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!