Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New? Or Just Improved?

What a difference a year can make. A season ago Roberts Lipsbergs led the Thunderbirds in scoring with 58 pts. (30g, 28a) in 64 games. Lipsbergs is on pace for a similar finish this season. Currently he has 30 points (22g, 8a) at the midway point. A season ago Connor Honey finished second on the team in scoring with 54 points(16g, 38a)in 57 games. Honey has missed the last 30 games due to an upper body injury. As a result he's only been able to contribute six points (2g, 4a) in seven games.

Luke Lockhart was Seattle's 4th best scorer last season with 49 points in 72 games. He was second on the team to Lipsbergs with 25 goals. Lockhart, of course, is no longer on the team. Oh, did I mention they traded away their 7th leading scorer from a year ago?

So, with their leading scorer from a season ago only on pace to register the same number of points as last year when the team averaged less then three goals a game, their second leading scorer from last year out with injury most of the first half of the season, their 4th leading scoring from the 2012-13 season graduated out of the organization and their 7th leading scorer sent off to another team, the offense has suffered considerably, right? Wrong! Both the offense and the defense are on the upswing. Just a couple of indicators as to why this team is playing so much better.

Through the first 37 games of the season the T-birds are giving up 3.4 goals against per game, which doesn't sound that impressive. But over the past 12 games, as the team has shown a more concerted commitment to team defense, the goals against average is just 2.6. Remember, a season ago the T-birds allowed four goals a game to the opposition. With the better defense has come better results as Seattle is 10-1-1-0 over that span. Meanwhile the commitment to playing better defense has not come at the expense of the offense. In fact, the scoring has improved. For most of the first half of the season the T-birds were averaging about 3.4 goals a game. That is now up to 3.7 thanks to a 4.4 goals per game clip over the last dozen games.

So I guess to make such a dramatic improvement Seattle GM Russ Farwell traded away the future for a bona fide superstar goal scorer, yes? Wrong again. the improvement has come from within. Defenseman Shea Theodore is just seven point away from equaling his entire point total from last season. A healthy Branden Troock is on pace for 36 goals and 81 points. Alexander Delnov is just three tallies away from equaling the 20 goals he potted in 69 games last year. Then there is rookie Mathew Barzal who has lived up to the billing with 30 points through the first half of his rookie campaign. So, despite being on pace to equal his last season's team leading point total, Lipbergs right now would finish 5th on the team in scoring this season.

Meanwhile team captain Justin Hickman has already equaled his goal total from last season with 12. While Seth Swenson's scoring is down he's still contributed eight goals (19 pts.) from the team's checking line. Another rookie, Ryan Gropp is starting to get his offensive game going and now has 13 points (6g, 7a) in 24 games. While Theodore is getting the headlines as the top scoring defenseman in the WHL, the other five primary d-men for Seattle are chipping in with a combined 57 points (12g, 45a).

One of the significant trades the T-birds did make earlier this season was to acquire Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowksi from Lethbridge. A season ago the two combined for 50-plus goals with the Hurricanes. So far with Seattle their biggest contributions for the T-birds have been on the defensive side, teaming up with Scott Eansor to form a shutdown line. Still the trio has combined for 19 points (9g, 10a). Yakubowksi's recent injury has broken up that trio but once he's back I'd look for the offensive production to increase in the second half of the season.

The WHL trade deadline is looming. This season it is January 10th, just as the T-birds come off of a five game road trip. Hopefully by then, some of the walking wounded are back. Seattle does have an opening on the roster for a third 20 year old. They could try to fill that spot with a trade or they can stand pat with what they have. The price tag on an acquisition, plus team chemistry, will figure prominently in that decision. Seattle has a lot of young, quality talent on the current roster and in the pipeline and I'm not sure they want to deal any of it for a short term rent-a-player.

Whether or not Farwell makes a trade deadline deal, the best acquisition the team could make would be getting Connor Honey his health. Honey makes this team better in every facet of the game, especially the power play.
It would give Seattle even better depth and put less pressure on young players like Keegan Kolesar and Calvin Spencer. It would give them another leader on the ice and on the bench. It would make them that much harder to play against.

The second half is underway and the T-birds fate is in their own hands.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Still "Pointing" in the Right Direction

Most weekends, getting three out of four points will be an occasion for celebration, but I get the feeling the Thunderbirds aren't happy letting the game slip away from them Saturday night and getting just a single point.

