Monday, March 31, 2014

Staring into the Rockets Red Glare

Depending on who you spoke with, the Thunderbirds were either a slight favorite or slight underdog in their first round series against Everett. That won't be the case in round two. As they were a year ago when they met Kelowna in round one of the postseason, the T-birds are not just underdogs, they are decided underdogs against the Rockets once again.

It's simple, Kelowna is not just the higher seed in this match up, they are the top seed remaining in the entire WHL postseason, East or West. The Rockets spent the vast majority of the season atop the B.C. Division, atop the Western Conference, at the top of the WHL standings and atop the CHL Top Ten Poll which encompasses not one, not two, but three Major Junior leagues. Most pundits have had them penciled into the Western Conference Finals since November. The point disparity between the two clubs is not as great as it was last season when Kelowna finished 50 points higher in the standings then Seattle (108-58) but the Rockets still had 16 more wins then did the T-birds this season.

Seattle? Well, when the T-birds played their best hockey they showed they could skate with any team in the league, winning a combined eight games against Portland, Kelowna and Victoria, the other three teams remaining in the Western Conference playoffs. They are battle tested and won't be intimidated by the Rockets success. But they also showed they could be inconsistent and lose to teams that, on paper, they should not have lost to as evidenced by their 1-3 record against the Kamloops Blazers.

Seattle also went through a long stretch midseason where injuries decimated their roster. Who knows where they might have finished had they stayed healthy all season. Then, after clinching a playoff spot in mid-February they seemed to ease off the gas and faltered down the stretch going 4-8-0-1 in their last 13 games and almost giving away home ice advantage for round one. As a result the T-birds had three occasions this season in which they lost four or more consecutive games. This is what they need to avoid in the playoffs; letting their game fall off. Only three times this season did Kelowna even lose back-to-back games and in each case, one of the two losses was either in overtime or a shootout so they never went more then a game without earning a point.

What does it all mean? Well I think the fans and media read more into that then the players and coaches do. The regular season doesn't matter right now; the first round of the playoffs doesn't matter right now. Both teams are 0-0 and it is the first team to get to four wins that matters. I don't think there is one player on the T-birds roster, or for that matter the Rockets roster, who doesn't think their team can win this series. All the T-birds know is that if they bring their "A" game every night against the Rockets, they have just as much chance to advance out of this series as they did in their first round matchup with Everett.

All Kelowna knows is that if they play the way they played throughout the regular season and in their first round series win over Tri-City, they have an opportunity to get to the Western Conference Finals. It is that simple. The team that executes their game plan, finishes their opportunities and makes fewer mistakes, will come out on top.

A lot will be made about the T-birds looking to avenge their loss to the Rockets in the first round last spring. The rematch just one year later makes for great drama, blogger fodder and series hype, but more then half this Seattle roster wasn't even with the club a year ago or didn't play in that series. Hard to seek revenge when you have no connection to that series. Is Seattle relishing another chance at Kelowna? Of course they are but that's because the Rockets stand between them and a berth in the Western Conference Finals. A Seattle win in this series won't erase what happened a year ago so if the T-birds are more focused on revenge rather then on playing their game for sixty minutes every night they'll lose this series. Their focus has to be on their game, their way.

That doesn't preclude T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk from sending the same message to his players as he did a year ago. Enjoy it, have fun because, you just don't know when the ride will end as it did so abruptly in overtime of Game 7 a year ago.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Saturday Night Special

That's how you finish off a series. Like they said in "Remember the Titans", leave no doubt! After getting robbed by some excellent saves from Everett goaltender Austin Lotz the first half of the game, the determined T-birds broke free the last 30 minutes and won Game 5 going away, 5-0. In this battle of two teams who haven't enjoyed a lot of playoff success recently, Everett suffers its 7th straight first round playoff exit while Seattle advances past the first round for the first time since 2008.

It was as complete a 60 minutes of hockey as they've had in the playoffs to date. It was similar to Game 3's overtime win but on this occasion, Seattle stayed out of the penalty box and their 200 foot game really put the clamps on the Silvertips, rarely allowing them a scoring chance. It was the complete opposite of what happened in Game 4 up in Everett the previous night when it seemed the T-birds could do no right. This bounce back effort was a testament to their leadership, both behind the bench and on the ice.

