Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Dilly of A Dely

In the Thunderbirds dressing room before Friday night's game against Saskatoon I joked with Alexander Delnov that I had brought him good luck. Before the previous home game against Portland I had conducted an interview with Delnov for that night's broadcast. Delnov then went out and produced the winning goal in overtime against the Winterhawks. Then a few nights later, up in Red Deer, he picked up an assist on the winning goal as Team Russia defeated the WHL in the Subway Super Series. He was interviewed on ice after that game too.

Well apparently that luck has a good shelf life because Delnov's hot hand produced a five point night (2g,3a, +2) Friday in the 6-2 win over Saskatoon. With his offensive outburst the Florida Panthers draft pick has pushed himself up to third on the team in scoring with 23 pts. (11g, 12a). But last night it just wasn't about his point production. Delnov was all over the ice, backchecking, forechecking, poke checking. If his recent play keeps up, I'm thinking of doing a nightly feature, "Dialogue with Delnov".

I do think there was extra motivation for Delnov last night, going up against his fellow countryman Nakita Sherbak. The draft eligible Sherbak is generating a lot of attention for his hot start (16g, 21a +8) with Saskatoon. But an even better reason for Delnov's recent success is his linemates. Ever since head coach Steve Konowalchuk put him together with Branden Troock and Ryan Gropp, Delnov and his linemates have been producing, highlighted by last night's nine point performance (4g,5a, +5). All three have good size, handle the puck very well and are quick on their feet. Against the Blades Friday it was a lethal combination.

While that line was grabbing the headlines, don't think the lack of point production from the other lines meant they had an off-night. The Lipsbergs-Barzal-Hickman line seemed to have the puck on their sticks for long stretches inside the attacking zone. Meanwhile the Yakubowski-Eansor-McKechnie line did exactly what they were tasked to do; shutdown the Blades top scoring line. That is back-to-back games now that the Eansor line was given the assignment of putting the clamps on the opponents top line and they passed the test each night with flying colors. They were rewarded when McKechnie's relentless forecheck created a turnover and he scored the night's final goal.

At some point you have to believe Connor Honey will make his way off the weekly injury report and back into the lineup, right?. How is this for a fourth line? Swenson-Elliot-Honey. Until that happens that fourth line isn't too shabby with Keegan Kolesar or Michal Holub in Honey's place.

We've talked about the team needing an adjustment period while they worked recent acquisitions into the lineup; players like Gropp, McKechnie and Yakubowksi. It appears they have found the right "chemistry" for those players. The same can also be said for defenseman Adam Henry. Henry was actually the first player the T-birds acquired during the season, coming to Seattle from Lethbridge back on October 9th in exchange for Griffin Foulk.

Over the past week my opinion is that Henry has been the team's best overall defenseman, playing well at both ends and sparking a resurgence in the team's power play. Paired up with 16 year old Ethan Bear they have helped steady Seattle's back end. Henry's start with the T-birds was a bit up and down and there was a recent stretch when his D-partner was out with injury, but he seems to have dialed it in. Let's hope he keeps it up so he can get the +/- on the right side of zero.

Speaking of working players into the lineup, while the T-birds were taking care of business on the ice last night, off the ice they were confirming what had been rumored the past 24 hours; the signing of 17 year old Champlin Park, Minnesota native Calvin Spencer. You know, with Twitter, there's no keeping a good secret anymore! Spencer, a 6'2, 192lb winger is a player the T-birds recently listed. He came out from the Twin Cities a few weeks ago and practiced with the team. Apparently he liked what he saw and earlier this week made his decision to commit to Seattle and the WHL.

Outside the T-birds organization, there's not much known about Spencer by those of us on the periphery. The little tidbits that are out there say he is a physical player with some offensive upside. Spencer was playing with Team Northwest in the Upper Midwest Elite (high school) League. If you are not familiar with that level, think Shattuck-St. Mary's, the Faribault, MN. program that has produced so many quality hockey players. Current Medicine Hat Tiger Tommy Vannelli played for Team Northwest last year. I think this signing fills the void in the '96 born forward group left open when the T-birds traded Carter Folk to Lethbridge in the Yakubowski-Mckechnie deal.

