Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chance for 72-0 Season Get Squashed

I think the T-birds just lost their focus Saturday night in Portland. While the Winterhawks played well, I didn't see much different out of them then what I saw in the season opener a week earlier at the ShoWare Center, a game the T-birds won 4-3 in a shootout. It think this was more a case of what Seattle didn't do as much as it was a case of what Portland did do.

Make no mistake though Portland has finishers. Seattle created enough scoring chances when this game was still in doubt but kept shooting wide or misfiring on passes. The Thunderbirds didn't go as hard to the net as they had through the first three games. The Winterhawks were near perfect in finishing their scoring chances. It was a bit of the perfect storm; the T-birds playing their second game in as many nights, probably feeling pretty good about themselves after a 3-0 start, going up against a well rested Portland team that not only had lost two in a row but was probably a bit embarrassed by their previous game, a 6-2 loss at home to Tri-City.

Still, halfway through the contest it was just a two-goal deficit facing the Thunderbirds and they were given two power play chances to try and slice the Portland lead. But the third Winterhawks goal seemed to have the T-birds doubting themselves and things went from bad to worse.

You might think those four goals Seattle scored in the third period were meaningless but it showed players like Theodore won't quit no matter the score. I think Theo is still settling in after his return from NHL camp with Anaheim. His third period performance (2g, 1a) should be a harbinger of things to come from this offensive minded defenseman.

My guess is the T-birds coaches use the video from this game as a teaching tool and a reminder that consistent hard work needs to be the norm and what you did yesterday doesn't mean a whole lot today if you don't put in the work.

I think we'll see a nice bounce back effort Tuesday in Kennewick.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Tri-ing Time

Funny thing, this game called hockey. The T-birds fore check was at its best Friday night against Tri-City in the third period. They were doing yeoman's work protecting that one goal lead, pinning the Americans in their own end, forcing Tri-City turnovers and getting shots on goal as a result. Then, with time waning one mistake; the puck shot over the glass on a Seattle clearing attempt leads to a Tri-City power play and they cash in to tie the game and force bonus hockey.

What is it they say? Good teams find ways to win. The T-birds overcame that error and won in a shootout anyway. Roberts Lipsbergs, who may have had his worst game as a T-bird, ends up being a hero by scoring the only goal in the shootout, although goalie Justin Myles was solid as a rock in goal in the overtime and shootout period (with a little help from his friend the crossbar!).

I remember writing last year that had Myles stayed healthy he might have given scouts something to ponder in his draft season. At least maybe a mention in the NHL Central Scouting Rankings. Hopefully he'll catch their eye this time around. He battled toe-to-toe with the Americans Eric Comrie, considered possibly the best goalie in the WHL and a 2nd round NHL draft pick (Winnipeg Jets) himself. In his first two starts Myles has faced 78 shots, many of a high quality and has a save percentage of .910.

Tri-City's forecheck is different from the T-birds. Where Seattle has a physical punishing fore check, last night the Americans used their speed and sticks in the passing lanes to slow down Seattle's breakouts and forced many turnovers as a result. It's early in the season so look for the Thunderbirds coaches to focus the team's attention on better puck control in the defensive end. But let's also give the Americans credit for playing a solid game and forcing the issue late. We tend to think every puck that ends up in the back of our team's net, every penalty taken is our team's fault. Sometimes it's the other team's play that creates those situations.

The T-birds finally gave up a power play goal, two in fact. Probably more a result of taking too many penalties then any cracks in the penalty kill armor. I'm sure there was some concern with the graduation of Luke Lockhart and the trade of Connor Sanvido that the 'Birds wouldn't have that shutdown player on the PK but Riley Sheen has really embraced that role and Seth Swenson and Erik Benoit are chipping in as well. I think the PK is in good hands. Seattle was awarded just two power play chances on the night. Tri-City over the past two seasons has been one of the least penalized teams in the WHL but I thought there were a few missed calls that should have resulted in a couple more power play chances for the T-birds.

We're just three games into the new season and I think I've exhausted all the positive accolades I can bestow on Branden Troock. I think he's the straw that stirs the drink on that top line. I know it is overused on the Seattle sports landscape but Troocker has gone "Beastmode" to start the season. He registered another two points last night (1g,1a) and realizing it was a tight game, he remained disciplined and stayed out of the penalty box.

Jared Hauf entered the game at +5 and even after the four goals Tri-City scored last night is still at +5 this morning. Shut down d-man!

