From the strange-but-true department: On their just completed six game road trip through the Eastern Division the Seattle Thunderbirds scored 18 goals. The 18 goals averages out to three goals per game, which is actually more then they were averaging per game (2.5) before they left for the trip. And they did that with their leading point producer, Matt Barzal, out of the lineup for the entire trip. So why did they finish the trip with just two wins?
Well, the numbers are skewed because the T-birds recorded 12 of their goals in just two games, a 6-2 win in Prince Albert and a 6-4 win over Brandon. In their four losses they mustered up just six goals, a measly 1.6 goals per loss. You won't win too many games averaging under two goals a game, even as good as Seattle was in their own end. Had Seattle actually scored three goals in each game on the trip they would have gone 3-3. So, they still need to kick up the offense.
On the positive side, the T-birds only let in 20 goals in the six games and six of those came in one contest, the 6-2 defeat in Moose Jaw, In the other five games Seattle had a team goals against average of just 2.8 and that includes giving up just four goals to the high flying Brandon offense.
Seattle's scoring task was made harder when they lost the point-a-game offense of Barzal at practice prior to the first game on the journey. But even without Barzal in the lineup they created enough scoring chances to pot more goals in every game they played. The issue isn't creating, it's finishing and the T-birds didn't do that well enough. Just in the Saskatoon game alone, coaches counted 24 scoring opportunities missed, leading Seattle to lose the game, 4-2.
Over the course of the road trip I counted at least ten shots off the post, four in the Saskatoon game alone. So, when I get asked where is the missing offense going to come from, I say it can come from within. The players on the roster, young and old, rookie or veteran, are creating scoring chances and if you keep creating opportunities, eventually those pucks will find their way into the back of the net, right? If they don't, then you may have to explore a trade for a proven, bona fide goal scorer but option A is the easiest and cheapest solution to their offensive woes.
Remember, this is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, teams in the league. Often those young players are battling older, more physically mature players. Despite that though, they are in most games until the final horn with a chance to win or at least tie and force an overtime or shootout. A couple of times during my tenure broadcasting T-birds games Seattle has had young teams. I recall my first season when those youngsters were Nate Thompson, Tyler Metcalfe, Dustin Johner, Steve Goertzen, Greg Black, Mathew Spiller and a few more green players. Still I don't think that team was as young as this season's version. That 2001-02 team won just 21 games but by season's end all the ice time those youngsters got during the course of the year paid off as they upset the division champion Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the playoffs. The following season they more then doubled their win total and won the U.S. Division and made a deep postseason run.
But I also remember that 2001-02 team getting beat routinely by four, five or six goals. That's not happening with this young club that's playing at a nearly .500 clip, not the .368 winning percentage of that young team over a decade ago. So far this year the biggest margin of defeat is four goals and that happened once, just a few games ago up in Moose Jaw in a game that was 4-2 midway through the third period. The only other loss by more then two goals was a 4-1 loss in Spokane when Seattle played with a depleted defensive corps less then 24 hours after beating the Chiefs with just two healthy d-men. More often Seattle is losing games as they lost the last two on the trip out east, each a 2-1 setback.
There are no moral victories of course and the Thunderbirds would prefer to be on the winning side of a few more of those close games, especially the ones they are dominating in shots on goal and puck possession. Seattle is getting top end goaltending and playing sound team defense. As I mentioned earlier, they have a team goals against average so far this season of just 2.8. Keeping your opponent to under three goals a game will keep you in most contests. If they can find a way to average just one more goal a game they would be winning more of those close ones.
Seattle had an extra passenger with them most of the just completed journey through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Gare Joyce, a writer with Sportsnet.ca rode the bus with the team, trekked along to the morning skates, shared team pre and post game meals, visited the hometown rink of Donovan Neuls, enjoyed the home cooked meal at the Pederson casa in Saskatoon and even was there in Ochapowace with us on the reserve where Ethan Bear grew up. Keep an eye out for his article, chronicling the journey. Joyce has also authored a few books on hockey and other sports and you can find them on Amazon.com.
T-birds three stars from the just completed six game road trip:
Third Star: Seattle's 4th line of Calvin Spencer, Florian Baltram and either Nick Holowko or Luke Osterman. That line did a good job of providing an offensive spark. Spencer had Seattle's first goal in the win over Brandon and it was huge, coming just four seconds after the Wheat Kings had opened the scoring. Nick Holowko scored in Moose Jaw, a goal that gave the T-birds a little hope in the third period, pulling them within 4-2 before the Warriors pulled away. Baltram added a couple of assists and Osterman recorded his first WHL goal in Regina. It almost stood up as a game winner before the Pats scored twice in the third period.
Second Star. Ryan Gropp. With Barzal out Gropp seems like the likeliest player to turn to, to pick up some of the missing offense. The Kamloops native averaged just over a point a game on the trip, registering seven points (3g, 4a) and was +1. His ten goals now leads the team in that department.
First Star: While he earned just one win and had his worst outing of the season in the loss to Moose Jaw, goalie Taran Kozun came back strong with two stellar performances in those back-to-back 2-1 losses against Regina and Swift Current to end the trip. I'm starting to take for granted how well he plays the puck behind his own net, but that's no easy skill, he just makes it look that way. He anchors the T-birds team defense and he is playing so well he ranks fifth in the league with a 2.38 GAA. Take out that Moose Jaw game when he was pulled after allowing four goals on 11 shots and he's probably number one. If there is one area on this team you don't need to question, it is their number one netminder.