Sunday, February 22, 2015

Winning Weekend

That darn post! If not for clinking a shot late in the third period Saturday off the right post, Seattle winger Roberts Lipsbergs would not only have completed his hat trick, but it would have given the T-birds power play goals in 13 straight games. That's about the only negative I can find from their 7-0 pasting of Everett at the ShoWare Center.

The reality is Seattle didn't need their power play to win the game. They were strong 5-on-5 all night long. The night before though their power play bailed them out, going 3-for-5 in coming back three times to earn a 4-3 overtime win over Lethbridge. Two games, two different ways to win but the same result, a crucial two points earned.

Saturday's win over the Silvertips was clearly the better effort over 60 minutes and was reminiscent of the way they had been playing most of the second half of the season; with consistency. That had gotten away from them the past couple of weeks as their efforts were a bit up and down. Hopefully Saturday's win brought them back to where they need to be with 13 games left in the regular season.

Another great example of playing well and affecting the outcome without ending up on the scoresheet comes from that win over Everett. The line of Calvin Spencer-Donovan Neuls-Nolan Volcan made life miserable all night for Everett's leading scorer, NHL first round draft pick Nikita Sherbak. Not only was Sherbak held pointless, but he finished the game at -3.

Speaking of Volcan, did anyone extend an invite to his dad Marty to play in the Hockey Challenge Celebrity/Alumni All Star game? tThe rosters for that game were inundated with former T-bird players such as Brendan Witt, Reagan Mueller and Brett Duncan, to name a few. Marty Volcan is a former Seattle Breaker. Would have been nice to see him out skating in the charity game on Parent's Weekend!

Nice to see Yashar Farmanara back in the area to play in that game, although he'd like another crack at that shootout attempt! Farmanara played for the T-birds between 2003-06 before being dealt to Lethbridge and eventually finishing his WHL career with Medicine Hat. Seattle G.M. Russ Farwell has made some great trade deadline acquisitions over the years (see Cory Millette, Brooks Laich, Tomas Mojizs, Ian McKenzie), but I think even he'd agree he'd like a do over on that deal that sent Farmanara and Mitch Fadden to the Hurricanes for Kyle Pess and Robert Klinkhammer back in 2006. Pess decided to leave the T-birds at the start of the next season, days after Seattle had dealt Klinkhammer to Portland. Meanwhile Farmanara would compile 90 points (45g) over the next two seasons with the Hurricanes and Tigers while Fadden would record 277 points, including 118 goals, over the next three years between stints with the Hurricanes and Tri-City Americans.

The Thunderbirds power play had been mired in the bottom half of the league standings for most of the season. Falling as low as 18th in the 22 team WHL and spending most of the season around 13 or 14 overall. But since the return of Shea Theodore and Matt Barzal to the lineup and the acquisition of Cory Millete from Prince Albert, the Seattle power play has been a force recently, rising as high as 6th overall and currently sitting at #8 following the 0-for-3 Saturday. For a team that has been near the bottom in goals scored in the league this season, the improved power play is a much needed weapon for their arsenal.

With the win over Everett, Seattle is now 9-3-1-0 the past two months of the season against the top four records in the Western Conference (Kelowna, Everett, Portland and Victoria).

My T-birds Three Stars for the past weekend:

3rd Star: D Jerret Smith. Smith had a goal and an assist in Friday's overtime win versus Lethbridge and that goal was the game winner. No points Saturday in the win over Everett but a steady force on the back end that helped limit the Silvertips to just 15 shots in the 7-0 shutout. Continues to be Seattle's most consistent defenseman this season. His eight goals this year more then doubles his career best and he has become a key cog to the T-birds number one power play unit.

2nd Star: LW Cory Millette. Might be the most bang for the buck that any team is getting from a player acquired at the trade deadline. He only cost Seattle a 6th round draft pick yet has been good for nearly a point a game since his acquisition from Prince Albert. In 19 games with Seattle he has 18 points (9g, 9a) and is a plus seven. By contrast in 39 games the first half of the season with Saskatoon and PA, he had 18 points (8g, 10a) and was -17. Another reason why Seattle's power play is clicking, five of his nine goals with the T-birds have come with the man advantage. Finished the weekend with five points (2g, 3a) and +3.