I was asked after the game if T-birds goaltender Taran Kozun was the MVP of the series? He certainly was a key piece of the winning puzzle, but in a team sport, and at the most important time of the season, I hate singling out one individual player as the definitive reason a team won. Would the Thunderbirds have won the series had not Kozun played the way he did? Probably not. He was at his best in all but one game, brilliant with his glove and as always handled the puck behind the net with great ease. You might say he stole Game 1 for Seattle with his play in the second period that night alone. But where might the T-birds be today without the efforts of their shutdown line of Sam McKechnie-Scott Eansor and Jaimen Yakubowski? We saw what happened Friday night in Everett with Yakubowski out of the lineup.

Mathew Barzal didn't register a goal in the entire series but tell me his contributions weren't a big reason for Seattle moving on. Do the T-birds win Game 3 in overtime without him? How strong was he on the back check most of this series? Defenseman Jerret Smith never jumps off the stat page with gaudy offensive numbers but he once again was his steady, reliable self back on the blue line. I could go on but the biggest take from this series is how much hockey is a team sport and it takes 23 players to win, especially in the postseason. The MVP of this series for me was the T-birds focus, in all but one game, to play 60 minutes of hockey, stick to the game plan and make every shift count.

That's the funny thing about the playoffs. Most prognosticators had this series going the distance, if not at least six games, but Seattle put it away in five. The series was closer then that final margin but in the end, the Thunderbirds were the better team and deserved to move on. It makes you rethink that theory that you just can't flip a switch come playoff time. Maybe you can. After all, the Silvertips entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the WHL at 11-0-0-2 over their last 13 games. Meanwhile, Seattle was 4-8-0-1 over that same stretch with three of their eight losses at the hands of the 'Tips. Yet here we are after the first ever postseason series between these two U.S. Division and geographic rivals; the Silvertips season is over and the T-birds are off to Kelowna to face the Rockets in the second round.

And that quirky format of alternating venues for each game of the series that upset so many T-birds fans who thought they were giving away home ice advantage? In the end it had little impact, in fact it may have benefited the T-birds who won Game 2 in Everett 3-1, the only team to win a road game in the series. Seattle still got three of the first five games on home ice and won all three. A lot was made on how tough Everett is to come back on once they have a lead but Seattle was the only team in the series to come from behind and win a game and they did it twice, the most important of those the 4-3 overtime win at the ShoWare Center in Game 3.

As mentioned, up next up for Seattle are the WHL's regular season champs, the Kelowna Rockets. It is, of course, a rematch of last season's epic seven game first round playoff series that featured five overtime games, including Game 7. The two teams split the four game regular season series, both going 2-1-0-1. Will this be the fourth time in the last decade or so that these two teams meet in the postseason and take it to a decisive 7th game? I don't make predictions. It is really a silly exercise. I mean, no one had Seattle's 24 win team last year taking the Rockets 52 win 2012-13 team the distance, and overtime at that, to decide the winner last April. Let's just enjoy the ride!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Doesn't This All Seem Familiar?

For the second straight postseason Seattle finds themselves leading a first round playoff series, 3-0, and for the second straight year they achieved that 3-0 series lead by winning Game 3 in overtime, on a Tuesday, at the ShoWare Center. A season ago it was an Evan Wardley blast in overtime that bested the Kelowna Rockets in front of a packed 2-for-Tuesday crowd. This time around it was a Mathew Barzal shot that ricocheted in for the game winner against Everett that got the Joint on James Street jumpin'. Deja vu' anyone?

The game probably never should have gotten to OT. But Seattle's penchant for taking penalties allowed Everett to forge an early lead despite the T-birds dominating long stretches of the game. I wonder if Seattle's reputation makes it easier for the officials to call penalties on them? Afterall, the 'Birds were the most penalized team in the WHL during the regular season. Mind you, I though some of the calls against Seattle were marginal, but it just appears to me they are not getting the benefit of the doubt with some of the calls against them.

The circle of life. Go back to the end of the 2012 regular season. The T-birds last home game is against Everett that year. The two teams are battling for the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. A win and Seattle is in. A T-bird loss vaults Everett past them in the standings and means Seattle needs to go to Portland the next day and earn a point against the Winterhawks or their season is over.

The Thunderbirds lead on numerous occasions but the Silvertips keep coming back to tie the game and then come from behind to win it in the third period (sound familiar?). The T-birds lose the next day in Portland as well and are eliminated from a chance at the postseason. Everett's prize was getting knocked out quickly in the first round of the playoffs by the Tri-City Americans.

