Sunday, December 28, 2014

T-Birds Unwrap a Couple of Wins

Seattle came out of the Christmas break this past weekend and delivered two big wins against conference foes. In both instances it was a strong start and a solid finish that propelled the Thunderbirds to victory. Of the seven goals the T-birds registered in victories over Portland and Vancouver, six were scored in the first period.

Then Seattle blanked the Winterhawks in the third period of their 4-3 win Saturday while Sunday in Vancouver they got a late third period goal from Scott Eansor to push them past the Giants, 3-2. It was nice to see that Seattle didn't lose any of their momentum from the pre-Christmas break win over Victoria nine days earlier. As a result, the T-birds are on a three game winning streak as well as being back above .500. In addition, the Thunderbirds are just five points out of fourth place in the conference with three games in hand on the team currently occupying that spot as the race in the west tightens up.

This is the time of year when many WHL teams will be absent some of their top end players who are called up for international duty at the World Junior Championships. For the T-birds that means the loss of Shea Theodore to Team Canada and Alexander True to Team Denmark. Throw in the absence of Matt Barzal due to injury and the Thunderbirds were missing three of their best players, including two of their top centers, when they returned to the ice.

Yet Seattle isn't missing a beat. That's because other players are stepping up and relishing more ice time and bigger roles during this stretch. The best example of this is the tandem of Nick Holowko and Luke Osterman. For much of the first half of the season these two rookie right wingers were alternating starts on the team's fourth line. But with Barzal, True and, for a time Florian Baltram, away these two have stepped into regular playing time and look perfectly at home doing so. Over the past two games the line of Holowko, Baltram and Calvin Spencer has provided some of the best shifts for Seattle.

With Donovan Neuls on the sidelines Sunday in Vancouver with an upper body injury, Seattle put 15 year old Wyatt Bear in the lineup for his WHL debut. Like so many of his teammates who made their debuts this season, the right winger from Hodgson, Manitoba, looked very much like he belonged, playing on a fourth line with Osterman and Kaden Elder. Bear, who is no relation to fellow T-bird Ethan Bear, is listed at 6'2", 205 lbs. and he looks every bit of it too. That's a very thick, and powerful looking 205 lbs. for a young man who doesn't turn 16 until May. Bear was selected by the T-birds this past spring in the 5th round of the WHL Bantam Draft. He could turn into another 5th round gem, like Lane Pederson, a 5th round selection in 2012 who potted his fifth goal in the win Sunday in Vancouver.

What I was impressed with in watching Bear, and what has impressed me about all these young Seattle players this season, is how they stick to the systems head coach Steve Konowalchuk employs. Not one of them freelances, they rarely take shortcuts and they play to the whistle or end of their shift. They've all had their "rookie moments", but their work rate helps cover up for the occasional gaffe.

When Eansor scored his game winning goal late in the third period Sunday up in Vancouver, one thought rolled through my mind. The past 3-4 seasons Seattle seemed to always be on the short end of those late, game-deciding heroics. In fact, the last three to four seasons you almost came to expect Seattle to be on the receiving end of those kind of setbacks. This season there is a new attitude though, and at the end of close games I'm now expecting the T-birds to pull out those type of wins.

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Calvin Spencer. I thought the Brooklyn Park, Minnesota native had two of his best games back-to-back for Seattle this weekend. He was a catalyst both nights. He was strong in all three zones. The coaching staff may have found some chemistry by putting him on a line with Baltram and Holowko. Spencer has good size and even though he seems out of control at times with his skating, has good foot speed. If he can be as consistent the rest of the season as he was this weekend, he can have a big impact on Seattle's second half.

Second Star: Taran Kozun. He was the difference Sunday in Vancouver, making 33 saves in one of the few games this season the T-birds have allowed more then 30 shots on goal. He was particularly good in the second period when the T-birds found themselves back on their heels a bit. He'll throw in the occasional spectacular save but it is his consistency in making the saves he should make that have him atop the WHL goaltending statistics.