Now though, Seattle has a dearth of forwards on the roster (15). They are also still carrying eight defensemen. WHL teams are allowed to carry a 25 man roster but most seldom do. With the addition of Spencer, Seattle is at 25 right now but you have to believe more moves will follow at some point. With the T-birds losing players to December tournaments though, I wouldn't expect further moves of significance until after Christmas.

Had the opportunity to spend a few minutes chatting with new Saskatoon head coach Dave Struch before the game. Really liked his message; the way he talked about his team (coaching staff). He has a plan for the long term but is still is focused on this season, despite working with a team transitioning from a Memorial Cup host to a younger club. Remember, this is a team with new ownership as well but the Struch hire seems to be the right move.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Paging Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde

So what's more surprising? That the Thunderbirds can play toe-to-toe for sixty minutes (or 65) in back-to-back home games against the likes of Kelowna and Portland, or that their compete level and consistency drop off in a game like Friday night up in Vancouver or earlier this month against the Winterhawks or Regina? For me, I'm more surprised when they DON'T bring the compete level every night for sixty minutes, against every team. I'm an optimist and believe this is a very good hockey team that has a chance every night.

Okay, maybe that is unrealistic. There will be nights over the course of a long season when you just don't "have it", for whatever reason, be it the third game in three nights or when a flu bug goes through the locker room. But any team should be able to do that 90 percent of the time. It should be right there on top of the game plan; compete hard for 60-minutes. I think it is realistic to be on your "A" game 60-65 times a season.

I talked to an NHL scout who's seen every team in the Western Conference multiple times and in his opinion Seattle's roster has the third or fourth most skill among the teams out West. Now, that's one man's educated opinion. I think you have to take "compete level" and "consistency" into account because I believe those are a part of a players "skills" package as much as skating or stick handling. And the T-birds higher end skill may be younger then the skill level on other rosters. But, what I think that scout was saying was Seattle has enough talent and ability on the roster that they should be able to compete for 60 minutes night in and night out, whether that opponent is Portland or Kamloops.

This is the message head coach Steve Konowalchuk has been delivering every night. So far this season I've conducted 26 pregame interviews with the coach and I'm guessing he's talked about "compete level" at some point in all 26 of those conversations. If he's talking to me about having the right compete level, you know he's emphasizing that with the players as well. He's not the only coach I've heard it from either. I've heard it in some form or another in interviews with Don Hay up in Vancouver, Ryan Huska of Kelowna, Kevin Constantine with Everett and Mike Johnston in Portland. In other words, it is not a secret formula guarded in a locked vault by winning teams. It's right there on the directions to Hockey 101, like the recipe for Tollhouse cookies on the back of the Nestles bag of chocolate chips.

So, I'm not sure why the players don't come with the effort they showed against the Winterhawks last night, every night. It is not a guarantee of wins over losses. It doesn't always mean you leave the ice with the two points. Tuesday's shootout loss to Kelowna proves that. But it is a formula for season long success. You won't win every game, but if you compete hard every night you put yourself in a position to win as we witnessed last night. I'd rather be frustrated by putting out my best effort and losing a 4-3 shootout game than disappointed by not giving my best effort and falling 6-3 in lackluster fashion.

Now I don't know if this is a valid argument but part of the issue might be the lack of previous success at the WHL level. No one currently on this roster has been part of a team with a winning record at this level, with the exception of 20 year old Seth Swenson two years ago with Portland. Some have had success at lower levels but at the midget or bantam level I think you can win many games just on skill alone but as you rise up to the level of the WHL and beyond, team chemistry, consistency and compete level become a bigger part of the winning package. Why? Because every team at the WHL level has players with high end talent and skills. Even during their recent losing seasons the Thunderbirds were having players on their roster drafted or signed by NHL clubs.