Seattle's consolation prize? The T-birds fall in to the mix for the draft lottery and when there ping pong ball comes out first, they move up to the top of the draft and select Mathew Barzal. Fast forward to overtime of Game 3 last night. After battling from behind three times in regulation, the T-birds win it in overtime on a goal set up by Barzal. Just think, if Seattle had won that game against Everett back in March of 2012, there's is no way Barzal is on their roster to help them beat the 'Tips Tuesday night.

There might be many out there surprised to see Scott Eansor with a two goal night. Afterall, he had all of three goals in 59 regular season games. I'm sure his coaches and teammates aren't shocked by it though. He has that ability. Nice to see him finally get rewarded on the biggest stage in his hockey career so far. But Eansor contributed more then just two goals. He was a relentless forechecker and penalty killer. Remember, this is the guy who played even when under the weather earlier this season. He was sick enough that he threw up all over himself between periods one game and yet still came out and played the rest of that night in another jersey. No guts, no glory.

Nothing has been earned or won yet. It is still a best of seven series and it takes four wins to advance. The Thunderbirds still have work to do and Everett won't go quietly into the night. Next up, Game 4 Friday night at Comcast Arena in Everett. Bring your hard hats.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Two Before Two-for-Tuesday

Suffice it to say, the Thunderbirds have to be fairly pleased to be up, 2-0, in their best-of-seven first round playoff series versus Everett. It was a good weekend for the 'Birds. But Seattle knows better then anyone that, while they've taken a couple steps in the right direction, nothing has been accomplished yet. Until one team wins four games, it is still anyone's series to take.

The T-birds succeeded both nights because they were committed to playing 60 minutes of hockey both games. By no means were they perfect but the effort was there and their compete level never waned. You can argue they were a tad lucky in Game 2 up in Everett (or that the Silvertips were a tad unlucky) as at least three 'Tips shots clanked off iron. An inch or two left or right with those shots and it could have been a different outcome. But, I subscribe to the theory that luck is the residue of hard work and Seattle was working hard both nights to forge those victories.

Seattle set the tone on the very first shift of Game 1. The Jamien Yakubowski-Scott Eansor-Sam McKechnie line established a very aggressive forecheck with that first shift and every line thereafter followed suit, right through the end of Game 2. Doesn't that line deserve some sort of catchy nickname? The Mac-Ean-Yak Attack? The Y-M-E-Eh! line?

There is this thought, I think, that Seattle's seven game, first round playoff series a year ago against Kelowna gives the T-birds the necessary playoff experience needed to understand what it takes for a deeper postseason run this time around. The reality is though, that the T-birds came into this series with less playoff action under their belts then their counterparts in Everett. And neither team has a great deal of playoff experience on their roster. I think before the series began Everett had 111 games of playoffs experience up and down their lineup while the 'Birds had only 77.

Of the 22 players on Seattle's first round playoff roster, 13 had never played in a WHL playoff game before Game 1 Saturday night. That includes six of their 10 19 year olds. The majority of the T-birds playoff experience is on the back end where four of their top six defenseman combined for a grand total of 28 games of playoff experience prior to the start of this series.

The good news is that some of those playoff novice, older players have not been overwhelmed by the experience. In fact they've taken to the spotlight. Goaltender Taran Kozun, who sat on the bench the last two postseasons with Kamloops, has stopped 64 of 66 shots faced through the first two games. The combination of Russell Maxwell, Branden Troock, Yakubowski, and Adam Henry have combined for six points (3g, 3a), one game winning goal and are +4 in a series which so far has featured only three even strength goals.

Before Sunday's bus ride up to Everett for Game 2, rookie Matt Barzal was pumped. As he boarded the bus he told me it was a beautiful day for hockey. Then he went out and had a beautiful game, with a beautiful assist on Troock's game winning goal. I can't pin point anything particular, though he has really improved his 200-foot game, but the first year player has pushed his game up to another level over the last month and now it appears he's moved it up another notch for the postseason. The phrase that keeps coming into my mind is "game changer".