The T-birds were fairly in control of the game against Everett, leading 2-0, and hadn't taken a penalty all night, when all of a sudden they were whistled for three infractions in the final six minutes of the second period. No penalties before, and none after. The Silvertips cashed in by scoring twice on the man advantage to get back in the game. The two teams traded goals in the third period. Seattle could have had more as they dominated most of the action in the final period but could only capitalize the one time despite 21 shots on goal.

The T-birds were equally as strong in the overtime period but unfortunately a pretty pedestrian shot beat Seattle goalie Danny Mumaugh and Everett left with the win. I'm sure Mumaugh we'll be the first guy to admit he should have had that one. Just an unfortunate bounce. Mumaugh's been very good the last month. I'll take him winning five of every six starts any time and twice on Sunday. This just happened to be that one game. Instead of taking four points on the weekend Seattle settled for three. But I think it is the two they gave up in the loss that smarts the most.

As we've mentioned many times before, the WHL is a developmental league for these players. The task is to prepare the players for the next level. Part of that preparation is developing good habits. Hockey is a team sport, it's 25 players sticking to the game plan and working as a unit. You can't stray from that concept if you want to advance to the next level. You can't worry about your ice time or individual stats, only team goals. I applaud Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk for instilling that idea in his players, even if it means sitting one of your better players in the third period of a tight game, against a division rival. It's not to prove a point, it's a teaching moment.

Despite the overtime setback, it's an incredible month and a half of hockey the T-birds have gone through. After that 0-5-1-0 stretch at the beginning of November, the T-birds have put the engine back on the rails. They've earned points in 14 of their last 16 games. That's 26 points going back to their overtime loss November 15th in Victoria. With the exception of the 5-2 loss November 22nd in Vancouver, they've been in position to win 15 of those 16 games. Even more impressive is everyone of those games, save one, was against a team with a winning record and all but one have been against a Western Conference opponent.

Ten of those 16 games have been versus their U.S. Division rivals, arguably the best division right now in the WHL. It is currently the only division in the league where every team is .500 or better. In those ten games, Seattle is 8-1-1-0 and half of those eight wins have been earned on the road. In their last five games the T-birds, because of injury and players away at international tournaments, haven't been able to field a complete team yet they've still managed to go 3-1-1-0.

Congrats to Calvin Spencer on earning his first WHL point with an assist on Branden Troock's third period goal. And while we're at it, kudos to GM Russ Farwell for jumping on this prospect, getting him in and getting him signed in a matter of a week's time. I like Spencer's game more every time I see him. His skillset fits this roster. A very good pickup.

So, as frustrating as the loss Saturday night was, let's keep our eyes on the big picture. You're not gonna win them all but over the long haul this team is proving it not only can win more then it loses, it also can beat the best the WHL has to offer, and that's because they are one of the best. Despite the overtime loss, Seattle still owns the 5th best winning percentage in the WHL. They tasted adversity with that six game winless streak, fought through it, learned some hard lessons and ended up a better team as a result. Outside of that early November skid, the T-birds are 22-5-1-3. That's not a fluke. that's almost half a season, enough of a sample size to say this team is a contender.

Most importantly, no one can say this team is not getting better as the season moves along. They need to get through this stretch of injuries and absences but once they are whole again, I like the makeup of this roster. Roles have been defined and players are buying into those roles. We're half way through the season and I believe the best is yet to come.

First things first, the Thunderbirds need to finish off a very solid month of December. So far it has been one of the best months of hockey this team has had in a number of years. With one game to go before the calendar turns to January and 2014, Seattle is 7-1-1-0. Up next is Kamloops on New Year's Eve. No one knows more then Seattle you can't take any opponent in this league lightly; the T-birds fell to the Blazers back in mid-October, 3-1 up in Kamloops. Seattle is a different team now then they were back then but you can't overlook the Blazers, especially with a five game road trip coming up to start the New Year.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Troock For Tuesday

Branden Troock notched a pair of third period goals to go along with his first period assist, and thus led the Seattle Thunderbirds to their 5-2 win over Tri-City Tuesday night. Troock was a beast on the ice all night and came close on a couple of occasions to getting a hat trick. On a night when the Thunderbirds dressed two under the limit, they needed their best players to be the best players on the ice and, led by Troock, they were. Alexander Delnov chipped in with a goal and three helpers and Shea Theodore scored a key second period goal that seemed to put the game out of reach for Tri-City.

Troock is now second on the team in goals scored with 17, passing Delnov on the list, which is quite an accomplishment seeing how Delnov scored last night. Only Roberts Lipsbergs, with 21, has more. Meanwhile the Edmonton native now sits atop the scoring chart for Seattle with 40 points (same number of points as Theodore)on 17 goals and 23 assists. After his +4 performance against the Americans, he is also now the team leader in plus/minus at +11. You want the Troock? You can't handle the Troock!