The hope is that as this group of T-birds play together more, as they learn to win and understand the total effort and commitment it takes to win in the WHL on a nightly basis, they will become more consistent with their compete level from game to game and that games, like the one they played Tuesday against Kelowna and last night against Portland, become more common place; the rule and not the exception. We know they can play with and beat the best teams. We just witnessed it. Now we need to see them do it every night.

To me, that is what is separating Seattle from the likes of Portland, Everett and Kelowna at the moment. Not the level of talent on the roster, but the compete level and consistency from game to game. It's attention to detail, sticking to the game plan, trusting your teammates and not cutting corners.

I heard a rumor that Connor Honey may return to the lineup next weekend. Fingers crossed! Honey has missed 19 games with an upper body injury. Remember, this guy was second on the team in scoring last season and was off to a good start this season, averaging nearly a point a game (2g, 4a) before the injury. Honey is a combination of a lot of things on the ice. A leader, an energy guy, a skilled offensive player, a two way forward, a key cog on special teams, but his best attribute may be his utter disdain for losing.

The questions now becomes which forward sits when Honey returns? I'm guessing it won't be Scott Eansor. How can you watch this guy play and not appreciate the amount of energy he exhausts on each shift. I swear the only reason he goes to the bench is to get a refill of unleaded. More importantly he's become maybe the most consistent T-bird in the face off circle. I doubt it will be Ryan Gropp who loses ice time, as he gets more comfortable with each game played, he shows why he was considered one of the best players available in the 2011 Bantam Draft. He's starting to remind me of a younger version of Branden Troock!

Meanwhile, defenseman Adam Henry has quietly put together three straight games of sixty minutes of hockey, playing hard at both ends. Henry has been a key to the team's recent power play success. Even though the T-birds went 0-for-5 on the power play last night against the 'Hawks, I thought they were generating plenty of opportunity, with the exception of that 5-on-4 late in the 2nd period. Henry's ability to knock down clearing attempts is a big reason why Seattle has power play goals in 3 of their last 4 games.

Don't underestimate what Mitch Elliot and Evan Wardley did to get the crowd into the game early and set the right tone on the T-birds bench by winning those early tilts. Two of the more one-sided fights I've seen in a while.

Raise your hand if you knew Portland would have some fight-back in them in third period with the T-birds up by two goals. I see a lot of hands raised. Champions don't fade away, they go down swinging. I actually didn't think the 'Birds played that poorly in the third as their lead was erased. But they need to expect that from, not just Portland, but all teams. No game is over until the final whistle. In a strange way, I'm glad that happened because I wanted to see if Seattle could respond to the adversity. Great response too, led by their captain Justin Hickman.

Another part of the compete package is tenacity. How tenacious was Matt Barzal in winning the puck from two Winterhawks players to set up the Alexander Delnov game winning goal. It's what playmakers do.

Happy Thanksgiving! Celebrate with family and friends, enjoy the football then get ready for more hockey! The T-birds have two more home games next weekend. Friday they host Saskatoon and Saturday it's the final regular season game against Victoria.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

More Then Two For Tuesday

The Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets have met on the ice nine times, going back to last spring's first round playoff series. Seven of those games have gone past regulation. While the previous five games of bonus hockey were decided in overtime, the last two have taken a shootout to determine a winner, including last night, a game in which the Rockets prevailed, 4-3.

So, through the first two games of the four game regular season series it has been a bit of tit for tat. Back in October the Thunderbirds got the shootout win, ironically, by the same 4-3 final margin. Through 170 minutes of hockey this season each team has scored six goals. I'm not a big fan of the shootout. I think it diminishes what both sides did as a team over the course of the game and five minute overtime period. But, that's the way things are set up to decide regular season games. Someone has got to be a winner and someone has to take the loss although I'm sure a lot of you were probably thinking it was a shame either team had to lose last night. Sometimes, I'm okay with a tie.

If every game during the season was played that way; a good, intense, well played affair by both team I'd be satisfied no matter the result. I'd be disappointed if my team lost but if that effort was given each night, I wouldn't complain....too loudly. That was just a very entertaining hockey game. Neither team was perfect but both sides put out the necessary effort on every shift.

