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).