Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hop on the Bus Gus

The Thunderbirds and Rockets are headed back to Kelowna for Game 5 of this series Saturday night at Prospera Place after the Rockets took Game 4 Wednesday to stay alive in this first round, best of seven, match up. The T-birds are still in the driver's seat with a three games to one series lead but they are starting to hear a little chatter from the back seat.

Seriously, raise your hand if back on March 15th you had Seattle up in the series, 3-1, after four games. As I thought, only one guy there in the back of the room, raised his hand. No time to panic after one loss. The one thing about a playoff series, you control your own destiny. Whether up two games or down two games, your fate is in your own hands.

The T-birds were a decided underdog when the series began and after finishing 50 points behind the Rockets in the regular season, they should still be considered underdogs. All the pressure is still on Kelowna. Seattle needs only to win one more game to push on to Round Two. They still need to play with a purpose but they should still be able to play loose and have fun. Most pundits had the T-birds out of this series in four games. Anything from here on is a bonus.

One of Seattle's biggest problems during the regular season was consistency. Whether it was from game-to-game, period-to-period or shift-to-shift,the 'Birds would confound you with moments of brilliant play followed immediately by a series of brain cramps. Through the first three games of the playoffs, the team was very consistent in their play and it resulted in three overtime wins. Wednesday night that strong consistent play was absent. Too many brain cramps!

They were way too undisciplined. They just didn't play smart at all. If you give a good team too many chances to belly up to the bar, they're eventually going to drink you dry. In Game 4 it was a veritable bottomless glass for the Rockets power play as Seattle kept taking penalty after penalty in the first period. The Rockets power play is just too good to keep giving them chance after chance with the man advantage. Meanwhile, the T-birds own power play is powerless at 0-for-18 in the series. They need to fix that.

Outside of Seth Swenson, I'm not sure how many of the T-birds with any WHL playoff experience (and there are so few)have been in a situation like they were Wednesday with a chance to close out a series. Well, at least now they know how not to do it. Let's hope they've learned their lesson going into Saturday night's contest.

So, in their last 18 head-to-head playoff games, dating back to 2005, home ice advantage has meant very little to the T-birds and Rockets as the road team has won 13 times.

One advantage for draft eligible players in the postseason is more games for NHL scouts to watch them play, and play in pressure situations. It's been fun to watch a pair of young defenseman in this series who could both be first round picks in the NHL Entry Draft this June; Kelowna's Madison Bowey and the T-birds Shea Theodore.

I think the playoff games have especially benefitted Theodore who has been at the top of his game through the first four contests. Both Bowey and Theodore are proof you to don't have to be a high pick in the WHL Bantam Draft to be considered a future NHLer. Bowey was selected in the second round of the 2010 draft and Theodore was the second of Seattle's two third round choices that year.

In fact a check of both rosters shows each team is loaded with young defensemen who will keep these teams competing at a top level for the next 2-3 years.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Now Comes the hard Part

Playoff wins aren't supposed to come easy. The Thunderbirds can attest to that after three, one goal, come-from-behind, overtime wins in this first round series against the higher seeded Kelowna Rockets. The margin of error in this series has been razor thin. You can make the arguement that the T-birds could just as easily be down 3-0 as up 3-0.

Have the 'Birds gotten some fortunate bounces? Have the Rockets been unlucky with bounces going against them? Maybe, maybe not, but I subscribe to the theory that luck is the residue of hard work and no one can accuse Seattle of not working hard and earning these first three wins. Even had the results been reversed and it was the Rockets celebrating three overtime wins you'd have to tip your hat to the effort the T-birds are putting out there on the ice. They are, as they say, "in it to win it". They aren't just happy to be here. They aren't intimidated by the higher seeded, 52 win Rockets. It's the playoffs and they know it's win or go home.

In a series which has seen over 200 minutes of hockey, Seattle has led for less then nine minutes, when they had a 3-2 lead for much of the second half of the second period of Game 1. That may be one of the most amazing stats of this series. The T-birds have also won three straight playoff games without benefit of a power play goal; ten goals so far and all have been even strength.

