Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The T-birds Have Spokane

The T-Birds season to date: first 25 games, zero versus division rival Spokane. Last 10 games, five versus Spokane. Next 20 games, just one against Spokane. Not the strangest schedule out there though. Take the case of the Vancouver Giants. They recently played four straight against Victoria, followed by three in a row against Everett and are now finishing off three consecutive games against Prince George. Life in the WHL!

Seattle came out of the Christmas break and played two very similar games against Spokane in a home-and-home series. I liked that the T-Birds were ready to play from the drop of the first post-holiday puck. There were no passengers, everyone was helping to pull the freight. Just some good hard-nosed, gritty hockey and that was necessary because Seattle played under the limit both nights, dressing just 16 skaters Sunday and 17 on Tuesday.

Effort like that doesn't always equal wins but it does usually put you in position to win. The T-Birds ended up splitting the pair of games, losing 3-0 on the road before the 2-1 home ice win. The simplest difference in the two games was Seattle's ability to cash in on a couple of opportunities in the second game. In the loss Sunday in Spokane the T-Birds were dominating puck possession through most of the first period but failed to capitalize on numerous scoring chances.

Tuesday's game seemed to be following the same path until Nolan Volcan went hard to the net and banged in a rebound. Then, Seattle's game-winning goal was just a matter of Keegan Kolesar flinging a puck on net and finding some space between the goalie and the post. Too often the T-Birds aren't getting traffic at the net to score greasy goals. Too often lately they are missing the net with their shots or passing up scoring chances in favor of an extra pass. I think Tuesday's two goals were a matter of not overthinking the game. Just keep it simple, crash and bang, get pucks on net and good things can happen.

After a six goal outburst in their final pre-Christmas game in Kennewick versus the Americans, Seattle has mustered just two goals in two games since. It's not for a lack of opportunity, but more a lack of finish. Certainly missing the top three centers is affecting the offense's ability to score goals. And sometimes you just go through offensive slumps or don't get any puck luck. The old saying in sports though is that while offense can go through droughts, with consistent hard work defense maintains. In the first two after-the-break games, Seattle has been working hard and stayed very focused in the defensive zone, limiting the scoring chances against. When your offense is struggling to score, defense keeps you in games.

With the shortened bench, players not used to it, are getting more ice time. Some are showing that are ready to step up. Nic Holowko stepped in to center Seattle's second line. The T-Birds have struggled in the face-off circle in the absence of their top three centers. Saturday Holowko helped stop some of that bleeding, winning a number of draws. With young defenseman Jarret Tyszka now out until February at the earliest with a hand injury, two other young d-men are being asked to man the blue line on Seattle's third pairing. 17-year olds Sahvan Khaira and Brandon Schuldhaus need to play well enough to give the coach's confidence to keep putting them out there and not have to wear down their top two pairs. So far so good. Both are keeping it simple and not overextending themselves.

It was a solid T-Birds debut for Andreas Schumacher (the Swede with the German name!). Schumacher is a an older player than the guy he replaced, fellow Swede Gustav Olhaver, and he's been in the league for over a year. In his first game he was physical, willing to crash and bang and not afraid to mix it up. Despite their lofty expectations coming into the season, Seattle was still a relatively young team. Now, in the past month the T-Birds have gotten a little older by trading for two 19-year olds, Schumacher and Josh Uhrich. Right now they are playing 2nd and 3rd line minutes. But the thinking here is that when Seattle gets everyone back from World Juniors, these two older veterans slide back on to your 3rd and 4th lines, creating matchup issues for opposing teams.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. I just liked the way he played with a little more aggression then usual these past two games. He was throwing some pretty solid checks around and doing it with authority. With just six healthy defenseman currently on the roster, the T-birds will lean a little more heavily on their veterans and Hauf seemed to understand that in the two games against Spokane. While he didn't register a point I think he understands that Seattle needs to get more pucks on net and has been shooting more in recent games.

2nd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell has actually been pretty solid and consistent in his last four games. It seemed with Seattle struggling to pot goals the last two games he needed to stop everything that came his way and did his best in saving 53 of 56 shots faced. His effort in those last four games has pushed his save percentage back to .900 and he has the sixth best goals-against average in the league now at 2.68. The quest now is to keep playing with this consistency the rest of the way. One thing Saturday night proves is you don't have to make spectacular saves to preserve a lead or earn a win, just be positionally sound and you'll make the stops you need to make. Flodell was less acrobatic in net both nights and as a result was in the right place at the right time on most shots.