First Star: Jerett Smith. Two games, three points (1g, 2a), +3 and a ton of ice time. He's been Seattle's best and most consistent defenseman all season and chipping in with some offense this past weekend was a big bonus. I think he is becoming a leader of this team both on and off the ice, a quiet leader, but a leader nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No Grinch Before Christmas

It seemed the Seattle Thunderbirds might be in a gift giving mood. They gave up a 3-0 lead by surrendering four straight goals to the Victoria Royals Tuesday in the final game before the holiday break. Or maybe it was the Grinch trying to steal a Merry Christmas from the T-birds. In the end though a couple of Santa's helpers, named Neuls and Gropp, helped turned a potential lump of coal into a nice stocking stuffer, a come-from-behind, 5-4 win to send the players on their merry way.

The final game of the first half was a microcosm of the first half of the T-birds season. Like so many games this year, the T-birds were the better team on the ice for most of the three periods. They were outshooting, outhitting and outchancing their opponent. Near game's end though, they found themselves frustratingly down by one goal. But as they have done much of the season, they battled to the final horn. Only this time it paid off with two late goals to turn what could have been a disastrous loss, into an exhilarating win.

Again Seattle was not short of scoring chances as they peppered the Royals net with 45 shots. Gropp in particular was denied on a couple of occasions early in the game, including an end-to-end rush where it seemed he deked around and through all five Victoria skaters on the ice only to have his backhanded, five hole, attempt nick the pad of the goalie and stay out. Kaden Elder flicked a back hand attempt of his own toward the net that hit the goaltender in the headgear, before ricocheting off the crossbar and fluttering helplessly away.

Seattle could have certainly melted away, like a snowman in a greenhouse full of Christmas poinsettias, after they coughed up their lead midway through the third period. But like a December wind, the T-birds came roaring back to life just in time to pot two late goals and now scatter for the holidays on a positive rather then a negative result.

While Seattle doesn't officially reach the midway point of the season (Game 36) until December 30th when they face Everett at the ShoWare Center, the ten-day holiday break is traditionally thought of as the end of the first half. So, what did we learn about this young team through the first three months?

Shots on goal for and against aren't necessarily the best barometer to measure how a team is playing, but when compared to the last three or four seasons of T-birds hockey, that is the stat that jumps off the page at me. In 33 games Seattle has surrendered just 919 shots on goal, an average of only 27.8 per game. A season ago the T-birds were allowing 48 shots a game. That's an amazing turnaround, especially when you consider that this year's club is so much younger then the team the Thunderbirds iced a season ago.

The fact is, Seattle is routinely outshooting most of their opponents. Just in their last four games alone, Seattle outshot the four teams they played 129-102. Unfortunately, the T-birds went just 2-2 in that stretch. The problem isn't getting chances to score, the problem is finishing those chances. Over those four games Seattle was outscored, 11-10.

I don't want to be too critical of the T-birds offense though. Let's remember they played through most of the first half without two of their most potent offensive weapons in Matt Barzal and Shea Theodore. I'd estimate, conservatively, that pair is worth an extra five or six games in the win column and five or six more wins would put Seattle right at the top of the U.S. Division and among the top two to three teams in the Western Conference.

Of course if its and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas. The fact is Seattle can't get a do over of any of those close games they lost. Instead though they should recognize that they should only get better as the second half unfolds and hopefully, once healthy, they start turning 2-1 defeats into 3-2 wins. The team defense and rock solid goaltending show up every night, giving them a chance to win every game. Now they need the offense to find more consistency.

Heading into the break it might seem Seattle. sitting down their in 8th place in the Western Conference standings, is on the periphery of being a playoff team, closer to the outside then the inside of the playoff picture. But don't let their spot in the standings fool you. Seattle is just four points our of 4th place, just ten from the 2nd spot with 37 games left on the schedule against Western Conference opponents. This is far from over.

See you in the second half.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Weekend Gotaway

Not the weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds were hoping for coming on the heels of winning four of their last six games. After winning four straight against division rivals the T-birds drop two to division foes.

One was a well deserved loss Friday night in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans. And the setback Saturday at home to Portland? Well, you could argue Seattle deserved a better fate but in the end, you have to take advantage of your own opportunities and the T-birds didn't. So, you could say they got the result they earned in that game as well.

The effort and compete level Saturday was definitely there as opposed to the game against Tri-City the night before. The game in Kennewick Friday was an anomaly when compared to the rest of the season. We are 32 games in to Seattle's season and that is the only game in which the T-birds lacked any semblance of a solid compete level over the course of the sixty minutes. They came out of the gate flat and pretty much stayed that way the rest of the game. Friday against Portland it was good to see that was the exception and not the rule.