Wasn't it great to see the Thunderbirds power play come to life? Two goals scored and against the WHL's top penalty killing unit no less. That's three power play goals for the T-birds in their last two games and they've come against the top two penalty killing teams in the league (Victoria is #2 behind Kelowna in that department). The biggest difference is better, quicker puck movement and no hesitation to shoot the puck. Sometimes shots get blocked, but guess what? Sometimes those blocked shots come right back to you.

I don't know if Danny Mumaugh has put a stranglehold on the job as the team's number one goalie but he has started the past three games and has looked very sharp in going 1-0-1-1 in that span. His goals against average over those three games is a paltry 1.94 and his save percentage over his last three starts is .944. He's allowed just six goals in just under 186 minutes while making 103 saves. In the process he's lowered his season GAA to 3.14 and raised his save percentage to .916.

They will still need to get Justin Myles minutes though. Myles has just gotten into a funk recently, being pulled in each of his last two starts. He's surrendered seven goals in just under forty minutes of work. But we saw earlier this season that he is a very capable goalie. The only way to get him out of his funk is to give him a start or two.

Ryan Gropp scored on the very first shift of his very first game in the WHL back on October 25th. He then went eight games before he scored again, registering a goal in last night's shootout loss. What a goal it was too!
Does he have a quick release or what? I think it took Gropp about six games to start feeling comfortable at the WHL level but he's starting to come on now after solid back-to-back games Saturday up in Victoria and last night against Kelowna. There will still be an adjustment period but he's contributing more and more each night. He skates so effortlessly and works the half wall very well. Like most younger players with a high offensive upside, he'll need to improve on the defensive end but he has shown a willingness to do that the past two games.

I don't know if Roberts Lipsbergs will be suspended for the hit that injured Kelowna's Mitchell Wheaton. In my opinion, he shouldn't be because there was nothing malicious about the hit. Sometimes players receiving hits put themselves in a vulnerable position and injuries can happen as a result. Probably not the best analogy, but when a pedestrian stumbles off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic, do you blame the driver who hits him with their car? Lipsbergs was making a hockey play and it was no more egregious then the dozen or so similar hits I see during the course of a game.

Still, I understand that player safety is paramount and they are trying to police certain types of checks out of the game. I just didn't see this as one of those cases where Lipsbergs did anything blatantly wrong. It was similar to a check that cost Justin Hickman a five minute major in a game back on November 8th. At that time I didn't think that hit looked anything out of the ordinary and after the league reviewed it, Hickman did not receive any further discipline. It wasn't warranted in that case and it isn't warranted in this instance either.

I thought Damon Severson was outstanding for Kelowna last night and I voted him one of my three stars. The good news for the rest of the league is with the way he's playing this is probably the last year in the league for the New Jersey Devils prospect. I'm starting to get the same feeling about the Thunderbirds Branden Troock who continues to be one of the best players on the ice the past 2-3 weeks. Dallas, are you watching?

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Royal Reversal

With a 3-1 win Saturday night in Victoria the Thunderbirds put an end to their six game winless skid and the win, coupled with the overtime loss to the Royals Friday gave Seattle three of a possible four points on the weekend. It also put the T-birds in the win column for the first time this month and it comes right at the beginning of a busy second half of November with the team playing seven games in 17 days.

The biggest take out of the weekend for me was a concerted effort by the team to improve their team defense. That renewed emphasis on team defense limited Victoria to just 59 shots and three goals in 121 minutes of hockey over the two games. Prior to those two games, Seattle was allowing nearly four goals (3.95) a game to the opposition as well as far too many quality scoring chances. Those goals against were masked earlier in the season because the T-birds were scoring at nearly the same clip.

