Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The T-birds Have Spokane

The T-Birds season to date: first 25 games, zero versus division rival Spokane. Last 10 games, five versus Spokane. Next 20 games, just one against Spokane. Not the strangest schedule out there though. Take the case of the Vancouver Giants. They recently played four straight against Victoria, followed by three in a row against Everett and are now finishing off three consecutive games against Prince George. Life in the WHL!

Seattle came out of the Christmas break and played two very similar games against Spokane in a home-and-home series. I liked that the T-Birds were ready to play from the drop of the first post-holiday puck. There were no passengers, everyone was helping to pull the freight. Just some good hard-nosed, gritty hockey and that was necessary because Seattle played under the limit both nights, dressing just 16 skaters Sunday and 17 on Tuesday.

Effort like that doesn't always equal wins but it does usually put you in position to win. The T-Birds ended up splitting the pair of games, losing 3-0 on the road before the 2-1 home ice win. The simplest difference in the two games was Seattle's ability to cash in on a couple of opportunities in the second game. In the loss Sunday in Spokane the T-Birds were dominating puck possession through most of the first period but failed to capitalize on numerous scoring chances.

Tuesday's game seemed to be following the same path until Nolan Volcan went hard to the net and banged in a rebound. Then, Seattle's game-winning goal was just a matter of Keegan Kolesar flinging a puck on net and finding some space between the goalie and the post. Too often the T-Birds aren't getting traffic at the net to score greasy goals. Too often lately they are missing the net with their shots or passing up scoring chances in favor of an extra pass. I think Tuesday's two goals were a matter of not overthinking the game. Just keep it simple, crash and bang, get pucks on net and good things can happen.

After a six goal outburst in their final pre-Christmas game in Kennewick versus the Americans, Seattle has mustered just two goals in two games since. It's not for a lack of opportunity, but more a lack of finish. Certainly missing the top three centers is affecting the offense's ability to score goals. And sometimes you just go through offensive slumps or don't get any puck luck. The old saying in sports though is that while offense can go through droughts, with consistent hard work defense maintains. In the first two after-the-break games, Seattle has been working hard and stayed very focused in the defensive zone, limiting the scoring chances against. When your offense is struggling to score, defense keeps you in games.

With the shortened bench, players not used to it, are getting more ice time. Some are showing that are ready to step up. Nic Holowko stepped in to center Seattle's second line. The T-Birds have struggled in the face-off circle in the absence of their top three centers. Saturday Holowko helped stop some of that bleeding, winning a number of draws. With young defenseman Jarret Tyszka now out until February at the earliest with a hand injury, two other young d-men are being asked to man the blue line on Seattle's third pairing. 17-year olds Sahvan Khaira and Brandon Schuldhaus need to play well enough to give the coach's confidence to keep putting them out there and not have to wear down their top two pairs. So far so good. Both are keeping it simple and not overextending themselves.

It was a solid T-Birds debut for Andreas Schumacher (the Swede with the German name!). Schumacher is a an older player than the guy he replaced, fellow Swede Gustav Olhaver, and he's been in the league for over a year. In his first game he was physical, willing to crash and bang and not afraid to mix it up. Despite their lofty expectations coming into the season, Seattle was still a relatively young team. Now, in the past month the T-Birds have gotten a little older by trading for two 19-year olds, Schumacher and Josh Uhrich. Right now they are playing 2nd and 3rd line minutes. But the thinking here is that when Seattle gets everyone back from World Juniors, these two older veterans slide back on to your 3rd and 4th lines, creating matchup issues for opposing teams.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. I just liked the way he played with a little more aggression then usual these past two games. He was throwing some pretty solid checks around and doing it with authority. With just six healthy defenseman currently on the roster, the T-birds will lean a little more heavily on their veterans and Hauf seemed to understand that in the two games against Spokane. While he didn't register a point I think he understands that Seattle needs to get more pucks on net and has been shooting more in recent games.

2nd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell has actually been pretty solid and consistent in his last four games. It seemed with Seattle struggling to pot goals the last two games he needed to stop everything that came his way and did his best in saving 53 of 56 shots faced. His effort in those last four games has pushed his save percentage back to .900 and he has the sixth best goals-against average in the league now at 2.68. The quest now is to keep playing with this consistency the rest of the way. One thing Saturday night proves is you don't have to make spectacular saves to preserve a lead or earn a win, just be positionally sound and you'll make the stops you need to make. Flodell was less acrobatic in net both nights and as a result was in the right place at the right time on most shots.

1st Star: LW Nolan Volcan. While he admitted he took time off from skating during the Christmas break and it bit him in the first game back in Spokane, Volcan was the best player on the ice Saturday but not because of his skill and talent. Lots of talented and skilled players were on the ice in that game. What separated him was his tenacity and effort; his willingness to get dirty and battle. A big goal to open the scoring and get Seattle off the schneid after being shutout the game before, then a big assist on the game winning goal. His goal Saturday gives him nine on the season in just 22 games, with three in the last three games coming off an injury that cost him a baker's dozen games. Those nine goals equal his total from his rookie season when he scored nine times in 67 games.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Have Yourself a Merry Little T-Birds Christmas

The Thunderbirds, along with the rest of the WHL, have reached the Christmas break and will now take a week off to celebrate the holiday with family. The T-Birds scattered after an impressive come-from-behind win in Kennewick Saturday, beating the Tri-City Americans 6-3 behind two goals each from Ryan Gropp and Nolan Volcan.

It didn't start out well as the T-Birds fell behind, 2-0, within the first six and a half minutes. Taz Burman didn't have a good start in goal and was pulled after allowing two goals on five shots. But the deficit was a team effort as the whole team didn't appear ready. Seattle was able to get one back on a Gropp breakaway midway through the period. That, and the play in goal of Burman's replacement Logan Flodell, seemed to settle the team down and get them back on the same page.

I don't know if there was a message delivered to the team in the first intermission. If there was, it may have been the most important message of the season delivered by head coach Steve Konowalchuk. Whatever was said, or whoever said it, it worked like a Christmas miracle. The Thunderbirds completely turned their game around as soon as the puck dropped to start period two. The next 40 minutes was an example of the T-Birds at their finest. A strong, aggressive forecheck, lots of puck possession and crisp passing as they carried the puck up ice.

Seattle took the lead thanks to goals from Gropp and Volcan on the power play. They hiccupped at the start of the third period when the Americans tied the game at three just 40 seconds in, but after that it was all Seattle. Just the night before in Seattle's 3-2 OT loss at home to the Americans, Owen Seidel had missed scoring his first WHL goal when, as he told me, he got stopped on the door step by a toe save. Saturday at the Toyota Center he was not to be denied, banging in the rebound off a Luke Ormsby shot at 3:53 of the third period. Not only was it his first WHL goal, it was a game winner. Meanwhile Ormsby showed why observers were excited about his prospects at training camp this fall, getting an assist for his first WHL point (in just his 3rd game) by winning a puck battle along the wall and driving the net.

Seattle would strike twice more before all was said and done. Volcan tallied his second of the night and Matthew Wedman polished it off with a highlight reel wrap around goal with six minutes remaining. The win was Seattle's 19th of the season, pushed them back in to first place in the U.S. Division and helped them avoid a four game winless streak going into the break. Instead the Thunderbirds earn three of four points on the weekend. That's a nice stocking stuffer!

So far, Seattle is 3-4-1-0 in the month of December. If they can maintain a .500 clip or better the rest of the month without their top three centers in the lineup, I'd call that a win. Matt Barzal (Canada), Scott Eansor (USA) and Alexander True (Denmark) are all in Helsinki, Finland, representing their countries at the World Junior Championships. They'll most likely all be there through the first week of January so the T-Birds will have to do without them for a while longer.

Seattle is now off until December 27, when they regroup in Spokane to take on the Chiefs. The first post Christmas home game is at the ShoWare Center on the 29th, a Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday, also against Spokane. While Seattle doesn't officially hit the mid-point of their 72 game schedule until Game 36 New Year's Eve down in Portland, let's call the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule the first half. With that in mind, here are my three stars for the first half of the season:

3rd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. His goal scoring has dropped off from a blistering pace he started the season with but he's still contributing points, coming up with some big assists in the two games this weekend. Overall he's tallied 39 points (16g, 23a)in 33 games, meaning he's averaging a solid 1.18 points a game. He's second on the team in scoring and tied for 15th in the WHL. Sunday the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him last spring in the third round, announced they had signed him to a standard three-year entry level contract.

2nd Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear has been a model of consistency so far this season for the T-Birds. While his offensive numbers get all the publicity, he's been very solid in his own end as well. At the break he leads all WHL defensemen in scoring with 36 points (11g, 25a). With a powerful and usually accurate shot, he's always a threat to score on the power play. He's third on the team in scoring and is averaging 1.09 points per contest. He's on pace for a 79 point season.

1st Star: C Mathew Barzal. Not only is Barzal the best player on this team, but he is one of the top four or five players in the WHL and among the best in the entire CHL, as evidenced by his selection to play for Team Canada at World Juniors. He's been among the league leaders in scoring all season, compiling 43 points in just 25 games, averaging 1.72 points a game this season. Depending on when he returns to Seattle he's still probably on pace for a 90-plus point season, something that no T-Bird players has accomplished since Brooks Laich put up 94 points in the 2002-03 season. There's even a good chance he could reach the 100 point mark, which hasn't been accomplished since 1998-99 when Bret DeCecco did it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Force Needs to Awaken

The Thunderbirds continue to ride the rollercoaster the past couple of weeks, trading wins and losses over their last ten games (5-4-1-0). As a result, they've seen their grasp on the top spot in the U.S. Division shrink to a mere two points. To stay on top this week they'll need to up their game.

Inconsistent effort has been the main culprit. This past weekend's two home games were a prime example. The T-birds had one of their most complete games of the season and throttled the Spokane Chiefs on Friday, 5-1. It was a terrific sixty minute effort, featuring an aggressive forecheck, lots of puck possession, a dangerous power play and timely saves from the goaltending. Seattle pushed the pace and when Spokane pushed back, the T-birds pushed even harder.

