Sunday, March 8, 2015

A March Toward the Playoffs

I'm not going to spend a great deal on the debacle that was the game down in Portland Friday night, but I was having flashbacks to 2012. That was without debate, Seattle's worst performance of the season. To see such a complete lack of compete was utterly out of the norm for this season's team. If you play hard and leave it all out on the ice and still lose, the result is at least palatable because you put in the effort. A good example of that was Monday's shootout loss in Victoria. Seattle played a solid 60-minutes that night and you could argue they deserved a better fate. Friday down at the Moda Center, the 7-1 loss was made doubly hard to watch because the effort was sorely lacking. So many casual moments both on and off the puck and there was no question the defeat was well-earned.

I will say it is kinda cool to be around as a little bit of history is being made. At first watching Oliver Bjorkstrand go off for four goals is a bit gut wrenching because he's doing it at the expense of your team, but it's not often you're going to witness a player, at this level or any other level of hockey, pot 50 goals in 50 games. That's a remarkable feat.

That made the Thunderbirds response Saturday at home against Kamloops all the more important. We're a week into the month of March, the playoffs are looming with just two weeks left in the regular season. The last thing you want is to take a nose dive down the stretch. So to see the team bounce back with a 3-1 win against a Blazers team that has given them trouble this season, was a good sign this team will keep its nose to the grind stone.

By no means was it a perfect win for the T-birds. They got put on their heels the second half of the second period and were probably fortunate to get to the second intermission tied at 1-1. I don't know if it was the T-birds relaxing their effort after scoring the game's first goal or if it was Kamloops using the momentum of the game's first power play to tilt the ice in their direction. Whatever the reason, Seattle spent most of the final half of that period caught in their own end. Fortunately they had Taran Kozun in goal to bail them out as he made 21 saves in the period, mostly over the period's final 13 minutes.

Outside of that stretch Seattle played a strong hockey game. They had a solid, if not spectacular first period. They started the second period well, leading to the game's first goal. And I thought they were the better team in the third, forcing the action that led to the game winning goal.

That goal by the way, for the moment at least, is credited to defenseman Jared Hauf. It was his third goal of the season and he seems to make the most of them. Two of his goals are game winners, the other was the Teddy Bear Toss goal. I'm guessing though, that there will be a review because it certainly looked like the puck hit someone in all the traffic in front of the Blazer net before going into the back of the net. Now, it could have been off a Kamloops player but from his reaction it may have been deflected in by Matt Barzal. Either way, it was a heads up play by Hauf to get the shot off with the goalie screened by a sea of players. Getting consistent traffic in front of the opposing goal has been an issue for Seattle this season but on the two most important goals Saturday, that's exactly what they did it's why they scored.

Here's a rarity. Seattle actually gets a few days off before resuming action with two games this coming weekend. The Thunderbirds just completed their third stretch the second half of the season in which they have played six games in nine nights. Throw in another string in which they played seven games in ten days and this has been a busy team since Christmas. Don't worry though, they get back to the "norm" when they finish the regular season with four games in five nights the last week.

This weekend's two games will go along way in determining Seattle's first round playoff opponent. The T-birds are going to finish no lower then seventh in the Western Conference, or the first wild card slot. If they drop to that spot they're going to play the winner of the U.S. Division, either Everett or Portland. If Seattle holds steady in third place in the U.S. Division, their first round playoff opponent will be the team that finishes second in the U.S., either Portland or Everett. So, in other words, Seattle will play either Everett or Portland in the first round.

Currently Seattle's magic number for clinching third place in the U.S. Division is seven points. That's any combination of points they earn or Spokane fails to earn over the final two weeks of the season, equaling seven points and third place is theirs. While not mathematically eliminated from climbing higher in the standings, chasing down either Portland or Everett at this point is unrealistic. But Seattle does play the Silvertips twice this coming weekend. Everett currently is in first place in the division but their hold on the top spot is a tenuous one because Portland is only four points back with two games in hand. So, how the T-birds fare against Everett could determine who they play in the first round.

My T-birds Three Stars for this past weekend. And let's be honest, this is really based on just one game, the win over Kamloops because no one stood out enough in the loss Friday in Portland to deserve consideration for a star.

Third Star: I'm gonna give it to Sahvan Khaira. The rookie defenseman hasn't seen much of the ice lately and he played in just the one game this weekend, the win over the Blazers. While he didn't earn a point, the Surrey, B.C. native stepped into an unfamiliar role, centering the T-birds fourth line and had a mostly positive affect on the game. He actually won some key faceoffs. At 6'3" 213lbs, he's a big body for a team that is now without two of it's best power forwards (Justin Hickman, Keegan Kolesar) due to injury. I'm not sure how many more times down the stretch he'll get the chance to center that fourth line but he didn't look out of place or uncomfortable in that role Saturday.

Second Star. Center Matt Barzal. He either had two assists or a game winning goal and an assist versus Kamloops. Either way it was a two point night, and the Portland game aside, continues to affect games, especially in the third period, when the outcome is still in question. He looked like an Olympic slalom skier weaving through the Blazers defense Saturday night to set up Nick Holowko's empty net goal that sealed the win.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. Nice bounce back for him after being pulled the night before against the Winterhawks. He was at his best in the second period vs. the Blazers, stonewalling his former team with 21 saves as Kamloops was pushing hard for the lead. He's been a workhorse for the T-birds, starting 56 of their 66 games and there are still lots more minutes to be played.

Side note: Proof that you don't need to pull off a blockbuster trade to get back players who will have a big impact on your team. Seattle dealt two fourth round picks, goalie Justin Myles (since retired) and seldom used defenseman Austin Douglas (he is no longer in the league) at the 2014 trade deadline for Kozun. In 80 regular season games with the Thunderbirds Kozun is 44-27-4-5 with eight shutouts, a 2.40 GAA and a save percentage of .920.

Then at this year's trade deadline, the T-birds trade a 6th round bantam draft pick to Prince Albert for Corey Millette. In 26 games with Seattle Millette has 25 points (13g, 12a) and is +10, currently riding a three game goal scoring streak. It's like that show, Storage Wars, where you spend a few bucks to buy the contents of an abandoned storage locker and among all the contents you find inside, you uncover something worth thousands of dollars.

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