Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Game in Hand is Worth Two...

...points in the standings.

As they say, games in hand only mean something if you win them. Seattle entered last night's game versus Prince Albert two points ahead of the Spokane Chiefs in the race for fourth place in the Western Conference. Of course finishing fourth or higher means home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason. The T-birds had also played one fewer game then Spokane prior to last night, so last night's affair was Seattle's "game in hand" on the Chiefs and while they needed overtime to do it, the T-birds took care of business with the 4-3 win.

The victory stretches Seattle's lead to four points with both the T-birds and Spokane having nine games remaining in the regular season, including a head-to-head match up March 11th at the ShoWare Center. It also ended the 'Birds three game winless streak (0-2-0-1)and was Seattle's first win since clinching a playoff spot with a 3-2 road win February 15th up in Everett. It also gives Seattle another winning month as they end February at 6-4-0-1.

While officially Seattle won it last night with Alexander Delnov's game winning goal midway through the overtime period, the Thunderbirds may have actually won the game late in the first period when they killed off a Raiders 5-on-3 power play that lasted 1:44. Prince Albert came into last night's game with the second best power play unit in the WHL but ended up going 0-for-4 including that lengthy two man advantage. At the time of that late first period 5-on-3, Seattle already trailed, 1-0, and a second Raiders goal could have been a death knell.

By the way, Delnov has scored three of Seattle's six game winning OT goals this season and going back to last spring's first round playoff series against Kelowna has scored four of the team's last nine OT game winners.

This game had a great intensity to it as both sides treated it much like a playoff game. And why not as both teams had something to play for. The T-birds, as I mentioned are battling for home ice in the playoff's opening round. Meanwhile Prince Albert is fighting to get into the playoffs and by earning one point last night they now lead the Red Deer Rebels by a point for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If Prince Albert holds on to a playoff spot with nine games to go, they may look on this five game trip through the tough U.S. Division as the reason why. With just tonight's game up in Everett left, the Raiders have already earned 5 of 8 points against the division. After the game against the Silvertips, the Raiders head back to Prince Albert for a five-game homestand.

You look at that Prince Albert roster and you watch them play and you find it hard to understand why that team is just a .500 club battling for that last playoff spot out east. They have proven goaltending, a solid set of defensemen led by Josh Morrisey, an NHL first round draft pick last spring by the Winnipeg Jets. They also possess some good firepower among their forwards, most notably Leon Draisaitl, and they made enough acquisitions both before and during the season to bolster their lineup with veteran leadership such as Dakota Conroy, Grahame Craig and Colin Valcourt. Yet here they are, with nine games left, fighting for their playoff lives.

Seattle's Ryan Gropp and Mathew Barzal have shown good chemistry when on the ice together recently. There's no better example of that then Barzal's goal in the third period, assisted on by Gropp. That goal is the dictionary definition of "highlight reel" goal. Barzal ended up with the first two goal game of his young WHL career. Of course, it didn't hurt that he had familiarity with the opposing goalie. He and Prince Albert's Nick McBride were teammates a couple year's back with the Burnaby Winter Club. I'm sure Barzal shot a hundred or so times on McBride at team practices and thus probably had a good idea of McBride's tendencies.

Keegan Kolesar had another strong game for Seattle and was rewarded with an assist on Seattle's second goal. The rookie out of Winnipeg has a goal and one assist in his last six games and is +2. Last night Seattle had five rookies playing regular minutes and they accounted for four points (2g, 2a) and were +1 in a game decided by one goal. Kolesar, like Barzal and defenseman Ethan Bear, is part of Seattle's 2012 WHL Bantam Draft class. Another member of that draft, Lane Pederson, has joined the team now that his season back home in Saskatoon is over.

This season the Thunderbirds have had six rookies (16 year olds Barzal, Bear and Kolesar along with 17 year olds Gropp, Calvin Spencer and Scott Eansor) play regularly (a minimum of 25 games) and they've contributed 41g, 85a, 126 pts. and are a combined +13 in 273 games. That is a per player average of 7g, 14a, 21 pts., +2 and 45 games. Meanwhile, four other young prospects, Pederson, Logan Flodell, Kaden Elder and Nolan Volcan all made their WHL debuts at some point this season.