But the switch was flipped Saturday in the 4-1 loss to Everett. There seemed to be no urgency in Seattle's game. The Silvertips were allowed to dictate play from the very first face-off. Seattle didn't seem willing to put in the effort necessary to grind out a win. Despite being outplayed in the first period the T-birds led, 1-0. Yet in the second period, when Everett wasn't doing much to generate a scoring opportunity to tie the game, the T-birds weren't pushing the pace in attempt to add to their lead. Thus Everett was allowed to hang around and eventually get that tying goal.

The game was up for grabs in the third period yet only one team seemed to answer the bell and it wasn't Seattle. Instead of an intense final 20 minutes in a tie game with a rival, Everett skated away from the T-birds with a three goal third. What the T-birds needed was the same effort they had the previous night against Spokane, but that effort was absent. Losses are frustrating but they are more palatable if you've given it your best effort. Saturday's result was both frustrating and disappointing because we didn't see the best the T-birds have to give in that game.

The T-birds suffered two losses this past week but in markedly different fashions. They fell in Spokane Wednesday, 4-2, but dominated large stretches of that game. They were stymied by a goalie who stood on his head. There were other factors in that loss, but lack of effort wasn't among them. In Saturday's loss lack of effort was the number one, and seemingly, only factor.

Things don't get any easier for Seattle this week. They have three games to play before the Christmas break and will play all three without their top three centers. Mathew Barzal (Canada), Scott Eansor (USA) and Alexander True (Denmark) are all away with their national teams for World Juniors. This is the one week then where a lack of focus or effort is not an option. Everyone will need to step up. Look for Donovan Neuls to get time centering a reconstituted top line. Neuls affected the game Friday versus Spokane, even though he didn't end up on the scoresheet, by being aggressive and physical.

We should see the WHL and Seattle Thunderbird debut of Luke Ormsby. The local product, who grew up attending T-birds games, is eligible to play six games with the club before he returns to his other team, the Junior Coyotes, down in Phoenix.

My T-birds three stars for the past week:

Third star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell was solid with a 25 save effort in the 5-1 win Friday against Spokane. With Seattle up 3-1 late in the second he came up with a couple of huge stops to keep momentum from swinging the Chiefs way. Saturday he made 17 saves in the first period alone to give Seattle a chance, but got very little help the rest of the game.

Second Star: RW Jamal Watson. Watson has half of his six goals this season in the past three games. Hopefully that's a sign that he's getting going offensively and is poised for a big second half. He was more engaged in the play at both ends of the ice recently and we are starting to see the affects his foot speed can have on a game. It would be nice to see that Watson-Eansor-Volcan line back on the ice again. It was so good in training camp but has seen little time together during the regular season because of injuries. But it may have to wait until January with Eansor away with Team USA.

First Star: Defenseman Ethan Bear. Bear had six points (3g, 3a) in the three games and was +4. He is now the top scoring defenseman in the WHL with 33 points on the season (9g, 24a) in 30 games. He recorded the first hat trick and first four point game of his T-birds career in the Friday win over Spokane.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Clunker and a Bounce Back

Seattle split its two games this weekend to start the month of December. It's a month that will feature a schedule heavy with U.S. Division games, including the first five.

The T-birds weekend opened with a road game in Spokane against the Chiefs. These two division rivals went the first two-plus months without facing each other, so that first meeting had some anticipation to it, especially since they entered the weekend in first and second place respectively in the division, and separated by a mere three points.

Unfortunately for Seattle, the game didn't live up to the billing as the T-bird fell flat, losing 7-1. It was a tale of two teams. One, Spokane came ready to play a 60-minute game. I thought they were very physical against Seattle and as a result they won a good majority of the puck battles. I'd go as far as to say they played the way Seattle usually plays, with an aggressive forecheck and they were hard to get off the puck. The other team, the T-birds, had a few moments throughout the game where they were dangerous but it wasn't consistent up and down the lineup and it wasn't consistent over sixty minutes.

The game had an ominous beginning. There's no other way to put it then the officials had a major blunder of their own. Ethan Bear gets hooked as he's skating the puck out from behind the Seattle net and as he falls the puck comes free. the same Spokane player who hooked him picks up the loose puck, turns and fires in a goal against the stunned T-birds. It should have been as easy penalty call to make. It was a pretty blatant hooking. How much did that play change the complexion of the game? We'll never know. But the penalty would have negated the goal and put Seattle on an early power play. Hey, officials are human too and Seattle had plenty of chances after that to right the wrong including a power play chance when still only down a goal. They didn't capitalize and Spokane broke it open with three quick goals after that.

Spokane is primarily a young team. But it's a very talented, skilled group of young players. They remind me of what Seattle was a couple of seasons ago. They may be a bit inconsistent this season (they had lost their previous two games and allowed 15 goals in the three games prior to facing Seattle), but they're fun to watch and are going to be scary good going forward.

To salvage the weekend, the T-birds needed a strong effort the following night at home against Tri-City. It wasn't a perfect game by any means but Seattle did bounce back with a 3-2 win before a sold out ShoWare Center crowd. Wearing replica 1917 Seattle Metropolitans jerseys, Seattle had a terrific start. They outshot the Americans 11-1 in the first period and grabbed a 1-0 lead. But in the second period the T-birds seemed to come out a little slower to start the period. A lot of the aggressive play from the first period was missing. Then the T-birds recent home ice demon, penalties, re-emerged. And it wasn't just the penalties that caused Seattle trouble but the timing of those infractions. Seattle took four penalties in an eight minute span over the second half of the period. When you do that you tilt the ice heavily in the favor of the opponent and Tri-City took advantage to score two power play goals to grab the lead.

Fortunately Seattle has Matt Barzal. In the final minute of the period he was able to pick the pocket of Tri-City defenseman, Parker Wotherspoon, right in front of the Ams goal. A couple of dekes and Barzal slid the puck past the Tri-City goalie to tie the game. That will be an interesting conversation at next year's New York Islanders training camp as both Barzal and Wotherspoon are Islanders prospects.

The T-birds were better in the third period. They got back to being aggressive on the forecheck. It led two three Tri-City penalties. While Seattle didn't score with the man advantage I think it did have the affect of wearing out the Ams top players. As a result, late in the game a fresher Keegan Kolesar was able to outmuscle a weary Tri-City player behind the Americans goal and win the puck for the T-birds. He fed a perfect pass to Jared Hauf pinching in from the blueline and Hauf buried the shot for the game winning goal.

A couple of things that Seattle needs to address going through their schedule in December. First, they have to eliminate the penalties, especially on home ice. Over the last three home games the T-birds have surrendered 19 power play chances to their opponents. That's a whopping six a game. In their last two home games, a 3-2 OT loss to Moose Jaw and Saturday's 3-2 win over Tri-City, Seattle had the chance to put the opposition away but let them hang around and get back into the game because they took too many penalties. 5-on-5 Seattle has been able to control the tempo. You can't do that though, if you're in the penalty box.

Secondly, the T-bird need to rediscover their secondary scoring. They are relying too much lately on their top line, specifically Barzal and Ryan Gropp, for their offense. It seems like ages since Alexander True potted a goal. Even Kolesar is going through a bit of a goal-scoring drought. Jamal Watson has been like a game of horseshoes lately, close but not quite. Hopefully some of those bounces will start going in for him. They'll need that scoring especially when Seattle loses Barzal to World Juniors after this week.

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Goaltender Taz Burman. After a subpar goaltending effort Friday in Spokane, Seattle needed someone to step up their game. Burman got the start Saturday and turned aside 26 of 28 shots. He was at his best late in the second period with Tri-City on yet another power play and looking to stretch their lead. He came up with some big stops to keep it a one goal game. Shortly thereafter, Barzal got the equalizer.

Second Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. He's not scoring goals lately but he had two assists in the win over Tri-City, including a huge play to set up the game winning goal late. It's the kind of play he should make more often, out-muscling an opponent for a puck.

First star: Center Matt Barzal. After being named the WHL Player of the Month for November, all he does is earn three points (2g, 1a) in his first two December games. He's at another level right now and clearly is one of the best players in the league at the moment. He's now in a three-way tie for second in league scoring (43 points) with nine goals and a league best 34 assists. Two of the players tied with him or ahead of him in the scoring race have earned their points by playing five more games.

One final note; if you are coming to either of the home games this weekend, Friday vs. Spokane or Saturday against Everett, bring an unwrapped toy for the Forgotten Children's Fund. The good folks from Les Schwab tire will be on hand to collect them. You'll make Cool Bird very merry this holiday season of you do that.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stop Interfering with my Hockey!

The Thunderbirds earned three points this past week, going 1-1-1-0 in the three games played around the Thanksgiving Holiday. I guess you could say they were in a "giving" move, but be "thankful" for the three points and move on. Just slightly past the one-third point of the season Seattle is 16-7-2-0, in first place in the U.S. Division and only five points out of the conference lead with a game in hand. I'm not sure there are too many who would have turned that start down back on September 24 just before the season got underway.

The week began Wednesday up in Kelowna with one of the T-Birds poorer efforts of the season in a 5-2 loss to the Rockets. At the time of the first period puck drop, this was a battle between the two best winning percentages in the WHL. That's what makes the loss all the more disappointing. It's one thing to lose, it's another to do so without your best effort. Seattle started well enough. They pressured the Rockets with 15 shots in the first period. They left that effort in the dressing room between periods and had a less then stellar second period, being outshot 16-2. Still, they were only down a goal, 2-1 when the period ended. Unfortunately they started the third the same way the second period ended and when Kelowna added a third goal six minutes in to the final frame, it was over. The good news is the T-Birds get three more cracks at the Rockets and two of them will be at the ShoWare Center.

The Thunderbirds bounced back with a solid 5-3 win Friday at home against the Vancouver Giants. It was a chippy game but Seattle was the better team most of the night. I thought it was one of Taz Burman's better games in goal for Seattle as he made some timely saves to keep Vancouver from ever really making a game out of it. Meanwhile the T-Birds top players were just that; the best players on the ice all night. Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear led the way combining for eight points (2g, 6a) in the win. Vancouver is a hard team to figure out. They have a talented roster with the likes of Tyler Benson and Ty Ronning, are a tough team to play against, yet have just six wins in 26 games. They've done a lot of roster tinkering the first two months of the season and that may be the main reason for their sluggish start but they seem to be in every game.