In a tight, close to the vest series like this, you need scoring from where ever you can get it. In the first four games the T-birds are getting much of it from their back end. in the first three games the ''Birds six defenseman have combined for 10 pts (4g, 6a)and are +10. Two of those four goals have come from Jared Hauf and Evan Wardley who, during the regular season, totalled three goals between them in 132 games. And they've made those goals count. The four goals by Seattle defenseman have either tied the game, won the game or given the T-birds a lead.

Of course most of those points from the back end are coming from Jesse Forsberg who has picked the right time to be playing some of his best hockey. Forsberg has tallied five pts (2g,3a) and is +3 through the first three games, currently ranking him 9th in playoff scoring. Forsberg, who doesn't turn 20 until August, is the senior leader of what is a very young group of defensemen. You never know when you'll reap the benefits of an offseason trade but the deal that brought Forsberg to the T-birds from Prince George (for Colin Jacobs) last summer, is paying off in spades right now.

The goaltending in the series has been excellent. It's hard to fault Kelowna's Jordan Cooke for any of the goals the T-birds have scored. But Brandon Glover has been more then equal to the task for Seattle. Glover, whose career regular season numbers in 161 games include a 3.49 GAA and an .890 save percentage, is a different player in the WHL postseason. In nine playoff games between Moose Jaw, Calgary and the T-birds his GAA is 2.00 and his save percentage is .933.

Seattle may not be getting a lot of points from their fourth line (1a), but they are getting a lot of quality shifts from Andrew Johnson, Mitch Elliot, Michal Holub and Taylor Green. Depth is huge in the postseason, epecially when every game goes to overtime!

The last time the Thunderbirds had a chance to close out a playoff series? Spring of 2008, Game 7, first round series at KeyArena against....Kelowna. T-birds won!

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Welcome Back to the Postseason T-birds!

Is the theme for the Thunderbirds return to the playoffs "Turn Back the Clock"? It was like deja vu' as the T-birds captured the first two games of their first round, best of seven, series on the road in Kelowna. It was like the spring of 2005 all over again. That year the T-birds did the same thing to start the Western Conference Semifinals against the Rockets.

Only this time, it wasn't Bryan Bridges in goal, it was Brandon Glover and it wasn't Scott Jackson or Ladislav Scurko with a late game winning goal, it was Luke Lockhart and Alexander Delnov. Now, the 'Birds must rewrite the rest of the script because in 2005, even though they won three road games, they failed to win a home game and lost that series in seven games.

I'd agree with the arguement that Kelowna has not played their best hockey through the first two games of this series, but please credit the T-birds for causing some of that. Meanwhile, I can also argue the T-birds haven't played their best hockey in this series yet either. There has been some poor puck management at times with too many neutral zone turnovers. We'll give Kelowna some credit for that too. Early penalty trouble in both games had them on their heels in the first period both nights as well. Stellar goaltending by Glover and excellent penalty killing kept Seattle within striking distance.

In overtime of Game 1 I thought the Rockets played tentative. Maybe it was the pressure of being expected to win and being on home ice, but I thought they played "not to lose" and the 'Birds took advantage, stormed the citadel and got the late game winner. I also thought Seattle's conditioning gave them the endurance to get stronger as that game went longer.

Overtime in Game 2 was different. The Rockets came out pushing the tempo with an air of desparation. Seattle's defense, led by Glover in goal, bent but did not break. After weathering the first couple of shifts the T-birds got their overtime legs under them and pushed back for the winning goal.

The Thunderbirds roster is made up of players with little to no WHL playoff experience. On a playoff roster consisting of 23 players, just 79 games of postseason experience spread among seven players (Seth Swenson with 26 has 1/3rd of those games). Among their defensemen, only Jesse Forsberg (4 games two years ago) had any playoff experience prior to Game 1 Friday night.

But of all the Seattle playoff teams I've been around in the past dozen seasons, this one seems to be the most mentally ready for postseason play. I think the fight down the final month of the regular season for a playoff spot and their team goal of earning the 7th seed, prepared them well. A roster full of playoff rookies might be expected to get swelled heads or even a bit overconfident after that Game 1 overtime win but I saw none of that from the T-birds. They were enthusiastic with the win but it was forgotten by Saturday morning as they began preparation for Game 2.

