Monday, January 27, 2014

Special Delivery

After the frustration of the road loss in Kennewick on Friday, the Thunderbirds responded well by winning the last two games on the weekend. They topped off the busy stretch by defeating the Kelowna Rockets Sunday to push their win total to 31, the first time since the 2008-09 season that the T-birds have won more then 30 games.

The story of the three game weekend was special teams. Friday at the Toyota Center against the Tri-City Americans, Seattle failed to capitalize on a first period five minute power play, surrendered a shorthanded goal, and never recovered as they dropped a 3-1 decision. There were other missed opportunities in the game including two more ineffective power plays but giving up the shorty in the first set the tone for the rest of the game.

Saturday at home versus Everett was the complete opposite as Seattle went 4-of-5 with the man advantage in their 4-3 overtime win against the Silvertips. The Thunderbirds also managed to kill off 3 of 4 Everett man advantages as they got back in the win column after their seven game win streak had been snapped the night before.

Sunday it was more of the same. The T-birds scored twice against the Rockets on the power play in their 4-1 victory. But the key to the game was killing off a four minute Kelowna power play chance in the second period with the score still tied at 1-1. Seattle's penalty killers did an excellent job of blocking shots and getting sticks into shooting lanes and also deflecting passes. Less then 30 seconds after the penalty kill the 'Birds scored what turned out to be the game winning goal.

As a result, Seattle's power play, which has languished towards the bottom of the league through much of the season, has risen to ninth in the WHL at 21.3%. In fact, the T-birds 50 PP goals are the third most scored in the league to date. Only Portland (57) and Brandon (51) have scored more power play goals then Seattle. The statistical oddity? Seattle is #2 in the WHL at home on the power play (28.6%) but just 20th out of 22 teams in the league on the road with the man advantage (15.4%).

Meanwhile the T-birds penalty killing has been fairly steady all season and at the moment ranks 10th but is #2 on home ice. This weekend in three games Seattle killed off 10 of 11 shorthanded situations. Sam McKechnie was like a Tazmanian Devil on the PK for the T-birds. He and Scott Eansor bring so much energy and pressure to the ice when killing off penalties.

After taking a knee-on-knee hit in the first period Friday in Kennewick it didn't look like Jaimen Yakubowski was going to be back on the ice any time soon. He spent the rest of the game against the Ams up in the Toyota Center stands with his knee heavily wrapped. But there he was Saturday, taking his regular shift against Everett. Very fortunate not to have suffered a significant, long term injury. It wasn't a dirty play by the Tri-City player that led to the hit, just a bit reckless. Sunday Yakubowski was being a pest and appeared to get under the skin of the Rockets. He finished off the weekend with the empty net goal against Kelowna. Not bad for someone who was on crutches just 48 hours earlier.

Talk about making the most of your opportunities, Seattle's Mitch Elliot has just three goals in 45 games this season but two of them are game winners. He had an overtime game winner back on October 4th in Medicine Hat and got what turned out to be the game winner Sunday in the second period against Kelowna. Elliot has shown his versatility this season playing both on the wing and at center. He's been on the team's 3rd and 4th lines, gets time on the PK and even spent one game back on defense. Elliot knows that his role is as the team's enforcer and he does it very well. He doesn't have to lead the team in PIMs. Opposing teams are very aware that he's there.

How good has goalie Taran Kozun been since being acquired from Kamloops at the trade deadline? Six games, six starts, six wins. Sunday he stopped 33 more shots and was a shorthanded break away goal away from his third shutout with Seattle. He has posted a 1.29 GAA and .955 save percentage since joining the team. A nearly under the radar trade deadline deal, it may end up being the best any WHL team made.

After starting the month of January with a boatload of injuries and going 0-3, Seattle has now gone 9-1 over their last ten games, relying on their depth to get them through. The injuries started piling up in Mid-December but during that stretch Seattle has still managed to go 12-6-1-0. Again, they are slowly getting healthy but don't we all salivate just a little wondering what this team can do with Branden Troock and Connor Honey back in the lineup? Soon, hopefully soon.

The busiest month of the regular season concludes Friday night in Everett when the T-birds once again meet the Silvertips. It has been years since the Thunderbirds have posted double digit wins over one month of hockey but a win against the 'Tips would be Seattle's 10th in January.

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