How many of you had the T-Birds going a perfect 36-0 at home this season? Love your optimism but it wasn't going to happen. Seattle finally failed to get the "W" on home ice Saturday in a 3-2 overtime loss to Moose Jaw. Hey, they still got a point out of the game and haven't lost at home in regulation in ten tries (9-0-1-0) but a home loss of any kind was an eventuality. Still, 19 out of a possible 20 points from home games is quite an accomplishment and the T-Birds remain the only team in the league without a regulation loss at home.

Saturday's game versus Moose Jaw was a tight-checking, physical affair. 5-on-5 Seattle had some dominate stretches. The problem was they ran in to a terrific young goaltender in Zach Sawchenko and they also ran into penalty trouble. You give the league's 5th ranked power play seven chances you're going to get burned and that's exactly what happened as the Warriors finished 2-for-7 with the man advantage, including the game winner in OT. You might go an entire month of games and not see seven interference penalties called. In Saturday's game, there were seven interference penalties called in 60 minutes. But the officials weren't playing favorites. They called that penalty both ways, three on Moose Jaw and four on Seattle. The T-Birds just didn't adjust to the way the game was being called. Still, I thought it was a solid effort. Sometimes you just get beat. Tip your hat to the other team and get ready for the next game.

Something I wrote about earlier in the season still holds true. Seattle is not consistently getting enough traffic in front of opposing goalies and you won't beat the good ones, like Sawchenko or Everett's Carter Hart, without that element in your game. That means they need to get dirty, and pay a physical price to get to second chance opportunities. You can't score the greasy goal if you aren't willing to get a little grease on you.

A post-game scoring change following Seattle's Friday night win over Vancouver added one more assist to Barzal's totals. Additionally, upon video review it was determined that Owen Seidel also earned an assist. That was his first WHL point, so congratulations to Owen for getting on the scoresheet.

Barzal had a terrific weekend which, of course, is almost the norm now. After being held off the scoresheet in the loss Wednesday up in Kelowna he bounced back to register six points (1g, 5a) and was +3 in the two home games. On the season he is now tied for third in the league in scoring with 40 points. He is just five points off the league scoring lead. He is also averaging an astounding 1.81 assists per game. He punctuated the weekend with the highlight reel goal of the season thus far. A nearly end-to-end rush up ice in the final minute and a half Saturday to forge a 2-2 tie and send the game to overtime. That goal earned the T-Birds a huge point.

After starting the month of November with a four game losing streak, the T-Birds finished strong going 7-1-1-0. I call that a solid response to a bit of adversity. A lesser team might have struggled to get out of that funk. The Thunderbirds not only got out of it but did so with a flourish.

Remember that stretch of seven games back in October in which Seattle actually had a complete and healthy roster available to them? Ah, the memories. That was 15 games ago. Don't expect it to improve in December. Nolan Volcan is still out with his lower body injury for another week or two. About the time he gets back in the lineup anticipate Seattle losing a few key players like Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True, to World Junior camps/competition. The departures are perfect timing; just as Seattle gets into the front end of their U.S. Division schedule. Seattle will play 11 games in December and 10 are against division opponents. It starts Friday in Spokane with the first of five December games against the Chiefs.

Don't forget next Saturday's home game versus the Tri-City Americans. The T-Birds will be celebrating 100 years of hockey in the Seattle area with, among other things, a salute to the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans, the first U.S. based team to win the Stanley Cup. The Thunderbirds will be wearing replica Metropolitans jerseys and the holy grail of hockey itself, the Stanley Cup, will be in attendance as well. The Metropolitans, who were part of the now defunct Pacific Coast Hockey Association at the time, were poised to possibly start a hockey dynasty but that got wiped out by a deadly influenza outbreak. I would suggest to honor the memory of that team we remind everyone eligible to go get their flu shot!

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. A solid weekend for the veteran defenseman from Calgary. In the two home games he earned two points (2a) and was +3. He is often tasked with helping shut down the opposing team's top scoring line and along with his partner Jerret Smith, logs tons of ice. He's a big reason why the T-Birds, as a team, allow so few shots against and are one of the top defensive clubs, and top penalty killing teams, in the WHL. This weekend T-Birds defensemen were assessed five minor penalties in two games. Hauf was not among the guilty. Despite his physical play, he's staying out of the penalty box this season (only 24 PIMs in 25 games).

2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. I thought he was good in all three games this past week, even in the loss in Kelowna. In the two home games he provided four points (2g, 2a)and was +2 and is now tied with Keegan Kolesar for the team lead in goals with 15. He's slowly climbing up the league scoring leader board and could soon join his two linemates, Barzal and Kolesar, in the top twenty. His two goals this past weekend were both through-the-eye-of-the-needle type pinpoint beauties. William Tell could not have placed those shots any better. For the first time I've also noticed him consistently on the back check.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. He earns this designation on that last minute goal Saturday against Moose Jaw alone. He was like Moses and it was like watching the Red Sea part as he skated up ice through the Warriors defense and score with Seattle in desparate need of a game tying goal. Officially he's listed as fifth in the league in scoring but that's only because goal scorers get top billing and the three other players with 40 points all have more goals. In reality he has the third most points in the league. Maybe they should list them alphabetically instead? He is tied for the league lead in assists with 33 but has done it in fewer games then Lethbridge's Brayden Burke. Should find out Tuesday if he'll be invited to Team Canada's World Junior Evaluation Camp. I'd be shocked if that doesn't happen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two by Four Weekend

The Seattle Thunderbirds went streaking this weekend. They earned all four points available to them in their two games. In the process they pushed their overall winning streak to six games, their road winning streak to four and their home ice winning streak to eight. All that streaking adds up to a solid 15-6-1-0 record and a seat atop the U.S. Division standings.

Seattle actually started the week last Tuesday with a 5-4 win over the Swift Current Broncos. It was the start of a good week for T-Birds left winger Ryan Gropp who led the Seattle attack with a goal and two assists. He followed that up with a hat trick in Seattle's 4-3 overtime win Friday, as the New York Rangers draft pick almost single-handedly beat his hometown team, the Kamloops Blazers. Gropp's game was more then just scoring though as he's picked up his defensive zone coverage and is becoming a reliable penalty killer.

Don't for one minute think Seattle didn't enjoy that win Friday in Kamloops, blown lead and all. Prior to that win Seattle had just one win in their last 10 visits to that city and had been outscored by a considerable margin. So there were a lot of big smiles postgame. A lot of relief too.

Seattle completed the sweep of the three games this past week with a very convincing 5-2 win Saturday night at home over division rival Portland. While there may have been an anxious moment or two, for the most part, the T-Birds controlled the tempo of that game almost from the get go. A big reason for that was the return of Scott Eansor to the lineup. Eansor had missed nine games with an upper body injury before returning Friday in Kamloops. In his two games back he has registered four assists, including three helpers in the win over the Winterhawks.

The T-Birds learned an important lesson last season that helped them this weekend. Last year the T-Birds got a big win in Kelowna on a Friday night and the players were jazzed up on the bus ride down for a Saturday game in Everett. They were so pumped by that win over the Rockets they didn't get enough shut eye on the bus ride back and fell flat in a 4-0 loss to the Silvertips. Fast forward to Friday night in Kamloops, and a big overtime win against the Blazers. Once the players got on the bus, they went right to sleep and were ready to go Saturday against Portland. Of course it didn't hurt to have a full house at the ShoWare Center to get their adrenaline pumping.

Not that my opinion holds much sway, but I put my stamp of approval on the way the T-Birds attacked all three opponents they faced. Knowing they were going to face three quality goalies in Landon Bow with Swift Current, Connor Ingram in Kamloops and Portland's Adin Hill, they approached all three games with the same mindset; get shots to the net. They weren't trying to be too cute or searching for the perfect shot. Lots of shots and lots of traffic was the order of the day each game. As a result the Thunderbirds averaged nearly 41 shots per game in the three game sweep, scoring 14 times.

The phrase, "The Thunderbirds have a 3-1 lead" shouldn't have negative connotations but it does seem to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up a bit doesn't it? That particular score seems to give Seattle a little trouble. They led in each of the past three games by that score. Tuesday against Swift Current they lost that lead then rallied from behind to win. Up in Kamloops Friday night that lead evaporated on them early in the third period before they won it in OT, thanks to Keegan Kolesar. Saturday they were up 3-1 entering the third period then Portland tallied on the power play in the opening minute to close within one. Seattle had a quick answer though, scoring twice to pull away.

They say a two goal lead is the hardest lead in hockey to protect. Every team is going to have a desperation push back that could turn the momentum. The reality is, Seattle is 10-2 win leading after two periods, usually by that 3-1 score. So whether they hold that lead or not, the T-Birds are showing their resiliency. They're not panicking and they don't get down on themselves when they give up a goal or a lead. Hockey is still a 60 minute game. Lots of things will happen over the course of those 60 minutes and as long as you play to the final whistle you give yourself a chance.

Good teams win in all phases of the game and that especially includes special teams play. During their current six-game winning streak Seattle has scored at least one power-play goal in each game. A couple of times that has been the difference on the scoreboard. Over the last six games the T-Birds power play has outscored the opponent's power play, 7-3. A special teams goal differential of plus four over six games is going to get you a lot of wins. As a result the T-Birds are top five in the league in both the PP (4th) and PK (5th).

The game Saturday versus Portland was just the fifth time this season, and first time since October 24th, that Seattle has played a U.S. Division foe. They are 3-1-1-0 in those games. They still haven't faced Spokane, a situation that will be remedied in early December when they face the Chiefs three times in eight days. In fact the T-Birds will meet Spokane five times next month. But the vast majority of Seattle's U.S. Division games will be the second half of the season when 25 of their last 36 games will be against divisional opponents, including all 10 games in March.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the week.

