I know Coach K was upset after the game Saturday night in Everett with some of the officiating and I think that is more of an accumulative affect of what has transpired over the first dozen or so games this year. I know the league admitted to officiating errors in at least two games earlier this season that probably cost Seattle a minimum of two points but more likely four. So, when there are late penalties called in a close game, he just had enough.
But I also see some calculation in what the coach said to the media assembled outside the T-birds dressing room after that game. He was willing to take the wrath of the league office to stand up for his players. Seattle had just played a tremendous game and if not for two high sticking calls late in the game, Everett doesn't sniff the back of the T-birds goal, let alone get the win. Seattle was controlling the play. Did you notice both of those penalties were called with Seattle's forecheck pinning Everett deep in their own end? Yet Everett, under duress from the Thunderbirds pressure, gets bailed out by these two calls.
And Konowalchuk isn't necessarily disputing whether there were high sticks although he leans toward the "they weren't" argument. Maybe they were maybe they weren't. But he's arguing that either way, the Silvertips players were embellishing on those plays (the one player reacted as if he had just been punched in the face by Mike Tyson wearing a cast iron boxing glove). Apparently this summer the league made a point of saying to coaches that more embellishment penalties would be called this season. We're 13 games in and I haven't witnessed one embellishment call yet.
But to me, the contact with the goalie was more concerning. The night before I watched Scott Eansor drive the net on Spokane's Garret Hughson. He took a shot and Hughson made the save but Eansor's momentum carried him into the Chief's netminder. The result, rightfully so, was a goaltender interference minor on Eansor. Last night in Everett I watched as Seattle goalie Taran Kozun covers a puck in the crease. He clearly has possession but the Silvertip's shove into him after the play is over, push him back toward the goal line, then the player actually turned and sat on Kozun. The result? No call. In fact there was contact with Kozun all night long and not one penalty on Everett for goaltender interference. It seems the standard for a penalty changes from game to game.
I've said before these officials are young, both in age and experience and, like the players, they are here in the WHL to develop and get better. Not one of them is out there purposefully trying to screw a team out of a win. They are trying to be the best they can be at what, quite frankly, is a thankless job. There does have to be a certain amount of room for error. But there also has to be signs of growth and I think the coach's tirade basically says, we're not seeing it. You can only keep the steam in the tea kettle so long before you need to vent. So maybe the coach has to get out his checkbook but I think he does so without hesitation.
As for the actual effort from the Thunderbirds this weekend? I was overly impressed with their game both nights. They did after all, earn three of a possible four points, finally got their first home win Friday with the 5-3 victory over Spokane, and picked up their ninth road point in seven away games with the OT loss up in Everett. In fact, Seattle has now earned four of six points in their last three games against teams with a combined record of 23-10-6-1. In fact, every team the T-birds have played this season has a winning record except for Portland.
And Seattle did this with a young, shorthanded roster. Is their another WHL team legitimately waiting for their best player to be returned from the NHL like Seattle is with Shea Theodore? Maybe Kootenay with Sam Reinhart or possibly Prince Albert with Leon Draisaitl. But those two are actually playing in the NHL and could be kept there. Theo is hurt and will be returned to the Thunderbirds once he's cleared to play. So he has still to see ice time in a game.
Is there another WHL team breaking in 11 rookies? Not only is Seattle employing 11 first year players which is half their roster, but they are playing them in heavy doses. Is their another team that has been playing a good portion of the early season without three of its top six defensemen? The T-birds had to make a trade just to have enough defensemen to fill those six spots because of injury and suspension, yet they've been in every game, save one, 'til the final horn and it is their team defense that is a large reason for this.
I was really looking forward to watching Nikita Sherbak, the Montreal Canadians first round draft pick the Silvertips acquired from Saskatoon earlier this season. I left disappointed. He should be one of the league's most dynamic offensive players but either he is disinterested, overrated or Seattle just did a tremendous job of cancelling him out. Let's go with the latter and give the T-birds all the credit. He was like Casper the Friendly Ghost most of that game....constantly disappearing. In fact I thought Everett was better when he wasn't on the ice. I saw that kind of effort in Seattle the last two seasons from Alexander Delnov. It's just one game and he did get the assist on what essentially was a 4-on-3 power play, game winning goal, but I think I could have made that pass with my eyes closed with so much open ice. The Silvertips paid a hefty price to obtain him. He should be better then that. For the league's sake, as one of the WHL's marquee players, he has to be better then that.
The T-birds are playing .500 hockey (5-5-2-1) without their full roster, without their best player, with the youngest team in the league and with the offense still trying to find its way. It is a team trending upward with a big arrow. Early season lessons learned should turn into Grade A exam scores at the end of the season. These young Thunderbirds are growing up.
When Seattle does get both Theodore and Wardley back in the lineup, how do you keep Turner Ottenbreit out? I don't think you do. I think he's earned top six minutes. Tremendously confident young player. But what about Scott Allan who was thrown to the wolves after the trade from Medicine Hat? he has performed admirably and deserves ice time too. Then there is 16 year old Sahvan Khaira, who's already showing signs he'll be a top two d-man before his WHL career is over and may have played his best game to date Saturday in Everett. What a conundrum for the Seattle coaches to have. Three young defenseman will be fighting for one spot in the lineup each night.
My Thunderbirds three stars for the weekend are:
Third Star: Captain Justin Hickman. Hickman finished the weekend with four points (2g,2a) and is finally getting close to being 100 percent healthy. He's not there yet but 95 percent of Hickman still makes him one of the best 20 year olds in the league. More importantly, as he has always done, he stands up for his teammates and with no Evan Wardley on the ice the past week, he has had to be that guy.
Second star: Matt Barzal. Barzal had a three point night Friday against Spokane (1g, 2a) and despite not scoring Saturday in Everett, was still the most dangerous player on the ice. If not already there, he is becoming a complete two-way player, getting ice time in all situations. Really, really good right now, by the end of the season he'll be one of the best players in the league. He's certainly not damaging his NHL draft stock. And to think he's just 17.
First Star: It's a tie! I gotta give props to both Scott Eansor and Jerret Smith. As for Eansor, call him the Tazmanian Devil or the Engerizer Bunny, he has the non-stop motor coaches love. He's just so relentless and with the help of his new linemates, rookies Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan, he's finally being rewarded with a three game goal scoring streak. As a result, he has already equaled his goal total from last year's regular season. hands down one of the best penalty killers in the WHL. At age 18 he reminds me of what former Thunderbird Luke Lockhart did at age 20.
Smith meanwhile, continues to be the bedrock of Seattle's defensive corps. With Theodore unavailable he's also been capably manning the point on the power play, even scoring a power play goal Friday versus Spokane. He may have already logged more ice time this season then he did all of last year. Okay, that's a stretch, but you get the point. He's been a terrific anchor of the back end.