In the postseason you need everyone playing the right way but you also need your best players to be the best players on the ice every night. Through the regular season T-birds defenseman Shea Theodore was arguably the team's best player. He led the team in scoring and now he's continued that pace in the playoffs registering three points on three assists through the first two games of the series, including a big assist on the game winner in Game 1. Meanwhile Roberts Lipsbergs, who was Seattle's top goal scorer during the 72-game regular season with 33, is starting to heat up at the right time. Lipsbergs has always been a streaky scorer and he was struggling for points at season's end but so far in the playoffs he's leading the way with three points (1g, 2a) and is +1.

Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell didn't get selected as the Western Conference Executive of the Year, but I hope it was a close vote. The honor went to Victoria's Cam Hope and I have no argument with that choice, in fact I'm expecting him to win the league honor. Hope is very deserving of the award as he built a solid team and made a couple of shrewd in season moves to bolster his team. That said, how important have Farwell's roster moves been to the Thunderbirds early playoff success, particularly the trade deadline acquisitions?

The Kozun trade has already paid for itself and then some but maybe just as important was the under-the-radar-acquisition of Maxwell from Lethbridge back in early January. In the absence of the injured Connor Honey, Maxwell gives the Thunderbirds another offensive threat. He had ten points (5g, 5a) in 29 regular season games with the T-birds and was +6. Now he leads the team with two playoff goals and is +1.

The one thing I've noticed about this team going into the playoffs that is similar to last spring going into the series against Kelowna is the focus the players have. They are all business and they are looking no further ahead then the next game. That next game is this Tuesday at the ShoWare Center as they try to push out to a 3-0 series advantage.

Monday, March 17, 2014

They're Back!

After slumping with inconsistent play for a couple of weeks, the Seattle Thunderbirds rediscovered the game they have played most of this season Sunday In Kennewick and beat the Tri-City Americans, 6-1.

It started with the first shift as early on they established a level of effort that had been missing since the T-birds beat Portland, 4-1, a couple of Saturdays ago. It was that early energy and focus that allowed them to score the game's first goal, a power play marker from Shea Theodore just two and a half minutes into the contest. It was the first time in nine games Seattle had scored the game's first goal.

Seattle established their forecheck with those early shifts. That's important because as goes the forecheck, so goes this team. It's not just big hits in the offensive zone either, it's gaining proper position along the walls to win puck battles and it's active sticks knocking down passes as Tri-City tried to move the puck up ice. The T-birds created so many neutral zone turnovers by the Americans, it was difficult for Tri-City to get any offensive flow.

More important the effort was sustained over the entire 60 minutes. Even after establishing a comfortable three goal lead through two periods, there was no let up in the third period; not until the final horn. I don't think the T-birds treated this game as a final tune up before the playoffs, I think they attacked this game as though it was the playoffs. If Seattle plays that style in the postseason, they can skate with anyone. If they play, say the way they did Satruday down in Portland, they'll struggle. I know that, you know that but I'm sure most importantly, the players know that.

After the game head coach Steve Konowalchuk told ESPN 710's Andy Eide that it was probably Keegan Kolesar's best game of the season. I'd agree with that. he was winning almost every battle along the boards. He created offense as a result. In a game where everyone played well, he made his line, with Alexander Delnov and Mitch Elliot, the best on the night.

His rush down the right win in the second period that set up Elliot's goal was a WHL Plays of the Week candidate as he chipped the puck past a pretty good 20 year old d-man, Tri's Mitch Topping, turned Topping around with an inside-outside move and then centered the puck on goal where Elliot reached out and redirected it past Ams goalie Evan Sarthou.

That was a big point in the game as early in the period Tri-City had cut the Seattle lead to 2-1 and grabbed a little momentum as a result. That play be Kolesar put control of the game back on Seattle.

That was Seattle's 4th line and they combined for five points (2g, 5a) and were a +6. If they play that way in the playoffs I like Seattle's chances.

What a great way for Elliot to finish off his regular season WHL and T-birds career as he finished the night with a goal, an assist and was +2. Too bad Tri-City's Jesse Astles got hurt in the third and had to leave the game. I have a feeling Astles might have obliged and dropped the gloves with Elliot to help him get the Gordie Howe hat trick. Astles and Elliot fought earlier this season in a game at the Toyota Center and both players have great respect for one another.

Congratulations are also in order for Theodore who, with his two goals last night, established a new record for career goals by a T-birds defenseman. Theo ends the season with 22, which is third all-time for a one season total by a defenseman but his 45 career goals pushes him past Deron Quint (1993-1995)who held the record at 44.