Third Star: Center Mathew Barzal. It was almost a quiet week for Barzal, if there is such a thing for a team's leading scorer. Just went about his business as usual though and earned five points (1g, 4a) and was +3. He has climbed the league scoring ladder and is now sixth overall and leads the league with 28 assists. Enjoy him because you might not see much of him next month with World Juniors approaching. He's got a good chance to make Team Canada.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor. Welcome back! After missing nine games (really ten because he was hurt in the first period back on October 27th against Brandon) all he does is pickup four assists in two games. An Energizer Bunny-type player, his motor is always in gear, never idling. A different kind of player, but like Barzal, a tone setter. After his effort this weekend, he's a point-a-game player with 13 points (4g, 9a) in 13 games. Like Barzal, he could be a participant at World Juniors next month with Team USA.

First Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Totalled six points (4g, 2a)and that was without him getting on the scoresheet Saturday. T-Birds don't win without his hat trick Friday in Kamloops. He also got the T-Birds going Tuesday with a big first period versus Swift Current (1g, 2a). If he continues to produce offense like this, he'll join his linemates Barzal and Kolesar among the league's top scorers.

Quick note; because of the Thanksgiving holiday, this week's edition of the Seattle Thunderbirds Weekly Coach's Show will air Tuesday night at 6 pm, rather then the usual Thursday night. Join me, and head coach Steve Konowalchuk, along with guest Donovan Neuls on 1090 The Fan. Among the topics will be a preview of the Wednesday night showdown from Kelowna between the T-Birds and defending WHL champion Rockets.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Twice as Nice Weekend

The Seattle Thunderbirds left Victoria Sunday morning and were both very glad, because they won twice against the Victoria Royals this past weekend, but maybe a little sad as well. You see, the two-game set was Seattle's only regular season appearance on Vancouver Island but over their past four games in Victoria, dating back to last season, the T-Birds have enjoyed some royal hospitality. The Thunderbirds have now won three in a row at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre and have points in six straight in that building, compiling a 4-0-1-1 record. In fact, since the franchise moved from Chilliwack to Victoria five seasons ago, the T-Birds have earned at least a point in seven of the 10 games they've played there (5-3-1-1).

Were there big differences in the way the team played this past weekend versus Victoria in two wins, as opposed to some of their games in Alberta the previous week when they suffered a four game losing streak? No, the differences were subtle. Primarily, Seattle got back to being consistently, very aggressive on the forecheck for 60 minutes. No one was taking shifts off. Victoria is a smallish team and the T-Birds were able to be physical with them. The T-Birds did a better job of puck possession, especially inside their own zone. They limited the number of defensive zone turnovers and were quicker getting the puck up ice. As a result, they didn't get hung up much in the neutral zone.

Victoria has surrendered only nine power-play goals to the opposition in their 22 games. Seattle has 33 percent of them. Special teams were another key to the two wins this past weekend as the T-Birds scored a power-play goal each night while killing off 10 of 11 power play chances for the Royals. The only power-play goal Seattle surrendered was a 5-on-3 goal Saturday night. It was Victoria's only goal of the game.

The T-Birds had to come from behind both nights for the win. That's something we've seen them do on more then a few occasions this season. Seattle trailed 2-0 after two periods Friday but put together a four goal rally in the third period to post the 4-2 comeback win. Saturday Victoria scored early in the first before the T-Birds answered with the last three goals in the 3-1 victory. The ability to come back shows a level of maturity as the team doesn't panic when behind on the scoreboard.

So Seattle ends their longest stretch of consecutive road games on the calendar this season, eight straight away from the ShoWare Center, by going 4-4. You can lament the two blown 3-1 third period leads in Calgary and Red Deer, but there is nothing you can do about that now. Learn the lessons from those games and move forward. By finishing that eight game stretch with a three-game winning streak, I think it is safe to say the T-Birds did just that. For all the consternation there may have been among the T-Bird faithful over that four game skid, remember this; Seattle entered the losing streak in first place in the U.S. Division and were still in first place when it ended.

And one other thing of which to take note. The T-Birds have built their 12-6-1-0 record while playing the most road games in the league (13, tied with three other teams) and the fewest home games (6). The old, winning season, formula goes something like this; win your home games and be at least .500 on the road. So far the T-birds are 6-0 at home and 6-6-1 on the road but riding a three game, road winning streak.

Two games is a small sample size but I think T-Bird fans are going to like newcomer Owen Seidel (pronounced SIGH-dull). It's certainly easy to see why Seattle got him as part of the return for Kaden Elder in the trade last week with Swift Current. He plays a good two-way game. He hasn't earned his first WHL point yet but it does appear he has good hands and a nose for the net. The coaches trusted him enough that when Nolan Volcan couldn't go Saturday night, they moved Seidel up to the third line. Remember it was just his second game with his new teammates and he had only had two practices with the team.

After eight straight on the road the T-Birds get four of their next six games at home. First up a Tuesday matchup with the aforementioned Swift Current Broncos. Seattle will get a stiff test on the weekend as they have to travel up to Kamloops for a game with the Blazers Friday and then a quick turnaround to get back home for a Saturday night tilt with longtime rival Portland.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. In two starts against Victoria he went 2-0 saving 39 of 42 shots faced, a .928 save percentage, and compiling a 1.50 GAA over 120 minutes. I think sometimes we don't give a goaltender credit when he's not facing a plethora of shots but Flodell made key saves both nights. As a result he lowered his overall GAA to 2.17 while upping his season SVPCT to .913. That puts him top five among WHL goaltenders.

2nd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. Seattle fell behind both nights against the Royals. Each night a Keegan Kolesar goal sparked the comeback. He finished the weekend with three points (2g, 1a) and was +3. He has four goals in his last three games. He now sits 10th in the league in scoring with 27 points (14g, 13a) and is just five goals off his total from last season when he potted 19 in 64 games.

1st Star: Center Mathew Barzal. Call him the Barzal Bowl because he likes to dish the assists. After picking up three more this weekend he now has 24 apples in just 16 games. That's 1.5 assists per game. He chipped in a game winning goal on Saturday too. He's now 9th overall in the league scoring race with 29 points (5g, 24a). After picking up four points on the weekend (1g, 3a) he is now averaging 1.8 points per game and is Seattle's leading point producer and is on pace for a 124 point season.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Elder Speeds Off to Swift Current

On Tuesday the Seattle Thunderbirds traded center Kaden Elder to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for right winger Owen Seidel and a 5th round 2016 Bantam Draft pick. With the deal the T-Birds gain a little more size (Seidel is listed at 6'0", 189lbs. Elder is 5'9", 172 lbs) and fill a hole in their 2016 draft which was void of some middle round picks.

On paper this appears to be a trade to get a couple of '98 born players a change of scenery and a chance at more ice time. While listed as a center, when in the lineup Elder had been playing more on the wing this season in Seattle. That's because there were five players ahead of him on the depth chart at the center position; Matt Barzal, Scott Eansor, Alexander True, Donovan Neuls (although he too was playing more on the wing) and, more significantly, 16-year-old rookie Matthew Wedman.

I'm sure Elder wanted more ice time. He has been a healthy scratch in three of 17 games and when Seattle shortened the bench in the third period his in-game minutes were lessened. One reason has been the emergence of Wedman. The rookie has shown an ability to win faceoffs, kill penalties and play physically. With Eansor out with injury, it's been Wedman getting those minutes centering either the third or fourth line, not Elder. In essence, Elder got caught in a numbers game. The T-Birds have plenty of depth among the forward lines and a younger player developing at a faster rate. Because of that depth, he could never get off that fourth line with the T-Birds.

A solid citizen, there is nothing wrong with Elder the player. He should have a solid WHL career. But this season, on this team, he wasn't going to be taking minutes away from any of the players ahead of him on the depth chart. The Thunderbirds also have other prospects, including a signed Elijah Brown, on their list who can fill the Elder void next season.

I don't know what Seattle is getting in Seidel. He has played in only seven games thus far with the Broncos in what is his rookie campaign. So far he has not registered a point or been assessed any penalties. The Richmond, B.C. native was a 7th round selection of Swift Current in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. He put up good offensive numbers last season in Midget hockey with the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BCMML (38 games 17g 50a 67 pts.). With the T-birds he'll join Luke Osterman and Wyatt Bear in a battle for ice time.

Of course as is so often the case, both players get a chance to shine against their former team almost immediately. The T-Birds host the Broncos at the ShoWare Center next Tuesday in their first home game after eight straight on the road.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

T-Birds Toe the Thin Line

The margin between winning and losing in the WHL is often whisper thin. Unfortunately, Seattle found that out to their detriment far too often on their just completed six game venture to the Eastern Conference and the Central Division. What could have easily been a 5-1, or 4-2, swing out east instead ended with the T-Birds going just 2-4, bookending their wins around a four game losing streak.

Woulda, shoulda coulda. Seattle lost two of those games after taking 3-1 leads into the final period. In another game, their potent power play couldn't muster up just one more power-play goal despite six more opportunities. Then they gave up the empty-net goal as they desperately looked for the equalizer. It's difficult to absorb losses when you are the better team for two of three periods but that happened three times on the trip. Again, the recipe for success calls for 60 minutes of hockey. A couple of times the T-Birds took the cake out of the oven too soon.

Seattle had started the trip so strong, beating Kootenay in Cranbrook, 5-2 then controlling the tempo and the scoreboard for the first two periods against Calgary the following day. But the tenor of the trip turned that fateful third period against the Hitmen up at the Saddledome. Too many T-Birds went into casual mode. They stopped being aggressive. They found out once you turn off the switch, it's not so easy to flip it back on. They made too many defensive zone mistakes...both figuratively, and in one case literally, putting the puck in their own goal as a result.

Still, Seattle had a chance to erase that sour finish in Calgary two nights later in Red Deer. After a fairly even first period, Seattle dominated the Rebels in the second. It may have been their best period of hockey on the road trip. By controlling the puck they were able to outshoot Red Deer 14-5 in the period and outscored them, 2-0. For the second straight game they took a 3-1 lead into the final period. For the second straight game they failed to hold it. It may have been different reasons that led to the lead evaporating, but the result was the same, a 4-3 loss.