I sensed some handwringing and consternation among the T-bird fan base when Seattle aquired Adam Kambeitz at the trade deadline, leading to the release of Brendan Rouse. But Kambeitz has been a beast on the ice through the first two games and it's obvious from talking to head coach Steve Konowalchuk that Kambeitz has become a leader in the lockerroom. Kambeitz' ability to play in all situations, also lessens the burden on Luke Lockhart, meaning Lockhart doesn't have to log as many minutes as he had been, keeping him fresher later in games.

Small sample size, but after two playoff games the Thunderbirds points leader is...Jesse Forsberg! The 19 year old Waldheim, SK defenseman has four points (1g, 3a) and is a +2. He had the big assist on the overtime game winner Saturday night. More importantly he's staying out of the penalty box. He's only picked up one minor penalty and that was for interference in the first period of Game 1. The coaches also changed up the "D" pairings for the playoffs. During most of the regular season Forsberg was paired with Jerret Smith. So far in the playoffs he's been on the ice with Jared Hauf. Combined those two have almost 1/3rd of the T-birds postseason goals. Seatle's three big veteran acquisitions (Forsberg, Kambeitz and Glover) are paying huge dividends in the early going of the playoffs and bringing the youngsters along with them.

I think one of the reasons for the change among the "D" pairings, is the improved play of Griffin Foulk. Foulk has amped up his physical game, is confidently shooting the puck as his overall game rounds out. Foulk amd Smith, now paired up, may be rookies but so far they have played two solid postseason games.

After four seasons, Mitch Elliot is making the most of his first venture into postseason play. Elliot is giving the T-birds the physical play they need and some valuable shifts, whether on the third or fourth line. A couple of times in Game 2 he bailed the T-birds out by winning a puck battle along the halfwall in the defensive zone!

Are injuries taking a toll on the Rockets? Certainly they are missing captain Colton Sissons, winger Carter Rigby and now winger J.T. Barnett, but Kelowna is just going through what the T-birds went through for most of the regular season. The T-birds had to adjust after losing Branden Troock and Tyler Alos for almost all of 2012-13, plus a couple of stretches without Conner Honey. Troock and Alos would have been valuable cogs to the Seattle playoff roster had they been healthy. You're talking two top six forwards when the season began, out of your lineup.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Okanogan Bound

The Thunderbirds finally know their first round playoff opponent. Seattle will meet the Kelowna Rockets in the best of seven series beginning this Friday at Prospera Place in Kelowna. The T-birds sewed up a meeting with the Rockets, and the seventh seed, by earning a point in the regular season finale, an exciting 6-5 shootout loss to Portland before an edge-of-your-seat crowd at the nearly sold out ShoWare Center. That, coupled with Everett's 4-3 overtime loss to Victoria, earned Seattle their first round match up with the B.C. Division Champions.

Interesting fact; over the past decade Seattle and Kelowna have met in the postseason twice and each time the series has gone the full seven games. Fourteen playoff games and the home team's record in that span? 4-10. That's right, the home team has won just four games over those two seven game series. Now, guess which key games the home team won? Both times it was game seven. In 2003 the Rockets won Game 7, to win that series, and then in 2008 Seattle turned the tables winning Game 7 at KeyArena. Should we expect another epic series? Why not.

The Thunderbirds showed true grit down the stretch of the 2012-13 regular season. It seemed every time they would have to rely on outside help to get into the playoffs or to secure their playoff position, they rose to the occassion and took matters into their own hands. They had two big road wins in the final couple of weeks. One in Kennewick and a second in Spokane. After a frustrating weekend, when they lost at home to Prince George and Everett and appeared to lose their stranglehold over control of their own destiny, they responded with a big win over Tri-City that clinched a playoff spot.

Then, last night, down a goal late against Portland, and after Everett earned a point at home against Victoria, the 'Birds stepped it up in the final minutes and got the tying goal, earning that single point that cemented them as the 7th seed. They thus avoided a waiting game until the results of Everett's final game Sunday. Now that game between the 'Tips and Tri-City is rendered moot. In their final 27 games (post 15 game losing streak), the Thunderbirds earned 24 points. That's why they're headed to the postseason.

Who would have thought, last June, when the T-birds made Latvian Roberts Lipsbergs the 60th pick of the CHL Import Draft, that nine months late he would be crowned the T-birds scoring champion of the 2012-13 season? Afterall, he was the second of Seattle's two import selections. Alexander Delnov, an NHL drafted player was chosen much higher. He capped a very solid rookie campaign with a four goal night. He's the first T-bird to register a 30 goal season since Burke Gallimore ended the 2010-11 campaign with 34. He's been a bit of a streaky goal scorer, but he is starting to heat up again, just in time for the playoffs, scoring six goals in this last three games.