I'm assuming Theodore will be back for one more season with Seattle so he should put up a final total that will be hard to beat. Maybe next season he can top Quint's single season goal scoring mark for a T-bird defenseman of 29 set back in the 1994-95 season.

Branden Troock hasn't yet tasted the postseason as a T-bird. He was out with injury last spring when Seattle faced Kelowna in the first round. Troock ended this year as a point a game player (58 points in 58 games). He almost finished it with a hat trick. He hit the post on his penalty shot attempt in the second period then in the third he rang one off the cross bar before finally potting his 24th goal of the season with a wrap around goal that finished off the scoring. With Seattle's second leading scorer from last season, Conner Honey, unavailable the last five months, Troock becomes an important piece for the postseason this time around.

Lots of tweets out after the win Sunday that helped clinch fourth place and home ice advantage for the T-birds for their first round series against Everett. The one that caught my eye was Donovan Neuls (pronounced Nigh-ells)tweeting that he has signed with the T-birds. By signing to play for Seattle, Neuls, an 8th round pick, becomes the 6th player from the 2012 WHL Bantam draft to join the Thunderbirds but he might not be the last. Neuls is a left winger out of Grenfells, Saskatchewan and has spent the last week practicing with the team. Neuls joins Barzal, Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Logan Flodell and Lane Pederson as members of the 2012 draft class who have agreed to play with the T-birds.

Last offseason, after the T-birds has lost that epic playoff series to Kelowna in overtime of Game 7, I said this team could not be satisfied; that they had to build off that effort and their goal this time around should not just be making the playoffs but they should be good enough for a top four finish in the Western Conference.

Indeed, the T-birds made it one of their goals: winning record, playoffs and home ice advantage in round one. So far, three for three. Next up, a deep playoff run. That means getting out of the first round. It won't be easy as they face a red hot Everett team. See you Saturday at the ShoWare Center for Game 1!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Final Countdown

Just one weekend, three games, left in the regular season. Three games in three nights to determine Seattle's first round playoff matchup.

Far too many possibilities to detail here because of the possibility of overtime or shootout losses by not just the T-birds but Spokane and Everett as well. In the Western Conference the one, two, three, seven and eight seeds are already locked in. What needs to be decided is the 4th, 5th and 6th seeds and which of those three teams will get home ice advantage in a #4-#5 matchup and which team heads to Victoria next weekend to face the Royals.

One thing we do know, if Spokane claims the 4th seed, no matter if Seattle or Everett finish in the 5th spot, The T-birds or Silvertips would begin the first round series against the Chiefs at home. The Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena is occupied by the NCAA basketball sub-regionals next weekend so it is unavailable for hockey. Now, Spokane, as the higher seed, would still get four home games and I'm assuming game seven on home ice if necessary, but they would have to begin on the road which seems to be standard operating procedure for the Chiefs in recent history because Spokane always seems to be hosting NCAA basketball this time of the year.

Seattle, because they currently sit 4th, controls their own destiny. The simplest formula for the T-birds is this: One more Seattle win clinches the 5th seed and eliminates Spokane from finishing ahead of the Thunderbirds in the final standings. One more Seattle win and one more Everett loss, whether that is regulation, overtime or a shootout, and Seattle claims the 4th seed and home ice in round one. Of course, if the T-birds just win out this weekend, it won't matter what the Chiefs or 'Tips do.

We know Seattle's remaining games. They have a home-and-home against Portland beginning Friday night at the ShoWare Center in the final regular season home game. After a rematch in Portland Saturday, the 'Birds travel to Kennewick to finish up the regular season against the Tri-City Americans Sunday.

Spokane with just two games left, finishes with a home-and-home with the Americans. First up is a meeting Friday in Spokane before the Saturday rematch in Kennewick.

Everett has three games left including a pair against Victoria. Everett is on Vancouver Island Friday night then both teams take the ferry ride back for a game Saturday at Comcast Arena in Everett. The Silvertips finish the regular season on the road with a Sunday game in Portland against the Winterhawks.

First though, Seattle has to get back to playing better team defense. They are back to generating more offensive opportunities but they are making d-zone errors that are ending up in the back of their net. Their last couple of games have reminded me of the way they were playing at the beginning of the season. They were scoring nearly four goals a game but were also giving up just as many.

The Thunderbirds fortunes started to turn when they made a more concerted effort to play better inside their defensive zone. When they won eight in a row from late November to mid-December, and again when they were winning 12 of 13 games from Mid-January to Mid-February, they reduced their goals against average greatly by committing to playing better team defense.