So, Seattle heads into the holiday break with 21 first half wins. That's just three shy of their entire win total from last season. They've also won nine of their last ten, are 6-1 in December and, after their 0-5 start to November, have gone 10-2-1-1 since, earning 22 out of 28 points in that span. This run of good play has come against teams with a combined record of 147-90-9-14 (.612 winning percentage), giving the T-birds a .785 winning percentage since November 12th.

Lane Pederson made his Seattle debut last night. He didn't see a great deal of ice but held his own when out there. He's the fifth member of the Thunderbirds 2012 Bantam Draft class to suit up for at least one game. Of those, only Logan Flodell, who suited up for two games as a backup goalie last December, hasn't played in a regular season game. Besides Pederson and Flodell, the other three are, of course, Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear. The latter three have been integral parts to the team's first half success. All five will participate in the U-17 tournament later this month. We could see a sixth member of that draft class practicing with the team after Christmas. Stay tuned.

How tight are things in the Western Conference at the mid-point of the season? While Kelowna, thanks to their current 12-game winning streak, has an eight point lead on the field with games in hand, just nine points separates second place Portland from 7th place Vancouver. Seattle, with 46 points, currently sits in the 5th spot but are just two points out of 3rd and only four points from 2nd. Because of games in hand the T-birds have the Conference's 4th best winning percentage and are 6th best in that category in the entire WHL.

Getting to this point has been a total team effort. Seven players have 20 points or more. Seattle is just .003 away from having four players averaging a point a game. Still let me take a crack at selecting three stars for the first half:

Third Star: Mathew Barzal. The former first overall selection in the 2012 Bantam Draft is that fourth player just shy of averaging a point per game (.097). He has been as advertised, a complete player who makes those around him better. He's just 16 and has had a few rookie moments but overall you'd have to grade out his first half season in the WHL as an A-. Again. I contend it is the things he does on the ice that don't end up on the scoresheet that make him such a dynamic presence. His line mates most of the season have been Lipsbergs and Justin Hickman. Together those two have 32 goals. Barzal is a big reason for that. Despite all the attention Barzal had gotten from the Canadian media, he seems to be very humble and a terrific teammate...just one of the guys.

Second Star: Shea Theodore. Ever since returning from the NHL camp of the Anaheim Ducks early in the season, Theodore has been a strong presence at both ends of the ice. The third year defenseman is tied for the team lead in scoring with 40 points on 13 goals and 27 assists. He's vowed to be a plus player this season and so far he is second on the team at +9. He logs a lot of time on the back end, especially late in games, and as a result is becoming a better two way defenseman.

He has the skills to change the complexion of a game with his ability to go end to end with the puck. While publicly he says he'll bide his time until next season, I think the first round NHL draft pick did play much of the first half of the season with a chip on his shoulder, after not being invited to play in the Subway Super Series for Team WHL against Russia. What's scary about Theo is I don't think he's hit his stride yet. I think he's poised to break out in the second half.

First Star: Branden Troock. When he plays as he did last night against Tri-City, he can take over a game and look like a man among boys. He's showing a complete 200 foot game this season, especially over the last month. He's been the trigger that shot the team to nine wins in their last ten games. More importantly I think he's been the right influence for Delnov, who has picked up his play at both ends of the ice since being teamed up on Troock's line. He's helped rookie Ryan Gropp assimilate into the WHL after joining the team in mid-October. Troock is a powerfully fast skater, a physical force with good hands. He can beat you off the rush, with a wicked snap shot from the slot or by going to the net and redirecting shots or pouncing on rebounds. He's become a tremendous force on the back check as well. He's an athlete who happens to play hockey and right now he's playing it very well. This is the Troock we saw glimpses of over the past two seasons. This is the Troock the NHL's Dallas Stars believed they were drafting in the 5th round two years ago, and that's the Troock!

Honorable mentions: The T-birds goaltending tandem of Justin Myles and Danny Mumaugh. Before the season began there was clamoring that the T-birds should go out and get a seasoned 20 year old netminder. This duo has put that thought to bed. Each has already recorded ten wins as they continue to share duties between the pipes. Mumaugh is 4-0-0-0 in his last four starts with a 1.75 GAA and a save percentage of .941.

