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.

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