A season ago just one Thunderbird player reached the 40-point mark and it was Gallimore with exactly 40 points on 22 goals and 18 assists. This season seven T-birds hit the 40 point mark (eight if you count Adam Kambeitz who got most of his points with Saskatoon before Seattle acquired him at the January trade deadline). Three players (Lipsbergs, Connor Honey and Shea Theodore) reached the 50 point plateau. The better news is that eight of Seattle's top ten scorers are eligible to return next season.

But we can put off wondering about next season for a while. The T-birds have a playoff series to prepare for. Seattle went 1-2-1-0 against the Rockets this season. They were seemingly on their way to finishing 2-2 against Kelowna but couldn't hold a 2-goal lead on home ice back on January 25th and lost, 4-3 in overtime, giving up the game tying goal with just two and a half minutes left in regulation. The 'Birds did defeat Kelowna, 4-2, at the ShoWare Center in early December and dropped a pair of road games at Prospera Place. With the exception of an 8-0 drubbing in Kelowna in late January, it was a competitive regular season series. In late February the T-birds lost in Kelowna, 4-1, but the Rockets last goal in that game was an empty netter and scoring chances in their game were fairly equal.

Nice finish to his regular season WHL and T-bird career for captain Luke Lockhart. With three assists last night (on Luke Lockhart Day in Kent, no less!), Lockhart put up 14 pts (7g,7a) and was +2 in his last ten games. Though he played over 150 of his home games at the ShoWare Center, when Luke leaves at the end of the T-birds playoff run, he will be the last T-bird player to have played a game at KeyArena, closing the book on that chapter of this franchise's history.

If you are wondering, now that the regular season is complete, The Thunderbirds will have the 8th, 22nd (from Portland in the Marcel Noebels trade last year) and 27th picks in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. If they can repeat the haul they had with their top three picks last spring (Barzal, Kolesar and Bear), then they really are building something.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

T-birds Shoot Their Way into Second Season

Time to update the pace to the playoffs....just kidding! With an 8-3 win Tuesday night over Tri-City, coupled with Prince George's loss in Spokane the Thunderbirds have earned a spot in the 2013 WHL postseason! Thus ends the T-birds three season playoff absence. All that remains now is to find out the 'Birds first round playoff opponent.

Seattle will face Kelowna if they finish as the 7th seed, their current position. If they fall to the 8th seed, the T-birds will go up against Portland in Round One. No matter the opponent we do know the first round, best-of-seven, series will start on the road with Games 1 and 2 next weekend (March 22nd-23rd). Games 3 and 4 will be at the ShoWare Center Tuesday, March 26th and Wednesday, March 27th and tickets are on sale now!

And what a great deal for that first home playoff game in four years! It's a Director's Mortgage 2-for-Tuesday, with great 2-for-1 ticket specials and $2 concessions. In their playoff clinching win over the Ams, a 2-for-Tuesday crowd of over 5,000 spurred the T-birds on to the win.

It was only fitting that the only player on the current roster who has ever played a playoff game in a T-bird uniform was the catalyst for this victory. Luke Lockhart scored an early power play goal, then broke a 1-1 tie midway through the first period with his league leading, 7th shorthanded goal of the season, and second in as many games. Lockhart also added an assist and was his usual excellent self on the penalty kill as the T-birds denied the league's third best power play on all five of their chances. Over his last eight games Lockhart has stepped it up and has picked up 11 points (7g, 4a) and is +3.

I know there was a lot of concern that with Brandon Glover on the sidelines serving out a two game suspension that the team would be hard pressed to win a game over the final week with a young 16 year old Danny Mumaugh in goal. But T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk has always expressed supreme confidence in Mumaugh and the Centennial, Colorado native delivered a solid 28-save performance to earn his first WHL win. What a memorable way to get your first win in the Dub; in a playoff clincher with the number one guy unavailable. I think Mumaugh has played better but he was good enough last night and he got better as the game progressed. I'm sure he'd like a second crack at stopping those first two Tri-City goals but both were the result of defensive breakdowns by Seattle and its hard to fault Mumaugh on any of the Americans goals.