The ShoWare Center was full of NHL scouts last night. They were primarily there to see Prince Albert's Leon Draisaitl, widely considered one of the top prospects available for the upcoming NHL Draft. The strapping power forward did not disappoint, registering a goal and an assist, but I hope those scouts took notice of the job Seattle's Justin Hickman did in marking Draisaitl. T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk tried to match Hickman's line as much as possible against Draisaitl and the Raiders top line. Hickman was not on the ice when Draisaitl scored his breakaway goal and he did a good job of being physical with the Cologne, Germany native for most of the 60-plus minutes of hockey.

Hickman, a 19 year old out of Kelowna, has reached career bests this season in goal (20), points (42) and plus/minus (+6)in addition to being the team captain. He's in prime position to earn an invite to an NHL training camp next fall, if not a free agent contract.

The race for fourth place:

The T-birds magic number to clinch 4th place is 14 points.

Seattle has nine games remaining, six at home (Portland x 2, Everett x2, and one each against Vancouver and the Spokane) and three on the road (Portland x 2, 1 @ Tri-City).

Spokane has nine games remaining, 4 at home (1 vs. Portland, 1 vs. Everett, 2 vs. Tri-City) and 5 on the road (1 @ Seattle, 1 @ Kelowna, 1 @ Tri-City and 2 @ Prince George).

Current winning percentage of Seattle's remaining opponents: .597. Current winning percentage of Spokane's remaining opponents: .619

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lost Weekend

Since officially clinching a playoff spot last Saturday night with a 3-2 come-from-behind win in Everett, the Thunderbirds have gone winless in their next three games; 0-2-0-1. Two of the losses were at home to the two teams with the two worst records in the WHL's Western Conference, Prince George and Kamloops. Did the team exhale after clinching a postseason berth and fail to start breathing again?

Seattle was clearly the better team on the ice most of the night against Kamloops, but the T-birds must bring out the best in the Blazers because they battled to keep the game close. In the end, Seattle's biggest opponent might have been themselves.

Unforced turnovers were a big part of Seattle's ills in the first half of the season. It seemed they had corrected the problem and that correction has been a big reason they've had so much success in the second half. Those unforced turnover issues have resurfaced though in this current losing streak and are directly responsible for two of their three losses, especially last night when an egregious turnover gifted Kamloops their first goal.

The forecheck has been another staple of Seattle's game. They have greater success when they dump the puck into the offensive zone and use their size and speed to win battles along the boards, thus creating offense. They were a little better at it Saturday in the shootout loss to Kamloops but no where near the level they've been at much of January and February. It is an aspect of their game they need to rediscover if they are to have success come playoff time.

I thought the shot total in the third period Saturday night was a bit misleading. Seattle ended up outshooting the Blazers 16-2. Indeed, Kamloops didn't get their first shot on goal in the third period until the 17:43 mark. But while the T-birds did have a legitimate advantage in shots and territorial play, not too many of those 16 shots were dangerous scoring chances because very rarely was someone for Seattle going hard to the net. There just hasn't been much of a net-front presence for Seattle in this losing streak. But, I bet if you look at the goals Seattle has scored in these three losses, you'll find there was traffic in front of the opposing goalie on most, if not all of them.

I lost count of how many times the T-birds missed an open net by shooting the puck wide or high this past weekend. At least four times last night alone. The goal scorers are struggling right now and it's not just a few of them, it is most of them. Roberts Lipsbergs, who leads the team with 31 goals hasn't scored in the past six games, has just one goal in the month of February and just three in his last 15 games.

The one common denominator in the Thunderbirds recent struggles? The absence from the lineup of Scott Eansor, who is out with a prolonged illness. Eansor is a high energy guy who uses his tenacity and quickness to be a tremendous forechecker and general pest. His absence from the lineup also affects the way the coaches can set up their forward lines. The Colorado native has missed the last nine games and without him Seattle is just 5-3-0-1. It just goes to prove you don't have to be at the top of the scoresheet to be an important cog in the wheel of success.

