First things first, Happy New Year T-birds Nation!
As we enter 2015 in the WHL, things are as tight as sardines in a tin in the Western Conference and even more so in the U.S. Division. A big reason for that is Seattle's current, season best, five game winning streak to close out 2014, punctuated by their 2-1 win in Portland New Year's Eve.
Aside from Kelowna, which tops the conference by 15 points, a mere 11 points separates second place Everett from ninth place Vancouver. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Division there are only six points between the division-leading Silvertips and fourth place Seattle. After taking two from Portland in less then a week, the margin between the third place Winterhawks and the T-birds is, a paper thin, one point and Seattle has two games in hand. And as hot as second place Spokane has been lately (seven straight wins), Seattle is only five points behind the Chiefs.
It all makes you wonder, as the trade deadline approaches, if one of the U.S. Division teams will make a blockbuster deal in order to separate from the pack? There is a prevailing thought right now that with Kelowna so far ahead of everyone in the conference standings, and with the Rockets already making a big trade for Josh Morrissey and rumored to be about to pick up Leon Draisaitl in another blockbuster transaction, that it is not worth it for any other team to be busy at the trade deadline in ten days, or at least to not trade any key assets. But winning a division title and the possibility of being the higher seed for two playoff rounds just might be worth making a significant move. The clock is ticking
Remember two seasons ago when Seattle almost upset the Rockets in that epic seven game series that featured five overtime games? The Rockets had a 52 win regular season, were B.C. Division champs and the #2 seed for the playoffs. They were expected to challenge Portland for the Western Conference crown but by the end of that series with Seattle, they were so banged up and injured they barely put up a fight and were quickly eliminated in the second round by Kamloops. That's why, if you are another Western Conference G.M., you don't concede the title in early January. You don't know what will happen over the final two and a half months of the season or in the playoffs. As one former NFL coach said, "You play to win the game." You might win the trade deadline, but no one has won anything yet on the ice.
With Seattle playing as well as they are right now despite being shorthanded, doesn't it make you salivate to think what they could have been the first half of the season, or might be the second half of the season with the likes of Shea Theodore and Mathew Barzal back in the lineup? The prevailing thought around this young team back in September was that they would need the first half to get all the rookies (ten of them!) acclimated to the WHL game but by the second half they would be ready to make some noise. In my estimation they are actually slightly ahead of that prediction.
The biggest key for the T-birds going forward will be staying healthy. It's nice to win so many games with arguably two and three or more of your best players out of the lineup but this is a league where you win with your best players consistently being your best players. Getting Theodore and True back from World Juniors next week and a healthy return of Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Donovan Neuls in the near future will put the team in a prime position to secure a top seed for the playoffs.
The one byproduct of these absences from the lineup has been more ice time for all the young players. Seattle has leaned on its young depth through this winning streak and they have come throught in spades. This is going to create some fierce competition for ice time once they finally have their full roster in tact.
Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has said on numerous occasions that hockey is not a complicated game. I think that is the most important lesson he and his coaching staff have taught this team the first half. Keep it simple. The biggest skills you need are effort, team work and consistency. If you bring your hard hat to each game for 60 minutes, you'll give yourself a chance to win. When I asked him before the game Wednesday against Portland what the key to the team's recent success has been, he didn't hesitate to say that it was "the guys playing for each other." No one is playing selfish hockey. Two things coach K told me in the first few weeks of the season: 1). We like our depth and 2). We are young but those young players are talented. This recent stretch of five wins is exactly what he was alluding to.
My T-bird Three Stars for the past two games:
Third Star: Nick Holowko. A prime example that you don't have to score a goal or pick up an assist to have an affect on a game. He epitomizes what I wrote earlier about effort and bringing your hard hat for 60 minutes. After small steps early in the season, his development took huge leaps the past month with added playing time. New Year's Eve, elevated to the team's make shift top line in the absence of Gropp and Barzal, he was a constant thorn in the side of the Winterhawks. In the T-birds dictionary, beside the word "forecheck" is his picture. He's one of those players who does whatever he's asked and has tremendous focus.
Second Star: The Goaltending. The tandem of Danny Mumaugh and Taran Kozun finished the mid-week action 2-0 with a 1.5 GAA and save percentage of .926. Tuesday against Everett we saw vintage Danny Mumaugh. Late in the second period with the game still in doubt and the Silvertips on the power play, Mumaugh made three incredible saves to preserve a one goal Seattle lead. In the first period Wednesday in Portland, with Seattle up by a goal, Kozun stoned a Portland breakaway and prevented a momentum shift.
First Star: Ethan Bear. The draft eligible d-man produced a goal and two assists and finished +3 Tuesday at home against Everett and while he didn't register a point Wednesday down in Portland I thought he had one of his better defensive games as Seattle held the Winterhawks to one late power play goal. I thought he was physical and constantly was knocking Portland players off the puck while keeping traffic away from Kozun. He and his defensive partner Jerret Smith once again logged a ton of ice time.