I think physically they were fine, but maybe, just maybe, mentally they had lost a bit of confidence. Maybe doubt crept in. Possibly they began to squeeze the sticks a little harder. That's what made their win in Medicine Hat so important going forward with this season. Another 3-1 lead after 40 minutes, another goal given up early in the third to slice their lead to one. Time to toughen up mentally, fight through the adversity of losing Matt Barzal for the second half of the game. They had to climb over the hill back to the winning side before the hill became a mountain.

And that is what they did. They finally got some timely and key saves from their goaltending as Logan Flodell stopped 10 of 11 shots the first half of that third period at the Canalta Centre. As the period wore on, they got back to being aggressive and pushing the pace. It led to a Medicine Hat penalty, then another and finally a Seattle power-play goal that provided a cushion on the scoreboard. Seattle would finish the trip they way they started it, with a 5-2 win.

He who hesitates is lost and to me it looked like the officials were a bit lost trying to decide if Matt Barzal deserved a two minute minor or a five minute major for his checking from behind infraction midway through the second period Saturday against the Tigers. Hey, I'm biased and thought it was a fairly run-of-the-mill minor penalty. It took the four guys in stripes nearly two minutes of debate to reach their conclusion (five and a game). How many times during that discussion did they change their minds? Hem and haw? Can't take that long. It made them look like not one of them was in charge. Be decisive. If they had called the five minute major right away, I may have disagreed but I would have had more respect for the decision. By waiting so long it looked like they were waiting for someone else to magically appear and make the call for them. If they were waiting for the reaction of the player on the ice (would he stay in the game, would he leave the game)before making the call, then they got it wrong. Intent, not random result should determine the severity of the penalty.

I'm not sure what it is when this team goes on that extended trip out east that always seems to have them dealing with adversity. Usually it is injuries to key players. last fall it was Barzal getting hurt just before the first of six straight against the Eastern Division. This time around they lose Scott Eansor and Jamal Watson before the trip even started, then Jarret Smith missed most of the game in Edmonton to an upper body injury. Two years ago they had so many injuries by the time the trip was ending they barely had enough players to ice a team. Injuries happen but they all seem to happen all at once with Seattle.

In a perverse sort of way that injury to Barzal and others on the trip last season made the T-Birds a better team the second half of the 2014-15 campaign. Younger players got lots of ice time and other players took on bigger roles. It's very possible that could be the case again this season too. Young players like Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Kaden Elder and Sahvan Khaira got extra ice time and were starting to thrive with it by the final game of the trip. Then there is rookie d-man Brandon Schuldhaus. Sometimes you don't even realize he's on the ice but he's now tied for the team lead in plus/minus at +7. What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.

When all is said and done Seattle is still in first place in the U.S. Division. They've reached 10 wins in 17 games and they seemed to have survived the injuries. Onward and upward.

My Three T-Birds Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: C Matt Barzal. He followed up his ten point WHL/CHL Player of the Week performance by piling up five more assists in four games. He's taken over the scoring lead on the team with 25 points (4g, 21a) in just 14 games. On pace for a 124 point season. Still had a two point game in Medicine Hat despite playing only half the game.

2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Finished the week with four points (3g, 1a) and was +1. Was instrumental in three of the T-Birds goals in their win in Medicine Hat that broke the losing streak. Once again when Seattle lost Barzal for the second half of the game, he stepped up. He didn't get an assist on that flukey game winner against the Tigers but the goal doesn't happen without his strong rush to get the puck to the front of the net.

1st Star: C Alexander True. Five points over his last four games (3g, 2a) and was +2. Even when he's not scoring he's affecting the game with his physical play and his ability to win faceoffs. Seattle wasted his breakaway, shorthanded goal in Lethbridge. He was good enough in that game that, even though Seattle was outplayed in a 5-2 loss, he impressed the Lethbridge media enough to earn the third star. He's already set a new high in goals with 8 in just 17 games. He compiled just 6 a year ago in 38 games. Has also surpassed his rookie season point total. He had 12 points a season ago and now has 13 this season.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Whiling Away in Alberta

It wouldn't be a trip to Alberta without a little of the white stuff and the Seattle Thunderbirds woke up Monday morning to falling snow in Calgary. Wet snow that doesn't look like it will stick around but apparently the snow gods saw the calendar turn from October to November and decided it was time to let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

The T-Birds have played 13 games thus far this season. That equals 39 periods-plus of hockey. Of those 39 periods I think it is safe to say they've played only two subpar periods. Back in early October they surrendered four goals in Kennewick to Tri-City before rebounding to tie the game before dropping a 6-5 OT decision to the Americans.

Sunday afternoon in Calgary they surrendered three goals in the third period to the Hitmen, and with it a 3-1 lead, and lost at the Saddledome, 4-3. Two bad periods out of 39. I still like the success rate and would bet on the T-Birds continuing to play at that level. While it might not be sustainable, despite the setback the team is still on pace for a 54 win season. I can accept that.

The Thunderbirds have played the last eight periods without Scott Eansor and Jamal Watson who are nursing injuries. These are two players who, when healthy, log a lot of minutes. Despite their absence from the lineup Seattle still outscored the opposition 14-8. That stat would have been even more in Seattle's favor if not for the uncharacteristic third period collapse against Calgary but all told, in their last three games, Seattle is averaging five goals per contest while allowing just 2.6. That goal disparity in their favor will get you a lot of wins.

Eansor and Watson are also key components to the team's penalty kill, yet with them out of the lineup, Seattle has killed off 11 of 14 penalties. Remember, two of the power-play goals they surrendered were in their 5-2 win Saturday against the Ice, in essence, no harm no foul.

Watson is already riding the bike and should start skating again this week, so hopefully both players are back in the lineup soon, possibly before the road trip to Alberta ends.

What went wrong in the third period Sunday in Calgary? Basically everything that has gone well for the team in the third period in most of their previous games was missing Sunday. They weren't aggressive, didn't get pucks deep and were sloppy on the puck in their own zone. Not to take credit away from the Hitmen because they came out and played desperate hockey over the final 20 minutes to secure the come-from-behind win, but the reality is Seattle lost that game more then the Hitmen won it. If the T-Birds had played the third the way they played the first and second periods, we're talking about a win instead of a fustrating loss. The T-Birds have been playing so well over the last month I do wonder though, if a bit of overconfidence crept into their game in that third period, staked to that 3-1 lead. Bottom line though is that 40 minutes does not equal 60 minutes.

Brandon Schuldhaus has played in eight of the team's first 13 games, rotating in and out of the lineup with Sahvan Khaira on the third defensive pairing with fellow rookie Jarret Tyszka. But the first year defenseman has made the most of his playing time and was rewarded Sunday with his first WHL goal. In limited play, the Calgary native now has two points (1g, 1a) and is +6.

Prospect alert!!! Team Alberta won the 2015 Western Canada U16 Challenge Cup this past weekend. As a result two T-Birds prospects, Elijah Brown and Carl Stankowski took home gold medals. Stankowski was in goal for the championship game, turning aside 27 shots to register the shutout over Team Manitoba in the 3-0 win. For his efforts he was named player of the game. Stankowski went 2-0 in the tournament with a 1.50 GAA. Brown, meanwhile, finished the 5-game tournament with five assists, including one in the final.

I feel sorry for goalie Taz Burman. It seems in just about every one of his starts, his defense lets him down. I didn't like the first goal he allowed Sunday in Calgary but he had no chance on the last three which were the results of two ugly give-aways and an own goal. It's all part of the game but he deserves better support. He played well in both his starts this past week, including the win at home against Brandon.

In their first five road games this season, Seattle had not scored a first period road goal. They have one in each of the first two games of this trip.

My 3 T-Bird stars for the past week:

3rd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Keyed Seattle's win Saturday in Cranbrook over the Kootenay Ice with a three-point game (2g, 1a). Was very good on the PK as well. Finished the three games with five points (3g, 2a) while playing with two new linemates following the injuries to Eansor and Watson.

2nd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar: Seven points (4g, 3a)in the three games just completed including the season's first hat trick last Tuesday versus Brandon, which was also the first of his WHL career. 21 points on the season in 13 games (10g, 11a) and is now 14th in the league in scoring.

1st Star: C Mathew Barzal. Nine points on a goal and eight assists in the last three games. Thrust into a bigger role on the penalty kill in the absence of Eansor and Watson and was solid, especially in the two road games in Cranbrook and Calgary. Becoming harder for the opposition to get him off the puck. Showed a physical side, fighting off a Hitmen player in the neutral zone, to create a 2-on-1 that led to Seattle's first goal Sunday in Calgary. For his effort Barzal was named the WHL Player of the Week.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

No Lucky Number Seven

The Thunderbirds had their six game winning streak snapped Saturday night in Everett, after being shutout by Carter Hart, 2-0. They say you are only as good as your last game but if this team is going to win six out of every seven games and seven of every ten, I'm not going to quibble. At that pace you're looking at what could be a 48-50 win campaign.

It wasn't lack of effort that cost them a seventh straight win. For large stretches of that game's first two periods, Seattle controlled the puck and tempo with their bread and butter; a suffocating forecheck. No, it was a couple of turnovers and a hot goaltender that did them in. As we've said before, goalies can steal a few wins for their team over the course of a season and Hart definitely did that Saturday night. Seattle put 15 shots on goal in that fateful second period, many were quality chances. When the period was over though, there were down 2-0.

If I'm going to be nitpicky the one area I would have liked to see more consistency from Seattle in that game was a bigger presence in front of the Everett goal. Especially after falling behind. When they did get to the front of the net is when they were the most dangerous. Alexander True was one who did that well. He didn't get rewarded on a terrific redirect on a T-Birds power play. The Volcan-Eansor-Watson line was willing to go to the dirty areas looking for greasy goals too. Not all the forwards were willing to do that every shift though.

Everett must have been guilty of icing the puck at least a dozen times, if not more. This meant a lot of attacking zone faceoffs for Seattle. The T-Birds were winning most of those faceoffs too. I mean I don't think 16-year-old Matthew Wedman lost a draw all night. When you win an offensive zone draw and get the puck back to the point, someone has got to go immediately to the front of the net. When Seattle did that, they created a scoring chance, when they didn't they struggled to get the puck off the perimeter. Sometimes to get into the "house" (the area below the hashmarks and above the crease, right in front of the goal) you have to break a window or knock down a door. Seemed to me, at times, the T-Birds were ringing the doorbell and waiting for an invite in.

