Opening night games are a funny thing. Win and you start dreaming you'll never drop another game, lose and you think, "oh well, it's just one game in a long season."
The Thunderbirds opened the new season Friday night in Portland with a solid 4-1 win over their longtime rivals. Now, I'm not trying to be Dougie Downer here, but let's remember that Seattle started each of the past two seasons with an opening night win over the Winterhawks as well, and when the season ended five months later the T-birds were firmly in Portland's rearview mirror in the U.S. Division standings. Let's also realize that Portland was missing some pretty key components to their roster with 7 to 8 top end players away at NHL camps and a few others sideline with injury.
That being said, there is no need to put an asterisk by this win. As one coach I used to work with would say, control the controllables. The Thunderbirds have no say in who their opponent puts on the ice but they do control the effort they themselves bring to each contest. Much is being made of Portland having nine rookies in the lineup last night. Well, the T-birds had eight and a ninth rookie was a healthy scratch. Don't forget, the T-birds are absent a couple of key players too and even if they had those missing players in the lineup, they still field one of the youngest, if not the youngest rosters in the WHL. Friday night, in addition to the eight rookies taking to the ice, the T-birds had four second year players in the lineup as well.
It was their young players doing most of the damage. Second year player and 2011 first round draft pick Ryan Gropp paced the attack with two goals. The T-birds two first round selections from the 2012 draft, Matt Barzal and Keegan Kolesar, began their second year in the league by contributing four points (1g, 3a). 2013 second round selection Nolan Volcan probably had the assist of the night, setting up 2014 first round Import Draft selection Alexander True's first WHL goal.
If you wanted to bill this opening night game as a battle between Seattle's future and Portland's future, the T-birds not only won the battle, they dominated. The final score was actually flattering to the Winterhawks. If not for the stellar play in goal by Portland goalie Adin Hill, the final numbers on the scoreboard would have been more lopsided in Seattle's favor. Again, its just one game but it might have been a good glimpse into the future.
Sometimes the scoresheet doesn't tell the whole story. If you look beside the name of Seattle's Austrian import Florian Baltram, you'll see nothing but zeros but I thought he was one of the best players on the ice for the Thunderbirds. If not for a couple of acrobatic saves by Hill, Baltram would have easily had a multiple goal WHL debut.
The last thing to come around for a young team such as the T-birds are, is consistency or the ability to bring that type of effort to the ice each game. The good news is Seattle gets a chance to show they can be consistent when they hit the ice again tonight in their home opener against Everett. So this becomes a very good early season test of that ability to bring a consistent effort from game to game, not to mention that a good opening weekend could go along way in setting the tone for the rest of the season.
There is some thought that the injury to defenseman Shea Theodore's elbow would affect which three 20 year old players the T-birds will eventually keep once we reach the 20 year old cut down date in Mid-October. Theodore will be sidelined 4-to-6 weeks after suffering the injury while at camp last weekend with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks. The T-birds are currently carrying two 20 year old defensemen on their roster in Adam Henry and Evan Wardley. Henry had a key assist in the win over Portland while Wardley is currently in camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadians.
I posed that question to Seattle G.M. Russ Farwell last night in Portland and essentially he said since Theodore will eventually return from the injury, it should have no bearing on their 20 year old decision but he does want to resolve the issue as soon as possible so that which ever players end up on the outside, get a chance to hook on with another team.