In the last ten games Seattle is just 3-6-0-1, with only one of those wins in regulation. Not surprisingly over that span the T-birds have surrendered 38 goals, or 3.8 per game. You can't win too many games allowing nearly four goals against every night. Get back to playing the way the played most nights between Mid-November and mid-February and they should be alright.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Busy Week Ahead; Playoffs Looming

Winning is never easy, sometimes it's down right ugly. Busting a losing streak is even harder. So, while giving up a two-goal lead in the third period is not optimal, getting a crucial two points at this stage of the season was critical, thus the shootout win over Vancouver Sunday becomes a thing of beauty and snapped the T-birds three game losing streak.

Seattle was controlling most of the game versus the Giants. It could have been a four or five goal lead in the third if not for the herculean efforts of Vancouver goalie Peyton Lee who ended the night with 43 saves. But a bad penalty and a bad bounce midway through the final period let the Giants back into the game and Seattle lost the momentum. In the end the T-birds prevailed, thanks to some stellar goaltending from Danny Mumaugh in the shootout as he denied Vancouver's last four shooters, twice with defeat staring him right in the face. Gut check goaltending by Mumaugh there gets the Thunderbirds the extra point and a well earned win.

The victory ended a very inconsistent weekend for the T-birds. They played well through two periods Friday in Portland, coming back twice to tie the game, including a two-goal comeback in the second period. But after falling behind by a goal at the end of the second, they had no response in the third.

It was similar Saturday at home against Everett. A tepid first period, a sloppy second and by the time they finally got going in the third it was too little too late. It didn't help that captain and team leader Justin Hickman missed those two games with an upper body injury. It was good to have him back in the lineup Sunday versus Vancouver, even if not at 100 percent.

Sunday's contest was Seattle's "game-in-hand" on both Spokane and Everett and it snipped two points off their magic number to clinch fourth place in the Western Conference and home ice advantage in the first round. Right now the magic number sits at four. Seattle can eliminate the Chiefs from catching them in the standings with a regulation win at home Tuesday at the ShoWare Center. Spokane can still finish with the same number of points as the T-birds but a win by Seattle Tuesday would mean the best Spokane could do is tie them and the T-birds would own the tie-breakers. The 'Birds have already won the season series and if Seattle wins Tuesday the best Spokane could do is tie them in the win column.

The T-birds need one more win and three points to stay ahead of Everett in the final standings. A win and a Silvertips loss would also do the trick. By winning out, the best Everett could do is finish with 40 wins. One more win would give Seattle 41. If I remember correctly, the first tie breaker is wins, then head-to-head record (Seattle and Everett split their season series). By winning out, Everett would finish with 89 points. The Thunderbirds currently have 86. So, one more win and another point by either SO or OT loss would sew up home ice in the first round for the T-birds.

The easy part is figuring out the scenario. The hard part will be accomplishing those goals. Seattle's final four games won't be easy. They have two at home and two on the road. They'll play those four games over six days. All four remaining games are against U.S. Division opponents including two against Portland. The final game of the season could be against a Tri-City team trying to sew up a playoff spot.

Winning is never easy.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Make like a Banana and Split

The Thunderbirds end up splitting their two home games on the weekend after falling Sunday, 3-1 to Everett. Unfortunate that they couldn't piggy back on the great effort Saturday against Portland with a similar effort against Everett.

The key against Everett and their trapping style is to get up on them early and force them to take more chances with the puck so they can't sit back in the neutral zone and defend for 40 minutes. But Seattle got off to a poor start, letting Everett dictate the early play. They compounded the problem by taking two penalties within three seconds of each other putting the Silvertips on a two-man advantage for nearly two minutes. The 'Tips were very smart and patient with the puck and moved it around methodically until finding the open man for the goal.

That ended up really being the difference in the game, the power play, because the two teams traded even strength goals in the second period and Seattle missed a number of chances to take the lead on their own power play opportunities in the second.

By the way, whatever happened to the instigator rule? Seems to me Everett's Matt Pufahl should have received one for the fight with Kolesar which would have negated Everett's first power play in the first place.

46.11 Instigator - An instigator of an altercation shall be a player who by his actions or demeanor demonstrates any/some of the following criteria: distance traveled; gloves off first; first punch thrown; menacing attitude or posture; verbal instigation or threats; conduct in retaliation to a prior game (or season) incident; obvious retribution for a previous incident in the game or season.