For the second straight road game Seattle was going hard from the opening faceoff. They controlled much of the first period in Vancouver Friday night and did so again Saturday in Everett. They just didn't reward themselves for that effort. The T-Birds are five road games into the season and have yet to score a first period road goal. But, they have also limited the opposition to just one first period goal in their last three road games and that came back on October 11th down in Portland.

The T-Birds effort in the loss to Everett wasn't much different then their effort in the two wins this past week over Tri-City and Vancouver. Only the result was different. Did we really think Seattle was going to go through the remainder of the season unbeaten? I don't think I need a record book to know no team has gone 70-1-1-0. One major difference against Everett, as opposed to what they did against Tri-City and Vancouver? Seattle never played with the lead against the 'Tips and Everett was able to dictate the play in the third period. The night before against the Giants, with the lead, Seattle dominated the final 20 minutes. Wednesday at home against the Americans, once Seattle got the lead they held on to it with a solid finish.

One area Seattle was able to clean up on the weekend was in the discipline department. After surrendering 15 power play chances in their previous three games, the T-birds were only shorthanded three times combined against the Giants and Silvertips. That was important because those two teams started the weekend ranked #1 and #2 in the league on the power play. Combined they finished 0-for-3. If you didn't know better, on Everett's lone power play chance Saturday night you would have thought Seattle was the team skating with the extra attacker. That's how affective the T-Birds lone penalty kill was. As a result, Seattle now sits third in the league on the penalty kill at 85.4%.

Let's look at the big picture. The T-Birds just won six in a row. They took two of three this past week and two of those three games were on the road. They've allowed two or fewer goals in their last seven games and in their last eight games have only once allowed their opponent to put more then 25 shots on goal. When was the last time an opponent had 30 or more shots on goal against Seattle? Last season. There are a lot of things to complain about in this world but the T-Birds losing once in two weeks isn't one of them.

My T-Birds three stars of the week:

3rd Star (Tie). Goaltender Taz Burman. Had his best game to date as a T-Bird in Friday's 3-1 win over Vancouver. Came a big toe's length away from a shutout as he stopped 21 of 22 shots. 3-0 in his last three starts with a 1.62 GAA and .924 SAV%. Toss out that first period back on October 4th in Kennewick and he's been stellar.
Defenseman Ethan Bear. Got his first two goals of the season in Seattle's 3-2 win Wednesday versus Tri-City, including the game winner. Added an assist Friday in Vancouver. Now at +5 on the season, second best on the team.

2nd Star: Center Alexander True. Keyed the T-Birds win Friday against the Giants with a heady play behind the Vancouver goal that led to him scoring the games first goal. He's becoming a big net front presence for the T-Birds, particularly on the power play and continues to win in the faceoff circle. His offseason commitment to getting stronger is paying off early in the season. A year ago, in injury shortened season, he had 12 points in 38 games (6g, 6a). Already this season in just 10 games has seven points (5g, 2a).

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Was probably the T-Birds best, if not the most consistent, player in the loss Saturday. Had one goal this week but affects the game even when he's not getting his name on the scoresheet with a non-stop motor that allows him to disrupt the oppositions break outs. You get the feeling that he and his linemates, Nolan Volcan and Jamal Watson, are on the verge of an offensive explosion. They had a couple such chances versus Everett that just came up short.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Oh Yes, They Call it the Streak

Another weekend, another pair of wins for the Seattle Thunderbirds who have now earned points in six consecutive games. The T-Birds are also enjoying home cooking, having won all four games so far this season at the ShoWare Center, outscoring their opponents 18-7 in the process. As a result, the team ended the weekend with the best winning percentage in the league. Yes, it is still a small sample size (seven games) but I think being first, whether in winning percentage, in the division or in the conference, is incentive to keep playing well, no matter what time of year.

Seattle was playing well before Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Jamal Watson returned to the lineup four games ago. They are definitely playing better though with them available. In the four games since their return the T-Birds are 4-0 and that trio has combined for 14 points (4g, 10a) and a combined +7. More importantly their return has stabilized the team's top three lines. Barzal and Gropp have teamed with Keegan Kolesar on the top line to average 3.4 points per game. While Kolesar is happy to have his two linemates back, let's not forget he was playing well without them. Kolesar has 12 points so far on the season and one-third of those points (1g, 4a) were accumulated in the three games before Barzal and Gropp returned.

Meanwhile, the Watson-Scott Eansor-Nolan Volcan combo is averaging just about two points a game, while also getting the task of shutting down the opponents top line. It also means Alexander True has a more defined role, centering the third line.

Seattle's power play is clicking early, currently fifth in the league at 28.6%. They've achieved that with Ethan Bear yet to score a goal. Once he gets his shot dialed in though you know it is just a matter of time before he starts potting goals with the man advantage (he does have six assists). In fact Seattle's special teams are really dialed in right now. The penalty kill is third in the WHL and has killed off 13 straight opposing power plays and 19 of 21 over the last four games.

Don't forget that a good penalty kill starts with the goaltender and Seattle has received excellent goaltending the last two weekends from the combination of Taz Burman and Logan Flodell. That duo has stopped 84 of the past 92 shots they've faced as the T-Birds have not surrendered more then two goal in any of the last four games. It's all part of a strong team defense as Seattle's opponents did not surpass the 25 shot mark in any of those four games.

Did a stint at NHL camp this summer benefit any T-Birds player more then it did Turner Ottenbreit? He actually got to go to camp with two NHL teams; development camp with the Washington Capitals and rookie camp with the New York Rangers. The second year defenseman is playing with a seemingly, new found, quiet confidence. He's been positionally sound, strong along the walls and very intent on taking care of business in the defensive zone. As a result the Yorkton, Saskatchewan, native is leading the team in plus/minus at +6 despite having just one point, an assist, so far this season. It doesn't hurt that he's playing his second season with the same defensive partner. He and Edmonton Oilers draft pick Ethan Bear definitely have developed that all important chemistry with each other and combined are +10.

This past weekend Seattle did something they didn't do much of the first couple of weekends of the season; play with the lead. At no point this weekend did the Thunderbirds trail in their two games against Kamloops and Victoria in earning both a 7-2 and a 4-2 win. I was more concerned that Seattle surrendered two third period goals to Kamloops Friday night while leading, 7-0, then I was about them allowing two goals to Victoria in the third period Saturday after building a 3-0 lead. I expected a push back by a very gritty Victoria team that was coming off a home loss the night before. The T-Birds level of play really didn't drop off as it was much more the Royals battling back. Friday night against Kamloops I thought the T-Birds got a bit too casual up by seven. It's hard to keep up that intensity over 60-minutes when you build a seven-goal lead but its important not to let bad habits creep into your game, no matter the score.

From my angle in the southeast corner of the ShoWare Center Saturday it appeared Brandon Schuldhaus may had tipped a puck to Matt Barzal that led to Seattle's third goal against the Royals at the other end of the ice. I thought it was an optical illusion but thought they might review it. The stat sheet does show him with a point so apparently he did pick up his first point in the WHL.

With Schuldhaus earning an assist, Sahvan Khaira is the only T-Birds skater yet to register a point this season. Schuldhaus, in limited play is now +3 on the season. Winger Wyatt Bear picked up his first career point with an assist Friday against the Blazers. Meanwhile, Matthew Wedman, who had earned his first career WHL point, an assist, opening night in Vancouver, registered his first career goal Friday against Kamloops. On a team with so many returning players, Seattle's trio of 16-year-old rookies, Wedman, Wyatt Bear and Jarret Tyszka, have combined for nine points (3g, 6a) and are +8.

My Three T-birds stars for the weekend:

3rd Star. Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. Is it a coincidence that Victoria didn't score a goal until Ottenbreit was in the penalty box serving out a five minute fighting major after standing up for his goalie? The rest of the game he was busy playing a physical brand of hockey and clearing rebounds away from the front of the Seattle goal. No points but finished the weekend at +2 and is now +6 on the season to lead the team.

2nd Star. RW Keegan Kolesar. Does he benefit playing on a line with Matt Barzal and Ryan Gropp? Yes, but guess what? They benefit from having him out on the ice with them as well. He's so strong he rarely loses a battle for a loose puck and now he's showing off his soft hands with a couple of beautiful snipes for goals. Finished the weekend with five points (3g, 2a) and was +3.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. The obvious from the weekend with Barzal is that he produced five points (3g, 2a) and was +3. But every time the puck is on his stick he draws the attention of two or three opposing players, opening up the ice for his teammates. He also drew a couple of penalties giving Seattle's potent power play ice time. One of his goals coming into the WHL was to become a complete hockey player and he's playing both ends of the ice very well here in the early going. I've heard fans ask for him to shoot more and we're seeing that too, one reason he had three goals in the two wins.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Winning Weekend for the Comeback Crew

While you don't want to make a habit of falling behind in every game, you're also not going to score the first goal every night either. You're not going to have the lead for 60 minutes every game. There will be times you'll be behind. Having the ability to erase a deficit, whether it's early in the first period or late in the game, is a sign of a confident, skilled and patient team. Five games into the season Seattle has displayed that confidence and come back ability in four contests. The best attribute is staying calm. Despite the early deficits they don't panic. The Thunderbirds have had the lead on the road for only 6:20 out of 182 minutes yet their road record is 1-1-1 and have earned three road points, all because they have shown the ability to come back from early deficits time and time again.

One reason the Thunderbirds are 3-1-1 so far this young season is they have owned the third period. To date the T-Birds have outscored the opposition in the final period, 6-0, and outshot them 62-27. To be fair, the other side of that coin would be the first period in which Seattle has been outscored 8-3 and outshot 54-38. While you want them to continue the dominating third period trend, you also want them to improve on their starts. Sunday down in Portland actually was an improvement. Shots were even at 9-9 and the Winterhawks goal came late on the power play, primarily the result of a very good individual effort by Dominic Turgeon.