It's very possible the Thunderbirds could be at full strength for tonight's game in Portland. Justin Hickman is now available after serving out a three game suspension to start the season. Meanwhile defenseman Jesse Forsberg was a game time decision last night but ended up not playing coming off the upper body injury suffered in the preseason. It's possible he sees his first regular season action tonight against the Winterhawks.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Two for the Sho'

The Thunderbirds return home Friday night to face the Tri-City Americans for the first time this season and do so sporting a 2-0 record after beating up the Vancouver Giants, 6-0, Wednesday night up at the Pacific Coliseum. Apparently that is a big deal since the T-birds haven't started a season 2-0 since the Clinton Administration (1998).

This 2-0 start is no fluke either. These have been two well earned wins with a lot of similarities, namely a relentless attack that is creating quality scoring chances, steady defense and solid goaltending. The tone setters have been the line of Branden Troock, Connor Honey and Alexander Delnov. Through the first two games that trio has combined for a line of 5g, 8a 13pts and +6.

Wednesday night's game in Vancouver was broadcast on Shaw TV throughout Western Canada and I was a bit surprised to hear that the Shaw telecast Three Stars of the Game did not include Troock. I thought Troock was the catalyst for a lot of what the 'Birds were able to do against the Giants. There were a number of times when the Giants just couldn't contain Troock on the rush. It's not just because he's a big, physically imposing power forward, but Troock can stick handle through traffic as well as he moves up ice. The good news is he is not over handling the puck, which he had a tendency to do in the past. He's reading the ice and using his line mates very well here in the early going.

Danny Mumaugh got the shutout in goal making 31 saves. The shutout was the first of his young WHL career. While it may seem Mumaugh had an easy night as the T-birds offense was rolling up the pressure, remember this was just a one goal game early into the second period. Mumaugh had to be sharp in the first when the contest was still scoreless. Seattle didn't get off to the fast start they did opening night against Portland and Mumaugh kept the Giants at bay until the offense started to get untracked. The M&M boys (Myles and Mumaugh) have done their part in goal for Seattle these first two games. It will be interesting to see if Devon Fordyce gets a start in either of the two games this weekend. Yes, the T-birds still have three goalies on the roster but at some point they'll have to make a decision on which two to keep for the duration of the season.

Seattle played the first two games without defenseman Shea Theodore who was away at training camp with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks who selected Theodore in the first round of the June draft. Theodore has since been returned to the Thunderbirds and will be available for this weekend's games. The T-birds scored nine goals in the first two games but not one of those goals came from a defensemen. Theo is an offensive minded defenseman, coming off a 19 goal 2012-13 campaign, so expect that to change.

Even without Theodore the eight Seattle defensemen who saw action over the course of the first two games were +8 with five assists. 18 year old Jared Hauf has been the biggest contributor with 2 helps and a +5 rating. Even young 16 year old Ethan Bear, despite not picking up a point yet, is at +2.

It's still early to make anything out of this start. I still like the 15-20 game sample size which is essentially the end of October, but right now this is a very confident group of players.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What to Take From Taking One

Saturday night's season opening shootout win over Portland at the rockin' ShoWare Center was just one game of a 72 game schedule so I think we can all agree to temper our enthusiasm until we've seen about 15-20 games. Afterall, the T-Birds defeated the Winterhawks, 5-2, on opening night down at the Rose Garden (now the Moda Center) a year ago and we all know what happened after that as Portland dominated the rest of the season series on their way to the Chenowyth Cup.

Still, I think it is safe to say their are things the Thunderbirds did last night that are sustainable over the course of the long season. Here's my take on some of those.

1. Pressure. The Thunderbirds have three, if not four solid lines. Last night they were able to generate fairly consistent pressure over the entire course of the game; relentless at times...especially early. As a result they created a dozen or more quality scoring chances. They forced Portland's goalie, Brendan Burke, to stand on his head to keep pucks out. By next weekend they get to re-insert Justin Hickman into the lineup, which will only make them stronger up front. Eventually they'll get Shea Theodore back which will only strengthen the back end. If they can do this most game night's, those pucks will eventually start going in.

2. Fast, Physical play. The T-birds are a good sized team, but it's not at the expense of team speed; they skate well too. As a result they generate a strong, punishing forecheck. There were times they made it difficult for the Winterhawks to get out of their own end. Portland did eventually adjust but the T-Birds were just as physical with the 'Hawks as they moved the puck up ice.