As I said previously, offense often goes into slumps during the course of the season (the 'Birds only scored a combined four goals in the two games up in Victoria) but if you can play consistently strong defense you'll still be in most games, even when the offense is struggling. While offense or the lack there of can sometimes be the result of some fortunate or unfortunate bounces, strong team defense is the residue of being committed 100 percent mentally and physically to defending your end of the ice. A defense first approach may by more physically challenging, you may have to spend more energy and you may be drained when you get to the bench at the end of your shift, but that is the price you must be willing to pay.

You may sacrifice some offense by a hard and fast focus on team defense, but as the T-birds found out Saturday night, a 3-1 win counts just as much as a 5-3 win.

I heard or read a lot of fans wondering about the release of overage forward Erik Benoit. It was nothing Benoit did or didn't do. As far as I could see he was a solid teammate, hard worker and good citizen. If you watched the two games over the weekend against the Royals, you would understand the reasoning behind the decision though. His name is Scott Eansor. The T-birds needed to get the 17 year old Englewood, Colorado native minutes.

His game is similar to what the T-birds were asking of Benoit and Eansor is going to be with the T-birds well beyond this season and Benoit, a cost-free wavier wire pick up in September, was not. Now, with Benoit gone, Eansor will get those minutes rather then be a healthy scratch most nights and his game will start to develop at a quicker pace then it would have had he been healthy but out of the lineup every other game.

With his increased ice time Eansor is getting more comfortable in a league he knew little about until this past summer. He's improving in the face-off circle. He's a grinder, and a great energy guy. I don't know if he'll produce the same offensive numbers but I think his upside is a Luke Lockhart type player, especially as a penalty killer. After going pointless in his first 15 WHL games Eansor, who turns 18 in early January, picked up assists in back-to-back games recently, all due to increased ice time.

Of course, with the departure of Benoit, Seattle has an open 20 year old spot on their roster. I don't expect them to fill that any time soon. Most likely at the trade deadline at the earliest, if they fill it all. Now if a 20 year old they really value becomes available before then, that could change but with the recent signing of Ryan Gropp, the trade for 19 year olds Jaimen Yakubowksi and Sam Mckechnie and the anticipated return back to the lineup of the injured Connor Honey, ice time is booked!

Speaking of Gropp, I thought Saturday night he had his best overall game since joining the team a month ago. While he didn't register a point, his speed down the wing, on the rush,in the first period drew a penalty that led to Seattle's opening power play goal. He was also more attentive on the forecheck, playing the body and finishing checks. He's still adjusting to the league and he still needs to get stronger, but all the signs are there that he will be a big piece of the puzzle moving forward.

I almost hesitate to talk about Branden Troock and how well he is is playing the past 5-6 games. It's funny because I had someone in the press box up in Victoria come up and ask (after the Friday night game) "Where did this Troock come from?" Down here in Thunderbird Nation, we've been asking "When will we get to see the Troock we've all been waiting for?" Injuries have hampered his T-bird career through the first three seasons with the team, but now we are seeing what we've all been waiting for from the Edmonton native. He's big, he's physical and he is fast.

Late in the game Saturday, with the T-birds still clinging to a one goal lead he went hard to the net trying to redirect a shot on goal and took one off the ankle that had him hobbling. It just shows that after all he's been through he's still fearless on the ice. Even better was after the game, seeing his dad outside the team's locker room, not bragging or boasting about the weekend his son just had (1g, 2a and the 2nd star in the win)but just smiling with a lot of pride, knowing what Branden has been through to get to this point. He earned the right to beam that smile.

What to make of Mathew Barzal being a healthy scratch Saturday night? Not much, really. Let's remember Barzal is still 16 years old. Let's also realize that most nights he's going up against the other teams top line, usually consisting of players three and four years older then he is. For the most part he's been holding his own but those players are just naturally more physically mature then he is and in some instances those players are high NHL draft picks who have been in the WHL for a few years and been to NHL camps, competing against older players.

Barzal is still second on the team in scoring. Who's ahead of him? A first round NHL draft pick, Shea Theodore. Who's right behind him? A 5th round NHL draft pick, Troock and a 4th round NHL drafted pick Alexander Delnov. If you spend any time around Barzal, you can see he's got his head on right, he's a quick study. He understands the reasoning behind the healthy scratch. The kid is gonna be alright.