Strange-but-true department: In their last two home games Seattle has either chased the opposing starting goalie early or the opposition has had to replace the starter early due to injury as was the case last night. In each case, the backup goalie has come in and stolen the show. Last Sunday it was Ty Edmonds of Prince George who came in and shut the door with 39 saves, helping his team recover from a three goal deficit to earn a 6-4 win. Last night it was Cole Kehler who came off the bench to make 33 saves and three more in the shootout to earn his first WHL win.

Seattle will end the season a combined 3-3-0-2 against PG and Kamloops including 0-2-0-2 on home ice. Against the rest of the league at home the 'birds are 20-3-1-1. That's eight points they left on the table against the two teams at the bottom of the standings. Can't decide which of those losses is worse, the blown 2-goal home ice lead against Prince George with two and a half minutes remaining back on October 18th in a 5-4 shootout loss or the 7-1 drubbing New Year's Eve at the ShoWare Center against the Blazers. Meanwhile, Seattle is 7-0-0-0 against Spokane, including three shutouts. Go figure.

In four games this season against Kamloops, the worst team in the West, Seattle scored a grand total of seven goals. In four games against the team at the top of the standings, Kelowna, Seattle scored 13 goals. On the season, Kamloops has surrendered over 100 more goals then the Rockets.

The Thunderbirds still control their own destiny in regards to home ice advantage in the opening round of the WHL playoffs. But even with seven of their final 10 games on home ice, it won't be easy. No one left on the schedule currently has a losing record and four of their remaining games are against Portland, a team currently riding a 21-game unbeaten streak.

Seattle's "magic number" to clinch home ice is 16 pts. The T-birds could find their hold on 4th place in the West down to a scant two points come Sunday night. That's because Spokane, right behind Seattle in the standings, hosts Kamloops tonight.

Circle March 11th's home game on your calendar. That's the final regular season game against Spokane.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Time for T-birds to Graduate

Want to know what's confounding? Seattle is a combined 18-4-1-0 against Spokane, Everett and Tri-City, three teams above .500, three teams in arguably the toughest division in the WHL and three teams that would, if the postseason started today, all be in the playoffs. Meanwhile Seattle is just 3-3-0-1 against Prince George and Kamloops, two teams below .500. In fact, they are the only two teams in the Western Conference currently without winning records and two teams currently on the outside of the playoff picture.

Not only that, but in their seven games against the Cougars and Blazers, the Thunderbirds have been outscored, 30-24. In their 23 games against the Chiefs, Silvertips and Americans, the T-birds have outscored that trio 76-51. This tells me the T-birds lack a bit of hockey maturity. They bear down against the top clubs but ease off that effort against the so called "lesser" teams. They lose their focus and don't bring their "A" game against PG and Kamloops.

To prove that point further, Seattle is 27-12-2-1 against all teams with winning records in the Western Conference. Seattle has more wins (5) against the top two teams in the conference, Kelowna and Portland, then they do against the bottom two teams in the conference; the Cougars and Blazers (3). The 'Birds currently have a losing record against just two Western Conference teams; Portland (3-5) and Kamloops (1-2). One is understandable, one is unacceptable.

So, a beautiful weekend of hockey ended up with an ugly scar on its cheek because the T-birds stopped playing hard Sunday after building up an early 3-0 lead against Prince George. They began to play sloppy with the puck, team defense evaporated and they hung their goalies out to dry with mind-numbing turnovers. PG is a desperate team, they need every point down the stretch to try and catch Tri-City for the eighth and final playoff spot. They weren't going to wilt because of an early three goal deficit. They are in playoff hockey mode right now, playing every game like it is an elimination game. Seattle had them down, then let them off the hook.

Before the game I talked with Mitch Elliot. He said the T-birds still have lots to play for despite having clinched a playoff spot the night before with a terrific come-from-behind road win in Everett. Besides, he said, you can't just turn the switch off and turn it back on again come playoff time. You have to continue playing 60-minutes of your best hockey right up to and into the postseason.