1st Star: C Matt Barzal. Every time I ask the T-birds coaching staff about Barzal they say he is still not at the top of his game yet, coming off his knee injury. In other words, they believe he still has another level to his game and he's just now scratching the surface. Okay, so right now we have 90 percent of Barzal, which isn't too shabby considering he finished the weekend with seven assists. At one point he had assisted on five straight T-birds goals, and seven of 10, going back to their loss last Sunday to Victoria. Despite missing nearly three months of the season (28 games)has moved back up to number two on the team in scoring with 39 points (11g, 28a), only seven points behind Ryan Gropp for the team lead. Averaging 1.26 points per game. When extrapolated out over a 72 games season, he would be on pace for 91 points.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Compete, Compete and Repeat

The Thunderbirds have gotten into a bad habit lately. Basically that poor habit is inconsistency. They'll get up for an opponent, usually a team at the top of the standings, and play an intense, competitive game only to see that level of compete fall off dramatically the next game, usually against a team at the other end of the standings.

Over the last ten days, in which the T-birds played seven games, they played one of their better games of the season in a 6-3 win over Portland, the team they're battling for 2nd place in the U.S. Division. Two days later they nearly went sleep walking through a 5-4 loss to the Vancouver Giants up at the Pacific Coliseum. They came back the next night to earn a thrilling, 2-1, win over the WHL's top team, Kelowna. It was their second win over the Rockets in the last month. But the very next game they once again couldn't muster the same level of urgency and desperation in a 3-2 shootout loss in Kamloops as they fell to the Blazers for the third time.

They got the effort and compete level back the next night in another win over one of the top teams in the league. This time a 3-2, come-from-behind, shootout win over the U.S. Division leading Everett Silvertips. But whatever grit and passion they displayed in that game must have been left at Xfinity Arena because it was non-existent in a flat performance Sunday at home in a 6-3 loss to the Victoria Royals at the ShoWare Center.

So over a ten day stretch the T-birds beat the top three teams in the Western Conference, Kelowna, Everett and Portland but lost to two teams at the bottom of the table, Vancouver and Kamloops. Is this a byproduct of their youth; their mental maturity, if you will? They get fired up to face the best but can't self-motivate to play the teams with losing records? That may be part of the issue but it wasn't as though the young players were the only ones who couldn't find their compete level in those losses. Some of the older players weren't on board either. But I do think their is some validity to the argument that Seattle's youth is playing a role in this inconsistency.

Most of these players are dealing with a 72-game schedule for the first time and their lack of physical maturity might affect their ability to play sixty minutes of grind-it-out hockey seven times over a week and a half. When is this lack of focus from game-to-game occurring? Toward the end of the long season. Go back to the first half of the season and even when Seattle was losing games they were competing night in and night out. But they were also mentally and physically fresher back then too.

Is the schedule a factor? Seriously, seven games in 10 days (five over the last eight days) is a bit too much for this level especially when you factor in that most of these players are still in school and three of the games were weekday affairs, on the road, so the "off days" are actually travel days spent on a bus. At the same time though, these players all have aspirations at competing at the next level. So, in a way, this is their training for that hoped for eventuality of playing professionally. The lesson they need to learn is bring the same effort each game no matter the opponent, no matter the schedule. School is in session.

The bottom line is this; if you want to be a championship caliber team you can't ride the roller coaster like this. You have to be consistent from game to game. Sure, emotion is a big part of this game but you need to be able to not let the highs get too high or the lows too low. You have to keep your emotions in check to the point they don't affect your performance. When the 54th game of the season is over, it is time to re-focus your effort on game 55. And the focus has to be on your effort not the opponent's place in the standings. It's not an easy thing to do, to mentally treat each game like it's a must win, game seven, do or die situation, but that's what separates the top from the bottom.

The old saying, you don't know what you've got until it goes missing, rang true this weekend for Seattle. Seattle was a bit sloppy in the defensive zone this past weekend, especially Sunday versus Victoria, but it was also evident at times in Kamloops Friday and to a lesser extent Saturday in Everett. The one missing ingredient in all three games? Jared Hauf. The big stay-at-home defenseman missed all three games with an upper body injury. Hauf can get lost in the wash because he's not a point producer but it's clear to see how valuable he is to this team in the defensive zone, especially since he's often matched up against the opponents top scoring line.

