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.