Sunday the T-birds found that to be oh-so-true. They turned the switch to "off" once they built that three goal lead and found out they just couldn't turn it back to "on".

Lost in that loss to Prince George is how much hard work the T-birds put in to winning the first two games of the weekend, Friday over Tri-City and the road win in Everett Saturday. A win Sunday and they could have put a pretty good stranglehold on fourth place in the conference and inched a bit closer to home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason. Instead, they now could find their lead over 5th place Spokane down to just four points by the time they take the ice again up in Everett Friday night. That's because Spokane, which won last night to close the gap to six points, plays at home Wednesday against a struggling Prince Albert team.

The Thunderbirds do get a chance to improve on their "hockey maturity" this coming weekend and into next week. They play their next three games against three teams either below them in the standings or with losing records. First up, a tough match up against the Silvertips. After dropping a 5-0 decision to Everett back on November 2nd, every game against the 'Tips since has been a hard fought battle. The good news is the 'Birds have gone 5-0-1-0 in the last six games against Everett, earning 11 of 12 points in the process.

Saturday the T-birds are back home to begin a four-game homestand. It's their last chance against the Kamloops Blazers, the team dead last in the West and well out of the playoff picture but a team that has beaten Seattle twice in three tries and outscored the T-birds 12-6 on the season. The following Tuesday the Prince Albert Raiders make their one and only appearance against the T-birds. Prince Albert is the Prince George of the Eastern Conference. They are currently a couple games below .500, and a couple of games out of the 8th and final playoff spot out East. They will be a very desperate hockey team.

Despite the loss Sunday Seattle got a strong weekend out of their Lethbridge Foursome; their own 'Cane Train, if you will. In the three games this weekend, Sam Mckechnie, Jaimen Yakubowski, Russell Maxwell and Adam Henry combined for 10 points (4g,6a), were +11 and potted two game winners. That's some good trading. Those deals alone make Seattle GM Russ Farwell a strong candidate for WHL Executive of the Year. Toss in the deal that brought Taran Kozun from Kamloops, the signing of Ryan Gropp back in October, the offseason addition of Soctt Eansor and the in-season addition of Calvin Spencer and Farwell moves toward the front of the class. He has added a good mix of veterans and youth without sacrificing much, if any of the team's future.

The Chase for Fourth Place:
Seattle has 12 games remaining, 8 at home and 4 on the road. Nine of those 12 games will be against the U.S. Division (4 vs. Portland. 3 vs. Everett, 1 vs. Tri-City and 1 vs. Spokane). All three games outside the division are at home versus Prince Albert, Kamloops and Vancouver. Ten are against teams currently with winning records.

Spokane has 13 games remaining. 7 at home 6 on the road. Nine are against teams with winning records. Just six are against the U.S. Division (3 vs. Tri-City, 1 vs Portland., 1 vs. Everett 1 vs. Seattle). The Chiefs still face the Cougars twice up in Prince George, have a home-and-home against Kootenay, host Prince Albert and Kamloops and go on the road to Kelowna.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Time for a Home Cooked Meal

The Monday game in Kelowna will be fairly easy to analyze in the aftermath of the 7-3 loss. The Rockets, who had lost two in a row at home coming into the matinee game, played with purpose and urgency from the very start. The T-birds did not. Seattle never matched Kelowna's compete level and when that happens against one of the best teams in the league a 4-goal loss shouldn't be too surprising. That's the type of game in which Seattle really misses the energy of Scott Eansor who missed his fourth game due to illness.

Seattle had a few early chances to keep it competitive but never capitalized on any scoring opportunity until the game was out of hand in the third period. Don't hang this loss on goalie Taran Kozun. Was it his best game in goal since joining the team a month ago? No, but his team defense in front of him gave the Rockets too much time and space with the puck. Kelowna wasn't necessarily peppering him with tons of shots but they were getting quality scoring opportunities throughout the game. I lost count at about five or six with all of their shots ringing off the post or crossbar.

