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.

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