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.

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