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.

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