Still, in the big picture the 'Birds ended up splitting the four game season series with Kelowna as both teams went 2-1-0-1. Both earned five of a possible eight points. Both teams won a 4-3 shootout on the road and both had a fairly comfortable regulation win on home ice. Even the goal scoring was fairly even with the Rockets getting a slight 14-13 edge.

That was Seattle's last regular season game north of the border. The next time they see Canada will be either in the playoffs or next season. I'm not sure how they worked this out but the Thunderbirds play 10 of their last 15 games at home. Meanwhile, the only road trips left on their schedule this month are two short jaunts up to Everett, an hour away. Then, of their nine games in the month of March, six are at home. They travel to Portland, a mere two and a half hours away, on Friday, March 7th. They also finish the regular season with a two-game road trip that starts in Portland, Saturday March 15th, and ends in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans, the next day. Hardly the kind of road trip that will wear you down.

The T-birds will go through an 18 day stretch between February 22nd and March 11th where they will play seven of eight games on home ice. One thing the T-birds can't complain about down the stretch is their schedule.

Now, the quality of the opposition, whether on home ice or away, is another story as all but two games left on the schedule are against teams with winning records. And the two teams who are under .500, Prince George and Prince Albert, are currently only a combined 4 games below break even, both could be at .500 by the time they reach Kent and both are fighting for their playoff lives, meaning they will be desperate teams coming into the ShoWare Center.

Meanwhile, Seattle is eight points away from clinching a playoff spot. That is, any combinations of points Seattle earns or Prince George fails to earn equaling eight and Seattle is in. Based on the schedules of both teams this week, the earliest the Thunderbirds could sew up a postseason berth would be this Saturday but that would only be possible if they get help from other clubs who are playing the Cougars.

Seattle could take care of business themselves by sweeping all three games on their schedule this weekend. Not out of the possibility but a tough task considering the opposition; Tri-City at home Friday, Everett on the road Saturday, then back home Sunday against the Cougars.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

T-Birds Zero in on Fourth Place

It's a Saturday in early February, the races for the postseason and playoff position in the WHL are in full swing, and the T-birds have the night off? Strange schedule but I'll take it. Not sure what to do with this rare Saturday night off. Maybe I'll re-introduce myself to the wife and kids!

Heck of a week for the Thunderbirds, going a perfect 3-0-0-0 and outscoring the opposition 11-3 in the process. As a result their lead over Spokane for fourth place in the Western Conference is now eight points and they finish the week just one point out of third.

It's been 154.04 minutes since the T-birds last allowed a goal. Seattle's team goals against average over the past 14 games is 1.54. The Thunderbirds have a lot of offensive weapons but it is their team defense that is winning them games. It starts in goal with Taran Kozun who has posted four shutouts since joining the team January 10th.

Kozun has put together three straight shutouts against Spokane, not easy to do when you're facing two of the league's top goal scorers in Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani. But while Kozun certainly deserves the majority of the credit, the team has done a tremendous job of clamping down on that pair. It starts with Seattle's shutdown line which usually features a combination of Jaimen Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie, Scott Eansor, Russ Maxwell or Mitch Elliot.

When Seattle beat the Chiefs Wednesday over in Spokane it was their 34th win of the season and also guaranteed they would have their first winning season since the 2008-09 season when they finished three games above .500. Now at 35-16-2-3 the next milestone is the 40 win plateau. The last time the T-birds reached 40 wins was six seasons ago, 2008-07, when they finished 42-23-5-2. To get to that point that season, the T-birds had to win seven of their last ten games. To reach 40 wins this season, Seattle needs to finish 5-11.

While the focus is on the present, the Thunderbirds future is also on display. Mathew Barzal has nine points in his last five games while Ryan Gropp has eight points in his last seven. Meanwhile defenseman Ethan Bear continues his season long steady play from the back end. Those three players, all eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft, are a combined +28 in 128 games this season. Somehow the officials found a way to steal a goal from Bear Friday night, when a curious "incidental contact with the goalie" call waved off what would have been his fifth goal of the season. When the goaltender initiates the contact well outside the crease, is it really incidental?

