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!

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