Monday, February 29, 2016

Thunderbirds Leap into March

The Thunderbirds ended the month of February with a flourish, winning four in a row and eight of their last nine. Seattle finished off the month with a three game weekend sweep that including two road wins, something that had eluded the team earlier in the month. Seattle found a different way to win every night but the common denominator in all three wins was everyone chipping in and playing the full 60.

The weekend sweep also included a win over Everett, snapping the Silvertips four game winning streak over the T-birds. After a couple of frustrating last minute losses, the T-birds skated to a solid, 2-0, win over the 'Tips Saturday at the ShoWare Center, That, coupled with the results of the rest of the weekend, pushed Seattle within three points of the U.S. Division leaders and Seattle has a game in hand.

The T-birds also created a little space in the standings between themselves and the teams chasing them. Seattle is seven points up on third place Portland, with a game in hand, and eight up on Spokane. Meanwhile, with ten games left on the schedule, Seattle's magic number for clinching a playoff spot is down to nine points.

Remember that stretch of four or five seasons when Seattle couldn't buy a win at the Toyota Center over in Kennewick? Even last year, the T-birds earned just one road point against the Americans. Don't look now, but the T-birds have won two in a row in the Tri-Cities and have earned five of a possible six road points against the Ams so far this season. A quick start, scoring three goals in the first 12 minutes, got the 'Birds weekend off to a great start enroute to their 4-2 win there Friday. The game also marked the return of Landon Bow to the lineup after missing seven games with a lower body injury. Bow didn't disappoint with a 27 save effort to earn the win.

Bow was right back at it the next night at home, shutting out Everett. Matt Barzal had both goals in the win. It took a few shifts for Seattle to start playing the north-south game against the Silvertips you need to play if you want a chance to win, but once they all got on that page, consistently got pucks deep and applied an aggressive forecheck, they kept it up for the rest of the game. When they needed it, Bow came up with the big save. On the weekend Bow went 2-0 with a 1.00 GAA. He stopped 51 of 53 shots for a .962 save percentage. Not bad for a guy who hadn't played in three weeks.

Right after the game Saturday the team boarded the bus for the six hour, overnight ride to Kamloops for Sunday's game against the Blazers. Seattle showed no affects from the travel and came out strong. Even when they fell behind, they were still playing the game the right way and came back for a 4-3 win. Goalie Logan Flodell has two shutouts of Kelowna this season but I thought his 32 save effort Sunday in Kamloops may have been his best 60-minutes of the season. Bow was Seattle's big trade deadline acquisition but Flodell has gone about his business and now has 20 wins on the season and is 6-2 in his last eight starts.

The T-birds had to overcome some questionable officiating in the game. Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk's questioning of the questionable officiating got him a minor penalty. In fact both coaches, Konowalchuk and Don Hay of Kamloops, didn't seem too happy with the referees on the night. But it was Seattle that ended up shorthanded seven times. After the Blazers tied the game in the third period while skating 5-on-3, the T-birds responded well with a Barzal game winner with just two minutes left.

The game in Kamloops was Seattle's final regular season game against the B.C. Division. Seattle finished up with a 15-5 record, including a four game season sweep of the Blazers. In 20 games against the five B.C. teams this season, the T-birds outscored them by combined 74-49. In those 20 games Bow only had one start, a 6-0 shutout of Prince George back in Mid-January at the CN Centre. The majority of those 15 wins were earned by Flodell, including all four wins in a sweep of Victoria.

Barzal had quite the past week. Tuesday in the 5-3 win over Vancouver he assisted on the game winning goal. He did it again, assisting on the game winning power play goal Friday in Kennewick, then added the goal that restored Seattle's two goal lead. Saturday he potted the game winner and added an insurance goal into the empty net in the home win over Everett. Sunday in Kamloops he had another two point night with a goal and an assist. The goal was his second game winner of the weekend.

It doesn't seem to matter who Barzal's linemates are, he produces and they right along with him. The current combo of Barzal-Ryan Gropp-Nic Holowko was very good on the weekend with a combined 11 points (5g, 6a).

More encouraging for Seattle in their weekend sweep? They essentially won all three games without their leading goal scorer, Keegan Kolesar, who didn't play a single minute in any of the three games, and without their top point producing defenseman, Ethan Bear, who left the game in Kennewick late in the first period Friday with an upper body injury and didn't return the rest of the weekend. That was 118 points out of the lineup as Kolesar and Bear are third and fourth on the team in scoring. In their absence guys like Allbee, Volcan, Neuls and Leth stepped up.