Scott Eansor. Ever since Steve Knowalchuk decided to give Eansor a regular shift on the team's checking line, teaming him up with Sam McKechnie and Jaimen Yakubowski, the scoring chances and goals against have decreased as have the shots allowed by Seattle. Coincidence? I think not. "Upchuck" Eansor has been a catalyst for that. And let's not forget to mention the number of key face offs he's been winning. Of all the offseason and in-season moves made by GM Russ Farwell so far, getting Eansor to come from Colorado to play for the T-birds may turn out to be the biggest. Besides, how can you not love a guy who pukes all over himself and still gives 100 percent!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seven Ate Nine

The Thunderbirds eight game winning streak ended Saturday night in Portland with the 5-3 loss to the Winterhawks. The Thunderbirds will never use it as an excuse but it was pretty obvious by the third period the injury depleted roster was running out of gas after so few players logged so many minutes over the course of two games in two nights. The T-birds started taking those penalties you get when your feet stop moving. Seattle initially dressed just 16 skaters and by games end were down to only 15. A very gutty effort but in the end it ended up just out of reach.

Seattle had its chances though. Shortly after Portland had closed to within 2-1, Seth Swenson rang one off the post while the team was shorthanded that would have restored the T-birds two goal lead. Had it gone in it might have been enough to keep Portland at bay. In the third with the game tied at two and skating 5-on-3, Alex Delnov missed a wide open net from point blank range. A few minutes later Seattle had another shorthanded chance but couldn't finish. And of course, the T-birds were assessed three minor penalties while skating on a five minute major power play midway through the third period. It's a game of inches and the T-birds came up just short.

The compete level was there though and there's no way you can fault the effort. Every player pushed hard for sixty minutes. If Seattle keeps up that work rate the rest of the way; if they keep showing up with their lunch pails and hard hats, then winning streaks like this will be the norm and not the exception. This was one of those games, where even in defeat, I'm sure the coaches were proud of the effort. When the team gets back to full strength at some point in early January (after the U-17 tournament) they should be fighting for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Right now though, the T-birds are limping toward the Christmas break. Another injury last night to Keegan Kolesar. Hopefully he's okay but I would be surprised if he was available for Tuesday's game. With the league's protocol for upper body injuries I believe he has to sit for at least one week. I hope fans realize this isn't the NHL where you can just call up a player from lower levels to fill the void. Those players on Seattle's protected list have commitments to their own teams back home and they're also in school. Not all are yet committed to the WHL and not all are available at a moments notice. Maybe the Thunderbirds get a Barzal or Yakubowski back in time for the game against Tri-City and then the team gets healthy over the break but I'm not expecting any "call up" until after Christmas.

The legend of Scott Eansor continues to grow. Come to find out the reason he upchucked on his jersey during the second intermission Friday night was because he was suffering from a touch of the flu. Despite that he played the entire weekend and did so with his usual high energy. And finally, he scored his first WHL goal. It was the perfect way to score his first goal too as he set it up himself by stealing the puck at the Portland blue line and breaking in 2-on-none with Branden Troock. If that was Eansor at just 80 percent, more players should get a touch of the flu. When he and Sam McKechnie are on the ice together it is like watching a couple of buzzing bees.

Adam Henry had a solid weekend and finished it with two goals in the loss. His goal in the third period was part finesse and part determination and it gave Seattle a chance late. Jared Hauf was very good too. He is really starting to play a much more physical game and using his size to his advantage. The Thunderbirds went primarily with just five defensemen in the absence of Ethan Bear, although when he did take a shift Kevin Wolf played a simple, solid game. He did his best to keep everything in front of him. If he could just find a way to pack on another 20 pounds to his slender 6'6" frame!

If there were NHL scouts in either building this weekend how could they help but not notice Calvin Spencer.
His size, speed, skating and puck handling had to have put him on somebody's radar. I'd be surprised if he and Eansor don't end up on one of those scouting lists by season's end. Spencer's play this weekend only showed a glimpse of what he can do. He's only going to get better the more ice he sees. In fact, I think three T-birds could hit the CSS rankings by season's end as goalie Danny Mumaugh has gotten better with each start.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Another Win is Gr-Eight

Control the controllables (if that's even a word). It's something I've heard from different coaches in various sports. Some say it in different ways. It simply means each player is responsible for their own performance and the results you get are based on that effort. Prepare the right way, give 100 percent, pay attention to detail, follow the game plan and, win or lose, you should be satisfied with your game. You, not the opponent, should dictate the way you play.

That also means controlling your emotions. Don't get too high or too low. You can give 100 percent but if you're too "amped up", you can get out of control and hurt your team. It's just my own opinion but I felt at points in time, over the first two periods, of last night's game the T-birds were just a tad "amped up". Maybe it was the injuries and depleted bench but they put that emotion in check for the third period and played the final 20 minutes the way they've played most of time over the course of this, now eight game, winning streak; controlled.

