Sunday, October 25, 2015

No Lucky Number Seven

The Thunderbirds had their six game winning streak snapped Saturday night in Everett, after being shutout by Carter Hart, 2-0. They say you are only as good as your last game but if this team is going to win six out of every seven games and seven of every ten, I'm not going to quibble. At that pace you're looking at what could be a 48-50 win campaign.

It wasn't lack of effort that cost them a seventh straight win. For large stretches of that game's first two periods, Seattle controlled the puck and tempo with their bread and butter; a suffocating forecheck. No, it was a couple of turnovers and a hot goaltender that did them in. As we've said before, goalies can steal a few wins for their team over the course of a season and Hart definitely did that Saturday night. Seattle put 15 shots on goal in that fateful second period, many were quality chances. When the period was over though, there were down 2-0.

If I'm going to be nitpicky the one area I would have liked to see more consistency from Seattle in that game was a bigger presence in front of the Everett goal. Especially after falling behind. When they did get to the front of the net is when they were the most dangerous. Alexander True was one who did that well. He didn't get rewarded on a terrific redirect on a T-Birds power play. The Volcan-Eansor-Watson line was willing to go to the dirty areas looking for greasy goals too. Not all the forwards were willing to do that every shift though.

Everett must have been guilty of icing the puck at least a dozen times, if not more. This meant a lot of attacking zone faceoffs for Seattle. The T-Birds were winning most of those faceoffs too. I mean I don't think 16-year-old Matthew Wedman lost a draw all night. When you win an offensive zone draw and get the puck back to the point, someone has got to go immediately to the front of the net. When Seattle did that, they created a scoring chance, when they didn't they struggled to get the puck off the perimeter. Sometimes to get into the "house" (the area below the hashmarks and above the crease, right in front of the goal) you have to break a window or knock down a door. Seemed to me, at times, the T-Birds were ringing the doorbell and waiting for an invite in.

For the second straight road game Seattle was going hard from the opening faceoff. They controlled much of the first period in Vancouver Friday night and did so again Saturday in Everett. They just didn't reward themselves for that effort. The T-Birds are five road games into the season and have yet to score a first period road goal. But, they have also limited the opposition to just one first period goal in their last three road games and that came back on October 11th down in Portland.

The T-Birds effort in the loss to Everett wasn't much different then their effort in the two wins this past week over Tri-City and Vancouver. Only the result was different. Did we really think Seattle was going to go through the remainder of the season unbeaten? I don't think I need a record book to know no team has gone 70-1-1-0. One major difference against Everett, as opposed to what they did against Tri-City and Vancouver? Seattle never played with the lead against the 'Tips and Everett was able to dictate the play in the third period. The night before against the Giants, with the lead, Seattle dominated the final 20 minutes. Wednesday at home against the Americans, once Seattle got the lead they held on to it with a solid finish.

One area Seattle was able to clean up on the weekend was in the discipline department. After surrendering 15 power play chances in their previous three games, the T-birds were only shorthanded three times combined against the Giants and Silvertips. That was important because those two teams started the weekend ranked #1 and #2 in the league on the power play. Combined they finished 0-for-3. If you didn't know better, on Everett's lone power play chance Saturday night you would have thought Seattle was the team skating with the extra attacker. That's how affective the T-Birds lone penalty kill was. As a result, Seattle now sits third in the league on the penalty kill at 85.4%.

Let's look at the big picture. The T-Birds just won six in a row. They took two of three this past week and two of those three games were on the road. They've allowed two or fewer goals in their last seven games and in their last eight games have only once allowed their opponent to put more then 25 shots on goal. When was the last time an opponent had 30 or more shots on goal against Seattle? Last season. There are a lot of things to complain about in this world but the T-Birds losing once in two weeks isn't one of them.

My T-Birds three stars of the week:

3rd Star (Tie). Goaltender Taz Burman. Had his best game to date as a T-Bird in Friday's 3-1 win over Vancouver. Came a big toe's length away from a shutout as he stopped 21 of 22 shots. 3-0 in his last three starts with a 1.62 GAA and .924 SAV%. Toss out that first period back on October 4th in Kennewick and he's been stellar.
Defenseman Ethan Bear. Got his first two goals of the season in Seattle's 3-2 win Wednesday versus Tri-City, including the game winner. Added an assist Friday in Vancouver. Now at +5 on the season, second best on the team.