After the weekend Seattle's penalty kill fell from number one in the league to number two, after surrendering three power play goals to Kamloops. Still, the T-birds remain the only team in the league with a top five PK (#2) and top 5 PP (#3). The T-birds special teams play has been a key to their recent success. With the exception of the month Seattle was missing players at World Juniors, their PK and PP have been among the league's best all season.

In their last nine games Seattle has scored 36 goals, an average of four goals a game. Of those 36 goals 20 have been scored in the third period or later (2 OT goals). That's 55 percent of their offense. As they say, it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings.

When you win all three games a lot of players step up and contribute but here are my T-bird Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: LW Andreas Schumacher. Schumacher only had one point on the weekend, assisting on the opening goal Friday in Kennewick, but he showed his value in all three games by being physical, winning puck battles and deploying a strong forecheck. Having the 19 year old on the third or fourth line is creating matchup problems for opposing teams.

Second Star: Center Donovan Neuls. Six assists in the last four games, but like Schumacher Neuls affects games in other ways other then just picking up points. He's an aggressive penalty killer and he too wins his fair share of puck battles. He has a non stop motor and played some of his best hockey of the season this past week while playing with a heavy heart, following the death of his cousin back home in Saskatchewan.

First Star: Center Mathew Barzal. Barzal was the catalyst for the T-birds winning weekend and a big reason why they have won four in a row and eight of nine. Two game winning goals and two game winning assists is just the tip of the iceberg. At least once in each game his back checking broke up a scoring chance for the opposition. He's tied for 8th in league scoring despite playing in just 50 games. After this weekend he has a ten game point streak and is averaging 1.54 points per game.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Get out the Drano

The battle for second place in the U.S. Division is all clogged up after this weekend's action. Seattle holds just a two point lead, with a game in hand, on third place Portland while fourth place Spokane is just three points behind the T-birds. The truth is, the Thunderbirds could be as close to fifth place in the division, and possibly missing the postseason altogether, as they are to first place by the time they hit the ice Tuesday at the ShoWare Center against the Vancouver Giants. But then again, so could every team in the division. First and fifth place are seperated by just 13 points with most teams having 14 games remaining. The T-birds are currently just seven points up on Tri-City, which occupies 5th place and they are five points back of Everett for first place pending the outcome of Everett's Sunday home game against Spokane.

That seems bizarre for a team that has occupied either first or second place in the division all season and just put together a four game winning streak. But that's how tight things are right now in the U.S. Division as we close in on the end of February.

While Seattle split its two games this weekend, earning two of a possible four points, it wasn't necessarily a good weekend for the boys in blue. Playing two teams gutted of some of their top talent because of injuries, the T-birds mustered just the one win but it took overtime to do it, thus surrendering a valuable point to Spokane. This was a Chiefs team without their best defenseman Jason Fram, their top offensive threat in Kailer Yamamoto and another valuable veteran player, 20 year old Wyatt Johnson.

Saturday they faced off against an Everett team playing with just 16 healthy skaters, a Silvertips team shutout out the night before in Kennewick by the Tri-City Americans. Yet Seattle couldn't take advantage and lost for the sixth time this season to the 'Tips. Any time you can get three pucks past Everett goalie Carter Hart, you should win, yet Seattle found a way to give up four to the second lowest scoring team in the league.

Against the rest of the league Everett averages 2.6 goals per game. Against Seattle they average 3.2. Three times in the seven games this season, the T-birds have given up four or more goals to the 'Tips. The rest of league averages 2.47 goals against the Silvertips, Seattle in seven games averages just 1.42. Everett must be Seattle's kryptonite. Against the rest of the U.S. Division the Silvertips are essentially a .500 team (11-9-1-0). Portland, whom Seattle has beaten five times this season, has five wins against Everett in eight games. Spokane is 2-5-1 against Everett and Tri-City is 2-3. Not so Seattle which has mustered just one OT win in seven games against their division rival to the north.

Seattle is 6-2 against the top two teams in the WHL, Kelowna and Victoria, two teams with a combined record of 81-32-6-3. The T-birds outscored the Rockets and Royals 29-19 this season. Meanwhile, they are just 1-6 against the Silvertips and have been outscored, 23-10. The T-birds went 4-0 against Victoria, outscoring them 15-7. The Royals so far this season are 2-0 against Everett, outscoring the 'Tips, 10-4, scoring as many goals against the 'Tips in two games as Seattle has scored against them in seven. Even Vancouver, dead last in the Western Conference standings are 2-3-1-0 against Everett.