After the frustration of the past weekend and just coming up short against both Prince George and Everett, it is nice to see that the 'Birds aren't "backing" into the postseason. They earned their playoff berth. They came out very committed to winning this one and played sixty minutes of purposeful hockey. The play by Justin Hickman along the wall inside the Americans zone on the Lockhart shorthanded goal was a tone setter for Seattle. He fought off three Tri-City players to get that puck to Lockhart for the go ahead goal.

Anyone else notice how well Griffin Foulk is playing recently for the T-birds? The 17 year defenseman has really picked up his game, first in the absence of Jesse Forsberg for five games, and then last night with Evan Wardley out. He's still a young player too, with room to improve, but I'm liking that acquisition more and more each game. It makes you wonder just how good this group of d-men will be in a couple of years after they've played two seasons together.

The Thunderbirds have two games left on the regular season schedule and while, yes, they have clinched a playoff spot, they still have something to play for in this weekend's home and home series with Portland. The T-birds want to hold on to the 7th seed. Everett, with three games left on their schedule is only three points behind Seattle. If the Silvertips were to win out, they would grab the 7th seed if the T-birds don't win out as well. The 'Tips play a home and home with an injury plagued Victoria team then close out the season Sunday at home against Tri-City.

So, to hold on to that 7th spot, the T-birds are going to have to pick up a point or two in these games against the Winterhawks and look for help from the Royals or Americans.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Three is a Magic Number

Well, it's gonna be one heck of a final week of play in the Western Conference. Three teams fighting for two playoff spots, separated by five points. Seattle and Everett meanwhile have just three games left, Prince George which lost Sunday in Vancouver, has four. For the second straight season it looks like it will come down to the final day of the season.

Only Seattle doesn't play on the final day of the regular season. The Thunderbirds end their season at home next Saturday against Portland. If they don't have a playoff spot wrapped up by then, they will be sitting on pins and needles as Everett hosts the Tri-City Americans the next day. Hopefully, it doesn't come to that.

Last night was a close, tight game as expected. I just didn't think the T-birds generated enough offensive opportunities. Two of their goals, Lockhart's shorthanded goal that opened the scoring, and Theodore's unassisted even strength goal in the third period, were just great individual efforts. Even Honey's wrap around goal was a lot of individual determination. I think if you score just three goals and there is just one assist among them, you're not doing enough to create scoring chances.

Before the game head coach Steve Konowalchuk stressed getting traffic in front of Everett goalie Austin Lotz, putting lots of shots on net and getting to rebounds to score greasy goals. But the only greasy goals scored in the game were scored by Everett. The Silvertips last three goals were all from going hard to the net and getting to a rebound.

Now, there is some debate on whether they did that cleanly on the game winner. T-birds goalie Brandon Glover didn't think so. He felt he was knocked into by a 'Tips player and that created the goal. It's obvious he thought there should have been a goaltender interference call on the play. That just exacerbated the situation for Glover who also was upset when he was assessed a minor penalty earlier in the third period for playing the puck behind the goal line, outside the trapezoid. That penalty led to an Everett power play goal that gave Everett their first lead.

Did he do the crime? I don't know. I haven't seen video to confirm it. If he did, even by inches and the official was following the "letter of the law", then it's a penalty. But we saw the previous night versus Prince George, and most of the third period against Everett, that the officials were keeping the whistle in their pocket and "letting them play".

So, you're going to look the other way at a hold or a possible interference, hooking or tripping calls but call a penalty like that? As I recall it was a dump in by the Silvertips and they were making a line change. Glover came out of his crease off the left post, above the goal line, to stop the puck and was holding it for his defenseman. He may have casually stickhandled the puck past the goal line. He wasn't trying to gain any advantage. He wasn't under duress by the Silvertips forecheck. late in a 2-2 game with heavy playoff implications, is that call necessary?

If you're the referee making that call, and think it is necessary, then you better whistle every other infraction that violates the "letter of the law" in that game. Like, oh, I don't know, checking from behind?