The T-birds finally get a break from the hectic schedule as they won't play again until Lethbridge comes to town Friday. And even though that will start a string of five games in nine nights, all five games will be at home so the team doesn't have to deal with any travel until March when they ferry over to Victoria for two games.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past weekend:

Third Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell didn't get the win in his only start Friday night in Kamloops but his 29 save effort was good enough to earn Seattle a point in the shootout loss. Without his play in that game Seattle probably comes out of that night with nada. He then played 25+ minutes Sunday versus the Royals and stopped all nine shots he faced. So on the weekend he played 90-minutes and stopped 38 of 40 shots. In the process he lowered his GAA to 2.73 and raised his save percentage to .912.

Second Star: Center Donovan Neuls. The first year player from Grenfell, Saskatchewan continues to do what he's done all season, lead the team in +/- at +9. Neuls scored one regulation goal in the Friday shootout loss in Kamloops, then scored the game winning shootout goal Saturday up in Everett.

First Star: Center Mathew Barzal. Barzal finished with one goal but it was a big one as his redirection of Keegan Kolesar's shot tied thing up late in Everett, allowing Seattle to win it in the shootout. Barzal also added three assists on the weekend and a shootout goal to boot. He now has 14 points in his last nine games. Despite missing 29 games due to injury, he is still third on the team in scoring with 32 points (11g, 21a).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Setting Up for the Second Season

Since Christmas, the Thunderbirds have had two stretches where they have played six games in nine nights. Meanwhile, they just concluded a four games in five nights scenario and are set to play three games in three nights this weekend that turns this latest flurry of games into seven games in ten nights. No rest for the weary.

I don't bring this up as a complaint because, well after all, I'm not the one playing the games. I mention this because the heavy schedule should condition this team for what is coming at the end of next month; the playoffs. And I believe this is a team built for the postseason. The T-birds won three of the four games they just finished playing. They can roll four lines and not wear out their top players. They are one of the top defensive teams in the league. Since returning from the break they've had a six and a four game winning streak and have won five of their last six. If they have an off night, they usually follow it up with a bounce back effort but they make those off nights the exception, not the norm. With the return of key players to the lineup they have picked up their offensive production and their special teams are becoming pretty special.

These are all key ingredients for successful postseason play and of course they have the number one ingredient; solid if not spectacular goaltending from Taran Kozun. As the late Stuart Scott would say, he's as cool as the other side of the pillow. He never gets rattled. I bet if you put him in a sauna, he wouldn't perspire. He doesn't sweat the small stuff. He's so cool, calm and collected, he'd probably ask for ice water in the Arctic. He followed up his CHL Vaughn Goaltender of the Week honors with a workman-like 32 save effort in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Kelowna. In the process he lowered his league leading GAA to 2.27 and now has the WHL's second best save percentage at .919. Just another day at the office.

As exciting as it was to beat Kelowna for a second time in the last month and with wins earlier this season over top teams like Brandon, Everett, Portland, Victoria and Red Deer, Seattle is just 4-8 against seven of the six teams who currently hold the worst records in the WHL. Seattle has to find more consistency, no matter who their opponent is. Reverse that record to 8-4 and Seattle would not only be in 2nd place in the division but only two points off the division lead. All games matter.

I should know better now then to look in the rear view mirror but Seattle did miss a huge opportunity when they dropped that 5-4 decision Monday in Vancouver. They didn't play well and got the result they deserved but had they won that game, they'd be just two points behind Portland for second place in the U.S. Division. As it is they sit four back with a game in hand. Why is it important? Because finishing in second place in the division comes with home ice advantage in the first round of the postseason. The good news is Seattle has three games left head-to-head with the Winterhawks, so nothing is decided yet, especially since the T-birds also have to keep the teams behind them at bay.

Despite the clunker in Vancouver the Thunderbirds still took three of four games this busy weekend. With 18 games left in the regular season if they can take four of every five games they stand to add another 13 wins to their total. Easier said then done. Only four of their remaining ten opponents currently have losing records. Only five of those remaining 18 games will be against a team currently under .500.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the just concluded 4 games in 5 nights:

Third Star: Left Wing Corey Millette. Millette averaged a point a game over the four game span with two goals and two assists. He has become a very big asset to the team's power play since being acquired at the trade deadline. Both his goals this past stretch of games were power play goals. He is averaging nearly a point a game (14 gms, 7g, 6a) since his acquisition from Prince Albert and is +6 over that span.