Branden Troock was robbed on the doorstep Tuesday night in Kennewick by Tri-City goalie Eric Comrie and thus ended that game without a point. He made up for it last night with two goals and an assist and now has 11 goals and 12 assists in his last 16 games. He's the Beast Mode of hockey in a city famous for its Beast Mode.

For the first time since 2007, the Thunderbirds now have two goaltenders on the roster with at least ten wins each. Danny Mumaugh joined Justin Myles in the ten win club last night. Mumaugh has won his last three starts surrendering just five goals over that span, a GAA of 1.66. Once again Mumaugh was at his best, a calming influence, in the second half of the third period as the T-birds protected their one goal lead.

Seeing is believing. Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk told me 17 year old winger Calvin Spencer was fitting right in with the team, having solid practices since being added to the roster just over a week ago. Still he had yet to play in a game and, well, practice is practice. An actual game is a whole new animal at this level. It's just one game but after making his debut last night, Spencer is a keeper. His style of play fits perfectly what the T-birds do. A very good skater, Spencer used his size to win puck battles and showed he can play a 200 foot game. He also displayed a good, strong and accurate shot and, more importantly, didn't hesitate to shoot. Seattle scored three, gave up two. Spencer finished the night +2. Oh, by the way it was Spencer who created the penalty against Portland (his stick was slashed out of his hands) that led to the T-birds game winning power play goal. Solid debut.

It will be interesting to see how many healthy bodies the Thunderbirds suit up tonight for the rematch down in Portland. By game's end Seattle was down to just ten forwards. That's what makes the win more impressive. They did it shorthanded with a lot of double shifting over the final 25 minutes. For a good stretch they also had only four defenseman as two were serving out ten minute misconducts after that dust up towards the end of the second period.

I think you have to be impressed that both teams put out an entertaining product for the fans considering what each side was missing from their lineup. That's what rivalry games should be like.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Seventh Heaven

Tri-City goalie Eric Comrie is good, real good. He's "How come he's not getting a crack at Canada's World Junior team" good. He's I-almost-stole-a-game good. Yep, he's good. Last night in Kennewick though, Seattle's effort was just enough better to earn the Thunderbirds their seventh straight win.

Against Comrie, you have to persevere. You have to keep shooting and going hard to the net. You must put traffic in front of him. And when you do that and still don't score, because he's making an out-of-this-world save, you can't get frustrated, you have to try again. The T-birds did that just enough to get two pucks past him enroute to their 3-1 win at the Toyota Center.

Tri-City is banged up and missing some key defensive personnel at the moment but they still dressed a full roster of hard workers. Seattle just outworked them. Early in the game you had the feeling this wasn't going to be like some of Seattle's other wins in this streak. They weren't going to skate away from this one with five or six goals. They could have, if not for Comrie keeping his team in the game. Fortunately, Seattle has learned some good habits in this winning streak and they used them last night. Chief among them, a high end compete level for sixty minutes. They cut no corners. Played good team defense and they pushed the pace. They never stopped working hard.

No one epitomizes that more then Scott Eansor. Back in mid-November when the T-birds released 20 year old Erik Benoit, the cries of protest from some sections of the T-bird fan base were loud, in some cases vitriolic. I wrote back then one of the reasons Seattle could afford to dismiss Benoit was because they needed to get Eansor consistent ice time. They knew what they had in the Englewood, Colorado native, they just needed to get it into the lineup every night.

Last night he and Mathew Barzal were all over the ice. They earned two of my three stars on the radio broadcast. They are perpetual motion machines. I lost count of how many times they stole the puck off the stick of a Tri-City player. In the third period, nursing a one goal lead, Eansor was at the end of a shift and needed to go off but unfortunately, Seattle had just iced the puck, so there was no opportunity for a line change. Unable to leave the ice, Eansor lined up between the circles in the defensive zone, letting linemate Sam McKechnie take the draw.

But when Seattle wasn't set in time McKechnie got waved out of the circle. So the exhausted, totally gassed Eansor stepped in to take the draw against an Americans player fresh off the Tri-City bench. Eansor leaned over, shortened up on his stick, tied up the Americans player and won the draw back to his defemseman and Seattle was able to clear the puck and make a line change. He may have not scored a goal, but in that instance he may have prevented one.

