Sunday, October 12, 2014

Road Warriors

The Seattle Thunderbirds have only played seven games so far this new season but the majority, five, have been on the road. Seattle's record in those games? 4-1-0-0. That includes back-to-back road wins this weekend after the T-birds came from behind to beat Spokane Friday night 2-1 in overtime and followed that with a 3-2 shootout win Saturday in Portland. Until they start awarding style points, you can't do better on a two-game road trip then earning four points and Seattle grabbed all four.

Young teams can either be intimidated on the road or they can just go out and play hockey and not worry about the surroundings, the road atmosphere or the opponent. The Thunderbirds take on the characteristics of the latter; they just play their game.

It helps to have a Taran Kozun in goal. While the rest of the team has had slow road starts, Kozun seems the one player who is on his game from the opening face-off. His stellar play, in particular in the first period of away games, keeps the team in those games while they get the bugs worked out. The T-birds have surrendered the first goal in each of their first five road games yet have come back to win four of them. They have gotten better as the game moves along but if not for Kozun's strong work between the pipes, they'd be chasing two or three goals deficits rather than the 1-0 holes they are climbing out from.

Friday night in Spokane was shaping up to be a frustrating loss as Seattle dominated play territorially for all but a 7 to 8 minute stretch in the second period. Despite most of the puck possession, they couldn't find the back of the net then fell behind late in that second period. But they persevered and eventually tied the game late in the third on the power play and won it in overtime.

Saturday they faced a Portland team at the Moda Center desparate for a win, especially on home ice. Sure enough the Winterhawks came out with early pressure, outshooting Seattle 11-2 over the first ten minutes and grabbing an early lead. But the T-birds weathered the storm and for most of the final two periods were the better team. They grabbed a 2-1 advantage before a late, flukish goal by Portland tied things up, then Matt Barzal and Kozun combined to win it for Seattle in the shootout. Again, like Spokane the night before, Portland's time on the puck was limited once Seattle found it's rhythm.

The keys for Seattle? Good defensive zone coverage, the ability to move the puck up ice by limiting neutral zone turnovers and a strong forecheck.

Seattle played just over two periods of the game in Portland with only five defensemen. They lost Evan Wardley to a five minute major and game misconduct for his hit on Nic Petan late in the first period. It was initially announced as a charging major but the scoresheet after the game listed it as a checking to the head penalty. It definitely wasn't a charge. I thought Wardley did everything right on the play until the last second when it appeared he lunged upward, making contact high with Petan's head. It should also be noted that Petan's natural instinct appears to be to duck and spin away from the hit. As a result the side of his head contacts Wardley's hands as Wardley was preparing to deliver the check to Petan's mid-section and that sends Petan sprawling to the ice. There is no shoulder to head contact. The league will now review the play for possible suspension.

I certainly also hope the league reviews Oliver Bjorkstrand's hit on Ethan Bear that occurred after time ran out at the end of overtime. I'm not sure how you can argue that was anything but intent to injure. The puck was dumped to the corner from center ice with just a couple of seconds left. By the time Bear got to the puck, time expired and the horn sounded but Bjorkstrand never let up. He continued at full speed and delivered a high hit on Bear.

Can I change my assessment of the Adam Henry-to-Saskatoon trade from a steal to highway robbery? Again, I keep being overly impressed with defenseman Turner Ottenbreit, the player the T-birds got back in return. With Wardley unavailable the last two periods Saturday night, Seattle leaned on it's two rookie defensemen, Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira, to pick up the slack, and Ottenbreit in particular made the team's necessary transition from a six man to a five man defensive group seamless.

There were lots of heroes for Seattle over the weekend. Scott Eansor and Florian Baltram were monsters in overtime both nights. Jared Hauf had the big game winning OT goal against the Chiefs. Justin Hickman's return to the lineup has solidified Seattle's four lines. But here are my three T-birds stars for the just concluded weekend road sweep:

Third Star: Defenseman Jerret Smith. Smitty has quietly gone about his business and is having a strong start to his season. He has been very good in the defensive zone but he has also been quite adept at moving the puck up ice. He's logging major minutes and is one of the team's best penalty killers early on, not to mention his work on the power play. Remember, he's doing all this with his usual defensive partner, Shea Theodore still on the shelf with injury.

Second Star: Center Matt Barzal. Barzal ended the weekend on a four game point streak and a three game goal scoring streak. His goal in Spokane late in the third period tied the game and gave Seattle a chance to win it in overtime. In Portland he scored another power play goal to give Seattle the lead. The goal almost stood up as the game winner, but when it didn't, he calmly potted the game winning shootout marker. For sure, he's a dangerous offensive player, but he's becoming a complete package as more then once on the back check he's created a turnover that negated an opposition's scoring chance.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. While the rest of the team seems to come out of the gates slowly, Kozun has been the one T-bird ready to go from the moment his skates hit the ice. He faced 54 shots this weekend and stopped 51, plus three more big saves in the shootout versus Portland. His play I'm sure has inspired the team in front of him. He's covering for some of their mistakes with his stellar play and he's a prime reason the T-birds have had a chance to win each of his six starts. And the way he handles the puck, it's like having a third defenseman out on the ice. With three on the roster, he has clearly established himself as the team's number one netminder.

Seattle just finished a game against Spokane Friday night in exciting fashion with that overtime road win. So you think they've put the Chiefs in their rear view mirror? Think again. Three of their next five games will be versus Spokane including a mid-week home and home. It starts Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center with the first Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday of the season.

The big question is, who will be Seattle's sixth defenseman? With Wardley most likely suspended Seattle has only five d-man on the roster. One solution is to put Luke Osterman back on the blue line until Wardley's return. Osterman was drafted out of Stillwater, Minnesota a few years back as a defenseman but the team has spent the last year converting him to a forward. His first two training camps with the Thunderbirds he was still a defenseman, and a good one at that, and I think the team would feel comfortable putting him back their again. We'll wait and see.

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