Sunday, September 21, 2014

An "If Only" Game

Saturday night's home opener was another one of those frustrating games where you think the better team probably didn't win. It wasn't a "we're head and shoulder better" type effort because it was a very tightly contested, close to the vest, sixty minutes of hockey. But in the end Seattle probably outchanced the Silvertips. I know the coaches track quality scoring chances and they look at that statistic more so then shots on goal and I'd conservatively say the T-birds outchanced Everett, especially in the third period where I was hard pressed to remember even one scoring opportunity for the opposition as the 'Tips mustered just two shots on goal.

In the end Seattle missed too many of those opportunities and there were three basic reasons why. One, was Everett goalie Carter Hart. He made the key saves when the T-birds threatened. One of the reasons for that though is two, the T-birds didn't get a lot of traffic in front of the Everett net. A lot of the T-birds shots on goal were right into the center of his jersey, a pretty routine save for any goalie. But put a body in front of the goal and you get a chance to redirect those type of shots and generate a better scoring opportunity. A prime example of that is the only goal in the game scored by Everett early in the first period, a shot redirected by traffic in front of Seattle's goal. Reason number three? Far too many shots Seattle unleashed didn't hit the target. They were wide, high or blocked.

How many times in the third period did a Seattle forward, usually Matt Barzal, skate the puck up ice, gain the zone then hit the trailing defenseman, only to see the resulting one-timer end up somewhere in Auburn? You can think to yourself, "Boy if we had Shea Theodore in the lineup,that wouldn't happen." But the reality is that Seattle didn't need Theo last night. They have other defensemen very capable of putting that shot on net in Bear, Henry and Smith. Last night it didn't happen. A good week of practice can help that, heading into Friday's road game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans.

Friday night down in Portland the T-birds started a little jittery out of the gate but recovered quickly to the point it didn't hurt them. Last night against Everett they had a very slow start and that was the difference in the game. The 'Tips got the games only goal two minutes in, and Seattle spent almost the entire first half of the first period hemmed in their own end. Seattle needs better starts.

I was not surprised to see the T-birds carrying the puck up ice and into the offensive zone as opposed to dump and chase hockey, especially in that third period. Unlike the recent past Seattle now has forwards, such as Barzal and Ryan Gropp, who are capable of beating the neutral zone trap. It doesn't mean we won't see dump and chase. It will depend on the opponent but I fully expect to see more of what we witnessed in the third period Saturday night.

It was encouraging to see Scott Eansor score four goals in last spring's playoffs and hopefully it carries over to this season. He's had chances already in the first two games of the new season. Last night he kissed the crossbar on a shorthanded breakaway late in the second period. It is a game of inches, isn't it?

Like most fans I get frustrated when I see a missed opportunity like last night's game. It was certainly winnable from a Seattle standpoint. But in the end, despite the loss, I would still grade out that game as a positive. Effort was not an issue, maybe execution, but certainly not effort. When I talk about Seattle's youth and the fact they are going to probably be the youngest team in the WHL this season, I'm not throwing it up as an excuse or alibi for losing games like last night. Rather, I'm encouraged that in a close game like last night against Everett, the T-birds young inexperienced players didn't play like young inexperienced players. It tells me this team, with so many 16 and 17 year olds and so many first or second year players, can still compete night in and night out. There just seems to be a lot of hockey smarts among that youth.

I loved the grit from rookie Nick Holowko on his shifts in the third period. He was bangin' bodies, battling along the boards and scrapping for pucks. And I know rookie Donovan Neuls got penalized for that fraction-of-a-second after the whistle hit in the second period, but no way would I discourage him from that type of play-to-the-whistle (or slightly beyond) effort. To think Holowko went undrafted and Neuls was an 8th round pick. Could turn out to be a couple of steals. Just a few examples that Seattle's changes in their scouting staff a few years back is paying dividends.

Can we check the birth certificate of Nolan Volcan? Is he really just 16? The young man plays with his hair on fire. There may not be another T-birds with better straight line speed and like Holowko and Neuls, he doesn't shy away from physical contact. In fact, he's often the aggressor. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk wouldn't throw his three 16 year olds out their in close games if he wasn't confident in their abilities and Volcan, fellow forward Kaden Elder and defenseman Sahvan Khaira were all seeing the ice in the third period. They're going to make their mistakes along the way but I love how all of these young guys play with confidence in their abilitiy to execute the game plan. It can only benefit them down the road and my that I mean later this season, not two or three years from now.

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