While Danny Mumaugh didn't face as many quality chances as Comrie did, the Seattle goalie was sharp, just as he was in the previous win over Spokane. The Americans got half their 23 shots (11) in the first period when it was still a scoreless game. It's tough to win in Kennewick and even tougher if you fall behind. Mumaugh made some important saves early. Then, late in the game with Seattle holding a slim 2-1 lead, he came up with a few more quality stops before the T-birds iced it with an empty netter from Roberts Lipsbergs.

You don't win seven in a row without quality goaltending and Seattle is getting it from both Mumaugh and Justin Myles.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chompin' on the Chiefs

I'm not trying to rile up the people at PETA, but we've all heard the saying "There's more then one way to skin a cat". Last night the red-hot Thunderbirds found another way to win a game. Seattle had ridden its high powered offense to five straight wins, averaging almost six goals a game over that stretch, including wins of 5-1 and 7-3 in a pair of road wins over Spokane. Last night at home at the ShoWare Center, the T-birds used strong goaltending, a solid penalty kill and timely scoring to grind out a 4-2 win over the Chiefs, extending their winning streak to six.

Let's face it; a couple of weeks ago looking at the schedule and seeing three straight against the Chiefs with the first two over in Spokane, not many foresaw a three game sweep by Seattle. When all is said and done though it is Spokane thinking the schedule makers did them no favors. Not only did the T-birds win all three games, outscoring the Chiefs 16-6 in the process, but the 'Birds also climbed past Spokane in the Western Conference standings and moved within a point of the 4th place Victoria Royals. In fact the T-birds now have earned 16 points in their last ten games and 11 of those points came at the expense of two teams, the Royals and Chiefs, who are battling Seattle for playoff position and potentially home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason come springtime. In a stretch of ten games dating back to November 15th, the Thunderbirds went a combined 5-0-1-0 against those two Western Conference opponents.

Seattle has outscored the opposition 33-15 over the course of the six game winning streak. That's an average score of 5.5 to 2.5. Even with a high powered offense like the T-birds have displayed here recently there will come a time when you'll have to grind out a win. Last night was one of those occasions. Last night Spokane did a good job of slowing the T-birds down through the neutral zone, making Seattle fight for every inch of ice. The T-birds never got frustrated though as they kept grinding away and eventually earned the win.

Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk said recently that there will be times when you don't have your "A" game but you can still win if you bring a high compete level on the ice. Last night was one of those games. My guess is Konowalchuk was pretty happy his players found another way to "skin that cat".

In games like that, you need solid goaltending and the T-birds certainly got that from Danny Mumaugh. Neither team was getting a lot of shots through but Spokane did outshoot Seattle, 30-22. We've mentioned before Mumaugh's lightning quick glove hand but last night we saw him flash the pads, especially on a nice kick out save on a shot by the Chief's Mitch Holmberg that looked destined for the back of the Seattle net. I keep hearing or reading about how Seattle has to settle on one goalie as the number one guy but the current process of splitting time between Mumaugh and Justin Myles is working and, as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Early in the season the Thunderbirds were getting little scoring from the back end. Over the course of the six game winning streak though the T-birds defensemen have contributed 28 points (5g, 23a) and are a combined +23. It's not all Shea Theodore either as Adam Henry and Jerret Smith have each had multiple point games during the streak.

This is no "cheap" winning streak either. The combined record of the teams Seattle has beaten in this stretch; 70-56-3-7 and that is skewed by Saskatoon, the only team with a losing record in the win streak. Take the Blades out and the record of the other teams they beat is 60-36-3-5.

While everyone up and down the roster is contributing, the catalyst for the team's recent success has been that shutdown checking line of Jamien Yakubowksi, Scott Eansor and Sam McKechnie. Seattle tried to match up that line as much as possible against Spokane's top line featuring Holmberg, the league's leading goal scorer. In 180 minutes of hockey the T-birds, and that line in particular, limited Holmberg to just one power play goal in the second period Sunday night; what was essentially a 5-on-3 goal. Before the first meeting last Sunday Holmberg was averaging 2.29 points per game. After last night's Seattle win Holmberg's points per game average is down to 2.09.

When I see that trio on the ice I think of the Tom Petty song, I Won't Back Down, especially the lyrics that go like this:

Well I won't back down, no I won't back down. You can stand me up at the gates of Hell, But I won't back down. No I'll stand my ground, won't be turned around, And I'll keep this world from draggin' me down, gonna stand my ground. And I won't back down. Hey baby, there ain't no easy way out, I won't back down. Hey I will stand my ground and I won't back down.

It's like the scene in the movie "A Few Good Men" when the the Demi Moore character is asked why she likes the accused Marines so much and she says something to the affect of because they stand on a wall each night and say, not on my watch. That's Yakubowksi, Eansor and McKechnie...a few good men.

