Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ealry Season Minutia

In the game of baseball you'll often hear them say this about an ace pitcher, "You'd better get to him early." In other words some of the best pitchers take an inning or two to find their mojo and if you are aggressive early, you might be able to jump on a couple of mistakes before he settles in.

Through four games of the new WHL season, the T-birds are a bit like that ace pitcher. They have started slow in every one of their four games and opponents are jumping on them early, but by the third period they are dominating the action. And while statistics don't tell the whole story and a quartet of games is a small sample size, here are some pertinent numbers to back up that thought.

In the first period so far this season, Seattle has been outscored, 3-0. In fact the T-birds have surrendered the first goal in every game. It's like giving Usain Bolt a two meter head start in a 100 meter dash. They're always chasing the play. Meanwhile, through four games the Thunderbirds are being outshot in the first period 43-30 or, on average, outshot 10.75 to 7.5 in the first each night.

Those numbers are certainly the bad news. Now, the good news. By the third period Seattle is completely turning those numbers around. So far this season the T-birds are outscoring the opposition 5-1 in the third period and they are outshooting them 41-16, or, on average, 10.25 to 4.

Last night in Portland, thanks to a 13-2 first period shot disparity in Portland's favor, Seattle was outshot in a game for the first time this season, 29-24. The 29 shots allowed was a season high but it took the Winterhawks 65 minutes to reach that total after recording three shots in overtime. The T-birds have yet to give up 30 or more shots in game. Remember, they are doing this without Justin Hickman and Shea Theodore in the lineup.

The task now is for the T-birds to start the game the way they've been finishing them. There is no reason they can't play the first period the way they're playing the third. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk calls it playing with desperation. Maybe that's one of the tougher lessons to teach a team of young players; that you should play from the opening whistle like you're already behind on the scoreboard. Instead, the T-birds are playing the first period as though they are waiting to fall behind and then have the desperation kick in. But starting games like that is why they are 2-2 instead of 3-1 or 4-0.

It's just one game and he may have been playing on adrenaline to impress his new coaches and teammates, but I liked what I saw from newcomer Turner Ottenbreit. He's not a finished product and will need to fill out that 6'4" 180lb frame, but the lanky defenseman competes to the end of every shift. I really liked how physical he played and, like a lot of these young T-birds, seems to have good hockey sense. He was paired with 16 year old Sahvan Khaira, who himself goes 6'3", 213lb, and while green around the gills, these two raw rookies present a huge upside as they grow in the system together.

Kudos to Thunderbirds GM Russ Farwell and his scouts for asking for Ottenbreit in return for 20 year old Adam Henry in the trade earlier this week with Saskatoon. I get that the Blades needed a veteran presence like Henry back on their blueline and in their lockerroom, but if Ottenbreit's progression continues on its current path, that may have been an expensive price to pay, for a one year rental, by a team that may not even make the postseason.

So, in return for trading three good but surplus 20 year old players in Jaimen Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Henry, the 'Birds have received a 3rd and 6th round bantam draft pick and what is currently a top six defenseman who has the potential to be a top four.

Keegan Kolesar seems to always be in the middle of the action when the Thunderbirds play Portland. I recall when he came up for a game as a 15 year old two years ago, he was the best T-bird player on the ice in a loss down in the Rose City. You may also recall last season Kolesar was the recipient of a hit by the Winterhawks Brendan Leipsic that led to a seven game suspension for the Portland forward. Now in two games this season against the longtime rivals, Kolesar has registered five points (2g, 3a). If not for getting assessed a double minor, instead of a fighting major, in the season opening win, Kolesar would also have two Gordie Howe hat tricks against Portland as last night he scored a goal, earned as assist and drew a fighting major in a scuffle with Winterhawks defenseman Anton Cederholm.

Seattle has been at the top of their game so far this year when it comes to killing penalties. First, they've been fairly disciplined and are staying out of the box. But in four games the T-birds have surrendered just one power play goal and that came opening night. Overall, they've killed off 16 of 17 penalties with goaltender Taran Kozun leading the way. That penalty killing unit will get a stern test tonight with Kelowna in town. The Rockets are 13-of-35 on the power play in five games and are adept at drawing penalties.

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