2nd Star: Center Alexander True. Keyed the T-Birds win Friday against the Giants with a heady play behind the Vancouver goal that led to him scoring the games first goal. He's becoming a big net front presence for the T-Birds, particularly on the power play and continues to win in the faceoff circle. His offseason commitment to getting stronger is paying off early in the season. A year ago, in injury shortened season, he had 12 points in 38 games (6g, 6a). Already this season in just 10 games has seven points (5g, 2a).

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Was probably the T-Birds best, if not the most consistent, player in the loss Saturday. Had one goal this week but affects the game even when he's not getting his name on the scoresheet with a non-stop motor that allows him to disrupt the oppositions break outs. You get the feeling that he and his linemates, Nolan Volcan and Jamal Watson, are on the verge of an offensive explosion. They had a couple such chances versus Everett that just came up short.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Oh Yes, They Call it the Streak

Another weekend, another pair of wins for the Seattle Thunderbirds who have now earned points in six consecutive games. The T-Birds are also enjoying home cooking, having won all four games so far this season at the ShoWare Center, outscoring their opponents 18-7 in the process. As a result, the team ended the weekend with the best winning percentage in the league. Yes, it is still a small sample size (seven games) but I think being first, whether in winning percentage, in the division or in the conference, is incentive to keep playing well, no matter what time of year.

Seattle was playing well before Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Jamal Watson returned to the lineup four games ago. They are definitely playing better though with them available. In the four games since their return the T-Birds are 4-0 and that trio has combined for 14 points (4g, 10a) and a combined +7. More importantly their return has stabilized the team's top three lines. Barzal and Gropp have teamed with Keegan Kolesar on the top line to average 3.4 points per game. While Kolesar is happy to have his two linemates back, let's not forget he was playing well without them. Kolesar has 12 points so far on the season and one-third of those points (1g, 4a) were accumulated in the three games before Barzal and Gropp returned.

Meanwhile, the Watson-Scott Eansor-Nolan Volcan combo is averaging just about two points a game, while also getting the task of shutting down the opponents top line. It also means Alexander True has a more defined role, centering the third line.

Seattle's power play is clicking early, currently fifth in the league at 28.6%. They've achieved that with Ethan Bear yet to score a goal. Once he gets his shot dialed in though you know it is just a matter of time before he starts potting goals with the man advantage (he does have six assists). In fact Seattle's special teams are really dialed in right now. The penalty kill is third in the WHL and has killed off 13 straight opposing power plays and 19 of 21 over the last four games.

Don't forget that a good penalty kill starts with the goaltender and Seattle has received excellent goaltending the last two weekends from the combination of Taz Burman and Logan Flodell. That duo has stopped 84 of the past 92 shots they've faced as the T-Birds have not surrendered more then two goal in any of the last four games. It's all part of a strong team defense as Seattle's opponents did not surpass the 25 shot mark in any of those four games.

Did a stint at NHL camp this summer benefit any T-Birds player more then it did Turner Ottenbreit? He actually got to go to camp with two NHL teams; development camp with the Washington Capitals and rookie camp with the New York Rangers. The second year defenseman is playing with a seemingly, new found, quiet confidence. He's been positionally sound, strong along the walls and very intent on taking care of business in the defensive zone. As a result the Yorkton, Saskatchewan, native is leading the team in plus/minus at +6 despite having just one point, an assist, so far this season. It doesn't hurt that he's playing his second season with the same defensive partner. He and Edmonton Oilers draft pick Ethan Bear definitely have developed that all important chemistry with each other and combined are +10.

This past weekend Seattle did something they didn't do much of the first couple of weekends of the season; play with the lead. At no point this weekend did the Thunderbirds trail in their two games against Kamloops and Victoria in earning both a 7-2 and a 4-2 win. I was more concerned that Seattle surrendered two third period goals to Kamloops Friday night while leading, 7-0, then I was about them allowing two goals to Victoria in the third period Saturday after building a 3-0 lead. I expected a push back by a very gritty Victoria team that was coming off a home loss the night before. The T-Birds level of play really didn't drop off as it was much more the Royals battling back. Friday night against Kamloops I thought the T-Birds got a bit too casual up by seven. It's hard to keep up that intensity over 60-minutes when you build a seven-goal lead but its important not to let bad habits creep into your game, no matter the score.

From my angle in the southeast corner of the ShoWare Center Saturday it appeared Brandon Schuldhaus may had tipped a puck to Matt Barzal that led to Seattle's third goal against the Royals at the other end of the ice. I thought it was an optical illusion but thought they might review it. The stat sheet does show him with a point so apparently he did pick up his first point in the WHL.