I think head coach Steve Konowalchuk is very aware of the talent he has in Barzal but he also realizes his responsibility to develop that talent to play not just at the WHL level, but up at the next level as well. Part of that development, not just for Barzal but for all the young T-birds prospects, is creating good habits within their games and Konowalchuk, a veteran of 13 seasons in the NHL, knows a thing or two about the right habits to have for the next level.

Seattle looks to win back-to-back games for the first time since the end of October when they host the B.C. Division leading Kelowna Rockets Tuesday night. The T-birds defeated the Rockets, 4-3, in a shootout back on October 11th up in Kelowna thanks to a nifty shootout goal from Theodore. Seattle will again have to be committed to playing strong team defense. The Rockets enter the game averaging 4.3 goals a game yet don't have one player on the roster with double digit goals. Instead, they spread the wealth around and have great scoring depth.

You can't go all in on team defense for one weekend and fall back into bad habits the next time you're on the ice. This is a great opportunity for Seattle to show they can be consistent from game to game and week to week.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

I had a choice today; rake the never ending leaves falling from the large tree in my front yard or write a blog entry about the slumping T-birds. So, I raked and I raked and I raked...

Seriously though, what we've seen from the Thunderbirds is a team that got off to a good start, but certainly wasn't without its flaws in jumping to a record 8 games over .500. And now we've seen a team that has dropped five in a row, not playing particularly well in 4 of those 5 games and surrendering far too many goals. In other words, a very inconsistent team. So exactly who are they? Probably somewhere right in the middle of the big high they started with and the recent low they've fallen into. I think they can just as easily reel off another 4 or 5 straight wins. We've seen them do it.

Remember Swift Current? they were riding high when they came out west to face the U.S. Division. They promptly lost five in a row and didn't look particularly good doing it. Well, guess what? They are currently riding an 8 game winning streak. It can be done.

Now, the T-birds just have to decide which side of that fence they want to be on after showing us both the good and the bad over the first 21 games. They just need to decide soon, because if they don't, like that pile of leaves I raked up in my yard, if you don't get going the good work you've already done will just blow away.

For awhile there, they were second in the league in goals scored but the offense has gone into hibernation in recent weeks. It's still there though, they just need to wake it up. Most teams will go through spells where the scoring will dry up for a stretch. The T-birds are experiencing that right now.

The difference is good teams will always play good, solid team defense and that can carry you through the offensive lapses and steal you a win or two. Unfortunately, Seattle has not played consistently good team defense yet this season. Even while running out to an 11-3-0-2 record, they were surrendering too many goals against. They need to take care of their own end.

When the Thunderbirds are at their best, they are a grinding, strong forechecking team. early in the season that physical forecheck was their defensive strength because it kept opponents pinned in their own zone. It caused turnovers that created scoring opportunities. Right now, with the exception of last Friday's game versus Victoria, we haven't seen that forecheck to the degree we saw it for much of the first 15 games.

It has been inconsistent at best and non-existent at worst. It's like their offense though, it's still there, lurking. It's still part of their arsenal. They just need to bring it out and deploy it each and every night, each and every period, each and every shift. It's a mental commitment they need to make to playing a physical game.

Remember, you can't make a sandwich without your bread and butter. Otherwise, all you have is a bunch of baloney.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Frustration Nation

When you're winning and everything is going right, it is easy to play a sixty minute game. When you lose a few, face adversity or go into a bit of a rut, it becomes a mental challenge to do all the little things necessary to grind out a win. When it doesn't go right in the first period, you need to work harder...and smarter... in the second period.

Right now, the T-birds are playing "frustrated" hockey. Things aren't going as they were through the first 13-14 games and it appears some players have their heads hanging down a bit, their shoulders are sagging a tad. But the only way to get out of a slump is to work harder, stick with the systems and compete for 60 minutes. You can't take short cuts. It's fine that players understand after a loss they didn't put forth their best effort. The tide will turn back in the right direction when they understand they are not putting out their best effort during the game and correct it before the final horn.

