Sunday, March 22, 2015

Playoffs! We're Talkin' Playoffs!

While it is certainly no indicator of how things will unfold in the playoffs, Seattle enters the postseason playing some of their best hockey. The T-birds, playing four games in five nights the final week with a long road trek in the middle, won all four and completed the month of March portion of the regular season schedule with a record of 7-2-0-1.

What I particularly like about the final week was the players mind set did not change after they had wrapped up their final position in the standings. For the past two weeks the T-birds have essentially been locked into third place in the U.S. Division. There was no chance to climb up or fall down from that spot. They could have just gone through the motions the final week, since essentially there was nothing at stake other then finishing fourth overall in the Western Conference standings. Instead they played the right way, treating each contest as if it mattered.

And truthfully, in three of those four games there was something on the line for the opponent. Tuesday they faced a Tri-City team trying to cling on to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Wednesday up in Kelowna the Rockets were still in a race with Brandon for the Scotty Munro trophy and last night the Winterhawks needed a win, or at least a point, if they were to catch Everett for first place in the U.S. Division. Seattle wasn't going to roll over and give those teams what they needed. They played their best. Only versus Spokane Friday night was there nothing on the line and yet it may have been the T-birds best effort of the four wins.

Anyone else notice that with Alexander True back in the lineup Seattle went 4-0? The big, lanky Danish center gives them another option on the penalty kill, another player who can win face offs, someone willing to go to the net and foremost, his return just increases the team's depth. It's just too bad the team won't get Keegan Kolesar back anytime soon from his arm injury. This means the Thunderbirds played their entire 72 game regular season and will go into the postseason without ever having a completely, 100 percent, healthy roster.

And while the focus is on the here and now the Thunderbirds used back up goalie, and future number one netminder, Logan Flodell in goal versus their two toughest opponents this week (Kelowna and Portland) and all he did was go 2-0 with a goals against average just slightly under 2.50 while stopping 55 of 60 shots in 123 minutes of work. As a result Flodell finished the regular season with a 3-2-0-1 record a 2.75 GAA and a .907 save percentage.

Maybe the most encouraging sign from the last week of the regular season was the offensive production. Prior to this past week, Seattle had scored 195 goals in 68 games, a 2.87 average per game. In the four wins this past week they scored 23 times. or 5.75 goals per game. And while a good chunk of that goal production came from their top line, they got solid offensive contributions up and down the lineup. Just harken back to Tuesday's 7-3 win over Tri-City when Scott Eansor had his hat trick. Let's not forget 16 year old rookie Nolan Volcan who chipped in this past week with a goal and four assists. That increase in goal production didn't come at the expense of team defense either. The T-birds still limited their opponents to just 10 goals in the four games.

So, now it is on to the playoffs and a first round match up with long time rival Portland. It's been awhile since these two teams met in the postseason. To bring home that point, the last playoff game between these two sides was played at KeyArena nine years ago. When they have gotten together in postseason play, they've been intense series. In fact the last two times they met in the playoffs the series went the full seven games with the lower seed winning each time.

The T-bird fared well this season against the Winterhawks going 7-4-1-0. Of course that means nothing now. Everyone starts the playoffs 0-0. The Thunderbirds have to play each playoff game the way they played the last week of the regular season. They need to make every shift count. They have to eliminate the casual moments and they have to get contributions from all 20 players dressed each night. Let the second season begin!

Every year after the final horn of the final home game the players gather on the ice for the end of season awards presentation. There were no real surprises with Taran Kozun getting top honors as the team's 2014-15 MVP and record setter Shea Theodore as the team's Defenseman of the Year. Evan Wardley was recognized for his work in the local community, especially the anti-bullying campaign at local elementary schools, with the Humanitarian of the Year award. The toughest call might have been Rookie of the Year on a team with 10 first year players but it's hard to quarrel with the selection of Donovan Neuls, who I'm sure just edged out Nolan Volcan for that honor. Neuls took home two honors as his teammates voted him the Most Dedicated Player this season.

One honor the team doesn't hand out but one I will, is Most Unsung Player. I just want some way to recognize the play of defenseman Jerret Smith. First of all, Snith was an iron man; just one of two players to suit up and play in all 72 games (Scott Eansor was the other). When Theodore was absent from the lineup most of the first half of the season, Smith was the one constant, steady rock back on the Seattle blue line. He logged a mountain of ice time yet was only assessed 25 minutes in penalties. He shattered his previous high in points by producing 11 goals and 27 assists and finishing the season at +11. With so many scouts at Seattle games this season I would not be surprised to see him get an invite to an NHL camp next fall with a chance to earn a professional contract. If he is back next season, I could definitely see a "C" on his jersey.

Three Stars for this past week:

Honarable Mentions: The line of Eansor-Volcan-Spencer. They've been quite the revelation this past week. A shutdown line that can also produce plenty of offense.

Third Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Not only did he win his two starts, besting the Western Conference's #1 and #3 seeds in the process, but more importantly saved a little wear and tear on Taran Kozun going into the playoffs as Kozun got a couple of nights off.

Second Star: Matt Barzal. The second year center from Coquitlam, B.C. may still not be 100 percent from that knee injury but 95 percent of Barzal is better then 100 percent of a lot of players in this league. He's hitting his stride at the right time of the season, just as the playoffs arrive. After missing half the season due to that injury still almost came back to win the team's scoring title. On pace for a 93 point season had he never been hurt, although I think he would have easily topped 100.

First Star: Ryan Gropp. The biggest beneficiary of Barzal's play this week was Gropp. Like Barzal, the Kamloops, B.C. native is playing his best hockey at the right time. He finishes the regular season as the team's top point producer (58) and goal scorer (30). It didn't seem possible he would reach the 30 goal plateau but he notched six in the final two games to reach that milestone. He showed his good hands with a few of those goals too.

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