The "Word of the Week" in Thunderbird Nation is "frustration". In large chunks there was much good that happened for the T-birds this past week, but none of that good ended up in the win column as the T-birds went 0-2-1-1. They were four winnable games for Seattle but all they got out of it was two of a possible eight points. Over the course of the four games Seattle probably generated 20-24 good scoring chances but could muster only eight goals and most came after they had fallen behind.
In a nutshell, Seattle's misfortune this past week started with an unfortunate and incorrectly called penalty on T-birds defenseman Jared Hauf late in the first period of Tuesday's home game versus Spokane. Hauf was assessed a five-minute major (and the automatic game misconduct that comes with it) for a clean hit on the Chiefs Liam Stewart. To me, this was a case of a referee erring too far on the side of caution, to the point he overreacted to a hit by a big player on a smaller player. It completely changed the complexion of the game.
Bad hits that lead to penalties are learning moments for players. This should be a learning moment for the official. They have a tough job and we ask perfection from them. We have to leave room for them to make and learn from mistakes.
Less then 24 hours later the WHL rescinded the penalty but it was too little too late. Hauf missed the rest of the Spokane game. Evan Wardley was already out of the lineup serving the first game of his suspension, and when Seattle lost two more d-men in that first period to injury, they were in dire straits. To their credit the depleted Seattle roster played valiantly, getting the game to the end of regulation tied at 2-2 before losing in the shootout.
All that ice time logged by what healthy defensemen Seattle had left had them skating on fumes in the rematch over in Spokane less then 24 hours later. Still absent three of their top six defensemen, they had no legs and it looked like they were skating in mud. They hung around as long as they could before falling, 4-1.
With only a day off Seattle returned home for a pair of games this weekend. Both nights, Friday against Prince George and Saturday against Kamloops, the T-birds came out with dominating first periods. So it may seem odd when I say despite the effort, I believe Seattle lost both games in the first period. The reason? They didn't reward their terrific first period play either night as they couldn't finish some excellent scoring chances. As a result they let their opponents hang around, gain confidence and get on the scoreboard first.
Saturday the Thunderbirds once again showed their resiliency as they battled back twice in the second period from a two-goal deficit and then again from a goal down in the third period. I really liked the fore check both nights and for good portions of each game they had strong puck possession. I was surprised though that each night this weekend their play fell off in the third period because through much of the early part of the season, the third period has been one of their best periods of hockey.
Fatigue may have been a factor, maybe frustration with seeing so many scoring chances go by the board. Whatever the case is, it is something they'll need to correct going forward. But, let's remember this is not yet a complete team. It's not just the fact they are missing Shea Theodore, Evan Wardley and now Ethan Bear or that Justin Hickman is not yet playing at 100 percent coming off the long layoff due to injury to start the season.
It's also the fact that Seattle is indoctrinating 11 rookies into the WHL. And they've all played. Outside of back-up goalie Logan Flodell, who has one start, not one of the rookies on the roster has played in fewer then four of the first 11 games. Luke Osterman, in his first season, has played both right wing and, out of necessity, defense and while there have been a few blemishes, he has held his own.
And yet the T-birds have had a chance to win all but maybe one of those 11 games. Saturday many of those young players may have turned a corner as Lane Pederson had an assist for his first WHL point, Nolan Volcan scored his first WHL goal and Donovan Neuls had his first multiple point night with a goal and an assist. I'm still appreciating the play of young defenseman Turner Ottenbreit who, in the absence of Theodore, Bear and Wardley, is getting top four minutes and power play time as well.
My T-birds three stars for the week:
Third Star: Ryan Gropp. Gropp had his seven game point streak snapped in the overtime loss Saturday against the Blazers but for most of the week, he was Seattle's offense. He has great hands and a quick release that will garner him 30-plus goals.
Second Star: Keegan Kolesar. A season ago in 60 games, the Winnipeg native tallied eight points (2g, 6a). Already this season he has four goals and three assists in the first 11 games and his shorthanded goal Saturday earned the T-birds a point. And while meaningless as far as the final result is concerned his last second goal Friday avoided the shutout against Prince George. When Bear and Theodore return his presence in front of the net should make the T-birds power play deadly. Far from a finished product, Kolesar is only scratching the surface of his ability.
First Star: Jerret Smith. No one stepped up more this week, after Seattle's D-corps got hit with suspension, ill-called penalties and injuries, then Smith. He logged major minutes back on the blue line this past week and earned a couple of assists in the process. And with so many defensemen down, you need those you still have to be available and on the ice. Smith has yet to be penalized this season, doing a terrific job of staying out of the box.
Saturday against Kamloops he took two bad hits along the boards, drawing penalties against the Blazers in the process. Yet he popped right back up each time showing he's one tough hombre. I've heard some say he has benefitted in the past from being paired with Shea Theodore, but that goes both ways. Having the steady Smith as a defensive partner allows Theodore to take chances up ice and to be more of an offensive player. Can't wait until those two get back together.