This brings me back to Seattle's supposed question mark coming into the season; goaltending. Seattle got two very good back-to-back efforts this weekend from the tandem of Taz Burman and Logan Flodell. Burman continues to be put under duress by his defense early in games. He faced 10 shots before the first period 10 ten minutes old Saturday versus Prince Albert and I'd guess seven of them were quality scoring chances. If you face seven quality scoring chances in a 10-minute span and stop five of them, you're doing well to keep your team in the game. Burman then made the only save of the shootout and that sealed the win for the T-Birds.

Flodell was just as sharp Sunday in Portland. I think he'd like another crack at that first Portland goal, the one that just snuck under his right pad, but he made a nice stop of a puck rolling along the goal line late in the third period to preserve Seattle's lead. We're just five games into the season so the battle is still too close to say one has gained the upper hand over the other and as long as they both continue to play well, Burman and Flodell will continue to share the goaltending duties.

I thought Prince Albert goalie Rylan Parenteau was going to steal a win for his team Saturday night at the ShoWare Center. He was the only reason the Raiders were still in that game after surrendering their early two-goal cushion. From the midway point of the first period, after Prince Albert had scored twice, Seattle dominated play, outshooting PA from that point 31-10. In the standings it will say the Raiders earned a point from that game but in reality, it was Parenteau who earned that point.

The second period versus the Winterhawks was a mess, for both teams, with a combined eight penalties called that resulted in eight power plays. A lack of 5-on-5 hockey took away any flow the game may have had. Honestly though, I can't recollect a penalty that wasn't warranted as it was a bit of a sloppy effort by both sides. It just might have been the result of the first game between two long time rivals who play each other 12 times every season.

Matt Barzal has three points in two games since returning from the NHL training camp of the New York Islanders. Barzal played both games this weekend at less then 100 percent as he was feeling a bit under the weather. So we probably got 85-90 percent of Barzal this weekend and he was still probably the best player on the ice. His cross slot pass to set up Jarret Tyszka's game tying, second period, power-play goal Sunday was a thing of beauty.

Speaking of Tyszka, not a bad start for the 16-year-old rookie and 2014 first round draft pick. Sunday in Portland he registered the first multi-point game of his WHL career (1g, 1a) and was defensively responsible as well. Tyszka is already seeing a lot of time on the power play and as a result has two powerplay goals.

With Seattle taking as many penalties in the second period as they did Sunday against Portland, Sahvan Khaira got some time on the penalty kill and had a couple of solid shifts. He also was guilty of one of those infractions though. It was penalty by committee in that game so he wasn't alone in that boat. Overall I thought he put together two good efforts on the weekend. Consistency from shift-to-shift and game-to-game is what the coaches are looking for from the second year d-man and Saturday and Sunday were a step in the right direction.

With everyone back and healthy, Nic Holowko has been moved down to the fourth line. This is a player with 3rd or even 2nd line ability so that speaks to the depth of the forward group on this team. Of course Holowko can also be used as an affective penalty killer and even on the fourth line he is going to impact games. Sunday in Portland he made a strong rush down the left wing, nutmegged the Winterhawks defenseman and just missed scoring on a backhand attempt.

Once again, no midweek games for the Thunderbirds who are off before playing two home games this weekend, hosting Kamloops Friday before welcoming Victoria to town Saturday. Before that be sure to join me Thursday evening at 6 p.m. for the weekly Seattle Thunderbirds Coach's Show on 1090 The Fan.

My T-birds three stars of the weekend sweep:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jarret Tyszka. On a team with two 20-year-old d-men, an NHL drafted d-man and three defensemen who attended NHL camps this September, the young Tyszka still stood out. In particular with his two point effort in the win down in Portland on Sunday. It's going to be fun watching him develop over the course of this season and next.

2nd Star: Center Alexander True. With three goals so far this season, all scored on Sundays, maybe we should call him the preacher or, because of his deep baratone voice with the Danish accent, how about the Sermonator? Not only did he have the game winner Sunday versus the Winterhawks but both T-birds goal scorers in Saturday's win over Prince Albert (Barzal and Kolesar), credited True with helping set up their goals even though he didn't get an assist on either.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. Whether it was the flu or a nasty cold, he was not at 100 percent health this weekend but still managed three points (1g, 2a) and a shootout goal. If this is how Barzal plays when he is under the weather, I can't wait to see him play when he's over the weather.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Whole Again

The news came early Sunday and then again late Sunday night. Two key pieces to the Thunderbirds roster were being returned.

First it was announced that the Saint John's Ice Dogs of the American Hockey League had released Jamal Watson. Watson had been sent down to the AHL team after a solid camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadiens. There was some concern from the T-Birds faithful that Watson, obtained by Seattle from Lethbridge in an offseason trade, would be offered a contract and stay with the AHL club. I never got the impression from the T-Birds brass that they shared that concern. I think Watson's goal is to earn an NHL deal and he probably realizes his opportunity to do that is improved if he comes back to Seattle and puts up a monster season as a 20-year-old in the WHL. I don't think an AHL contract offer was a serious consideration at this time in his career. Next year maybe, but not right now.

Then later Sunday night, while the T-Birds were mounting a ferocious comeback in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans, word came that the New York Islanders, who had just finished up their preseason schedule earlier in the day, were sending Matt Barzal back to Seattle after his very successful first NHL training camp. I believe that with all the talent the T-Birds have on their roster this season, Barzal is still the straw that stirs the drink.

And there was even some more positive news as Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk told ESPN 710 reporter Andy Eide that last year's leading scorer, Ryan Gropp, was getting closer to returning to action. Gropp has missed the T-Birds first three games with a lower body injury that has him currently listed as day-to-day. There is a chance we see all three in the lineup next weekend but at the very least, Watson and Barzal will play.

So, Seattle gets through the first two weekends of WHL action in relatively good shape despite the absence of what would be considered three of their best, if not their three best, offensive weapons. Seattle stands at 1-1-1-0 after three games, in which they produced offense by committee, and in the loss opening night up in Vancouver and last night in Kennewick, they had a chance at the end to win or pull out a point. I think, under the circumstances, they'll take that and move along.

Without the three players we've mentioned in the lineup, Seattle is still averaging nearly 4 goals a game (3.66) and while it is a small sample size there are six players on the roster who are averaging a point a game or better. I think adding Barzal, Watson and Gropp into the mix should allow them to keep up that scoring pace. The one thing the players who have been here need to do is continue to play well and not expect the burden of scoring to fall on the shoulders of those three returning players.

What one thing has me worried about this team early on? I tell you what doesn't worry me and that is the goaltending. More on that later. What does worry me is the slow starts in the first two road games. You don't want to be coming off the bus not ready to play but in both early road tests, Seattle has been slow to get going, falling behind and ended up chasing the play. To their credit they came back to tie the game in each instance but it is a recipe for disaster if you do that every night on the road. There has to be a sense of desperation as soon as you hit the ice. I'm not sure the reason behind it but I'm sure the coaches will address that issue specifically in practice this week. Seattle's hallmark last season was team defense but through the first three games this season that team defense has been inconsistent.

I'm seeing a lot of consternation about the goaltending of Taz Burman and I'll tell you right now, Burman is not the problem. I repeat, he is not the problem! In his two starts he's faced a combined 27 shots in the first period; 13 opening night in Vancouver and 14 Sunday versus Tri-City. Unfortunately, too many of those shots he's faced are quality scoring chances. Yes, you do need your goaltender to make a big save a couple of times each game to deny a quality scoring chance. The problem for the T-Birds is that they are allowing almost every shot Burman faces to be a quality scoring chance. Burman is not going to shrink away from the responsibility he has. He knows he's the last line of defense. But the T-birds team defense has to stop constantly leaving him out alone on an island with opposing shooters.

How great was it to see Alexander True have what may have been his best game as a T-Bird Sunday as he helped spark the T-Birds comeback from a five-goal deficit? I think True was just rounding into form midway through last season when he suffered an upper body injury that cost him approximately 30 games the second half of his rookie season. I think that injury cost him an outside chance of getting drafted into the NHL this past June and at the very least, kept him from getting an NHL camp invite this fall. He added muscle to his 6'4" frame this offseason and it was very evident on his shorthanded goal at the end of the second period, fighting off a defender as he bore down on goal. More games like that from True equals more opportunities to win for Seattle.

The Thunderbirds rookie class this season is not as big as the 11 rookies who broke in with the team a year ago. Personally, I don't consider Gustav Olhaver a rookie. He's an older player who is already drafted into the NHL and has played internationally. Meanwhile through three games the foursome of Matthew Wedman, Wyatt Bear, Brandon Schuldhaus and Jarret Tyszka are a combined +4 while contributing one goal and three assists.

Wedman's play in particular could re-shape how Seattle configures its four lines when healthy. I think originally the T-Birds coaches were planning on Donovan Neuls centering the fourth line and that could still happen. But they may also have enough confidence in Wedman now that he center's the fourth line and Neuls could play the wing on the third line. Wedman can answer that question by continuing to play well and consistently. Stay tuned.

Yes, 3-on-3 overtime is exciting and fans are going to love it. But I don't know, maybe I'm old school, I don't mind games ending in a tie. I think the overtime is "gimmicky". It would be like baseball finishing off with a home run Derby rather then playing extra innings. Of course, when the T-Birds win a few overtime games, I'll change my mind.

My three T-birds stars for the opening three games:

3rd Star: Alexander True. True really has played well in all three games but finally got rewarded for it Sunday with a three point night against Tri-City (2g, 1a). He was the spark that got the T-Birds five goal comeback started. He has stepped up his physical play and continues to be a key face off guy.

2nd Star: Logan Flodell. Had a terrific first start against Prince George in the home opener, stopping 27 of 28 shots. While most of his saves were fairly "routine", he also showed good lateral movement in making a few of the spectacular variety. He came into the game Sunday and while he got credited with the overtime loss, kept Tri-City at bay while Seattle came roaring back from that five goal deficit.

