Monday, January 25, 2016

Some L. Bow Mac-OH-roni and Cheese

It was mostly a sweet week for the Seattle Thunderbirds, it just had a little sour ending. Seattle went 2-1 in three games, including back-to-back shutouts. It seemed like they might be on their way to a third Saturday night but forgot to play a full 60 minutes and dropped a key game to Portland.

Let's start with the good. The T-birds posted consecutive shutouts, and made it three shutouts in their last six games, when they blanked Saskatoon Tuesday and Portland Friday. Landon Bow was in net both nights, stopping a combined 47 shots. He wasn't tested much against Saskatoon as the Blades mustered just 17 shots thanks to Seattle's extended puck possession game and solid d-zone play. Bow was at his best that night late, preserving the shutout as Saskatoon tried everything to avoid being blanked but it was to no avail as Seattle picked up the 4-0 win.

It was the opposite Friday down in Portland. Bow was on top of his game early, facing 12 shots in the first period including a breakaway, and stopping everything that came at him. The T-birds then struck twice in the second period enroute to the 3-0 win. After getting on top in that game, the T-birds controlled the puck for much of the third period but did have to kill off a couple of late Portland power plays to keep the goose egg on the board.

Saturday night back at the ShoWare Center, again facing Portland, Seattle started off well. Their hard work in the first period was rewarded with a late power play and Scott Eansor capitalized by redirecting a Jerret Smith shot into the net for the game's first goal. Seattle would add a second power play goal early in the second from Keegan Kolesar to double their lead. At that point the T-birds had outscored the opposition 10-0 over their last 157:55 minutes of play.

But then, I think, the team got complacent. They stopped working the way they had the previous two and a half games. They got soft on pucks, made some careless plays in the defensive zone and pretty much lost their intensity and focus. As we seem to always find out in games like this, once you turn that switch off, it's not easy to flip it back on. The T-birds played the rest of the game back on their heels and Portland took advantage, scoring five straight in their come-from-behind win.

Seattle not only lost the lead and the game, but a chance to narrow that gap on first place Everett in the U.S. Division. The Silvertips lost back-to-back road games on the weekend but instead of pulling within three points of first place, Seattle settled for a five point deficit. A big missed opportunity. especially with a game in Everett on the schedule this Saturday.

One of the issues Saturday, and this is not meant as a criticism of the promotion but rather of the way the players approached it, was the annual Fred Meyer Teddy Bear Toss. Players were so keyed on being the one to score that first goal, they put all their energy and focus into it. Any time a Seattle player had the puck on his stick in that first period, they were throwing the puck on net in hopes they would be the one to light the lamp and begin the rain of Teddy Bears down onto the ice.

After Eansor's re-direct ended the suspense, the T-birds players seemed to be less enthusiastic about the rest of the game. This is not the first time I've seen the T-birds score the Teddy Bear toss goal, then go on to lose the game. Seattle is not alone, I've seen it happen with other team's too. In fact, it wasn't too many years ago I witnessed Seattle do the same to the Winterhawks in Portland. Either the delay to clean the bears off the ice kills the momentum, or in this case, a lack of focus the rest of the game gets players away from the small details that go into winning. It's a great promotion for a great cause. The onus is on the player to re-focus and get back to playing the game the right way.

Seattle's special teams have been terrific as of late. Seattle is now tops in the league on the penalty kill at 84.4%. Over the last month the Thunderbirds have killed off 53 of 60 opponent power play chances (dating back to December 13th), including a streak where they were 34 of 35 on the PK over a nine game stretch. Meanwhile, the power play, which struggled in the absence of Matt Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True when they were away at World Juniors, has re-emerged lately. Seattle is 9 for 26 with the man advantage over the last six games, a success rate of 34%. As a result the T-birds have climbed back up to 7th overall in the WHL on the power play at 21.6% on the season.

The flip side of that though, is the absence of even strength goals for Seattle the last few weeks. So far in the month of January (ten games), the T-birds have scored 28 goals. Only 14 have been even strength, but of those one was a 3-on-3 OT goal and one was scored 4-on-4. The other 12 have been either on the power player, shorthanded (1) or an empty netter (2). Seattle has to generate more scoring 5-on-5. They have just two such goals in their last three games.

