Monday, March 16, 2015

No Sprint to the Finish

The Thunderbirds have played 35 games over the past 80 days. That's a lot of hockey the second half of the season and they're not done. Seattle will finish the regular season with a flurry, playing four games in five nights beginning Tuesday when they host Tri-City at the ShoWare Center.

And the T-birds aren't just playing out the string either. All four games could have ramifications for the upcoming playoffs. Tri-City for instance is in a dogfight with Kamloops and Prince George for the Western Conference's final playoff spot, the second wild card, and a date with Kelowna in the postseason's first round. The Americans have been an injury laden team the second half but have gotten their starting goaltending tandem back and that and their defense are the strength of their team.

Speaking of Kelowna, that's where the Thunderbirds will be Wednesday night to face a Rockets team that is embroiled in a battle with Brandon for the Scotty Munro Trophy and the best regular season record in the WHL. Currently Kelowna is two points back of the Wheat Kings and both teams have three games remaining. At stake is home ice advantage throughout the entire postseason.

Friday the T-birds find themselves in Spokane to take on the Chiefs. Seattle currently is five points up on Spokane for third place in the U.S. Division. The 'Birds enter the week in the driver's seat but Friday's game could very well decide which team faces Everett and which one will face Portland in the first round.

Finally, Seattle returns home Saturday to close out the regular season with a final regular season battle with Portland. The Winterhawks are neck-and-neck with Everett for first place in the U.S. Division and may need to beat the T-birds to grab the top spot. Everett, meanwhile, will finish the season Sunday in Spokane, so it could be until Sunday night before the T-birds know their first round playoff opponent. Seattle knows they're going to go up against either Everett or Portland in round one. If the Thunderbirds hold on to third place in the division race, they'll face the second place finisher. Should Seattle falter and drop to fourth place, they'd take on the U.S. Division winner in round one. No matter the opponent, the 'Birds will begin the playoffs on the road, either the following Friday in Everett (March 27th) or Saturday (March 28th) in Portland.

Seattle is coming off a weekend in which they split a pair with the Silvertips, with the home team winning each night. As a result, the two division rivals split the ten game series with each winning five games. Seattle pretty much got the result they deserved in each of those games. The Thunderbirds put out a more complete effort Friday at home in earning the 3-2 shootout win. Saturday up in Everett they didn't match the intensity of their opponent, ran into too much penalty trouble and failed to capitalize on the few scoring chances they had in a 3-1 loss.

The one thing that frustrated me about the loss Saturday night was wasting one of your goaltender's best efforts of the season. Taran Kozun was terrific, especially in making 19 saves in the first period as he did his best to give his team every chance to stay in that game. Of course I'm biased but I don't see any other goalie in the league who has been as impactful on his team's success as Kozun has been for the T-birds. No team that has qualified for the playoffs in the WHL has scored fewer goals so far this season then Seattle's 195. No team in the WHL currently with a winning record has scored less then 200 goals. The T-birds goal differential right now is just +4 yet they are nine games over .500. The Thunderbirds knew coming into the season they were going to have one of the youngest forward groups in the league which meant scoring would be at a premium. Seattle is a playoff team because of their defense and Kozun is out in front in that regard, leading the way. With so little offensive support, keeping the puck out the net was imperative for this team and with Kozun between the pipes most nights, Seattle has allowed the third fewest goals in the league.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: Roberts Lipsbergs. Two goals plus a shootout goal in the Friday night win.

Second Star: Scott Eansor: Once again key to shutting down the top scorers on the other team. Nikita Sherbak, Everett's top scorer and an NHL first round pick collected just one point, a secondary assist, in the two games.

First Star: Taran Kozun. In a U.S. Division and Western Conference rife with excellent goaltending, no one is doing it better then the Nipiwan, Saskatchewan native. When so many of Seattle's wins are decided by a single goal, he's been the difference between winning and losing.

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