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

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