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.

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