The T-birds have a rare Monday matinee game on the schedule when they travel up to Kelowna to take on the Rockets. My source, T-birds captain and Kelowna native Justin Hickman, says it's Family Day, a new holiday. Cool idea, but had this holiday been scheduled one week earlier I would have put up a large protest. See, the team will leave Sunday for that Monday afternoon game. Had this been last Sunday with the Seahawks in the Superbowl I don't think I would have been on that bus! Somehow, I think the folks up in Canada knew this!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Thunderbirds Can, Spokant

A rare set of back-to-back midweek games and Seattle takes them both, beating Everett Tuesday at home, 5-3, then traveling to Spokane on Wednesday and registering a 4-0 shutout over the Chiefs. That's the best way to answer that 3-0 shutout loss in Portland Saturday night.

The Thunderbirds have now won three in a row from the Silvertips and lead the season series, 4-2, with four games still to play. Meanwhile the team has taken all six games so far this season from Spokane, the last two by way of shutout, having blanked the Chiefs 1-0 in overtime back on January 14th. That game too was in Spokane and going back to last season Seattle has won five straight at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The two division rivals will meet twice more, both at the ShoWare Center in Kent, including this Friday night.

Back on January 7th, at the back end of five straight on the road with multiple players out of the lineup with injury, the Thunderbirds ended a five game winless streak by beating Prince George up at the CN Centre, 9-7. It was also the fifth straight time in which they allowed at least five goals against in a game. In fact in that six game stretch between a December 28th 4-3 overtime loss to Everett and the 9-7 win in Prince George, the T-birds allowed 40 goals, or 6.6 per game.

In the 13 games they've played since that 9-7 win over PG, the T-birds have not allowed more then three goal in any one game. Over the course of the 13 games since that goal-filled victory over the Cougars, they've only surrendered a total of 22 goals to the opposition, or just 1.69 goals against per game. So, it should be no surprise that they've compiled an 11-2 record over that baker's dozen of games. It has all been keyed by much improved team defense led by their goaltending tandem of Taran Kozun and Danny Mumaugh.

Kozun, of course, has been the key. Since being acquired at the trade deadline from Kamloops on January 10th, he is 8-1-0-0 in his nine starts with Seattle with three shutouts, posting a 1.31 goals against average and a save percentage of .957. But don't overlook Mumaugh's performance Tuesday night in the win over Everett. The Centennial, Colorado native was peppered with 21 first period shots. In the one game during this stretch when the T-birds team defense was not at its best, many of the shots he faced from Everett that night were quality scoring opportunities. He kept his team close through the first two periods, allowing them to win it with a pair of goals in the third that broke the 3-3 tie. Mumaugh's minutes in goal are being diminished by the play of Kozun, but he has to be ready to go when he does get a chance and Tuesday night he came up big, time and time again.

What more can be said of Kozun? What other trade deadline acquisition has had as much impact as that Kozun deal? Since last offseason Kamloops has dealt both goaltenders that were on those Blazer teams that played in the last two Western Conference Finals. Cole Cheveldave was the starter both those seasons. The 20 year old goalie went to Prince Albert in the offseason in a deal that cost the Raiders a first round pick (Jake Kryski).

Cheveldave was thought to be the piece that could put Prince Albert in position to challenge for the top of the Eastern Conference. Instead, right now PA is on the verge of missing the postseason. Meanwhile, Kozun came to Seattle at a minimal cost, certainly nothing that was going to be an integral part of the T-birds immediate future. Not only is Kozun, who was Cheveldave's back up the past two seasons, leading Seattle to the postseason but he's helped put them in position to get home ice advantage in the first round.

Who would have thought that the T-birds deal with Kamloops would net them the better option in goal?

