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.