Sunday, November 8, 2015

T-Birds Toe the Thin Line

The margin between winning and losing in the WHL is often whisper thin. Unfortunately, Seattle found that out to their detriment far too often on their just completed six game venture to the Eastern Conference and the Central Division. What could have easily been a 5-1, or 4-2, swing out east instead ended with the T-Birds going just 2-4, bookending their wins around a four game losing streak.

Woulda, shoulda coulda. Seattle lost two of those games after taking 3-1 leads into the final period. In another game, their potent power play couldn't muster up just one more power-play goal despite six more opportunities. Then they gave up the empty-net goal as they desperately looked for the equalizer. It's difficult to absorb losses when you are the better team for two of three periods but that happened three times on the trip. Again, the recipe for success calls for 60 minutes of hockey. A couple of times the T-Birds took the cake out of the oven too soon.

Seattle had started the trip so strong, beating Kootenay in Cranbrook, 5-2 then controlling the tempo and the scoreboard for the first two periods against Calgary the following day. But the tenor of the trip turned that fateful third period against the Hitmen up at the Saddledome. Too many T-Birds went into casual mode. They stopped being aggressive. They found out once you turn off the switch, it's not so easy to flip it back on. They made too many defensive zone mistakes...both figuratively, and in one case literally, putting the puck in their own goal as a result.

Still, Seattle had a chance to erase that sour finish in Calgary two nights later in Red Deer. After a fairly even first period, Seattle dominated the Rebels in the second. It may have been their best period of hockey on the road trip. By controlling the puck they were able to outshoot Red Deer 14-5 in the period and outscored them, 2-0. For the second straight game they took a 3-1 lead into the final period. For the second straight game they failed to hold it. It may have been different reasons that led to the lead evaporating, but the result was the same, a 4-3 loss.

I think physically they were fine, but maybe, just maybe, mentally they had lost a bit of confidence. Maybe doubt crept in. Possibly they began to squeeze the sticks a little harder. That's what made their win in Medicine Hat so important going forward with this season. Another 3-1 lead after 40 minutes, another goal given up early in the third to slice their lead to one. Time to toughen up mentally, fight through the adversity of losing Matt Barzal for the second half of the game. They had to climb over the hill back to the winning side before the hill became a mountain.

And that is what they did. They finally got some timely and key saves from their goaltending as Logan Flodell stopped 10 of 11 shots the first half of that third period at the Canalta Centre. As the period wore on, they got back to being aggressive and pushing the pace. It led to a Medicine Hat penalty, then another and finally a Seattle power-play goal that provided a cushion on the scoreboard. Seattle would finish the trip they way they started it, with a 5-2 win.

He who hesitates is lost and to me it looked like the officials were a bit lost trying to decide if Matt Barzal deserved a two minute minor or a five minute major for his checking from behind infraction midway through the second period Saturday against the Tigers. Hey, I'm biased and thought it was a fairly run-of-the-mill minor penalty. It took the four guys in stripes nearly two minutes of debate to reach their conclusion (five and a game). How many times during that discussion did they change their minds? Hem and haw? Can't take that long. It made them look like not one of them was in charge. Be decisive. If they had called the five minute major right away, I may have disagreed but I would have had more respect for the decision. By waiting so long it looked like they were waiting for someone else to magically appear and make the call for them. If they were waiting for the reaction of the player on the ice (would he stay in the game, would he leave the game)before making the call, then they got it wrong. Intent, not random result should determine the severity of the penalty.

I'm not sure what it is when this team goes on that extended trip out east that always seems to have them dealing with adversity. Usually it is injuries to key players. last fall it was Barzal getting hurt just before the first of six straight against the Eastern Division. This time around they lose Scott Eansor and Jamal Watson before the trip even started, then Jarret Smith missed most of the game in Edmonton to an upper body injury. Two years ago they had so many injuries by the time the trip was ending they barely had enough players to ice a team. Injuries happen but they all seem to happen all at once with Seattle.

In a perverse sort of way that injury to Barzal and others on the trip last season made the T-Birds a better team the second half of the 2014-15 campaign. Younger players got lots of ice time and other players took on bigger roles. It's very possible that could be the case again this season too. Young players like Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Kaden Elder and Sahvan Khaira got extra ice time and were starting to thrive with it by the final game of the trip. Then there is rookie d-man Brandon Schuldhaus. Sometimes you don't even realize he's on the ice but he's now tied for the team lead in plus/minus at +7. What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.

When all is said and done Seattle is still in first place in the U.S. Division. They've reached 10 wins in 17 games and they seemed to have survived the injuries. Onward and upward.

My Three T-Birds Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: C Matt Barzal. He followed up his ten point WHL/CHL Player of the Week performance by piling up five more assists in four games. He's taken over the scoring lead on the team with 25 points (4g, 21a) in just 14 games. On pace for a 124 point season. Still had a two point game in Medicine Hat despite playing only half the game.

2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Finished the week with four points (3g, 1a) and was +1. Was instrumental in three of the T-Birds goals in their win in Medicine Hat that broke the losing streak. Once again when Seattle lost Barzal for the second half of the game, he stepped up. He didn't get an assist on that flukey game winner against the Tigers but the goal doesn't happen without his strong rush to get the puck to the front of the net.

1st Star: C Alexander True. Five points over his last four games (3g, 2a) and was +2. Even when he's not scoring he's affecting the game with his physical play and his ability to win faceoffs. Seattle wasted his breakaway, shorthanded goal in Lethbridge. He was good enough in that game that, even though Seattle was outplayed in a 5-2 loss, he impressed the Lethbridge media enough to earn the third star. He's already set a new high in goals with 8 in just 17 games. He compiled just 6 a year ago in 38 games. Has also surpassed his rookie season point total. He had 12 points a season ago and now has 13 this season.

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