Speaking of what more can be said? How about the play of Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman so far this week? In two games this week Hickman has accounted for five of Seattle's nine goals in their two wins, including the hat trick versus the Chiefs. He also had an assist in his two-goal effort against Everett Tuesday night. If not for a series of five or six shots off the post/cross bar over the past month, he'd easily be over 20 goals on the season. As it is he now has 18, which is six more then he had all of last season. Hickman has also been the team's tone setter with his physical play. He's also a vocal leader, one of the reason's he's the captain, and is starting to play his best hockey at the right time of the season.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Half and Half

In the end, it was an "okay" weekend for the Thunderbirds as they split two road games against their biggest rivals, defeating Everett Friday night and falling Saturday down in Portland.

As was the case a week ago, special teams were the deciding factors as Seattle scored a second period power play goal up in Everett, that turned out to be the game winner, then used a strong third period penalty kill to prevent the Silvertips from getting the tying goal.

Saturday in Portland the T-birds couldn't get out of their own way, taking penalty after penalty, giving the Winterhawks seven straight power plays, including a five-minute major and then a 5-on-3 in the second period. Many of the penalties against Seattle were obvious, in particular the five minute major to Keegan Kolesar. But also the stick infractions, specifically the hooking calls. A few calls were borderline, and by that I mean you could play again Tuesday with a different officiating crew and not get some of those penalties called, but Saturday the T-birds did not adjust to the standard by which the officials were calling the game.

Still, Seattle got out of the penalty-filled second period only down a goal thanks to a strong penalty kill and solid netminding again by goalie Taran Kozun. I don't believe there were 49 Portland shots in the game but shot totals get inflated or deflated in every building in this league. Seattle's penalty killers did an excellent job of getting into passing lanes, blocking shots and tying up Winterhawks players in front of the Seattle goal. This allowed Kozun to make the saves he had to make.

Getting out of that second period only down a goal should have been a win for Seattle and given then all the impetus they needed for a strong final period. Unfortunately the response in the third was less then inspiring. Instead of building off the hard work of the PK, the T-birds were not playing desperate enough over the final 20 minutes. Only down a goal they could have swung momentum to their side had they played with a better sense of urgency. Instead, when they finally got a power play of their own they were sloppy with the puck, turned it over and surrendered a shorthanded goal that essentially put the game out of reach. The third period was a case of too many passengers on the train.

If there was a silver lining from the two games on the weekend, I felt in both games Seattle was playing very well 5-on-5, especially early Saturday against Portland. Until the parade of Seattle penalties that started midway through the first period and continued until midway through the second, the T-birds were outshooting Portland 7-3 and Portland was not generating offense 5-on-5. even with their first power play, the Winterhawks only were given credit for one shot.

The problem was Seattle played a stretch of nearly 20 minutes of hockey mostly shorthanded, which was like skating with one hand tied behind your back and you tied the rope yourself. As good as the T-birds penalty killing has been lately, the odds will catch up to you when you give an opponent that many consecutive power plays. The Thunderbirds are a physical team, they are going to get their share of penalties but at some point they're going to have to rein in some of the preventable ones, such as those aforementioned hooking calls. There's aggressive physical play and then there is overly aggressive physical play and it is the latter that is costing Seattle.

What was too bad about all those penalties was, up to that point, it was shaping up to be a really competitive hockey game between two long time rivals. I guess it still was, until that second Portland goal just shy of the midway point of the third period. This was a scoreless contest after 25 minutes and it had some playoff-like intensity to it. The trade deadline acquisitions have made Seattle a fairly complete team and they now have the goaltender who can be a difference maker.

More good news for Seattle was the return of Branden Troock to the lineup for the first time since suffering an injury January 4th in Edmonton. The injury cost him 12 games and came at a time when he was probably Seattle's best player on the ice. I think he was keen on showing that he wasn't going to shy away from the physical play coming off that injury but because of his exuberance he played a bit out of control at times and took three minor penalties. Still, there were glimpses of his ability to take over a shift. I think after getting that first game back out of the way he will settle down and get back to being the offensive force he was most of the first half of the season.

So that leaves just Connor Honey still on the sideline. Honey has been out since October 5th when he sustained an injury in Lethbridge, a span of 45 games. The plan is to get him back in the lineup and hopefully soon.