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.