The loss Saturday was reminiscent of a number of games played the first month or so of the season in which the T-birds would outchance, outhit, outshoot, outwork and basically outplay their opponent for three periods but end up with no result. And the issue then was the same as it was this weekend for the T-birds. Lack of finish. Seattle struggles to put the puck in the back of the net. Again, it is not for a lack of chances. I would conservatively estimate that Seattle outchanced the Winterhawks in that game 12-4. They just failed to finish those opportunities. This was Seattle's fourth 2-1 loss in their last dozen games and you can certainly make an argument that better finish could have easily turned each of those losses into a win or at least a point earned.

Was last night a glimpse into the future of the Seattle-Portland rivalry? Both teams were missing key components of their rosters because of either injury (Seattle's Matt Barzal) or World Junior competition. But three of four players Seattle was missing (Barzal, Alexander True and Florian Baltram) will all be back with the T-birds next season. Only Shea Theodore is unlikely to return since the Anaheim Duck's first round draft pick has already signed his first pro contract and at age 20 can play in the AHL next season.

For Portland, their two best players, Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstand, are in a similar situation as Theodore and are unlikely to be back with the Winterhawks next year. Both teams will lose a couple of 20 year olds too. So what we saw on the ice last night is essentially what these two rivals will look like a year from now, with a few roster tweaks thrown in. So I would guess next season we're in for more games like last night's, close low scoring affairs. All four meetings this season have been, essentially decided by one goal with Seattle currently leading the season series, 3-1.

This weekend also showed the value of Alexander True, the T-birds Danish import who is away from the team prepping for the World Juniors with Team Denmark. Without the 17 year old rookie center, Seattle struggled in the faceoff circle Friday in Kennewick and missed the energy and strong play along the boards that he brings each night. From some of the chatter I hear from NHL scouts in attendance at T-birds games, True is working himself into the equation for next spring's NHL Entry Draft. A strong showing at World Juniors coupled with a solid second half with Seattle could see him going in the mid rounds of the draft and possibly higher.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Nic Holowko. Holowko made the most of the extra ice time he got this weekend in the absence of three of Seattle's top nine forwards. While he didn't register a point in either game. he made his presence felt. He seemed to be the only T-bird playing with any sense of urgency and energy Friday and continued that Saturday against Portland. He's got that non-stop motor a coach loves and plays each shift as if it will be his last. He's one of those young rookies who only stands to benefit from this extra ice time. His work ethic during games will turn him into a top six forward before his WHL career is done. Seattle has it's top eight picks from the 2012 draft on their current roster. Holowko isn't one of them. he went undrafted that year. The T-birds listed him and he has earned his roster spot along side all those drafted players.

Second Star: Evan Wardley. Wardley spent six plus games playing right wing and produced points while he did. He was moved back to his natural defenseman's spot midway through the first period Friday in Tri and spent the whole game back their Saturday against Portland. He showed he's the consummate team player by doing whatever the coaches ask of him to help the team. Unless you're around the team you don't understand the leadership he brings in the lockerroom. The younger players respect him. After the way he has stepped up the last two weeks and showed his versatility, I would not be surprised if, by season's end, he earns a pro contract with an NHL club. He's starting to remind me of the way Brendan Dillon played his final year with the T-birds. Very focused.

First Star: Taran Kozun. Kozun didn't earn a win this weekend but he certainly did what he could to give his team a chance for a "W'. Most weekends when you allow just five goals in two games your team should win with that kind of goaltending. Remember three of the goals he surrendered were power play goals and one of those was 5-on-3. He deserved a better fate. Despite the two losses he still has the league's best GAA at 2.18 while his save percentage of .920 is #3.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sunday MeatLoaf

For the second straight weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds play three games in three nights and come out of it by taking four out of six points. Two out of three ain't bad, right?

In both cases Seattle polished off the weekend with a 4-1 win over division rival Spokane. A week ago it was at the ShoWare Center, a win accomplished without Matt Barzal and Shea Theodore, arguably their two best players. Yesterday they picked up a dominating win with Barzal, captain Justin Hickman and Florian Baltram all absent from the lineup. These last six games have been a testament to the T-birds depth. They may be young but they're talented and play competitive hockey night in and night out.

