Wednesday, January 14, 2015

No Middle Ground

The Thunderbirds hadn't had a period like the second period Tuesday night against Spokane since, well, possibly since last season. I'm not saying they've been playing textbook, perfect hockey all year. There have been periods this year where the opponent got the better of them. The game in Moose Jaw back in early November would be a good example. But not to the extent they got outworked, outhustled, outhit and outscored by the Chiefs for 20 minutes last night that turned a 2-1 Seattle lead into a 4-3 deficit.

Tuesday in that second period, it seemed the T-birds lost every 50/50 puck battle. They constantly turned the puck over in their own end or in the neutral zone. The passing was not sharp and they struggled to move the puck up ice against the Chiefs forecheck. And this came after a pretty solid first period by the T-birds. That second 20 minutes was so out of character for this team which has played some very inspired hockey over the past three weeks, compiling a 7-1-0-1 record. Maybe they were just due for a period like that. Maybe the law of averages just caught up with them. Whatever it was, it just wasn't the brand of hockey the team has been playing the second half of the season.

I'm sure part of it was Spokane head coach Don Nachbaur giving his team a little inspirational talk during the first intermission as the Chiefs definitely played that second period with a purpose. And yet when that 20 minutes of subpar hockey was over for Seattle, up on the scoreboard, they were still in the game. They were only down a goal. They were only outshot 12-8 and had actually scored to briefly take a 3-2 lead. And when the period ended they found themselves on a power play that would carry over to the start of the third.

Now it was Seattle head coach Steve Knowalchuk's turn for a some inspiring intermission talk. I don't know what was said in the dressing room between periods. On the radio postgame show I think assistant coach Tyler Alos called it "motivational words". But whatever words were spoken, they relit the fuse under the T-birds attack. They came out on fire to start the period. Using the power play they peppered the Spokane net with six quality scoring chances in the first minute and a half. If not for the stellar work of Chiefs goalie Garret Hughson, Seattle would have tied the game much earlier then they did.

Just a few minutes after the power play expired, Nolan Volcan took a feed from Lane Pederson on a 2-on-1 rush and erupted for the tying goal, shooting it in off Hughson's glove. Seattle would end up outshooting Spokane, 15-5 over the final 25 minutes before winning on Keegan Kolesar's shootout goal.

Under normal circumstances you'd lament giving up that point Spokane earned in the shootout loss since they are one of the team's your trying to chase down in the standings. But considering how poorly the Thunderbirds played that second period, I think they'll appreciate the win no matter how it was accomplished. Seattle was still able to gain ground on every team in front of them in the Western Conference and U.S. Division. In fact their 8-1-0-1 stretch is the best record in the league over the last ten games.

Finding instant chemistry on a forward line that has never played together before is a rare thing, especially when they get thrown together for the fist time mid-season. But Seattle may have discovered just that with the line of Roberts Lipsbergs, Donovan Neuls and Cory Millette. In two games together they have combined for six points (2g, 4a) and are +7. I'd say that is picking up the slack for the loss of the team's second leading scorer, Justin Hickman, to season-ending shoulder surgery.

Heck of a weekend on the road coming up for the T-birds as they face the top two teams in the Western Conference on back-to-back nights. First up it's Friday in Kelowna against the team with the league's best record, the Rockets. Then it's a quick turnaround to get down to Everett to face the U.S. Division leading Silvertips Saturday night.

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