Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two by Four Weekend

The Seattle Thunderbirds went streaking this weekend. They earned all four points available to them in their two games. In the process they pushed their overall winning streak to six games, their road winning streak to four and their home ice winning streak to eight. All that streaking adds up to a solid 15-6-1-0 record and a seat atop the U.S. Division standings.

Seattle actually started the week last Tuesday with a 5-4 win over the Swift Current Broncos. It was the start of a good week for T-Birds left winger Ryan Gropp who led the Seattle attack with a goal and two assists. He followed that up with a hat trick in Seattle's 4-3 overtime win Friday, as the New York Rangers draft pick almost single-handedly beat his hometown team, the Kamloops Blazers. Gropp's game was more then just scoring though as he's picked up his defensive zone coverage and is becoming a reliable penalty killer.

Don't for one minute think Seattle didn't enjoy that win Friday in Kamloops, blown lead and all. Prior to that win Seattle had just one win in their last 10 visits to that city and had been outscored by a considerable margin. So there were a lot of big smiles postgame. A lot of relief too.

Seattle completed the sweep of the three games this past week with a very convincing 5-2 win Saturday night at home over division rival Portland. While there may have been an anxious moment or two, for the most part, the T-Birds controlled the tempo of that game almost from the get go. A big reason for that was the return of Scott Eansor to the lineup. Eansor had missed nine games with an upper body injury before returning Friday in Kamloops. In his two games back he has registered four assists, including three helpers in the win over the Winterhawks.

The T-Birds learned an important lesson last season that helped them this weekend. Last year the T-Birds got a big win in Kelowna on a Friday night and the players were jazzed up on the bus ride down for a Saturday game in Everett. They were so pumped by that win over the Rockets they didn't get enough shut eye on the bus ride back and fell flat in a 4-0 loss to the Silvertips. Fast forward to Friday night in Kamloops, and a big overtime win against the Blazers. Once the players got on the bus, they went right to sleep and were ready to go Saturday against Portland. Of course it didn't hurt to have a full house at the ShoWare Center to get their adrenaline pumping.

Not that my opinion holds much sway, but I put my stamp of approval on the way the T-Birds attacked all three opponents they faced. Knowing they were going to face three quality goalies in Landon Bow with Swift Current, Connor Ingram in Kamloops and Portland's Adin Hill, they approached all three games with the same mindset; get shots to the net. They weren't trying to be too cute or searching for the perfect shot. Lots of shots and lots of traffic was the order of the day each game. As a result the Thunderbirds averaged nearly 41 shots per game in the three game sweep, scoring 14 times.

The phrase, "The Thunderbirds have a 3-1 lead" shouldn't have negative connotations but it does seem to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up a bit doesn't it? That particular score seems to give Seattle a little trouble. They led in each of the past three games by that score. Tuesday against Swift Current they lost that lead then rallied from behind to win. Up in Kamloops Friday night that lead evaporated on them early in the third period before they won it in OT, thanks to Keegan Kolesar. Saturday they were up 3-1 entering the third period then Portland tallied on the power play in the opening minute to close within one. Seattle had a quick answer though, scoring twice to pull away.

They say a two goal lead is the hardest lead in hockey to protect. Every team is going to have a desperation push back that could turn the momentum. The reality is, Seattle is 10-2 win leading after two periods, usually by that 3-1 score. So whether they hold that lead or not, the T-Birds are showing their resiliency. They're not panicking and they don't get down on themselves when they give up a goal or a lead. Hockey is still a 60 minute game. Lots of things will happen over the course of those 60 minutes and as long as you play to the final whistle you give yourself a chance.

Good teams win in all phases of the game and that especially includes special teams play. During their current six-game winning streak Seattle has scored at least one power-play goal in each game. A couple of times that has been the difference on the scoreboard. Over the last six games the T-Birds power play has outscored the opponent's power play, 7-3. A special teams goal differential of plus four over six games is going to get you a lot of wins. As a result the T-Birds are top five in the league in both the PP (4th) and PK (5th).

The game Saturday versus Portland was just the fifth time this season, and first time since October 24th, that Seattle has played a U.S. Division foe. They are 3-1-1-0 in those games. They still haven't faced Spokane, a situation that will be remedied in early December when they face the Chiefs three times in eight days. In fact the T-Birds will meet Spokane five times next month. But the vast majority of Seattle's U.S. Division games will be the second half of the season when 25 of their last 36 games will be against divisional opponents, including all 10 games in March.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the week.

Third Star: Center Mathew Barzal. It was almost a quiet week for Barzal, if there is such a thing for a team's leading scorer. Just went about his business as usual though and earned five points (1g, 4a) and was +3. He has climbed the league scoring ladder and is now sixth overall and leads the league with 28 assists. Enjoy him because you might not see much of him next month with World Juniors approaching. He's got a good chance to make Team Canada.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor. Welcome back! After missing nine games (really ten because he was hurt in the first period back on October 27th against Brandon) all he does is pickup four assists in two games. An Energizer Bunny-type player, his motor is always in gear, never idling. A different kind of player, but like Barzal, a tone setter. After his effort this weekend, he's a point-a-game player with 13 points (4g, 9a) in 13 games. Like Barzal, he could be a participant at World Juniors next month with Team USA.

First Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Totalled six points (4g, 2a)and that was without him getting on the scoresheet Saturday. T-Birds don't win without his hat trick Friday in Kamloops. He also got the T-Birds going Tuesday with a big first period versus Swift Current (1g, 2a). If he continues to produce offense like this, he'll join his linemates Barzal and Kolesar among the league's top scorers.

Quick note; because of the Thanksgiving holiday, this week's edition of the Seattle Thunderbirds Weekly Coach's Show will air Tuesday night at 6 pm, rather then the usual Thursday night. Join me, and head coach Steve Konowalchuk, along with guest Donovan Neuls on 1090 The Fan. Among the topics will be a preview of the Wednesday night showdown from Kelowna between the T-Birds and defending WHL champion Rockets.

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