Sunday, April 6, 2014

Was it Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?

The Thunderbirds earned their current predicament in their second round series with Kelowna. Seattle is down, two games to none, because they didn't play 60 minutes of hockey either night. Down, but not out. Seattle has had their moments in the series. the question is can they correct their mistakes and get back in it?

Game 2's results were probably the more frustrating. Seattle legitimately outshot the Rockets 39-30. I also don't think it would be exaggerating to say the T-birds had more quality scoring chances Saturday night then did the Rockets, but as they did in Game 1 Thursday, they didn't finish enough of those chances. A good portion of the credit for that goes to Kelowna goalie Jordon Cooke who cold-stone robbed the 'Birds time and again but Seattle still has to do a better job of finishing their chances. The T-birds had 18 shots on goal in the first period alone and probably half of them were quality scoring opportunities. Yet, at the end of the period all Seattle had to show for it was a 2-2 tie.

Still, the T-birds should have had the momentum coming out for the second period. After falling behind, 2-0, they scored twice in the latter half of the first period to tie the game and created a couple of late scoring chances as they were looking for their first lead in the series. They did generate an early second period scoring chance but after failing to convert, their response the rest of the period was not good. In fact they took another silly stick infraction penalty; an avoidable and unnecessary hooking minor. The Rockets lethal power play made them pay, scoring the go ahead goal. Or in this case, the go-ahead-and-dominate-the-rest-of-the-period goal. The T-birds never recovered from that power play goal, By the time they got back to playing better hockey in the third period they were down 5-2.

Seattle finished the regular season with 41 wins, were 16 games over .500 while remarkably finishing with a minus 11 in goal differential. Somehow they finished with a .611 winning percentage while surrendering more goals then they scored. Three other WHL teams managed winning records with a minus goal differential (Vancouver, Red Deer and Prince Albert) but those three teams barely finished above .500. Red Deer missed the playoff while Vancouver and Prince Albert squeaked into the postseason as 7th and 8th seeds in their respective conferences and were quickly dispatched in Round One with neither team winning a playoff game.

Meanwhile Seattle not only made the playoffs, but as the fourth seed out West, earned home ice advantage in Round One. They then won their opening series in five games and advanced to the Western Conference Semifinals. How does a team that gives up more goals then it scores do this? Well, I believe it is because the Thunderbirds have a very, very good collection of talented players. But, like Superman, they have their Kryptonite.

Seattle's reasons for that regular season minus goal differential are being highlighted in this second round series against Kelowna. The T-birds are not doing a good job of puck management inside their own blue line. Their turning the puck over far too often, failing to clear rebounds and not keeping the area in front of their own net, the house, free of unimpeded opposing players. It's been their Achilles Heel all season. Over the second half of the season and the first round of the playoffs, the excellent goaltending of Taran Kozun helped cover up for a lot of the T-birds defensive zone lapses, but through the first two games of this series, Kozun has been off his game and, when he needed his teammates to bail him out, they've failed to do so. If they are to get back in this series, they are going to have to do a better job of playing team defense when the puck is inside their defensive zone.

The first two games of this series have been very winnable games for Seattle, but only had they paid better attention to the small things that win you games. The Rockets aren't skating the Thunderbirds off the ice in this series but they are winning the battle when it comes to the small details that create big plays, things like tape-to-tape passes. In life they say don't sweat the small stuff, but in playoff hockey the small stuff makes a big difference.

So far, the postseason has been a bit of a coming out party for 17 year old rookie Scott Eansor. Okay, technically Eansor turned 18 in early January but this is still his 17 year old season. Anyway, with his goal in the first period of Game 2, Eansor now is tied atop the Seattle leaderboard with Branden Troock for the goal scoring lead in the playoffs. Both players have four through six games. That's one more then Eansor scored in 59 regular season games. Not to look too far ahead but this offensive outburst should give Eansor the confidence to come into next season and be a 20-goal scorer.

I feel for Eansor's linemate, Sam McKechnie. Twice in the series he's made a tremendous play to give himself a breakaway chance only to be denied each time by Cooke.

Speaking of looking ahead, Seattle played the second game with four 16 year olds in the lineup. The latest addition was Lane Pederson who made his postseason debut in the absence of the injured Jaimen Yakubowksi. Pederson did not look out of place. There was one error that indirectly led to the Rockets second goal but otherwise he was strong on the puck and played a physical game, showing a willingness to go into the corners and fight for pucks along the wall. In other words the Saskatoon native looked right at home playing under the bright lights of the postseason.

Seattle has signed their top six '97 born players from the 2012 Bantam Draft and you can expect at least five, if not more, to be key contributors next season. Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear and Pederson are currently playing with the team. Goalie Logan Flodell has been practicing with the team during the playoffs and Donovan Neuls signed with the team in March and got in a couple of late season practices.

All four of those 16 year olds who skated Saturday are legitimately still just 16 too. Although that changes Tuesday when Kolesar celebrates his 17th birthday. Let's hope he's celebrating with a Two-for-Tuesday, Game 3 win.

When the T-birds bus departed Kelowna late Saturday night, it is very likely they left a future T-bird star behind. A big bantam tournament was underway just on the outskirts of Kelowna, in nearby Rutland, drawing tons of WHL scouts into the Okanagan. The teams participating are the top bantam teams from Western Canada and many of the players involved will hear their names called early next month at the WHL Bantam Draft.

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