1st Star: LW Nolan Volcan. While he admitted he took time off from skating during the Christmas break and it bit him in the first game back in Spokane, Volcan was the best player on the ice Saturday but not because of his skill and talent. Lots of talented and skilled players were on the ice in that game. What separated him was his tenacity and effort; his willingness to get dirty and battle. A big goal to open the scoring and get Seattle off the schneid after being shutout the game before, then a big assist on the game winning goal. His goal Saturday gives him nine on the season in just 22 games, with three in the last three games coming off an injury that cost him a baker's dozen games. Those nine goals equal his total from his rookie season when he scored nine times in 67 games.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Have Yourself a Merry Little T-Birds Christmas

The Thunderbirds, along with the rest of the WHL, have reached the Christmas break and will now take a week off to celebrate the holiday with family. The T-Birds scattered after an impressive come-from-behind win in Kennewick Saturday, beating the Tri-City Americans 6-3 behind two goals each from Ryan Gropp and Nolan Volcan.

It didn't start out well as the T-Birds fell behind, 2-0, within the first six and a half minutes. Taz Burman didn't have a good start in goal and was pulled after allowing two goals on five shots. But the deficit was a team effort as the whole team didn't appear ready. Seattle was able to get one back on a Gropp breakaway midway through the period. That, and the play in goal of Burman's replacement Logan Flodell, seemed to settle the team down and get them back on the same page.

I don't know if there was a message delivered to the team in the first intermission. If there was, it may have been the most important message of the season delivered by head coach Steve Konowalchuk. Whatever was said, or whoever said it, it worked like a Christmas miracle. The Thunderbirds completely turned their game around as soon as the puck dropped to start period two. The next 40 minutes was an example of the T-Birds at their finest. A strong, aggressive forecheck, lots of puck possession and crisp passing as they carried the puck up ice.

Seattle took the lead thanks to goals from Gropp and Volcan on the power play. They hiccupped at the start of the third period when the Americans tied the game at three just 40 seconds in, but after that it was all Seattle. Just the night before in Seattle's 3-2 OT loss at home to the Americans, Owen Seidel had missed scoring his first WHL goal when, as he told me, he got stopped on the door step by a toe save. Saturday at the Toyota Center he was not to be denied, banging in the rebound off a Luke Ormsby shot at 3:53 of the third period. Not only was it his first WHL goal, it was a game winner. Meanwhile Ormsby showed why observers were excited about his prospects at training camp this fall, getting an assist for his first WHL point (in just his 3rd game) by winning a puck battle along the wall and driving the net.

Seattle would strike twice more before all was said and done. Volcan tallied his second of the night and Matthew Wedman polished it off with a highlight reel wrap around goal with six minutes remaining. The win was Seattle's 19th of the season, pushed them back in to first place in the U.S. Division and helped them avoid a four game winless streak going into the break. Instead the Thunderbirds earn three of four points on the weekend. That's a nice stocking stuffer!

So far, Seattle is 3-4-1-0 in the month of December. If they can maintain a .500 clip or better the rest of the month without their top three centers in the lineup, I'd call that a win. Matt Barzal (Canada), Scott Eansor (USA) and Alexander True (Denmark) are all in Helsinki, Finland, representing their countries at the World Junior Championships. They'll most likely all be there through the first week of January so the T-Birds will have to do without them for a while longer.

Seattle is now off until December 27, when they regroup in Spokane to take on the Chiefs. The first post Christmas home game is at the ShoWare Center on the 29th, a Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday, also against Spokane. While Seattle doesn't officially hit the mid-point of their 72 game schedule until Game 36 New Year's Eve down in Portland, let's call the pre-Christmas portion of the schedule the first half. With that in mind, here are my three stars for the first half of the season:

3rd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. His goal scoring has dropped off from a blistering pace he started the season with but he's still contributing points, coming up with some big assists in the two games this weekend. Overall he's tallied 39 points (16g, 23a)in 33 games, meaning he's averaging a solid 1.18 points a game. He's second on the team in scoring and tied for 15th in the WHL. Sunday the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him last spring in the third round, announced they had signed him to a standard three-year entry level contract.

2nd Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear has been a model of consistency so far this season for the T-Birds. While his offensive numbers get all the publicity, he's been very solid in his own end as well. At the break he leads all WHL defensemen in scoring with 36 points (11g, 25a). With a powerful and usually accurate shot, he's always a threat to score on the power play. He's third on the team in scoring and is averaging 1.09 points per contest. He's on pace for a 79 point season.

1st Star: C Mathew Barzal. Not only is Barzal the best player on this team, but he is one of the top four or five players in the WHL and among the best in the entire CHL, as evidenced by his selection to play for Team Canada at World Juniors. He's been among the league leaders in scoring all season, compiling 43 points in just 25 games, averaging 1.72 points a game this season. Depending on when he returns to Seattle he's still probably on pace for a 90-plus point season, something that no T-Bird players has accomplished since Brooks Laich put up 94 points in the 2002-03 season. There's even a good chance he could reach the 100 point mark, which hasn't been accomplished since 1998-99 when Bret DeCecco did it.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Force Needs to Awaken

The Thunderbirds continue to ride the rollercoaster the past couple of weeks, trading wins and losses over their last ten games (5-4-1-0). As a result, they've seen their grasp on the top spot in the U.S. Division shrink to a mere two points. To stay on top this week they'll need to up their game.