Was I the only one who thought the second period last night took a fortnight to play? It was equivalent to one of those tennis matches where the servers keep double faulting. Just hard to establish a rhythm or flow to the game. Too many whistles for penalties, offsides, pucks deflected out of play and icings. Again, not the prettiest of hockey games but sometimes you gotta win the ugly ones. By the way, a fortnight is two weeks, so I get two minutes for embellishment.

There's no break in the schedule between now and Christmas. Seattle has four games against two opponents, Tri-City and Portland, with a combined record of 39-18-3-4.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Troockin' Along

Coming into this season Seattle right winger Branden Troock had registered 41 points in his injury abbreviated WHL career with 19g and 18a in 77 games over three seasons. After last night's four point performance in a 7-3 win in Spokane against the Chiefs, Troock has 31 points (13g, 18a) after just 29 games. His 13 goals is one shy of his best season in the WHL when he scored 14 goals in 58 games for the Thunderbirds in 2011-12. Remember, he missed all 72 games of his rookie campaign and played in just 19 contests a year ago.

There were times, whether it was during a five game call up as a 15 year old, in exhibition games or training camp scrimmages a few years ago, or in the little we saw of him in regular season action the past two years, when we caught glimpses of the dominating player he was capable of being. Now, in a season when he is playing for that first professional contract, the draft prospect of the NHL Dallas Stars (5th Rd #134 overall in 2012), is finally shining brightly. By staying healthy he's been able to play a consistent 200 foot game. At 6'4", 201 lbs, he's hard to match up against because he's so powerful that at times he's like a man among boys on the ice.

Additionally, he and his linemates have found tremendous chemistry on the ice. He has a potential high NHL draft pick in 2015 draft eligble Ryan Gropp on his right wing and fellow 2012 NHL draft pick Alexander Delnov (Florida Panthers, 4th Rd, #114 overall) at center. There were shifts last night in Spokane when it seemed that line never left the offensive zone. The only time I noticed Troock oustide the attacking zone was when he was stealing the puck away at center ice on the back check or clearing a puck out of his own end of the ice. During the T-birds current five game winning streak it is almost a given that the trio will create at least one scoring chance every shift and Troock's strength, speed and stickhandling ability allows him to create space for himself and thus scoring chances for himself or Gropp and Delnov.

Seattle defenseman Jerret Smith has usually been all guts and no glory. That is, a solid, steady two way d-man who does a lot of the grunt work but rarely lights the lamp to ends up in the spotlight. A lot of the good work he does can often go unnoticed because it doesn't end up on the scoresheet. Last season he had just one goal in 71 games while picking up 19 assists. Before last night he hadn't scored a goal in the first 29 games this season. He had registered ten helpers. It seemed half of those came after a scoring change took a goal away from him, leaving him with the assist instead after a teammate got credit for tipping or redirecting his shot once they looked at a video review of the goal.

All that changed last night when he got plenty of glory by potting a goal, chipping in with two assists and ending his night by sticking up for his teammates and getting a fighting major; the first Gordie Howe hat trick of his WHL career. He received some of the biggest pats on the back I've seen this season from his coaches and teammates when he exited the ice after getting tossed for the late game tilt.

My guess is the fact they weren't around at the end of the game was the only reason Smith and Shea Theodore weren't the 2nd and 3rd stars of the game as that defensive pairing combined for seven points (1g, 6a). Goalie Justin Myles received the 2nd star in the building even though he faced only 15 shots. But in the first five to six minutes of the game the Chiefs came after Seattle hard and had a chance to bust the game open in their favor, after registering five of their 15 shots in the games first four minutes. Myles came up with key saves, allowing his team to weather the storm before taking control of the game. The Chiefs did get on the board first with a power play goal but before Spokane got another past him, on a mid third period shorthanded breakaway, Seattle was up 6-1 and the contest was well in hand.

I wrote before the season started that fans shouldn't expect Mathew Barzal to score highlight goals every night just because he was the first overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft and comes with a very impressive hockey resume from his Bantam and Midget seasons. Barzal isn't just a one trick pony and in fact it is the sum of all the things he can do on the ice that make him such a highly regarded prospect. Last night in Spokane he finished with nary a point yet he did so many other things on the ice that affected the game positively for Seattle that I thought it was one of his best games of the year. He's fun to watch.