In the end it is up to the Seattle players to keep their emotions in check. Instead, they let their emotions get the better of them and it could come back to bite them in this final week of play. I'm guessing Glover's actions at the end of the game are going to get him at least a one game suspension. It's not clear if he left the bench to join the melee. He was on his way to the bench for the extra attacker when the donnybrook began. This time of the season you need your number one goalie. Glover is no good to the team sitting in the stands watching the game in street clothes.

Time to move on from this one and put the focus on the next game against the Tri-City Americans who invade the ShoWare Center Tuesday. A win over the Ams and we'll be forgetting the loss to Everett.

With Prince George's loss Sunday in Vancouver the T-birds magic number for clinching at least a tie for 8th place is three. The easiest way to reach that is for the T-birds to win one of their final three games and Prince George lose one of their final four.

Heading into the final week of play here is the pace to the playoffs:

7. Seattle 55 pts. On pace for 57 pts with three game remaining (home vs. Tri-City, at Portland and home vs. Portland).

8. Everett 54 pts. On pace for 56 pts with three games remaining (at Victoria, home vs. Victoria, home vs. Tri-City).

9. Prince Geeorge 50 pts. On pace for 53 pts with four games remaining (at Spokane, at Kelowna, at Kamloops, home vs. Kamloops).

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Point Well Taken

Seattle would have preferred the win and the two points, but they'll take the one point they earned Friday night in the, 2-1, shootout loss to the Prince George Cougars. The T-birds still have their playoff fate in their own hands and could take a huge step forward with a home ice win tonight against the Everett Silvertips. Seattle has earned 11 points in their their last 13 games. That pace is keeping them atop the race for the final two Western Conference playoff positions.

The 'Tips lost last night in Spokane so Seattle extended their lead over Everett to three points in the race for seventh place. No matter the results tonight, the 'Birds will remain in seventh place heading into next week's final three regular season games but a win tonight against the 'Tips would give Seattle a five point cushion, making it very difficult for Everett to pass them. A loss and it's anybody's ballgame!

Meanwhile, neither the T-birds or 'Tips can erase Prince George from their review mirrors. With the win last night the Cougars pulled to within four points of Everett for eighth place with two games in hand. PG is in Kennewick tonight to take on the Tri-City Americans, a team they beat at home on Tuesday, 3-0. The Cougars then travel up to Vancouver to face the pesky Giants Sunday afternoon. Prince George still has a near herculean task ahead of them in order to make the playoffs, with road games remaining against Spokane, Kelowna and Kamloops as well, but earning the two points last night makes that task more possible.

Meanwhile by earning one point last night the T-birds whittled down their magic number for clinching at least a tie for eighth place to seven. Had Seattle been able to maintain their pace from the first period over the final forty minutes, that magic number might have been shaved down to four. But credit Prince George. After a subpar first period the Cougars must have realized during the intermission that is was now or never, as far as their playoff hopes were concerned, and they pushed back and pushed back hard in the second period and got the equalizer. They were a desparate hockey team. They put the Thunderbirds back on their heels for those twenty minutes.

If not for a second straight night of stellar goaltending from Brandon Glover who made 18 second period saves, The T-birds could have been down three or four goals going into the second intermission. As he did the night before in Spokane when he stopped a third period penalty shot, Glover came up with the save of the night by stopping PG's Brandon Jacobs, not once but twice, on the same breakaway.

Here is the current pace to the playoffs heading into Saturday night's key showdown against Everett:

7. Seattle 55 pts with four games remaining (home vs. Everett, Tri-City and Portland, @ Portland), on pace for a 58 pt season.

8. Everett 52 pts with four games remaining (home vs. Victoria and Tri-City, @ Seattle @ Victoria), on pace for a 55 pt season.

9. Prince George 48 pts with six games remaining (home vs. Kamloops, one each @ Tri-City, Vancouver, Spokane, Kelowna and Kamloops), on pace for a 52 pt season.

Seattle will need to play a full 60 minutes tonight. They can't be satisfied with one good period. Everett will be as desparate if not more so then Prince George was Friday night because the 'Tips now have the Cougars nipping at their heels.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The T-birds Have Spokane

A second straight solid road effort gives the Thunderbirds their second straight road win, coming from behind Wednesday night to beat the Spokane Chiefs, 4-2. After a slow start, the T-birds not only got stronger as the game progressed, but I thought they got smarter by making better decisions with the puck. But as usual with this team, they are at their best when they establish a consistent forecheck. By doing that last night they were able to draw penalties and eventually get their power play to click for a couple of goals and get back in the game after trailing by two midway through the contest!

