Another weekend, another pair of wins for the Seattle Thunderbirds who have now earned points in six consecutive games. The T-Birds are also enjoying home cooking, having won all four games so far this season at the ShoWare Center, outscoring their opponents 18-7 in the process. As a result, the team ended the weekend with the best winning percentage in the league. Yes, it is still a small sample size (seven games) but I think being first, whether in winning percentage, in the division or in the conference, is incentive to keep playing well, no matter what time of year.
Seattle was playing well before Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Jamal Watson returned to the lineup four games ago. They are definitely playing better though with them available. In the four games since their return the T-Birds are 4-0 and that trio has combined for 14 points (4g, 10a) and a combined +7. More importantly their return has stabilized the team's top three lines. Barzal and Gropp have teamed with Keegan Kolesar on the top line to average 3.4 points per game. While Kolesar is happy to have his two linemates back, let's not forget he was playing well without them. Kolesar has 12 points so far on the season and one-third of those points (1g, 4a) were accumulated in the three games before Barzal and Gropp returned.
Meanwhile, the Watson-Scott Eansor-Nolan Volcan combo is averaging just about two points a game, while also getting the task of shutting down the opponents top line. It also means Alexander True has a more defined role, centering the third line.
Seattle's power play is clicking early, currently fifth in the league at 28.6%. They've achieved that with Ethan Bear yet to score a goal. Once he gets his shot dialed in though you know it is just a matter of time before he starts potting goals with the man advantage (he does have six assists). In fact Seattle's special teams are really dialed in right now. The penalty kill is third in the WHL and has killed off 13 straight opposing power plays and 19 of 21 over the last four games.
Don't forget that a good penalty kill starts with the goaltender and Seattle has received excellent goaltending the last two weekends from the combination of Taz Burman and Logan Flodell. That duo has stopped 84 of the past 92 shots they've faced as the T-Birds have not surrendered more then two goal in any of the last four games. It's all part of a strong team defense as Seattle's opponents did not surpass the 25 shot mark in any of those four games.
Did a stint at NHL camp this summer benefit any T-Birds player more then it did Turner Ottenbreit? He actually got to go to camp with two NHL teams; development camp with the Washington Capitals and rookie camp with the New York Rangers. The second year defenseman is playing with a seemingly, new found, quiet confidence. He's been positionally sound, strong along the walls and very intent on taking care of business in the defensive zone. As a result the Yorkton, Saskatchewan, native is leading the team in plus/minus at +6 despite having just one point, an assist, so far this season. It doesn't hurt that he's playing his second season with the same defensive partner. He and Edmonton Oilers draft pick Ethan Bear definitely have developed that all important chemistry with each other and combined are +10.
This past weekend Seattle did something they didn't do much of the first couple of weekends of the season; play with the lead. At no point this weekend did the Thunderbirds trail in their two games against Kamloops and Victoria in earning both a 7-2 and a 4-2 win. I was more concerned that Seattle surrendered two third period goals to Kamloops Friday night while leading, 7-0, then I was about them allowing two goals to Victoria in the third period Saturday after building a 3-0 lead. I expected a push back by a very gritty Victoria team that was coming off a home loss the night before. The T-Birds level of play really didn't drop off as it was much more the Royals battling back. Friday night against Kamloops I thought the T-Birds got a bit too casual up by seven. It's hard to keep up that intensity over 60-minutes when you build a seven-goal lead but its important not to let bad habits creep into your game, no matter the score.
From my angle in the southeast corner of the ShoWare Center Saturday it appeared Brandon Schuldhaus may had tipped a puck to Matt Barzal that led to Seattle's third goal against the Royals at the other end of the ice. I thought it was an optical illusion but thought they might review it. The stat sheet does show him with a point so apparently he did pick up his first point in the WHL.
With Schuldhaus earning an assist, Sahvan Khaira is the only T-Birds skater yet to register a point this season. Schuldhaus, in limited play is now +3 on the season. Winger Wyatt Bear picked up his first career point with an assist Friday against the Blazers. Meanwhile, Matthew Wedman, who had earned his first career WHL point, an assist, opening night in Vancouver, registered his first career goal Friday against Kamloops. On a team with so many returning players, Seattle's trio of 16-year-old rookies, Wedman, Wyatt Bear and Jarret Tyszka, have combined for nine points (3g, 6a) and are +8.
My Three T-birds stars for the weekend:
3rd Star. Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. Is it a coincidence that Victoria didn't score a goal until Ottenbreit was in the penalty box serving out a five minute fighting major after standing up for his goalie? The rest of the game he was busy playing a physical brand of hockey and clearing rebounds away from the front of the Seattle goal. No points but finished the weekend at +2 and is now +6 on the season to lead the team.
2nd Star. RW Keegan Kolesar. Does he benefit playing on a line with Matt Barzal and Ryan Gropp? Yes, but guess what? They benefit from having him out on the ice with them as well. He's so strong he rarely loses a battle for a loose puck and now he's showing off his soft hands with a couple of beautiful snipes for goals. Finished the weekend with five points (3g, 2a) and was +3.
1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. The obvious from the weekend with Barzal is that he produced five points (3g, 2a) and was +3. But every time the puck is on his stick he draws the attention of two or three opposing players, opening up the ice for his teammates. He also drew a couple of penalties giving Seattle's potent power play ice time. One of his goals coming into the WHL was to become a complete hockey player and he's playing both ends of the ice very well here in the early going. I've heard fans ask for him to shoot more and we're seeing that too, one reason he had three goals in the two wins.