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.