Seems to me Pufahl's actions meet the criteria I've highlighted under the rule. he wasn't involved in the original incident so he traveled a distance in order to confront and to drop the gloves with Kolesar, plus he was obviously seeking retribution for a previous incident in the game, the hit Kolesar made on his teammate behind the Everett goal, which was being penalized by the referee. His conduct was a direct retaliation for the prior incident.

Just a few weeks back Seattle's Justin Hickman was hit with an instigator for doing far less. To me, this is a case of referee's subjectively enforcing the rule. If you can't be consistent, get rid of the rule.

In the end, I didn't think the T-birds worked hard enough over the course of sixty minutes Sunday to get more pucks deep or get more traffic in front of the Everett goal. They had moments but it wasn't a full on effort over three periods. They had played a near perfect sixty minutes of hockey against Portland the night before, but were, at times, flat against Everett. They worked hard in the second period to tie the game up but all the hard work got erased when they let up just enough and allowed that late goal off the rush.

Some good news? After the game I spoke with Scott Eansor and he told me he's been cleared to play. He'll need to use this week of practice to get his game legs back under him but he should be good to go this coming weekend when the T-birds play three times in three nights. Seattle could have used his energy this weekend, especially against Everett.

Marching On

Are you ready for a hockey-stavaganza? Beginning with tonight's game against Everett, Seattle plays eight games in 15 days. They play almost as many games in the first 16 days of March (9) as they did in the entire 28 days of February (11).

There are two schools of thought on that, both pro and con. If you get on a roll over that span, that good play can carry you right into the playoffs. On the other hand, playing that many games in such a short span could tire you out just as the postseason arrives. We'll see how it works out because just about every team in the league is dealing with the same situation.

The Thunderbirds started the month of March with a solid 4-1 win over Portland Saturday night before a sold out ShoWare Center. Is there a little of CenturyLink Field in the ShoWare Center? The ShoWare Center isn't the biggest arena in the league and Seattle has been on the road in front of crowds both bigger and of similar size to the 6,031 who were in the building last night. I'm just wondering if the design of the building or the materials used in its construction helps funnel the noise created by the fans right down on top of the ice, similar to the way the design of CenturyLink Field helps hold the noise on top of the field at Seahawks games. Six thousand fans at the ShoWare Center just seems louder then 6,000 in other barns.

Of course no matter the design of the building, there is no noise without the fans who had the Joint on James Street jumping last night. They were into it early but I thought Taran Kozun's save on Oliver Bjorkstrand's shorthanded breakaway goal in the first period was the turning point and really got the crowd out of their seats. Don't think the players appreciate that? Their center ice salute to the fans at games end tells you all you need to know. And that the majority of the fans stick around for that and the three star announcement makes it all the better. Seattle is 22-5-1-3 at the ShoWare Center this season and the home crowd is a big reason why. Show then good competitive hockey, and the fans at the ShoWare Center will show you their appreciation.

A good lot of that noise was created by the families of the players. It is Parent's Weekend and if you get a chance Sunday, thank the player's parent for letting their sons be part of this organization. Can't be easy for these parents to send their teenage sons so far from home to chase their hockey dreams.

Kozun was, once again, at the top of his game, improving his record with Seattle to 13-4-0-1 with a GAA of 1.80 and a save percentage of .944. I'm not in the least concerned with the shot total. So many of Portland's 42 shots were from the outside that they might as well have been shooting from the ShoWare Center parking lot. But when the Winterhawks did get into an optimal shooting position Kozun was seemingly always squared up to the shot. And again, I'll go back to something I've written about him previously, he plays the puck so well behind the net he disrupts a teams abilty to dump and chase, forcing teams to try to carry the puck in through the neutral zone.

The Thunderbirds may have had fewer shots then Portland last night with 35, but I'd fathom a guess that they had twice as many scoring chances. The good news is Seattle seems to be coming out of a bit of a scoring funk by getting more pucks to the net. Just a matter now of finishing more of those chances. They'll need that tonight against an Everett team that possesses a stifling defense and really clogs up the middle of the ice.

With their win last night, coupled with Spokane's loss, Seattle has whittled their magic number to clinch 4th place and home ice in the first round of the playoffs down to just eight points. As it stands right now, The T-birds can finish no lower then 6th place.