playoffs, so that was good to see. Riley Sheen also had a productive weekend with two goals and was dangerous on the puck both nights.

Meanwhile Jarret Smith was good at both ends of the ice.
The rookie 17 year old defenseman played smart, he played physical and he played much more confidently in the offensive end, especially against Calgary. He's getting more and more power play time with the second unit and that is going to pay big dividends in the future. Again, I don't want to be looking too far off into the future but with what we're seeing, although not consistently yet, from the likes of Smith, Hauf, Theodore and now Danny Mumaugh, I see something building with this group.

Calling next weekend a big one for Seattle's playoff hopes is the understatement of the year. The three games in three nights are all what you would categorize as "winnable" games. In fact, you can say that about the next five games coming up on the schedule. It doesn't mean all the T-birds have to do is show up though. They have to bring the same "A" game effort they showed Saturday against Calgary or in earlier games they won against Portland and Kelowna. When you're 19-32-5-1 you can't take anyone lightly. The T-birds need to dictate how well they play, not the opponent and they have to be consistent. In other words just because the team lining up against you is 14-40 instead of 40-14 doesn't mean you bring less effort. Don't play down to the opposition!

Sure you play them one at a time, but Seattle has to be greedy. The playoffs are on the line. They need to be thinking about earning ten points because after this stretch of five games, eight of their final ten games will be against teams with winning records and half of those will be against the current top three teams in the league; Edmonton, Kelowna and two against Portland to end the regular season.

Finally, it was an enjoyable Parents Weekend, no matter the results on the ice. It's always a pleasure to meet the parents of these young men. Just as much as the players, these parents also give so much of themselves emotionally to the Thunderbirds organization. The highlight was interviewing Luke Lockhart's dad, Guy, on the radio Friday night as his mom and brother looked on. Just as much as their son, they've been members of the T-birds for five years. Then Saturday I interviewed Brian Mumaugh, who's son Danny's journey has just begun. Such is the cycle of life in the WHL.

Im memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Monday, February 4, 2013

What's the Point?

There are now 19 games left in the Thunderbirds season so every point they earn over this final month is crucial. Seattle is locked in a tight battle with Everett and Prince George for the 7th and 8th playoff seeds in the Western Conference. That's three teams battling for two spots and eight points separating the three clubs. At the moment, Seattle is in the 8th and final playoff position. The T-birds currently sit four points behind 7th place Everett with a game in hand. Meanwhile the 'Birds are four points up on 9th place Prince George.

Saturday night all three teams lost in either overtime or a shootout so all earned one point and there was no change in the standings. I guess you can say no harm no foul but in Seattle's case you hate to leave points on the ice. The T-birds had a late one goal lead at home against Tri-City but the Americans came back to tie and then win the game in overtime. That's twice on the recently completed four game homestand that the T-birds let a third period lead slip away. Players need to heed the words of Yogi Berra, "It ain't over, 'til it's over!" Most of the players on this team haven't had a lot of success yet at the WHL level, so they are still learning that no lead is safe and you play to the final horn. Though, it wasn't that players stopped playing, it was just that they got away from their systems and playing the way they did in building their lead through the first two periods.

Nineteen games left means there are 38 points to be had. Eleven of the T-birds final 19 games will be on home ice, where they have earned points in 5 of their last 6 games. That's a trend they hope to see continue. Still, to get to the postseason, the T-birds will have to earn some points in those final 8 road games. The first two come up this week as they travel to Victoria for games Tuesday and Wednesday against the Royals.

Seth Swenson had a solid weekend for the T-birds, in fact Swenson had a pretty good homestand, earning 1g 3a 4pts +3 in the four games. Swenson seems to be hitting his stride at the right time of the year. He has 33 pts (15g, 18a) in 53 games but his pace is picking up over the last month. He's already ahead of his production from a season ago (11g, 13a)and is only a -6 on the year. Last season he finished at -34. And a nice trend is developing lately for Seattle in regards to the plus/minus stat. A lot of those large minus numbers are starting to shrink down as the team continues to control puck possession more effectively, decrease the amount of shots against and improves its overall defensive zone coverage.

In Memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Man Down, Man Down!

I really liked the way Seattle played straight up (5-on-5) against Portland Friday night. Of course, as we all know the T-birds had trouble staying at even strength in the game. They surrendered ten power play chances to the Winterhawks and though Seattle's penalty killers did yeoman's work to deny Portland on seven of those chances, ten was three too many as the 'Hawks struck for three power play goals and that was the difference in the game. Final score: Portland 5 Seattle 3.

The most frustrating part was that most of the penalties were avoidable. In most cases the infractions weren't because Portland was forcing the T-birds into undisciplined play. Three were delay of game penalties for shooting the puck over the glass. That's more a matter of execution. One was for goaltender interference as Riley Sheen's momentum carried him into the Portland crease on a strong rush. That's like the old "player control" foul in basketball. There was a hooking, trippings and a checking from behind which I think were a result of over aggressive play or frustration, so those are more of the undisciplined variety, but overall, just a lot of avoidable penalties.

To me, the fact they only lost that game 5-3 is a testament to how far this team has come from the start of the season. A couple a months ago that is probably a 8-2 or worse beating. Instead, with some excellent goaltending from Danny Mumaugh, better defensive zone coverage and a solid PK in the other seven shorthanded situations, The T-birds kept this game competitive.

Another example of how this T-bird team is improving? Seattle had only five minus players on the night (Portland had seven). 13 T-birds were even or plus for the game. Defenseman Jared Hauf was particularly solid and is now +4 in his last two games.

So is his defensive partner Shea Theodore, who may have played his best defensive game in the loss last night.
In his last two games he has put up 3g, 1a 4pts and a +4.

For that matter, I liked the last week of play from defenseman Evan Wardley as well. First and foremost he's stayed disciplined. He's also looking to shoot the puck more and he's making the simple, smart play with the puck inside his own blueline. While he didn't register a point in either of the last two games, he finished at +3.

The T-birds might have gotten out of the second period without surrendering that late 5-on-3 power play goal. With two T-birds in the box Luke Lockhart blocked a Seth Jones shot. Unfortunately Lockhart, who once again was a warrior logging plenty of ice time while the team was shorthanded, stayed down on the ice after that blocked shot. That left Portland with essentially what amounted to a 5-on-2 and they scored the goal that gave them a 4-2 cushion. I think we take Lockhart for granted sometimes, or at least underappreciate what he does out on the ice because so often he'll block a shot and get right back up on his skates. He tried to get back to his feet and rejoin the play but it was obvious he was in pain. The fact he didn't get right back up tell me that was more then a bee sting.

In the most simple of terms this was a game between the two top lines for both teams as neither team was able to generate much offensively from their other line combinations. Seattle's top line (Honey-Lipsbergs-Delnov) scored both goals and tallied five points between them. Portland's top line (Rattie-Petan-Leipsic) registered three goals and a total of ten points. That extra goal and five points from the Winterhawks top line? All on the power play.

A quick note on the goaltending. Getting consistency from a young 16 year old netminder at the WHL level is rare. They, more then any other position go through growing pains. Some won't find that consistency until their 18 year old season.
Remember earlier this season Seattle putting up an eight spot on Tri-Cities 17 year old Eric Comrie, the 2nd rated North American goalie for the upcoming NHL Entry draft? It happens, especially when you rarely play. So, when I watch Danny Mumaugh play for the T-birds I like to see how he improves from game to game. I'm really not too concerned on the goals he's allowing (especially when three of them are to 3 of the top 5 scorers in the league). Rather I watch to see if he's tracking the puck, communicating with his d-men and able to square to the shots and make himself big when the shot is coming. I'd give Mumaugh more then a passing grade in most of those areas last night.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012