This tells me Everett circles those Seattle games on their schedule and plays their best against the T-birds. My question, is Seattle doing the same?

The problem this weekend for Seattle in both games was the fact they didn't really show up until the third period. Look, the T-birds have been great late in recent games, scoring 17 of their 24 goals over the last six games in the final frame or overtime. In four straight games they came back to tie the game or take the lead in the third period, as they did both Friday and Saturday. But you're living on a fine edge if you try to get away with that every night, as Saturday night's results proved.

The issue for Seattle against both Spokane and Everett was an unwillingness, or maybe it's a stubbornness, of many of the players to follow the game plan laid out by the coaches against a couple of teams that like to clog up the neutral zone. The coaches preach that against Spokane and especially against Everett, you have to get the puck in deep, make the opposing defenseman turn and have to play a 200 foot game, forecheck and create offensive zone turnovers, or in the case of Saturday night versus Everett, draw penalties. You can't wait until you fall behind and are in a desperate situation to decide it's time to do as the coaches ask.

But that's what the T-birds did both nights and by playing with fire, they got slightly seared by Spokane and burned by Everett. Far too often through the first two periods of both games Seattle forwards attempted to skate the puck through the maze of neutral zone traffic. Even when they got through with the puck, and that was rare, they would try a soft pass at the top of the zone, just inside the blue line, that would be knocked down or picked off. As a result it was Seattle that was forced to turn and chase, play a 200 foot game and spend too much time in their own zone.

In the third period both nights, when Seattle would get the puck deep into the corners and forecheck, they were winning 50/50 battles, creating turnovers, getting puck possession, drawing penalties and,foremost, putting shots on net and developing scoring opportunities.

If Seattle had played the first forty minutes in both games this weekend the way they played the last 20 minutes each night they'd have a stronger hold on second place in the division and be only a point out of first. All that's required to do that is determination, patience, discipline and effort. Those are attributes that should be in every player's tool bag.

If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all. That must be how Nolan Volcan feels after this weekend. First, Friday he crashes the net but gets knocked over top the Spokane goalie. Trying to get up off the ice his skate hits the skate of the goaltender and as a result the goalie's skate knocks the puck into the net. Instead of a power play goal, the play is reviewed and the goal waved off. It is similar, I guess, to a goalie making a save then being pushed back into the net along with the puck. Although the contact here is minimal, it was apparently enough. Volcan is one of the players who plays the right way for sixty minutes. He gets pucks deep, he crashes and bangs along the boards and he goes hard to the net. Volcan was trying to do just that late in the game against Everett, get the puck in deep in the final 30 seconds of a tie game. Unfortunately the puck either hit the plastic clamp or caught the small gap separating two panes of the plexiglass just outside the Everett blue line.

Instead of going deep into the Silvertips zone, the puck ricocheted back toward the Seattle blue line. Everett picked up the loose puck and, against the run of play, scored the late game winner. Heartbreaking. You could do that same play 99 more times and the puck would probably end up behind the Everett goal every time and the clock would run out and we'd have gone to overtime.

This was the second straight game in Everett the T-birds lost in the last two minutes off a bad bounce. Back on January 30th, a Seattle clearing attempt hit a skate and deflected right to an Everett player in front of the Seattle net and the 'Tips scored the game winner, breaking a 1-1 tie. I believe in karma, and that what comes around goes around. Those bounces will even out right? Seattle is due for some of that puck luck too, aren't they?

One rules question and it has to do with that waved off goal against Spokane. Volcan is not intentionally trying to make contact with the goalie's skate in that situation. He's just trying to get back up on his feet after being knocked over top the goalie by a Spokane player. The goal is disallowed because of Volcan's contact with the goaltender. Last weekend Logan Flodell made the initial save on the disallowed Portland goal in the overtime. Then the Winterhawk's Caleb Jones collided with Flodell, the puck came free and Jones knocked it into the net with his arm. Since the contact with Flodell in the crease occurred before Jone's arm pushed the puck across the goal line, shouldn't that have been what negated the goal? In the case of the Spokane game, the Chiefs goalie actually never made a save as the puck came off the side of the net, so he was never knocked off the puck as Flodell was.