It's amazing to think that Seattle has gotten past the midway point of the season and has yet to play three games in three nights, something that seemed to happen with regularity and frequency in past seasons. That all changes this weekend. The T-birds are in Spokane Friday night, Everett Saturday then come back home to take on Kelowna at the ShoWare Center Sunday evening at 5.

My T-birds three stars for the past week:

Third Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. It was only a tip-of-the-glove save by Portland's Aiden Hill in the third period Saturday that prevented Neuls from extended his goal scoring streak to five games. Seattle is in need of secondary scoring and Neuls is starting to provide that. The steak allowed Neuls to establish a new career high in goals in a season with 8 through 46 games, one more then he had all of last season in his 69 game rookie campaign. Neuls is also key to the T-birds penalty killing success and a big part of why they are #1 in the league in that category. Additionally, with Alexander True moved up to play right wing on the top line, Neuls has taken over centering the T-birds third line.

2nd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect is now the team leader in goals scored with 23 after potting four in three games. Those four goals are four more then he had all of last season. Already this season he has established new career bests in goals, assists and points and there are still 26 games left to add to those numbers. Remember, he did most of his scoring this week after being moved off the top line. Three of his four goals were of the power play variety (the other was an empty net goal)so I think he has more to give 5-on-5 but he again is showing he has good instincts around the net.

1st Star: G Landon Bow. Before Bow arrived in Seattle via trade in early January Seattle had played 37 games and registered nary a shutout. Since Bow joined the team they have recorded three shutouts in seven games. This past week alone he went 2-1 with a GAA of 1.51 and a SVPCT of .951. Since arriving in Kent, he is 6-2 with a 1.64 GAA and .951 SVPCT. Those are numbers that give you a chance to win every night. The T-birds have added a new instrument to their band and it is the OH-Bow.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Riding the Home/Road Rollercoaster

Seattle's loss Saturday night in Everett was their week in condensed form. There was the good, the bad and the ugly. The T-Birds had a rock solid start in Everett but once they fell behind, they faded down the stretch. The game turned over the course of just 25 seconds midway through the second period. Up to that point, the T-Birds had really kept the Silvertips at arms length. But a Seattle turnover at the their own blueline and a lost battle along the boards and all of a sudden it was 2-0 in favor of the 'Tips and Seattle never recovered.

Most disappointing was Seattle's response to that deficit. Certainly being two goals down to a stingy Everett team isn't the optimal position to be in but there was still half a game to be played. Yet Seattle seemed to wilt and abandoned their systems. Mentally they looked to be playing as if the result was a foregone conclusion. They lost the intensity they played the first half of the game with. Early in the season Seattle came back on a number of occasions from deficits as large or larger then this one. But Saturday, too many players abandoned the fight when there was still plenty of fight left.

As for the week as a whole? The good? Two wins, including their first shutout of the season, on the road no less in Prince George. The bad? Two losses, both on the road where they've been far too inconsistent thus far this season. The ugly? Getting outscored in those two road losses 11-3.

There are a few areas Seattle still needs to improve going forward. One, they have to stop passing up the chance to put pucks on net. The perfect scoring chance is a rare thing. Shots get blocked, shots get deflected, shots get saved and some shots end up in the net, but no shot never taken ends up as a goal. Two, and this really is part of step one, get traffic in front of the opposing net. Seattle's last two goals scored over the weekend were both the result of having a net front presence. If a goaltender can see the shot, he's probably going to make the save. If you screen him or make him have to move the odds of scoring improve.

Saturday night's loss in Everett was a prime example of what screening a goalie can do for your offense. As good as Landon Bow is he had no chance on three of the Silvertips four goals scored against him because he was screened. Everett had plenty of traffic in front of the Seattle net and they were willing to fling pucks toward the goal and get good things to happen as a result. You want the biggest difference in the game? To me that was it. Goalies can't stop what the goalie can't see. Everett goalie Carter Hart was able to see almost every shot that came his way. Not so for Bow.