With Schuldhaus earning an assist, Sahvan Khaira is the only T-Birds skater yet to register a point this season. Schuldhaus, in limited play is now +3 on the season. Winger Wyatt Bear picked up his first career point with an assist Friday against the Blazers. Meanwhile, Matthew Wedman, who had earned his first career WHL point, an assist, opening night in Vancouver, registered his first career goal Friday against Kamloops. On a team with so many returning players, Seattle's trio of 16-year-old rookies, Wedman, Wyatt Bear and Jarret Tyszka, have combined for nine points (3g, 6a) and are +8.

My Three T-birds stars for the weekend:

3rd Star. Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. Is it a coincidence that Victoria didn't score a goal until Ottenbreit was in the penalty box serving out a five minute fighting major after standing up for his goalie? The rest of the game he was busy playing a physical brand of hockey and clearing rebounds away from the front of the Seattle goal. No points but finished the weekend at +2 and is now +6 on the season to lead the team.

2nd Star. RW Keegan Kolesar. Does he benefit playing on a line with Matt Barzal and Ryan Gropp? Yes, but guess what? They benefit from having him out on the ice with them as well. He's so strong he rarely loses a battle for a loose puck and now he's showing off his soft hands with a couple of beautiful snipes for goals. Finished the weekend with five points (3g, 2a) and was +3.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. The obvious from the weekend with Barzal is that he produced five points (3g, 2a) and was +3. But every time the puck is on his stick he draws the attention of two or three opposing players, opening up the ice for his teammates. He also drew a couple of penalties giving Seattle's potent power play ice time. One of his goals coming into the WHL was to become a complete hockey player and he's playing both ends of the ice very well here in the early going. I've heard fans ask for him to shoot more and we're seeing that too, one reason he had three goals in the two wins.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Winning Weekend for the Comeback Crew

While you don't want to make a habit of falling behind in every game, you're also not going to score the first goal every night either. You're not going to have the lead for 60 minutes every game. There will be times you'll be behind. Having the ability to erase a deficit, whether it's early in the first period or late in the game, is a sign of a confident, skilled and patient team. Five games into the season Seattle has displayed that confidence and come back ability in four contests. The best attribute is staying calm. Despite the early deficits they don't panic. The Thunderbirds have had the lead on the road for only 6:20 out of 182 minutes yet their road record is 1-1-1 and have earned three road points, all because they have shown the ability to come back from early deficits time and time again.

One reason the Thunderbirds are 3-1-1 so far this young season is they have owned the third period. To date the T-Birds have outscored the opposition in the final period, 6-0, and outshot them 62-27. To be fair, the other side of that coin would be the first period in which Seattle has been outscored 8-3 and outshot 54-38. While you want them to continue the dominating third period trend, you also want them to improve on their starts. Sunday down in Portland actually was an improvement. Shots were even at 9-9 and the Winterhawks goal came late on the power play, primarily the result of a very good individual effort by Dominic Turgeon.

This brings me back to Seattle's supposed question mark coming into the season; goaltending. Seattle got two very good back-to-back efforts this weekend from the tandem of Taz Burman and Logan Flodell. Burman continues to be put under duress by his defense early in games. He faced 10 shots before the first period 10 ten minutes old Saturday versus Prince Albert and I'd guess seven of them were quality scoring chances. If you face seven quality scoring chances in a 10-minute span and stop five of them, you're doing well to keep your team in the game. Burman then made the only save of the shootout and that sealed the win for the T-Birds.

Flodell was just as sharp Sunday in Portland. I think he'd like another crack at that first Portland goal, the one that just snuck under his right pad, but he made a nice stop of a puck rolling along the goal line late in the third period to preserve Seattle's lead. We're just five games into the season so the battle is still too close to say one has gained the upper hand over the other and as long as they both continue to play well, Burman and Flodell will continue to share the goaltending duties.

I thought Prince Albert goalie Rylan Parenteau was going to steal a win for his team Saturday night at the ShoWare Center. He was the only reason the Raiders were still in that game after surrendering their early two-goal cushion. From the midway point of the first period, after Prince Albert had scored twice, Seattle dominated play, outshooting PA from that point 31-10. In the standings it will say the Raiders earned a point from that game but in reality, it was Parenteau who earned that point.

The second period versus the Winterhawks was a mess, for both teams, with a combined eight penalties called that resulted in eight power plays. A lack of 5-on-5 hockey took away any flow the game may have had. Honestly though, I can't recollect a penalty that wasn't warranted as it was a bit of a sloppy effort by both sides. It just might have been the result of the first game between two long time rivals who play each other 12 times every season.