I'm not sure the way the T-birds were playing Saturday night was going to earn them a win, but it was a 2-2 game early in the third when Justin Hickman was assessed a 5-minute boarding major. I watched the play live, it was right in front of me, and then saw the replay and I still can't figure out what in that hit constituted even a two minute minor, let a lone a 5 minute major. To their credit the T-birds were full marks for killing off the penalty, led by their goalie Danny Mumaugh. But they exhausted a lot of energy in doing so and I think they played the rest of that final period with their tanks nearly on empty.

The situation was compounded later when Shea Theodore was assessed a minor cross checking penalty. Again, I didn't see anything that looked like a cross check as two players got tangled up playing the puck in the neutral zone. I would wager a bet that this was probably the first cross checking penalty ever assessed against Theodore.

It may sound like sour grapes to complain about two penalties, especially when the officials got it pretty much right the rest of the game and the T-birds weren't playing their best hockey. But this was the third period, in a tie game and those two befuddling calls tilted the ice heavily in the favor of Regina and they were unnecessary. What's more frustrating is that just 24 hours earlier, in the third period of another close game, the officials kept their whistles in the pocket and let two very obvious penalties go.

I would suggest the WHL do something similar to what the NCAA does for football with their targeting rule. In college football a player is ejected from the game when he is deemed to have "targeted" an opposing player with a hit, usually helmet to helmet, or with a hit of a "defenseless" player. Before that player is ejected though, the play is reviewed and the ejection can be overturned.

It was nice to see Scott Eansor get rewarded with his first WHL point, assisting on Alexander Delnov's goal. Eansor is a high energy player who leaves it all on the ice. He brought his lunch pail with him both nights this weekend. His is the kind of energy the T-birds need from all 18 skaters every night.

Its maddening that Danny Mumaugh gets saddled with both losses on the weekend. He allowed just one goal after coming on in relief Friday but it ended up being the game winner in the 5-3 loss to Victoria. Then he stood on his head Saturday making 49 saves against Regina. Could he be separating himself a bit from Justin Myles in the goaltending battle?

The Thunderbirds are capable of beating anyone in the WHL when they play their "A" game. They've just got to remind themselves to bring their "A" game with them every night.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The One That Got Away

Like all sports, hockey is a results based business. You are measured by wins and losses and in the end, Friday night's game ended in a loss for the Thunderbirds. But it would be difficult to dominate a game anymore then the T-birds did last night against Victoria.

Obviously, Seattle wasn't perfect. They made mistakes and it seemed each of those errors ended up in the back of their net. They missed scoring on some great chances too, particularly in the third period when trailing, 4-3. Still, the compete level that was missing the previous weekend in losses to Portland and Everett was back. The T-birds strength has to be their forecheck. They didn't generate much of a fore check a week ago in the two losses. Last night, their forechecking was at it's best. It allowed them to cycle the puck and keep the puck in the attacking zone for long stretches of the game. They were physical but played under control. Seattle took just a couple of minor penalties that led to power plays for the Royals. One was a high stick. The other I thought was a very "soft" goaltender interference penalty.

Most importantly, the T-birds did what they did a good deal of the first month of the season. When they got down, they didn't give up. They kept attacking and it almost brought them all the way back. Sometimes you don't get the puck luck and sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opposing goalie. Last night was one of those nights for the 'Birds.

Was Shea Theodore sending a message to the WHL powers that be and Hockey Canada? Theodore was not selected to represent the WHL in the Subway Series against Russia. His response was to score a hat trick and if not for the post and cross bar, could have had a five goal night.

The power play went 0-for 3 1/4th but it sure looked much more dangerous last night then it has in the past couple of weeks. The difference? Player were more willing to shoot the puck rather then wait for the perfect scoring opportunity.