The third issue, penalties. It wouldn't seem to be a big issue considering Seattle is first overall in the WHL on the penalty kill. But the T-Birds played four games this past week and ended up shorthanded 19 times. On average that's almost five power plays to the opposition each game. It may not seem like a lot, especially considering the T-Birds allowed just two power play goals, both in the loss to Everett, and killed off the other 17 shorthanded situations. To kill off those penalties though, you use your top players and that disrupts your ability to roll four lines.

Saturday night I thought Seattle was controlling the tempo and the puck most of the first period. Then they took two avoidable penalties (a hold and an interference call) within five minutes of each other. Everett didn't score on those power plays. In fact they only registered one shot and were far from dangerous, but after Seattle killed off those penalties, that was when the Silvertips tilted the ice back to a more even playing field as Seattle had to rely on the 3rd and 4th lines to play 5-on-5. Before the penalties Everett had one shot on goal. When the two Seattle penalties were killed off Everett still only had two shots and we were 14 minutes into the game. But over the last six minutes of the first period, Everett outshot Seattle 5-0.

Seattle's power play has come back to life recently. They are 4 for their last 7 with the man advantage and used the power play to beat Regina Friday night, going 3-for-5. Seattle was a top 5 power play team most of the first half of the season and they will need to get back to that level going forward.

Despite the loss in Everett, the T-Birds are still 4-2 since the trade deadline and Bow has been exactly what they hoped for in goal since acquiring him from Swift Current. They've been very good at home when they've had a full roster. Their three regulation losses at home all occurred when their top three centers were away at World Junior and they were dealing with a couple of injuries and thus played undermanned. Outside of that, their home record is 15-0-2-0. Of their remaining 29 games, 16 are at the ShoWare Center.

Definitely Seattle has to improve on the road but they showed this past Wednesday what they are capable of away from home when they put in a complete 60 minutes as they shut out a quality Prince George team. They followed that up with a good road effort over the first half of the game in Everett. In fact Seattle had fashioned a stretch of 90 consecutive minutes of shutout hockey on the road. They just need to find more consistency when away from home.

My T-Birds three stars for the week:

3rd Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. Has scored in back to back games now. His goal Friday in the win versus Regina gave Seattle the cushion needed to earn a 4-2 win. Not only has he scored twice in the past two games but he's also starting to create more scoring opportunities for himself, mostly off of his strong forecheck. Neuls is also a big reason why the T-Birds have climbed to the top of the WHL penalty killing leaderboard.

2nd Star: C Matt Barzal. Barzal is now averaging 1.61 points per game. He had another three assist night in the win over Regina but also looks to want to shoot the puck more since coming back from World Juniors. Despite his time away from the team, he's still tied for 11th in league scoring and number one on the T-Birds in that category with 50 points in just 31 games, 15 games less then the league's leading scorer.

1st Star: Goalie Landon Bow. in six game with Seattle Bow is 4-1 with a 1.81 GAA and a save percentage of .939. It took him just three starts to register the first shutout for a Seattle goalie this season. Project those numbers out over the rest of the season, where he'll get the great majority of the workload in goal, and Seattle will have a chance for the "W" most nights.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Race is on

Another WHL trade deadline has come and gone and a number of players have new addresses as teams bolstered their rosters for the playoff stretch run. Mainly though, a lot of players around the league are just letting out a sigh of relief now that the deadline has passed.

Seattle was busy on the trade front and this coming Thursday I'll chat with T-Birds GM Russ Farwell, on the Weekly Seattle Thunderbirds Coach's show, about the moves he made to strengthen the club for the second half of the season. So tune in at 6 pm Thursday on 1090 The Fan.

The T-Birds trades were like playing with dominos, one deal falling into the other; sort of a chain reaction. Even though they were announced in a different order, the key acquisition was goaltender Landon Bow. Seattle needed to shore up their play in between the pipes. It had been too inconsistent the first half. But in order to bring in Bow, Seattle had to send out a 20-year old. The options were two 20-year old defensemen, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, or 20-year old winger Jamal Watson. Now, if you're shoring up your back end by bringing in the goalie, you don't jettison one of your top two d-men. That would be a lateral move.