Matt Barzal has three points in two games since returning from the NHL training camp of the New York Islanders. Barzal played both games this weekend at less then 100 percent as he was feeling a bit under the weather. So we probably got 85-90 percent of Barzal this weekend and he was still probably the best player on the ice. His cross slot pass to set up Jarret Tyszka's game tying, second period, power-play goal Sunday was a thing of beauty.

Speaking of Tyszka, not a bad start for the 16-year-old rookie and 2014 first round draft pick. Sunday in Portland he registered the first multi-point game of his WHL career (1g, 1a) and was defensively responsible as well. Tyszka is already seeing a lot of time on the power play and as a result has two powerplay goals.

With Seattle taking as many penalties in the second period as they did Sunday against Portland, Sahvan Khaira got some time on the penalty kill and had a couple of solid shifts. He also was guilty of one of those infractions though. It was penalty by committee in that game so he wasn't alone in that boat. Overall I thought he put together two good efforts on the weekend. Consistency from shift-to-shift and game-to-game is what the coaches are looking for from the second year d-man and Saturday and Sunday were a step in the right direction.

With everyone back and healthy, Nic Holowko has been moved down to the fourth line. This is a player with 3rd or even 2nd line ability so that speaks to the depth of the forward group on this team. Of course Holowko can also be used as an affective penalty killer and even on the fourth line he is going to impact games. Sunday in Portland he made a strong rush down the left wing, nutmegged the Winterhawks defenseman and just missed scoring on a backhand attempt.

Once again, no midweek games for the Thunderbirds who are off before playing two home games this weekend, hosting Kamloops Friday before welcoming Victoria to town Saturday. Before that be sure to join me Thursday evening at 6 p.m. for the weekly Seattle Thunderbirds Coach's Show on 1090 The Fan.

My T-birds three stars of the weekend sweep:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jarret Tyszka. On a team with two 20-year-old d-men, an NHL drafted d-man and three defensemen who attended NHL camps this September, the young Tyszka still stood out. In particular with his two point effort in the win down in Portland on Sunday. It's going to be fun watching him develop over the course of this season and next.

2nd Star: Center Alexander True. With three goals so far this season, all scored on Sundays, maybe we should call him the preacher or, because of his deep baratone voice with the Danish accent, how about the Sermonator? Not only did he have the game winner Sunday versus the Winterhawks but both T-birds goal scorers in Saturday's win over Prince Albert (Barzal and Kolesar), credited True with helping set up their goals even though he didn't get an assist on either.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. Whether it was the flu or a nasty cold, he was not at 100 percent health this weekend but still managed three points (1g, 2a) and a shootout goal. If this is how Barzal plays when he is under the weather, I can't wait to see him play when he's over the weather.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Whole Again

The news came early Sunday and then again late Sunday night. Two key pieces to the Thunderbirds roster were being returned.

First it was announced that the Saint John's Ice Dogs of the American Hockey League had released Jamal Watson. Watson had been sent down to the AHL team after a solid camp with the NHL's Montreal Canadiens. There was some concern from the T-Birds faithful that Watson, obtained by Seattle from Lethbridge in an offseason trade, would be offered a contract and stay with the AHL club. I never got the impression from the T-Birds brass that they shared that concern. I think Watson's goal is to earn an NHL deal and he probably realizes his opportunity to do that is improved if he comes back to Seattle and puts up a monster season as a 20-year-old in the WHL. I don't think an AHL contract offer was a serious consideration at this time in his career. Next year maybe, but not right now.

Then later Sunday night, while the T-Birds were mounting a ferocious comeback in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans, word came that the New York Islanders, who had just finished up their preseason schedule earlier in the day, were sending Matt Barzal back to Seattle after his very successful first NHL training camp. I believe that with all the talent the T-Birds have on their roster this season, Barzal is still the straw that stirs the drink.

And there was even some more positive news as Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk told ESPN 710 reporter Andy Eide that last year's leading scorer, Ryan Gropp, was getting closer to returning to action. Gropp has missed the T-Birds first three games with a lower body injury that has him currently listed as day-to-day. There is a chance we see all three in the lineup next weekend but at the very least, Watson and Barzal will play.

So, Seattle gets through the first two weekends of WHL action in relatively good shape despite the absence of what would be considered three of their best, if not their three best, offensive weapons. Seattle stands at 1-1-1-0 after three games, in which they produced offense by committee, and in the loss opening night up in Vancouver and last night in Kennewick, they had a chance at the end to win or pull out a point. I think, under the circumstances, they'll take that and move along.

