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.

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