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.

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