It's rather cliché to say all this ice time for these young players now will pay dividends later on, but I think we're already seeing the pay off. So many of those rookie players are starting to look very comfortable and confident playing big minutes each game. That was clearly evident Sunday night in Spokane as 16 year old Nolan Volcan had his best game yet with a goal and an assist. I had remarked in the press box after the 5-3 home loss Saturday to Medicine Hat that I felt that combination of Volcan and Donovan Neuls was poised to take a big step forward offensively. They made me seem like I actually know what I'm talking about when they finished Sunday's game with a combined four points (1g, 3a) and were both at +2 for the game.

Is the move to put Evan Wardley up on right wing still just a temporary move? He's played six games as a forward now and in those six games he has earned five points (2g, 3a) and is +2. Wardley missed out on another goal Sunday when he was stopped on a third period breakaway. He said it was his first breakaway chance since his Bantam days but he remembers not scoring back then either. More importantly, whichever combination of players are on a line with him, they are also earning points. Early on he was put on Ryan Gropp's line and Gropp responded with three goals after a seven game goal-less streak. Last night he helped Volcan and Neuls earn multiple points.

It will be interesting to see how he is deployed these next three games before the Christmas break with defenseman Shea Theodore and forwards Florian Baltram and Alexander True away at World Juniors and center Barzal still out with his injury. It might come down to how to better match up with each of the three teams Seattle faces.

Meanwhile, where's the computer that makes out the league schedule? Over it's last 11 games Seattle has played three 3-in-3 weekends. To their credit the shorthanded 'Birds have shown their resiliency, going 5-5-0-1 with three of the losses being by a 2-1 score. Once again, now 30 games into the season, the Thunderbirds have yet to have their full roster available for any game yet are playing .500 hockey.

What's the biggest reason for Seattle winning four of their last six games? Consistency. Even in their two losses they generated plenty of scoring chances, established a solid forecheck and limited shots against. Over the course of the six games Seattle outshot their opponents 173-143, giving up on average just 24 shots a game. The two losses, to two of the oldest teams in the league in Kootenay and Medicine Hat, came down to two or three miscues and older teams will make you pay for those mistakes. Good starts have also helped as the T-birds scored first in five of the six games.

Another key has been Seattle's power play. Over the past two weekends the T-birds have registered seven power play goals and have risen from 20th to 14th in the league in that department. They've accomplished this with out one of their best power play weapons, Barzal, on the ice. How much better will that unit be when he returns and they can put him and Shea Theodore on the ice together when skating 5-on-4.

My T-birds three stars for the just completed weekend:

Third Star: Evan Wardley. moving up from his usual role as a physical presence on the back end to play right wing, he responded with a three point weekend including a game winner Sunday against the Chiefs. More importantly he's made his linemates more affective. His game is also buoyed by his defenseman's instincts as he does a very good job of backchecking. Even better he's understanding he needs to be on the ice and has stayed out of the penalty box.

Second Star(s): Defenseman Ethan Bear, LW Ryan Gropp and RW Keegan Kolesar. When your leading point producer goes down with a long term injury, you are not going to replace his production with just one guy. It must be offense by committee. This T-birds trio stepped up to pick up the slack. This weekend they combined for 11 points (6g, 5a) and were +3. All three are NHL draft eligible for the first time this coming spring. All three are stating their cases before the scouts that they should be selected in the top half of the draft.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. When your goals against average is already a league best 2.25 coming into the weekend, it is hard to improve on that number. But that is exactly what Kozun did, lowering his GAA to a WHL best 2.14 as he allowed just two goals in two starts, both wins. Meanwhile he made 40 saves on 42 shots and now also has the league's best save percentage at .921. He hasn't allowed an even strength goal since the first period of a 3-2 shootout loss to Everett back on November 22nd, a string of nearly 286 minutes. I finally found a flaw though. It's his youth. With his new pencil thin moustache, I commented that he bore a slight resemblance to screen legend Clark Gable (sans the big ears). His response? "I don't know who that is." Frankly my dear, I feel old.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gobbling up Some Weekend Points

8-7-2-1. That was Seattle's record without Shea Theodore in the lineup to start the season. It also includes ten games with no Evan Wardley.