Really like the Troock-Barzal-Lipsbergs line. Hard to believe, save for a couple of assists, they were held from scoring a goal. I thought pretty much all the forwards did a good job of coming back and helping defensively, especially in the neutral zone. It was necessary after Seattle lost defenseman Ethan Bear, then had another defenseman, Jerret Smith in the penalty box for five minutes. Seattle played a good stretch of the third period with just four available d-men.

The key now is for the Thunderbirds to build off this effort. They have to play the same way, cut down on the turnovers and get a better result tonight when they host Regina.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lost Weekend

The Thunderbirds had a chance to make a statement this weekend. Well, maybe they did, just the wrong one. It's a long 72 game schedule and hopefully the next time they get this chance, they make the right statement; the one that says they're going to compete night in and night out. The one that says they're in it to win it.

But this weekend, to use the train analogy, there were too many passengers and not enough hard working crew members trying to pull the train up the tracks. So, hopefully, with a hard week of practice everyone gets back on board and the team gets back to what they were doing for most of the first quarter of the season; putting in a hard sixty minutes of work on game night.

I think the first thing players have to realize is that the competition here in the Western Conference is much tougher then what they've seen from the teams in the East. As such you can't cut corners when playing your conference or division rivals. The T-birds have played 13 of their first 18 games against the West and are 6-5-0-2. That's respectable but with 47 games left against the West, including 33 against the rugged U.S. Division, they'll need to be better then .500 against those teams if they want to capture a top four seed and home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

To do that, they'll need to be better on the road against the Western Conference where the T-birds are just 2-5, including 0-4 against the U.S. Division. Seattle has 23 road games still to play against the West including 16 U.S. Division road games so there is plenty of time to turn that around. But to do that, they'll have to bring their "A" game every night and on nights when they just don't have that "A" game, they can still bring their hard hats, lunch pails and hard work ethic because giving your best effort on nights when you don't have your best game can steal you a win or at least a point.

That is where the T-birds lost these games this weekend. Not because the skill level of their opponent was such that the T-birds couldn't compete with either Portland or Everett. Instead, those two teams just outworked Seattle. The Thunderbirds need to have that same appetite for hard work that their opponents did and they have to have it every night of the season.

The rest of November should tell us a lot about this team. There are ten games on the schedule the rest of the month and all but two are against the Western Conference. The combined record of the Western Conference teams the T-birds will be facing is 42-23-1-5. It starts this Friday when the T-birds host the Victoria Royals. Get those hard hats and lunch pails ready.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

He Who Hesitates...

I'm not sure why the Thunderbirds have made a habit of having slow starts recently, especially against Portland. Believe me, Portland is the last team you want to have a slow start against. It's as if the T-birds want to go into a "feeling out process" to see how the other team is going to play before they have a response. But there's no great mystery in what the Winterhawks are going to do. They are going to attack. If you sit back at the start of the game they are going to put you on your heels.

The T-birds didn't take a lot of penalties against Portland, but the ones they did were significant. Two penalties within 20 seconds of each other early in the first period gave Portland a huge opportunity to get on top and they capitalized quickly on the 5-on-3. Then early in the second Seattle's Evan Wardley is hit with a five minute charging major and the Winterhawks would score a second power play goal. When I saw the replay I didn't think it warranted more then two minutes but in this day and age, when leagues are trying to curb injuries and dangerous contact, officials often error on the side of caution.

Meanwhile, while the Winterhawks went 2-for-4 on the power play, the T-birds only had two power play chances and went 0-for-2. They were okay on the second 5-on-4 but the first power play, in the first period, didn't even generate a shot on goal. At some point they're gonna have to do a better job generating scoring chances with the man advantage.

I like that coach Konowalchuk mixed up his lines in the third period, looking for an offensive spark. He found some by putting Branden Troock and Justin Hickman together and they became a dangerous combination. The T-birds played very desperate hockey in the third period and almost fought there way back into the game but you can't wait until it is almost too late to play with desperation. That has to start from the opening face off. If you can play like that in the third period, you should be able to play like that in the first and second periods as well.