Without the three players we've mentioned in the lineup, Seattle is still averaging nearly 4 goals a game (3.66) and while it is a small sample size there are six players on the roster who are averaging a point a game or better. I think adding Barzal, Watson and Gropp into the mix should allow them to keep up that scoring pace. The one thing the players who have been here need to do is continue to play well and not expect the burden of scoring to fall on the shoulders of those three returning players.

What one thing has me worried about this team early on? I tell you what doesn't worry me and that is the goaltending. More on that later. What does worry me is the slow starts in the first two road games. You don't want to be coming off the bus not ready to play but in both early road tests, Seattle has been slow to get going, falling behind and ended up chasing the play. To their credit they came back to tie the game in each instance but it is a recipe for disaster if you do that every night on the road. There has to be a sense of desperation as soon as you hit the ice. I'm not sure the reason behind it but I'm sure the coaches will address that issue specifically in practice this week. Seattle's hallmark last season was team defense but through the first three games this season that team defense has been inconsistent.

I'm seeing a lot of consternation about the goaltending of Taz Burman and I'll tell you right now, Burman is not the problem. I repeat, he is not the problem! In his two starts he's faced a combined 27 shots in the first period; 13 opening night in Vancouver and 14 Sunday versus Tri-City. Unfortunately, too many of those shots he's faced are quality scoring chances. Yes, you do need your goaltender to make a big save a couple of times each game to deny a quality scoring chance. The problem for the T-Birds is that they are allowing almost every shot Burman faces to be a quality scoring chance. Burman is not going to shrink away from the responsibility he has. He knows he's the last line of defense. But the T-birds team defense has to stop constantly leaving him out alone on an island with opposing shooters.

How great was it to see Alexander True have what may have been his best game as a T-Bird Sunday as he helped spark the T-Birds comeback from a five-goal deficit? I think True was just rounding into form midway through last season when he suffered an upper body injury that cost him approximately 30 games the second half of his rookie season. I think that injury cost him an outside chance of getting drafted into the NHL this past June and at the very least, kept him from getting an NHL camp invite this fall. He added muscle to his 6'4" frame this offseason and it was very evident on his shorthanded goal at the end of the second period, fighting off a defender as he bore down on goal. More games like that from True equals more opportunities to win for Seattle.

The Thunderbirds rookie class this season is not as big as the 11 rookies who broke in with the team a year ago. Personally, I don't consider Gustav Olhaver a rookie. He's an older player who is already drafted into the NHL and has played internationally. Meanwhile through three games the foursome of Matthew Wedman, Wyatt Bear, Brandon Schuldhaus and Jarret Tyszka are a combined +4 while contributing one goal and three assists.

Wedman's play in particular could re-shape how Seattle configures its four lines when healthy. I think originally the T-Birds coaches were planning on Donovan Neuls centering the fourth line and that could still happen. But they may also have enough confidence in Wedman now that he center's the fourth line and Neuls could play the wing on the third line. Wedman can answer that question by continuing to play well and consistently. Stay tuned.

Yes, 3-on-3 overtime is exciting and fans are going to love it. But I don't know, maybe I'm old school, I don't mind games ending in a tie. I think the overtime is "gimmicky". It would be like baseball finishing off with a home run Derby rather then playing extra innings. Of course, when the T-Birds win a few overtime games, I'll change my mind.

My three T-birds stars for the opening three games:

3rd Star: Alexander True. True really has played well in all three games but finally got rewarded for it Sunday with a three point night against Tri-City (2g, 1a). He was the spark that got the T-Birds five goal comeback started. He has stepped up his physical play and continues to be a key face off guy.

2nd Star: Logan Flodell. Had a terrific first start against Prince George in the home opener, stopping 27 of 28 shots. While most of his saves were fairly "routine", he also showed good lateral movement in making a few of the spectacular variety. He came into the game Sunday and while he got credited with the overtime loss, kept Tri-City at bay while Seattle came roaring back from that five goal deficit.

1st Star: Scott Eansor: In the absence of the Big Three, Seattle looked to players like Eansor for scoring and he delivered with four points (2g,2a). He continues to be strong at both ends of the ice. He and his line did a top notch job of shutting down Prince George's potent top scoring line Saturday. His success the first half of the season will determine if he has a spot on Team USA for World Juniors in late December/early January. So far, so good.