Seattle played the game against the Chiefs without their two oldest defensemen in the lineup. Both 19 year old Jesse Forsberg and 18 year old Evan Wardley were scratched. We've talked about this young group of Seattle defensemen all season long, but last night was the first time the onus was completely on them. All the defensemen who skated last night were either 95 or 96 born players. If not for recent birthdays for Taylor Green (January 11th) and Jared Hauf (March 6th) everyone of the T-birds d-men were 17 or younger. Also, with 16 year old Kevin Wolf only getting a few shifts throughout the game, the T-birds coaches relied heavily on those five 95 born d-men; Green, Hauf, Shea Theodre, Griffin Foulk and Jerret Smith.

If there is an unsung hero in that group, it has to be Green who has been versatile enough to move up and back, depending on the day of the week because if he's not playing on defense, he's doing a solid job centering Seattle's fourth line. He's making himself a very valuable commodity.

They weren't perfect as Spokane had a few too many odd man rushes and breakaways but Brandon Glover, with an excellent night in goal, was able to bail them out on the occassion they made a mistake. Still, this was a definite sign this group is maturing and should be a strong suit of this club going forward. That win hopefully instilled them with some confidence for not only the rest of this season but the next two to three seasons as well.

I think Brandon Glover's three best games in goal this season have all been divisional road wins. First there was opening night back in September in Portland when he made 30 saves in the first period of a game the T-birds eventually won, 5-2. Then there was the 3-1 win last Friday in Kennewick over the Tri-City Americans, followed by last night's 27 save effort in the win over the Chiefs. Glover was the first star in that Portland win but for some bizarre reason was not rewarded with even a third star in the wins over Tri-city or the Chiefs. Without Glover's heroics last night in Spokane, the T-birds don't win that game. He was particularly at his best after Seattle went up, 3-2, in the third period as he made incredible save after incredible save to preserve the victory, including stopping a penalty shot with three and a half minutes left.

Luke Lockhart's solid final month continues. Over his last five games he has now registered 7 pts (4g, 3a) and is +2. Spokane was winning the majority of the faceoffs in last night's game, but late, with the T-birds nursing the one goal lead Lockhart again stepped up with a couple of key faceoff wins. The same is true of Adam Kambeitz who got a key assist on Riley Sheen's empty net insurance goal. With the team battling hard to lock up a playoff spot, it's nice to see the three 20 year olds on the roster step up their game.

Outside of Luke Lockhart, Connor Sanvido is probably the second best penalty killer on the roster. Last night he was rewarded for that hard work with the game winning shorthanded goal, set up beautifully by Seth Swenson. Swenson used great deception and stick handling to open up Sanvido for the one-timer and 'Vido made a perfect shot to get the puck in the back of the net.

Here's the current pace to the playoffs:

7. Seattle currently with 54 points and on pace for a 58 point season. Seattle has five games remaining with four on home ice, including their next three.

8. Everett currently with 52 points and on pace for a 55 point season. The Silvertips also have five games remaining with their next three on the road.

9. Prince George currently with 46 points and on pace for a 51 point season. Prince George has seven games remaining with their next six all on the road.

The T-birds magic number to clinch at least a tie for 8th place is six points (combination of points they earn and Prince George fails to earn equalling six). Seattle could conceivably have a playoff spot wrapped up be week's end. A regulation win at home Friday over the Cougars would slice four points off that magic number. If they can do that then a home win over Everett Saturday, coupled with a Prince George loss that same night in Kennewick, would eliminate the Cougars from catching the T-birds in the standings.

Once again though, the Thunderbirds control their own destiny. Just keep picking up the points and the rest will take care of itself. Seattle has earned ten points in their last ten games. Keep up that pace and it's not "if" the T-birds clinch a playoff spot but "when".

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Doubleheader Doozy

No matter what happens Wednesday in Spokane, the Thunderbirds playoff fate is probably going to be determined next weekend when they play a pair of home games, one against Prince George Friday and one Saturday verus Everett. A few things will happen before then but the results next weekend will either solidify Seattle's hold on a playoff spot or tighten the noose in the chase for one of the final two spots>

Seattle played well in all three games this weekend but not well enough to earn more then two points. I agree with head coach Steve Konowalchuk who has talked about the T-birds lack of execution at critical moments, specifically on the power play, but in general in finishing scoring chances. It's an area in which the team has lacked consistency this season.