Second Star: Center Matt Barzal. Three goals and three assists for Barzal in the four games and finished at +3. One of three players on the team now (Theodore and Lipsbergs are the others) who are averaging over a point per game. Last two games has been the team's dominate player at crunch time.

First Star: Goaltender Taran Kozun. 3-0 in his three starts, allowing just four goals on 100 shots over that span and picked up his third shutout, in six starts, Sunday. Lowered his league-leading GAA to 2.27. All this on the heels of being named the CHL Vaughn Goaltender of the Week.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Northern Lights

The T-birds began a three game road trip into the British Columbia interior by stumbling out of the blocks but rebounded with a nice sprint to the finish line. After dropping a 4-3 decision to Kamloops last Wednesday, the T-birds bounced back with a pair of convincing wins in Prince George, outscoring the Cougars 12-2 in the process.

You rarely win hockey games, at any level, by playing just one good period. Wednesday against the Blazers Seattle had a very strong second period. The problem was their first and third periods were fairly dormant. Too many penalties, listless play and players being individuals rather then teammates all added up to a disappointing road loss. I'd put that effort right up there with their 6-2 loss back in November in Moose Jaw. Similar play, similar result.

Fortunately, those types of games have been few and far between this season. Seattle jumped out of that funk with two strong efforts over the weekend up at the CN Centre. Friday night they got 13 different players on the scoresheet with a 9-2 win. After the dust settled from a slew of scoring changes Keegan Kolesar (2g,2a), Roberts Lipsbergs (2g,2a) and Matt Barzal (4a) led the way with four points each. For Barzal those were his first points since returning from his nearly three months of inaction due to a leg injury. It was, I think, a glimpse of what we can expect from him the rest of the season.

The last game of a road trip can always be the toughest, especially when it comes less then 24 hours after putting the previous game to bed. As a result, there was no nine goal explosion, but the T-birds played a solid game, capitalized on their chances, and behind a 20 save effort from Taran Kozun, posted a 3-0 win.

Calvin Spencer may have been sad to see the lights of Prince George fade in the rear view mirrors of the team bus. In four career games at the CN Centre he has recorded three goals, including a game winner in Saturday's shutout. Once again head coach Steve Konowalchuk showed his knack for finding line combinations with chemistry. He paired Spencer with Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan and together the trio logged six points (2g, 4a) and were +4 in the two games against PG.

The WHL got it right when they approved the offseason sale of the Cougars to Greg Pocock. Pocock, is a local businessman and he and his partners are already putting their money where their mouth is when it comes to upgrading the Prince George club both on and off the ice. Pocock understands it will take time to get the on ice product back to a consistent competitive level but he has the patience. And while the crowds aren't back yet, when they do return he's giving them a top notch game night presentation and not cutting corners.

After a road heavy January which featured only 4 of 13 games on home ice and just one home game in the last eight, Seattle will hit the ice at the ShoWare Center nine times in February beginning with a two-game set this weekend. In fact it sets in motion a stretch of four games in five nights starting Friday versus Portland followed by a Saturday matchup with Vancouver. After a Sunday off, the Thunderbirds travel to Vancouver to face the Giants in a Monday matinee affair before returning back home Tuesday against Kelowna.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: He didn't record a point in any of the three games but defenseman Jerett Smith finished on the plus side all three nights, including a +1 in the loss in Kamloops. In the three games he was +5 and continues to be a steady presence on the back end.

Second Star: A year ago as a 16 year old rookie, playing in 60 games, Keegan Kolesar netted eight points (2g,6a). That was good enough for 21st on the team in scoring. So far this season in just 50 games, he has 33 points (17g, 16a) and is second to Ryan Gropp in scoring on the club. Friday night in PG he had his first four point game.

First Star: Mathew Barzal. He has played at a good level in each game back from his long layoff because of the knee injury but Mathew Barzal was finally rewarded for his efforts with a four assist Friday in the 9-2 win. He followed that up with another assist Saturday. He gets the highlights with his through-the-eye-of-the-needle passes but he is becoming a consistent player at both ends of the ice. He was a point a game player before the injury back in November and six games back in the lineup, he is again a point a game player with 23 points (7g, 16a) in 22 games.