17 year old forward Michal Holub has left the team, frustrated over a lack of playing time. I understand the frustration. In fact, I'd be disappointed with any player who was just happy to be here. Holub is a solid player who has potential to be an every game player in the WHL. I just find the timing of his departure odd. Holub had just played in Seattle's 5-1 win last Sunday and was in the lineup for two of the last three games after coming off a lower body injury. With tournaments coming this month that will take three T-bird forwards away from the team, plus the injury to Connor Honey, there was going to be ample opportunity for Holub to get ice time over the next four to five weeks.

Monday, December 2, 2013

A T-Birds Trifecta

For the second time this season the Thunderbirds swept a 3-games-in-3-nights weekend. It first happened October 4th-5th and 6th when they traveled East and beat Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Kootenay in successive nights. This time their victims were Saskatoon on Friday, Victoria Saturday night and, last evening, Spokane.

This second sweep was probably more impressive, especially when you consider the last two teams, the Victoria Royals and the Spokane Chiefs, are directly ahead of Seattle in the standings and had a combined record of 35-19-2-3 when the weekend started. In the process they struck for two power play goals against the top ranked penalty killing team in the league (the Royals) and stymied the league's second best power play unit (the Chiefs went 0-for-5 with the man advantage). The T-birds also outscored their three opponents this weekend 17-6. While the team averaged 5.66 goals per game this weekend, I'm more impressed that they allowed just two goals per game as they continue to improve their team defense.

Overall Seattle has won four in a row, dating back to their 5-4 overtime when November 23rd against Portland. The Thunderbirds have also earned a point in seven of their last eight games (12 of 16 pts). After starting off November 0-5-1-0, Seattle ended the month with a flourish, going 4-1-2-0. Meanwhile they started December by claiming their first road win this season against a U.S. Division opponent after initially going 0-4-0-1. That's important because Seattle has four more road games this month against U.S. Division teams, starting with a return to Spokane on Friday.

What was most impressive about this weekend was that Sunday in Spokane, after a day of travel that started with an early wake up call because of an early start time against the Chiefs and, after having played the night before, the T-birds put out their most complete effort of the weekend. Instead of wilting and showing signs of exhaustion as the game wore on they got stronger, scoring three of their five goals in the final 20 minutes. They won all facets of that game; 5-on-5 play, special teams, face offs and goaltending.

Goal scorers get all the glory but I really do enjoy watching the line of Jaimen Yakubowski, Scott Eansor and Sam McKechnie and the work they put in to shutdown the opposing team's top line. McKechnie in particular had a tremendous game Sunday in Spokane winning face offs and being strong on the forecheck and penalty kill. They may not be currently scoring in bunches like some of their other teammates but I think if the work rate continues at its present pace the points will start coming. Both McKechnie and Yakubowksi have shown in the past an ability to score. I know Eansor is frustrated that he hasn't potted his first WHL goal yet but he's getting more chances and coming close. It should be just a matter of time.

If you want three stars from the weekend I'd probably go Branden Troock, Alexander Delnov and Adam Henry but the reality is when you're winning it is a total team effort. You can't win consistently if not everyone is playing consistently together. What's the saying? "You're only as strong as your weakest link." Well, there were no weak links in the T-birds chain this weekend as everyone was pulling their weight.

Goaltender Justin Myles had his best game to date this season. He stopped 28 of 29 shots and was at his best when Spokane was at its most dangerous, on the power play. After a couple of rocky games Myles has rebounded to win his last three starts.
He and Danny Mumaugh have created a healthy competition in goal for Seattle. You'd have to go back to 2007-08 (Riku Helenius-22/Jacob DeSerres-20 ) to find the last time the 'Birds had two goalies with a chance to win more then ten games each. I'd say that is very doable now that Myles has nine wins and Mumaugh has seven.

The month of December is going to be a bear. Ten games between now and January 1st and the first nine are against the U.S. Division, arguably the best division right now in the WHL. Not one team in the division has a losing record. Combined, the record for Seattle's opponents in the month of December, outside of the Kamloops Blazers who they host New Year's Eve, is 71-31-7-5. It's going to be like a U.S. Division version of a family feud!

In case you missed our first period intermission interview Sunday with the newest T-bird, Calvin Spencer, here are a couple of highlights. His half brother is former Prince George Cougar, 2010 Stanley Cup winner (with the Chicago Blackhawks) and current Winnipeg Jet, Dustin Byfuglien. And, back in Minnesota he was coached by former T-bird and long time NHLer Mark Parrish. It's going to be a battle to get ice time for the 17 year old Minnesotan but with December tournaments taking a few T-bird players away we should get a chance to see him on the ice sometime over the next 3-4 weeks.