3. Defensive zone play. As the game wore on, the T-Birds did drop into some old habits of failing to clear a few pucks but for the most part they did a good job of limiting the Winterhawks time in the offensive zone. They were strong along the boards and there seemed to be good communication among the d-men and goaltender. I also liked how few times goalie Justin Myles covered the puck for a defensive zone faceoff. This may be a Myles strong suit, hard to tell just yet since it was just one game, but he seemed to know when to play the puck and keep the game moving and when to freeze it. The ability to play the puck smartly is what usually separates good goalie from great ones.

4. Special teams. Not too many teams can lose their power play quarterback, a first round NHL pick, and replace him with a 16-year-old and apparently not miss a beat. But that's what Seattle did. With Theodore still away at camp with the Anaheim Ducks, the Thunderbirds slid rookie Ethan Bear into his slot on the top PP unit and looked just as solid. Bear looked like he's been there done that. Who knows, maybe he had a whole nest of butterflies churning away in his stomach, but you couldn't tell by his composed demeanor. Seattle was only 1-of-5 with the man advantage but they were dangerous every time they skated 5-on-4. If that doesn't get you excited, think about this: at times on the PP the T-birds had three 16-year-olds on the ice (Bear, Kolesar and Barzal)and it looked like a seasoned PP unit. Conversely Seattle held Portland without a power-play goal on five chances one night after the 'Hawks went 5-of-8 with the man advantage against Prince George. While a couple of rookies looked good on the power play, two veteran players, Seth Swenson and Riley Sheen, led the way on the PK.

4. Myles is the man. Yes, it's one game, and limiting Portland's high powered offense to just three goals on 42 shots and keeping them out of the back of the net on the power play is a team effort, but it starts with goaltending and Myles made the saves he had to make. Remember, Myles hadn't played in a meaningful game since last November. He should only get better the more starts he gets under his belt.

5. I trust you, you trust me. Every player wants the trust of his coach so they can play in all situations. Conversely a coach wants to trust that he can put any player on his bench out on the ice at any time. Steve Konowalchuk's liberal use of all his players, old and young, rookie or seasoned vet, was evident in Saturday's win. I don't really think he started shortening his bench until the last half of the third period and even then it was just a couple of rookies who saw their ice time limited.

Strange note. Well, maybe not so strange since Seattle and Portland play each other 12 times a season, but at least eight players on the Seattle roster have made their WHL debuts against Portland. Branden Troock debuted against the Winterhawks as a 15-year-old a few years back. Last season then 16-year-old goalie Danny Mumaugh, as well as then 15-year-olds Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear did the same and Saturday night, 16-year-old Mathew Barzal, 17-year-olds Austin Douglas, Carter Folk and Scott Eansor did the same. That number could be higher, but I'm not sure if Michal Holub was in the opening night lineup against Portland a season ago.

I don't want to call Erik Benoit cheap and easy, but the newest T-Birds cost the organization absolutely nothing to acquire after he was claimed off waivers from the Saskatoon Blades last week and the way he plays makes it easy to like him in Thunderbirds blue. He looks to be a solid two-way player and is another top piece of the power play puzzle. Remember, Benoit comes with a solid resume having won a WHL championship with Kootenay and also having played in two Memorial Cups in a three year span; one with the Ice and one with the Blades. Chatting briefly about Benoit with Konowalchuk before the game, it was easy to tell the coach was more than glad Benoit was on his team. After seeing Benoit in his T-Birds debut it was easy to see why the coach feels that way.

Twenty one of the players on Seattle's opening night roster were either drafted or listed by Seattle. Only four were acquired via trade while one was a waiver pick up. It's simple, you build a winner in this league through the draft (just ask Portland) and we're seeing that better drafting is turning the T-Birds into a more competitive team. The Thunderbirds top three draft choices from the 2012 draft (Barzal, Kolesar and Bear)were all on the ice last night and contributed two assists and a shootout goal. A fourth player from that draft, Lane Pederson, was a healthy scratch but I'm guessing he'll make his debut next week.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Final 'Bird Battles

Because I went on an Alaskan cruise to help my in-laws celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, I've missed all of the T-birds exhibition season. So, I haven't seen the team since training camp. Now, here we are with just over a week before the season opener and some difficult roster decisions are coming up for the organization's brain trust. I'm guessing the coaching staff has an idea of what direction they will go with final roster decisions, but performance in the final two preseason games this weekend versus Everett could be a deciding factor.

The biggest battle looming is which two netminders, of the four goalies on the roster, will still be around on opening weekend? Is there a possibility that three will be retained, at least initially? At the moment, I think a trade for a goalie is probably just a remote possibility. A number of veteran WHL netminders have been traded or became available this offseason and the T-birds had the assets to acquire one of them but chose not to. I think they are confident in the goalies they have in the system. Their only drawback right now is inexperience.

