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.