So unfortunately Watson was the odd man out. So Watson is dealt to Swift Current, along with goalie Taz Burman, but that leaves a hole on your second line. To fill that, Seattle sent defenseman Sahvan Khaira to the Broncos for winger Cavin Leth. Leth is almost a Watson clone; fast, and a 200-foot player who can chip in offensively. I think the one edge for Leth is he may be a bit more physical than Watson. It was a very simple solution to just plug him in on the second line with Volcan and Eansor and not miss a beat.

Of course by trading away Khaira, Seattle was now thin on their blue line, down to just five healthy defensemen with Jarret Tyszka on the shelf for at least a month with an injury. So the T-Birds remedied that by sending a 5th round draft pick to Kootenay in exchange for Bryan Allbee. While Khaira had just started to come into his own, Allbee is a year older and will play a similar role. He'll be on the third pairing and can also slot into the second power play unit. He can carry the puck up ice and doesn't appear shy about taking shots.

Add in the Andreas Schumacher deal that went down right after Christmas and the Josh Uhrich trade in early December and I believe Seattle has improved their depth while adding experience as they got a little older in the process. The T-Birds played two games this weekend, winning them both, with a fourth line that featured two 19-year olds. Before the deals Seattle's fourth line was usually a couple of rookies and a second year player.

One unfortunate note for the T-Birds is the loss of Owen Seidel for the second half of the season, with an upper body injury. Seidel was really starting to impact games as he got more consistent ice time. To fill his roster spot Seattle made one final move Sunday, acquiring 18-year old LW Garan Magnes from Edmonton for a seventh round draft pick. This move gets Seattle back to 14 forwards and gives them depth going forward.

Seattle accomplished all these moves, plus the return of their top three centers from World Juniors, without surrendering top end assets. The biggest asset they give up that could impact the future is a conditional second round draft pick to Swift Current in the Bow deal. Other than that Seattle still has all their signed prospects and their first round draft choices.

Overall, there weren't many blockbuster deals in the WHL this season. The one team that made the most noise was Red Deer, but as host team they are the only WHL club guaranteed a spot at the Memorial Cup in May, so that makes sense but they did pay some hefty prices to ensure they would have a competitive at the Cup. Meanwhile a look a the WHL standings will show that every team in the Western Conference is still within striking distance of a playoff spot and out East is almost as tight with 10 of 12 teams having a legitimate shot at the postseason. I think a lot of general managers were reluctant to trade away their best players with the playoffs still within reach.

On the ice this past weekend, with Seattle back at full strength after playing most of the past month shorthanded, the T-Birds took two from two division rivals. They beat Portland Friday then won a hard fought battle against Everett Sunday thanks to Matt Barzal's overtime beauty. As close to a complete effort both nights, with everyone contributing, as you can get. I would expect, as the returning players and the players added via trade, get back into the swing of things 100 percent, the play will only improve.

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Center Scott Eansor. Back to playing a 200 foot game, check. Back to killing penalties, check. Back to winning faceoffs, check. Back with a big grin after winning a bronze medal with Team USA at World Juniors, check. His line was the big offensive producers versus the Winterhawks.

2nd Star: Center Matt Barzal. Like Eansor, Barzal had a strong World Juniors for Team Canada. He also hadn't done much skating since Canada's loss to Finland in the quarterfinals. As a result probably not 100 percent in the win Friday over Portland, but he was at his best Saturday against the Silvertips. Gonna put the paycheck on the line and say his OT winner is going to be in the Top 10 plays of the week. His first goal was just as pretty. Nice to see him looking to shoot more.

1st Star: Goalie Landon Bow. When you're THE big trade deadline acquisition, that has to put pressure on you. When you get traded and thrown right into the fire against your new team's top two rivals, that amps the pressure up even more. When your perform at the top of your game both nights, that's priceless. 56 shots faced, 53 saves made and two win