4-6-0-1. That's the Thunderbirds record since they lost leading scorer Matt Barzal to a knee injury back on November 6th. And don't forget, in four of those 11 games they didn't have Theodore in the lineup either and were absent Wardley for another five of those games as well. Let's not fail to mention in another three they had to use Wardley, normally a top four defenseman, up front because of a shortage of forwards with Lane Pederson unavailable.

Over the course of the 18 games to start the season without Theodore, Seattle scored 45 goals and allowed 45 goals. In the 11 games so far without Barzal, and at times minus Theodore and Wardley as well, Seattle has only been outscored by five goals, 30-25. And if you think it is all due to goalie Tarn Kozun standing on his head between the pipes, think again. Rarely this season has Seattle surrendered 30 or more shots on goal. In fact it is just as rare to see the T-birds outshot.

I find it remarkable that a team missing what has to be considered two of its best weapons for much of the first one-third of the season (in fact Barzal and Theodore have not played in a game together), using a roster inundated with from 10 to 11 rookies who are all getting significant minutes, is playing essentially .500 hockey and, with few exceptions, has been in position to win the vast majority of their games.

Think about this, 27 games into the 72-game schedule Thunderbirds players have combined to miss 68 games due to injury, illness, international tournaments or suspension yet enter play next week just a game below .500 at 11-12-2-2. To me, that's not just surviving, that's thriving. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has not had one game this season with a full and healthy roster to put on the ice. It would only stand to reason that when they finally do get everyone healthy at the same time, knock on wood, they'll be an even better team.

This weekend was a prime example of that. They grit out a 3-2 road win Friday up in Everett. In Wardley's first game up on right wing, he's on the ice for all three goals and finishes the night +3. His first weekend as a winger would end with him earning one assist and ending the three-games-in-three-nights at +1. The T-birds stumbled at home the next night against Kootenay with no Barzal and no Theodore, who took ill earlier in the day, in the lineup. Still though, they did have an early two-goal lead and were only down one five minutes into the third period before falling 5-2.

Disappointed in their effort against the Ice the night before, Seattle rebounds nicely Sunday winning a convincing 4-1 decision over Spokane to earn four of a possible six points in the three games. Goals for Seattle this weekend: 9. Goals against: 8. Shots for Seattle in the three games: 76. Shots by the opponents: 69.

The one area where there was a large disparity was power plays as Seattle has hit a stretch where they are taking too many penalties. It's an area they need to clean up because of the eight goals they allowed this weekend, five were power play goals (only two, both by Kootenay were scored even strength and one, also by the Ice was an empty net goal). There was a wide gap in the power play numbers as Seattle was awarded only seven (4 on Sunday) while the opponents had the man advantage 18 times in the three games! I did some cursory examining of the numbers and Seattle is not actually taking that many more penalties then they were earlier in the season. The big difference is fewer penalties are being called against their opponents. In their first 13 games Seattle had 66 power play chances. In the last 14 games only 38.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star(s): The trio of young defensemen Scott Allan, Turner Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira. All three scored their first T-birds goals. For Allan and Khaira it was the first goal of their WHL careers. Allan's was a game winner Friday in Everett. With Evan Wardley moved up to a forward line those three had to step up their game and for the most part, they did. Once Seattle gets Theodore, Barzal and Pederson back healthy and can put Wardley back on the blue line, these three will be fighting for ice time. Should be a good battle.

Second Star: Evan Wardley. The senior T-bird defenseman was asked to play right wing in the absence of three Seattle forwards and he took up the challenge. His physicality was ever present. On the first goal Friday night in Everett his mere presence forced the Silvertips defensemen to cough up the puck to Donovan Neuls who scored. I thought he was even better Sunday against Spokane as he looked to take on a more offensive role and picked up one assist.

First Star. Taran Kozun. The Seattle goalie may not be facing an onslaught of shots but he is making the saves he should make and when there is a quality scoring chance against him, he's making the highlight save as well. He continues to be superb playing the puck, disrupting the oppositions attempts to dump and chase. Calm, cool and collected he went 2-0 on the weekend, surrendering just three goals (none 5-on-5) on 43 shots.

R.I.P Dick Emmett, longtime T-bird off-ice official who passed away this past weekend. Another member of our T-bird family is gone, but not forgotten.