Inconsistent effort has been the main culprit. This past weekend's two home games were a prime example. The T-birds had one of their most complete games of the season and throttled the Spokane Chiefs on Friday, 5-1. It was a terrific sixty minute effort, featuring an aggressive forecheck, lots of puck possession, a dangerous power play and timely saves from the goaltending. Seattle pushed the pace and when Spokane pushed back, the T-birds pushed even harder.

But the switch was flipped Saturday in the 4-1 loss to Everett. There seemed to be no urgency in Seattle's game. The Silvertips were allowed to dictate play from the very first face-off. Seattle didn't seem willing to put in the effort necessary to grind out a win. Despite being outplayed in the first period the T-birds led, 1-0. Yet in the second period, when Everett wasn't doing much to generate a scoring opportunity to tie the game, the T-birds weren't pushing the pace in attempt to add to their lead. Thus Everett was allowed to hang around and eventually get that tying goal.

The game was up for grabs in the third period yet only one team seemed to answer the bell and it wasn't Seattle. Instead of an intense final 20 minutes in a tie game with a rival, Everett skated away from the T-birds with a three goal third. What the T-birds needed was the same effort they had the previous night against Spokane, but that effort was absent. Losses are frustrating but they are more palatable if you've given it your best effort. Saturday's result was both frustrating and disappointing because we didn't see the best the T-birds have to give in that game.

The T-birds suffered two losses this past week but in markedly different fashions. They fell in Spokane Wednesday, 4-2, but dominated large stretches of that game. They were stymied by a goalie who stood on his head. There were other factors in that loss, but lack of effort wasn't among them. In Saturday's loss lack of effort was the number one, and seemingly, only factor.

Things don't get any easier for Seattle this week. They have three games to play before the Christmas break and will play all three without their top three centers. Mathew Barzal (Canada), Scott Eansor (USA) and Alexander True (Denmark) are all away with their national teams for World Juniors. This is the one week then where a lack of focus or effort is not an option. Everyone will need to step up. Look for Donovan Neuls to get time centering a reconstituted top line. Neuls affected the game Friday versus Spokane, even though he didn't end up on the scoresheet, by being aggressive and physical.

We should see the WHL and Seattle Thunderbird debut of Luke Ormsby. The local product, who grew up attending T-birds games, is eligible to play six games with the club before he returns to his other team, the Junior Coyotes, down in Phoenix.

My T-birds three stars for the past week:

Third star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell was solid with a 25 save effort in the 5-1 win Friday against Spokane. With Seattle up 3-1 late in the second he came up with a couple of huge stops to keep momentum from swinging the Chiefs way. Saturday he made 17 saves in the first period alone to give Seattle a chance, but got very little help the rest of the game.

Second Star: RW Jamal Watson. Watson has half of his six goals this season in the past three games. Hopefully that's a sign that he's getting going offensively and is poised for a big second half. He was more engaged in the play at both ends of the ice recently and we are starting to see the affects his foot speed can have on a game. It would be nice to see that Watson-Eansor-Volcan line back on the ice again. It was so good in training camp but has seen little time together during the regular season because of injuries. But it may have to wait until January with Eansor away with Team USA.

First Star: Defenseman Ethan Bear. Bear had six points (3g, 3a) in the three games and was +4. He is now the top scoring defenseman in the WHL with 33 points on the season (9g, 24a) in 30 games. He recorded the first hat trick and first four point game of his T-birds career in the Friday win over Spokane.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Clunker and a Bounce Back

Seattle split its two games this weekend to start the month of December. It's a month that will feature a schedule heavy with U.S. Division games, including the first five.

The T-birds weekend opened with a road game in Spokane against the Chiefs. These two division rivals went the first two-plus months without facing each other, so that first meeting had some anticipation to it, especially since they entered the weekend in first and second place respectively in the division, and separated by a mere three points.

Unfortunately for Seattle, the game didn't live up to the billing as the T-bird fell flat, losing 7-1. It was a tale of two teams. One, Spokane came ready to play a 60-minute game. I thought they were very physical against Seattle and as a result they won a good majority of the puck battles. I'd go as far as to say they played the way Seattle usually plays, with an aggressive forecheck and they were hard to get off the puck. The other team, the T-birds, had a few moments throughout the game where they were dangerous but it wasn't consistent up and down the lineup and it wasn't consistent over sixty minutes.