1st Star: Scott Eansor: In the absence of the Big Three, Seattle looked to players like Eansor for scoring and he delivered with four points (2g,2a). He continues to be strong at both ends of the ice. He and his line did a top notch job of shutting down Prince George's potent top scoring line Saturday. His success the first half of the season will determine if he has a spot on Team USA for World Juniors in late December/early January. So far, so good.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Opening Things Up

As far as Seattle's season opener goes, it wasn't all bad and it certainly wasn't all good, in their 3-2 loss up in Vancouver to the Giants. There were certainly errors that can be cleaned up during this next week of practice before they hit the ice again for the home opener next Saturday. There were also plenty of things done well that make you believe this team is going to be okay going forward.

Lets first and foremost talk about the goaltending of Taz Burman, who got his first regular season start with Seattle since the offseason trade that brought him over from Red Deer. I know a lot of the fan base has been concerned about the goaltending aspect of this team. Seattle opens the new season with two relatively untested novices between the pipes in Burman and Logan Flodell. It's only one game but if that sixty minute effort Friday night from Burman is an indicator of how he will perform this season, at least my fears have been alleviated.

One of the primary tasks for the goalie is to give your team a chance to win. Burman did just that. In the first period alone he stoned at least three point blank shots in making 12 saves. You can dissect all three goals Vancouver scored and would be hard pressed to find fault on any of them that can be laid at the feet of Burman. He showed great agility in moving side to side and was very active with his pads. In the battle between these two goalies for ice time, Burman fired the first shot and it came pretty close to hitting the bullseye dead center. Now Flodell will get his chance to respond next weekend.

It was a very timid, almost cautious, start for the Thunderbirds and it may have been that start, more then the late game penalty, that led to Seattle's demise. Maybe it was opening night jitters, maybe it was line combinations that hadn't seen the ice together much in the preseason. Whatever the reason, the team started too slowly and ended up playing catch up the rest of the game. Yes, they did eventually catch the Giants on the scoreboard before the late power play goal lifted Vancouver back into the lead, but had they started the game with more urgency they may not have found themselves chasing the play. The T-birds allowed Vancouver 13 first period shots on goal, then only 12 over the final forty minutes. Seattle didn't have the puck on their sticks much in that first period. They then dominated puck possession over the final two periods.

Did Seattle miss the trio of Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Jamal Watson in the lineup? Of course they did. A year ago that threesome put up a combined 169 points (66g, 101a) in 177 games. But even without those three, the T-birds were in position to win a road game in the final minutes. Here's an amazing factoid. A season ago a young Seattle team won 38 games while never once icing a game night roster with all their best players available. The season before that they weren't able to ice their best team for most of the season either, yet still won 42 games. Unfortunately that trend continued to start the new season, meaning it's been since early October of 2013, nearly two full calendar years, since Seattle has had all their players healthy and available. Yet like so many games the past two seasons Seattle's shortened line up still put up an effort worthy of a win.

One issue Seattle will need to address in practice this week is spacing. Too often Vancouver was able to get a player in behind the Seattle defense because too many T-birds defenders were occupying one side of the ice. It directly led to the Giants first goal and a number of other high quality Vancouver scoring chances, especially early.

Seattle dressed and played five WHL rookies Friday night; 18 year old Gustav Olhaver, 17 year old Brandon Schuldhaus, and a trio of 16 year olds in Jarret Tyszka, Matthew Wedman and Wyatt Bear(Bear played three games as a 15 year old last season but is still technically considered a rookie). Outside of Burman, Olhaver may have been Seattle's best player in the first period, displaying a nice physical presence. As an older rookie and an NHL draft pick you would expect Olhaver to be the least intimidated by the atmosphere of an opening night on the road.

Bear was solid in his minutes but I think he is still rounding into game shape with his conditioning. Schuldhaus is the kind of player that, if you don't notice him a lot, it's a good thing. That means he's doing his job and not overextending himself. That's called being reliable. Maybe that's not an exciting way to describe a player but if I was a coach, I'd be happy with that every night.

As to the two 16 year olds making their WHL regular season debuts, there were some great highs and a couple of lows but the fact the coaches were willing to use both players in all situations is a testament to how they view both Tyszka and Wedman. Tyszka, the 2014 first round bantam pick probably has the more tasking role as a defenseman. Despite that head coach Steve Konowalchuk showed no hesitation sticking him out on the ice on both the power play and penalty kill. There is a willingness among the coaching staff to accept the growing pains because he has such a high ceiling. It's going to be interesting to watch Tyszka's growth over the next couple of seasons, a growth that will be accelerated by playing in these type of situations.

Meanwhile Wedman, once he got going along with the rest of the team after a sluggish first period, showed no fear. He attacked, Yes, that aggressiveness led to a late second period penalty, one I thought Giants goalie Payton Lee sold very well, but I certainly wouldn't tell Wedman to dial it down, as long as it is controlled aggression. With help from Keegan Kolesar, he made a terrific pass to Nick Holowko to set up Seattle's second goal that tied the game midway through the third period. In making that play he showed good vision and a deft touch.

Wedman, selected in round two of the 2014 Bantam Draft, is a bona fide prospect. He has some assets scouts are going to be intrigued by; a big bodied player with a smooth skating style. He has the opportunity to be the quintessential power forward. At age 16, he's already listed at 6'2 190 lbs. I had a chance to chat with him briefly earlier in the day Friday. I told him I don't remember his brother Cole, who played in the WHL with Spokane, being as big a player. In deed, in his 19 year old season , his last in the WHL, Cole Wedman was listed at 6'3" but only 175lbs. But Matthew told me he has another brother, Dan, currently playing collegiately at Cornell who goes about 6'5", 210 lbs. So, you can see there is room to grow.

With their three big guns missing, Seattle iced a lineup that featured just 11 forwards while dressing seven defensemen. The Barzal-Gropp absence was particularly felt on the power play. It also meant juggling line combinations all game and some double shifting. That makes it hard to build chemistry, in particular so early in the season when you can't even get your desired line combinations together in practice. So, despite the loss, I'm not too worried about this team going forward. Once those players are back they should be okay. I was a little concerned during the game over the lack of offense but they seem to rectify that by the third period as players started to show more cohesion on their shifts.

Is Keegan Kolesar in for a big season? He ended the night with two big assists, was a net front presence most of the game with a couple of redirections that just deflected wide and this was with out his presumptive linemates, Barzal and Gropp, in the lineup.

Finally, enough with the penalty for shooting the puck out of play from inside your own blueline! How is that any different then icing the puck, yet icing is not a penalty? Outcomes of games should not be affected by such an arbitrary rule. You might argue that without that rule, players will be purposefully shooting the puck into the crowd more often late in games. So? How often do you seem teams ice the puck in that situation? What is the difference? Yet you've decided that one is a penalty and one is not?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

And Away We Go

The Thunderbirds wrapped up their preseason schedule Friday night at the ShoWare Center with a lackluster 4-1 loss to the Victoria Royals. With the loss the T-Birds end preseason play with a 2-3-1 record. Seattle now turns its attention to Vancouver and the regular season opener next Friday up at the Pacific Coliseum.

I think head coach Steve Konowalchuk said it best about the loss to Victoria when he told ESPN 710's Andy Eide, "I thought we had a couple of vets trying to do too much and that's counterproductive. Instead of keeping it simple and playing the game that's there in front of them." (You can read the rest of the article here).

When you are missing key players from your lineup we always ask the players remaining to step up their game to fill the void. But there is a right way to do that and a wrong way. I think last night we saw the wrong way. You still have to trust in your teammates in that situation. You still need to stick to the systems. There were moments of that last night but there were also too many moments of, as the coach said, vets trying to do too much. When that happens I think the young players become tentative and it puts everything out of whack.

That being said, Victoria iced a much more veteran roster then did Seattle. Not only did the Royals lineup look more like a regular season, game night, roster but they also appeared to use players in situations, such as the power play and penalty kill, that you would see in a regular season contest. By contrast Konowalchuk and the Seattle coaching staff continued to just roll the three lines they had, whether it was even strength play or special teams, often having 16-year-old rookies manning the power play and penalty kill units. Of course part of that was by necessity as Seattle's entire first unit power play, and most of their top two lines, is still away at NHL camps.

So, while the Royals, who themselves did have a few components of their lineup missing, most notably defenseman Joe Hicketts, were more capable of treating the action like a regular season game, the T-Birds appeared to approach it for what it was, a preseason game that gave them one more chance to give rookies Jarret Tyszka, Brandon Schuldhaus, Matthew Wedman, Wyatt Bear and Mackenzie Wight lots and lots of ice time. And with five of your top six forwards still away, it allowed them to put second year players such as Kaden Elder, Nolan Volcan and Luke Osterman in position to take on more responsibility. While they had their moments, the missing ingredient was consistency.

For the third straight game, the Thunderbirds went with an undermanned lineup, dressing just ten forwards. After playing two games last weekend in Kennewick with just four defensemen, the T-Birds were able to suit up six against Victoria but I would not expect to see the pairings we saw against the Royals once the regular season gets underway. For instance, Jared Hauf and Jerret Smith didn't appear to take one shift together. And while his team didn't play well in front of him, starting goalie Taz Burman seemed quite out of sync, allowing three goals on just 13 shots. Two of those three goals he allowed were far too soft. The bright spot had to be Logan Flodell, who took over in goal midway through the contest and allowed just one goal on 16 shots. The effort might just have given him a slight edge in the goaltending battle. Flodell ended the preseason with a 1-1 record to go along with a 2.43 GAA and a .909 save percentage.

Hopefully the effort against Victoria was a good teaching moment. The players will need to be better by next weekend. There may not be complete re-enforcements coming just yet. The question now becomes how many of the six T-Birds players still at NHL camps return in time for the start of regular season play? My guess is two to three of them won't be in the lineup Friday night when the team hits the ice in Vancouver against the Giants. Instead they'll be involved in NHL preseason games. The good news is, it is a slow start to the WHL regular season for Seattle with just the one game on tap opening weekend.

Again, let's not put too much stock into preseason wins and losses. A year ago the eventual WHL champion Kelowna Rockets lost their last three preseason games before reeling off 53 wins in the regular season. Meanwhile the Kamloops Blasers were 4-1 in the 2014 preseason but could only muster 28 wins in regular season play and missed the playoffs.

A reminder to join myself, Andy Eide and Tim Pigulski for an hour long roundtable preview of the Thunderbirds this Wednesday at 6 pm on 1090 The Fan.