Instead of lamenting the injuries that have cost the T-birds a couple of key cogs from their machine recently (Conner Honey, Jesse Forsberg and for that matter Branden Troock), I'd like to sing a little praise for the team playing competitive hockey without those players. The team played hard all three nights with a lot of bus travel thrown in.

It's a sign some of the younger player are maturing and is a good sign going forward. That said, there is still lots of room for growth and improvement, even in the season's final weeks but the young crop of defensemen have definitely taken a step forward since the start of the season. Shot totals are down and so is the quality of scoring chances against.

Luke Lockhart has been the most consistent player for the team all season. Even when not scoring he's been a strong penalty killer. He's the team's top face-off guy and has always played hard at both ends while logging the most minutes. Even at that, he seems to have saved his best for the final month of his WHL career. Over the last four games he has 4g,1a, and is +2 while the team went 1-3. He's producing much needed offense. He just needs more of his teammates to chip in.

Late last season the T-birds kept their faint playoff hopes alive with a late season road win in Spokane. A repeat of that this Wednesday would keep the team in the driver's seat for a playoff spot this spring.

Here's the updated pace for the playoffs with games on tap for each team this week:

Seattle is on pace for 56.7 points. The T-birds are in Spokane Wednesday then home Friday vs. PG and Saturday against Everett.

Everett is on pace for 56.7 points as well. The Silvertips play in Portland Tuesday and are in Spokane on Friday before the game in Kent Saturday.

Prince George is on pace for 50.3 points. The Cougars host Tri-City at the CN Centre Monday and Tuesday before trekking down to Kent for Friday night's game. They then travel to Kennewick to play Tri-City Saturday night.

The T-birds magic number to clinch at least a tie for eighth place and force a one game playoff is still at ten.

Best case scenario? PG drops two games at home to Tri-City, Seattle beats Spokane then the T-birds win the showdown with the Cougars Friday at the ShoWare Center. That would guarentee Seattle finishes no worse then a tie for 8th place. But you rarely see the best case scenario so the T-birds just have to take care of their own business. They still control their own destiny.

In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Winning Road Tri-p.

For the second time this season the Seattle Thunderbirds left the Toyota Center in Kennewick with a well earned road victory, knocking off the Tri-City Americans Friday night, 3-1. This was one of the those games where everyone who took a shift was on the same page with their compete level and work ethic.
I don't think that was more evident then with seldom used Daniel Wray earning his first WHL point with an assist on Roberts Lipsbergs game winning goal. Wray drove hard to the net with the puck, got his shot blocked but Lipsbergs was able to jump on the rebound and shoot it in to the open net.

Luke Lockhart helped preserve the win, but not just with his empty net goal in the waning seconds, but by winning three key defensive zone face-offs after Tri-City pulled their goalie for the final 2:04 of the game. Seattle's three 20 year olds really set the example for the other players in this game as Adam Kambeitz also won some key face-offs in the third period and was a solid penalty killer. Meanwhile, protecting the T-birds 2-1 lead, goaltender Brandon Glover stopped 14 third period shots. He also had a key save on a Tri-City breakaway.

With Jesse Forsberg out of the lineup with an upper boddy injury suffered the night before in Kelowna, two young Seattle defenseman really stepped up and had solid games. Taylor Green, who had been centering the T-birds fourth line, moved back to defense and was very efficient while Griffin Foulk had a solid game back on the blue line as well.

Looking back on the game, Conner Sanvido deserved a star for his effort. He assisted on Seattle's first two goals and made at least one key play in killing off all four of the Americans power plays with either a block or interception of a Tri-City pass.

Wih the win Seattle is now on pace for 57.6 points. Everett which lost last night at home to Edmonton is on pace for a 55 point season and Prince George is on pace for 50.2 pts after falling at home Friday to Kamloops. The T-birds magic number to clinch a playoff spot is now 10. Any combination of Seattle points earned or PG points not earned over the final two weeks equalling ten will give Seattle their first playoff berth since 2009. Seattle is home tonight against the Americans while Prince George is off until they play the Americans at home twice early next week.