The game had an ominous beginning. There's no other way to put it then the officials had a major blunder of their own. Ethan Bear gets hooked as he's skating the puck out from behind the Seattle net and as he falls the puck comes free. the same Spokane player who hooked him picks up the loose puck, turns and fires in a goal against the stunned T-birds. It should have been as easy penalty call to make. It was a pretty blatant hooking. How much did that play change the complexion of the game? We'll never know. But the penalty would have negated the goal and put Seattle on an early power play. Hey, officials are human too and Seattle had plenty of chances after that to right the wrong including a power play chance when still only down a goal. They didn't capitalize and Spokane broke it open with three quick goals after that.

Spokane is primarily a young team. But it's a very talented, skilled group of young players. They remind me of what Seattle was a couple of seasons ago. They may be a bit inconsistent this season (they had lost their previous two games and allowed 15 goals in the three games prior to facing Seattle), but they're fun to watch and are going to be scary good going forward.

To salvage the weekend, the T-birds needed a strong effort the following night at home against Tri-City. It wasn't a perfect game by any means but Seattle did bounce back with a 3-2 win before a sold out ShoWare Center crowd. Wearing replica 1917 Seattle Metropolitans jerseys, Seattle had a terrific start. They outshot the Americans 11-1 in the first period and grabbed a 1-0 lead. But in the second period the T-birds seemed to come out a little slower to start the period. A lot of the aggressive play from the first period was missing. Then the T-birds recent home ice demon, penalties, re-emerged. And it wasn't just the penalties that caused Seattle trouble but the timing of those infractions. Seattle took four penalties in an eight minute span over the second half of the period. When you do that you tilt the ice heavily in the favor of the opponent and Tri-City took advantage to score two power play goals to grab the lead.

Fortunately Seattle has Matt Barzal. In the final minute of the period he was able to pick the pocket of Tri-City defenseman, Parker Wotherspoon, right in front of the Ams goal. A couple of dekes and Barzal slid the puck past the Tri-City goalie to tie the game. That will be an interesting conversation at next year's New York Islanders training camp as both Barzal and Wotherspoon are Islanders prospects.

The T-birds were better in the third period. They got back to being aggressive on the forecheck. It led two three Tri-City penalties. While Seattle didn't score with the man advantage I think it did have the affect of wearing out the Ams top players. As a result, late in the game a fresher Keegan Kolesar was able to outmuscle a weary Tri-City player behind the Americans goal and win the puck for the T-birds. He fed a perfect pass to Jared Hauf pinching in from the blueline and Hauf buried the shot for the game winning goal.

A couple of things that Seattle needs to address going through their schedule in December. First, they have to eliminate the penalties, especially on home ice. Over the last three home games the T-birds have surrendered 19 power play chances to their opponents. That's a whopping six a game. In their last two home games, a 3-2 OT loss to Moose Jaw and Saturday's 3-2 win over Tri-City, Seattle had the chance to put the opposition away but let them hang around and get back into the game because they took too many penalties. 5-on-5 Seattle has been able to control the tempo. You can't do that though, if you're in the penalty box.

Secondly, the T-bird need to rediscover their secondary scoring. They are relying too much lately on their top line, specifically Barzal and Ryan Gropp, for their offense. It seems like ages since Alexander True potted a goal. Even Kolesar is going through a bit of a goal-scoring drought. Jamal Watson has been like a game of horseshoes lately, close but not quite. Hopefully some of those bounces will start going in for him. They'll need that scoring especially when Seattle loses Barzal to World Juniors after this week.

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Goaltender Taz Burman. After a subpar goaltending effort Friday in Spokane, Seattle needed someone to step up their game. Burman got the start Saturday and turned aside 26 of 28 shots. He was at his best late in the second period with Tri-City on yet another power play and looking to stretch their lead. He came up with some big stops to keep it a one goal game. Shortly thereafter, Barzal got the equalizer.

Second Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. He's not scoring goals lately but he had two assists in the win over Tri-City, including a huge play to set up the game winning goal late. It's the kind of play he should make more often, out-muscling an opponent for a puck.

First star: Center Matt Barzal. After being named the WHL Player of the Month for November, all he does is earn three points (2g, 1a) in his first two December games. He's at another level right now and clearly is one of the best players in the league at the moment. He's now in a three-way tie for second in league scoring (43 points) with nine goals and a league best 34 assists. Two of the players tied with him or ahead of him in the scoring race have earned their points by playing five more games.

One final note; if you are coming to either of the home games this weekend, Friday vs. Spokane or Saturday against Everett, bring an unwrapped toy for the Forgotten Children's Fund. The good folks from Les Schwab tire will be on hand to collect them. You'll make Cool Bird very merry this holiday season of you do that.