The Thunderbirds earned three points this past week, going 1-1-1-0 in the three games played around the Thanksgiving Holiday. I guess you could say they were in a "giving" move, but be "thankful" for the three points and move on. Just slightly past the one-third point of the season Seattle is 16-7-2-0, in first place in the U.S. Division and only five points out of the conference lead with a game in hand. I'm not sure there are too many who would have turned that start down back on September 24 just before the season got underway.
The week began Wednesday up in Kelowna with one of the T-Birds poorer efforts of the season in a 5-2 loss to the Rockets. At the time of the first period puck drop, this was a battle between the two best winning percentages in the WHL. That's what makes the loss all the more disappointing. It's one thing to lose, it's another to do so without your best effort. Seattle started well enough. They pressured the Rockets with 15 shots in the first period. They left that effort in the dressing room between periods and had a less then stellar second period, being outshot 16-2. Still, they were only down a goal, 2-1 when the period ended. Unfortunately they started the third the same way the second period ended and when Kelowna added a third goal six minutes in to the final frame, it was over. The good news is the T-Birds get three more cracks at the Rockets and two of them will be at the ShoWare Center.
The Thunderbirds bounced back with a solid 5-3 win Friday at home against the Vancouver Giants. It was a chippy game but Seattle was the better team most of the night. I thought it was one of Taz Burman's better games in goal for Seattle as he made some timely saves to keep Vancouver from ever really making a game out of it. Meanwhile the T-Birds top players were just that; the best players on the ice all night. Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear led the way combining for eight points (2g, 6a) in the win. Vancouver is a hard team to figure out. They have a talented roster with the likes of Tyler Benson and Ty Ronning, are a tough team to play against, yet have just six wins in 26 games. They've done a lot of roster tinkering the first two months of the season and that may be the main reason for their sluggish start but they seem to be in every game.
How many of you had the T-Birds going a perfect 36-0 at home this season? Love your optimism but it wasn't going to happen. Seattle finally failed to get the "W" on home ice Saturday in a 3-2 overtime loss to Moose Jaw. Hey, they still got a point out of the game and haven't lost at home in regulation in ten tries (9-0-1-0) but a home loss of any kind was an eventuality. Still, 19 out of a possible 20 points from home games is quite an accomplishment and the T-Birds remain the only team in the league without a regulation loss at home.
Saturday's game versus Moose Jaw was a tight-checking, physical affair. 5-on-5 Seattle had some dominate stretches. The problem was they ran in to a terrific young goaltender in Zach Sawchenko and they also ran into penalty trouble. You give the league's 5th ranked power play seven chances you're going to get burned and that's exactly what happened as the Warriors finished 2-for-7 with the man advantage, including the game winner in OT. You might go an entire month of games and not see seven interference penalties called. In Saturday's game, there were seven interference penalties called in 60 minutes. But the officials weren't playing favorites. They called that penalty both ways, three on Moose Jaw and four on Seattle. The T-Birds just didn't adjust to the way the game was being called. Still, I thought it was a solid effort. Sometimes you just get beat. Tip your hat to the other team and get ready for the next game.
Something I wrote about earlier in the season still holds true. Seattle is not consistently getting enough traffic in front of opposing goalies and you won't beat the good ones, like Sawchenko or Everett's Carter Hart, without that element in your game. That means they need to get dirty, and pay a physical price to get to second chance opportunities. You can't score the greasy goal if you aren't willing to get a little grease on you.
A post-game scoring change following Seattle's Friday night win over Vancouver added one more assist to Barzal's totals. Additionally, upon video review it was determined that Owen Seidel also earned an assist. That was his first WHL point, so congratulations to Owen for getting on the scoresheet.
Barzal had a terrific weekend which, of course, is almost the norm now. After being held off the scoresheet in the loss Wednesday up in Kelowna he bounced back to register six points (1g, 5a) and was +3 in the two home games. On the season he is now tied for third in the league in scoring with 40 points. He is just five points off the league scoring lead. He is also averaging an astounding 1.81 assists per game. He punctuated the weekend with the highlight reel goal of the season thus far. A nearly end-to-end rush up ice in the final minute and a half Saturday to forge a 2-2 tie and send the game to overtime. That goal earned the T-Birds a huge point.
After starting the month of November with a four game losing streak, the T-Birds finished strong going 7-1-1-0. I call that a solid response to a bit of adversity. A lesser team might have struggled to get out of that funk. The Thunderbirds not only got out of it but did so with a flourish.
Remember that stretch of seven games back in October in which Seattle actually had a complete and healthy roster available to them? Ah, the memories. That was 15 games ago. Don't expect it to improve in December. Nolan Volcan is still out with his lower body injury for another week or two. About the time he gets back in the lineup anticipate Seattle losing a few key players like Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True, to World Junior camps/competition. The departures are perfect timing; just as Seattle gets into the front end of their U.S. Division schedule. Seattle will play 11 games in December and 10 are against division opponents. It starts Friday in Spokane with the first of five December games against the Chiefs.
Don't forget next Saturday's home game versus the Tri-City Americans. The T-Birds will be celebrating 100 years of hockey in the Seattle area with, among other things, a salute to the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans, the first U.S. based team to win the Stanley Cup. The Thunderbirds will be wearing replica Metropolitans jerseys and the holy grail of hockey itself, the Stanley Cup, will be in attendance as well. The Metropolitans, who were part of the now defunct Pacific Coast Hockey Association at the time, were poised to possibly start a hockey dynasty but that got wiped out by a deadly influenza outbreak. I would suggest to honor the memory of that team we remind everyone eligible to go get their flu shot!
My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week:
3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. A solid weekend for the veteran defenseman from Calgary. In the two home games he earned two points (2a) and was +3. He is often tasked with helping shut down the opposing team's top scoring line and along with his partner Jerret Smith, logs tons of ice. He's a big reason why the T-Birds, as a team, allow so few shots against and are one of the top defensive clubs, and top penalty killing teams, in the WHL. This weekend T-Birds defensemen were assessed five minor penalties in two games. Hauf was not among the guilty. Despite his physical play, he's staying out of the penalty box this season (only 24 PIMs in 25 games).
2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. I thought he was good in all three games this past week, even in the loss in Kelowna. In the two home games he provided four points (2g, 2a)and was +2 and is now tied with Keegan Kolesar for the team lead in goals with 15. He's slowly climbing up the league scoring leader board and could soon join his two linemates, Barzal and Kolesar, in the top twenty. His two goals this past weekend were both through-the-eye-of-the-needle type pinpoint beauties. William Tell could not have placed those shots any better. For the first time I've also noticed him consistently on the back check.
1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. He earns this designation on that last minute goal Saturday against Moose Jaw alone. He was like Moses and it was like watching the Red Sea part as he skated up ice through the Warriors defense and score with Seattle in desparate need of a game tying goal. Officially he's listed as fifth in the league in scoring but that's only because goal scorers get top billing and the three other players with 40 points all have more goals. In reality he has the third most points in the league. Maybe they should list them alphabetically instead? He is tied for the league lead in assists with 33 but has done it in fewer games then Lethbridge's Brayden Burke. Should find out Tuesday if he'll be invited to Team Canada's World Junior Evaluation Camp. I'd be shocked if that doesn't happen.