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.