Let's remember that a season ago Justin Myles won the number two job out of training camp and was poised to probably get a minimum of 20 starts behind 20 year old Brandon Glover while being groomed to take over the number one role this season. Unfortunately Myles was injured in November and missed the rest of the season. It should be noted that this was a non-hockey related injury, dispelling the thought that Myles is an injury-prone player. In the brief playing time he got last season, Myles went 1-3 with a 3.90 GAA and an .865 save percentage. Those are fairly respectable numbers considering he was getting on the ice every 5th or 6th game. The GAA and save percentage are a bit inflated because he had one clunker of a game, giving up five goals in Regina.

So far this preseason Myles has been sharp. Appearing in four games he is 2-0 with a 2.69 GAA and a .923 save percentage. It's just my opinion, but I think the number one job is his, albeit the T-birds might go with more of a platoon in goal with a 1a and 1b sort of arrangement. I'm just of the school of thought that you don't lose your job to injury unless your replacement clearly outperforms you and I haven't seen that in regards to Myles.

Danny Mumaugh actually is the most "experienced" returning T-birds goaltender, having appeared in 18 games a season ago, after replacing Myles as the #2 goalie in December. Mumaugh compiled a 1-7-2-1 record with a 4.11 GAA. His one win was a big one though as he defeated Tri-City in a game that clinched a playoff spot for Seattle. In fact it was practically a "must-win" situation for Mumaugh. If you recall, Glover was suspended for that game so Mumaugh had to rise to the occasion and handle the pressure well and he did. His three OT/SO losses also helped the club earn three crucial points in their playoff chase.

A hand injury has limited Mumaugh to just one game of preseason action so far, playing 31 minutes and allowing two goals on 17 shots and posting a 3.92 GAA. Mumaugh should see plenty of playing time this weekend to shake off more rust and help the coaches evaluate the goalie situation.

The elder statesman of the group, 19 year old Devon Fordyce, was added to the goalie mix this past spring by way of the 10th round of the WHL Bantam draft. Fordyce previously played 18 games in the WHL over parts of two seasons with the Prince George Cougars compiling a record of 2-8 with a 4.30 GAA. So far in preseason Fordyce is 1-0 with a 4.30 GAA. He's also faced the most shots of any of the goalies in the exhibition games; 63 in 98 minutes of action. That's a lot of rubber, but he has put up a solid .889 save percentage. I guess the question is, has Fordyce shown enough in training camp, practice and preseason games to supplant either of the two "returning" goalies?

The wildcard in the goalie battle is 16 year old Logan Flodell. Flodell was a third round pick (47th overall)in the 2012 Bantam Draft, the highest the T-birds have selected a goalie in the draft since Calvin Pickard was chosen in the second round, 38th overall, back in 2007. By comparison, Myles was a 5th round pick (92nd overall) in 2010 and Mumaugh was a listed player signed out of Colorado. If his development stays on its current path, Flodell is the future in goal for the Thunderbirds, but could that future be now? Flodell certainly is making a case to stick with his preseason performance. He's sporting a 1-1 record but he's allowed just three goals on 59 shots over 87 minutes and sports a gaudy .949 save percentage along with a 2.06 GAA.

The questions the T-birds brass are asking themselves is whether Flodell's development is best served here this season with the T-birds as the number two guy, playing 20-25 games or less while practicing against WHL talent, or would he be better off going back to Regina and being the number one guy at a slightly lower level of competition?

It is, as they say, quite the conundrum. Four goalies, ages 19, 18, 17 and 16, fighting for two spots. One school of thought on a trade; I've heard lots of speculation that Seattle needs to deal for a veteran 20 year old goaltender but could it go the other way? Do any of these four netminders have more value to the club as a trade asset? Makes for an interesting weekend.

Meanwhile the T-birds currently are carrying 14 forwards and 9 defensemen. While it is not uncommon to see 14 forwards on a roster, I'd be surprised if we begin the season with 9 defensemen. It's easier to mix in the young forwards and get them ice time on the 4th line. It's harder to get enough ice time for 9 defenseman when you rely so heavily on your top six who are all 18 or older, occasionally giving a 7th d-man 2-3 shifts a game if you even dress seven.

Seattle goes into the two preseason games this weekend with 27 players still on the roster. There's a good possibility they keep 25 of them to start the season but they'll probably play the majority of the season with a 23 or 24 man roster. It appears the completion in camp and preseason has been fierce and some tough decisions lie ahead.