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.

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