I can make the argument that the Jones goal could be allowed (had he not pushed it in with his arm) because he had been tripped and his momentum from the fall carried him into Flodell, but the same happened to Volcan. He was knocked into the crease from behind by a Spokane player and was making a reasonable effort to get back up when his skate made contact with the goalie's skate which knocked the puck across the goal line. Such a gray area since neither Volcan or Jones entered the crease by their own actions.

I'm just trying to understand if both sets of officials, in two different games, were applying the rules correctly. Did the officials in the Portland game have two options for waving off the goal and chose the more blatant? Was the contact with Flodell missed or ignored but strictly enforced in the Spokane game? Was the initial action of the player falling into the crease in each instance ignored because each was knocked into the crease by an opposing player and the goal waved off in both cases because of subsequent action by the player in the crease?

I give the WHL rule book a cursory once over before each season, especially when new rules are implemented, but these officials have to be on top of the rules, chapter and verse, for every game and for every situation that can occur. That's a tough job. You can read the 214 page rule book on line at Just remember all that is in there next time you criticize the officials. I'm not saying don't criticize, that's human nature. Just remember the job they are tasked with. And remember, that rule book is littered with phrases like "reasonable effort", meaning they give the officials some room for subjective interpretation. So what you and I might consider reasonable effort gets trumped by what the official believes is reasonable effort.

in the end, I don't mind the rulings that disallowed those two goals. The officials made an initial call on the ice of a good goal, but then used the resources available to them, namely video review, to make sure they got the call right. I just think for the benefit of the fans, a more detailed announcement can be made to explain the ruling, even if it comes in a postgame report that can be posted online in the same manner the NHL tweets out explanations of reviewed plays.

Now, all that contact in the crease with Flodell Friday night initiated by Spokane, and only one penalty called, that I take issue with. I checked the rule book and it doesn't say you get two freebies before a penalty is called.

Seattle has a busy week ahead, beginning with that game Tuesday at home against Vancouver. They end the month of February with their second 3-games-in-3-nights of the season. They travel to Kennewick Friday to face the Americans, return home Saturday to take another crack at Everett, then head up to Kamloops for a Sunday evening game against the Blazers.

My T-birds three stars for the weekend.

Third Star: LW Ryan Gropp. The new York Rangers prospect continues to improve his all around game but offense is still his calling card. In the two games this weekend he earned three points (1g, 2a). His power play goal early in the third period Saturday in Everett was timely, coming right after Everett had stretched their lead to 3-1. It got Seattle back within a goal with plenty of time left. He also assisted on the tying goal and had an assist on Friday's OT game winner against Spokane.

Second Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell continues to strive in the absence of the injured Landon Bow. Don't blame goaltending for the T-birds woes this weekend. Flodell kept the T-birds in the game in Everett with 26 saves through the first two periods. If not for his heroics the T-birds would have probably been down 3 or 4 goals going into the final 20 minutes. He was just as strong Friday in the OT win against the Chiefs, allowing just a penalty shot goal in the second period. A good sign; Flodell is making more saves with less movement in the crease. He is consistently squaring himself to most shots. Even in the loss Saturday, I though he was the better of the two goalies and that is saying a lot when the other goalie is Carter Hart.

First Star: Defenseman Ethan Bear. When Bear gets his shot on net, there may not be a more dangerous offensive-defenseman in the WHL. Bear had struggled most of the second half of the season getting his shot dialed in. Not only did he score three times this weekend, and four times in the past three games, but all four of those goals either tied the game, gave the T-birds a lead or were game winners. Those are called money shots. As a result, Bear is riding a six game point streak and he has established career highs in goals (16), assists (41) and points (57) in the first 58 games. They are not similar players, but just by comparison, former T-bird Shea Theodore, in his 18 year old season with Seattle, had (22g, 57a)79 points in 70 games. Bear, at his current pace is on track for 71. points.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Sweepheart of A Weekend

The Thunderbirds stretched their winning streak to three games with a pair of come-from-behind wins over the weekend. In sweeping to victory in the two games, Saturday over Portland and Sunday against Victoria, they also finished a regular season series sweep of the Royals, winning all four head-to-head matchups.

With 16 games remaining on the regular season schedule, the T-Birds can now put their focus on this coming Friday's key matchup with Spokane at the ShoWare Center. By winning Sunday, Seattle pushed their lead for second place in the U.S. Division to four points over the third place Chiefs. A win would push that lead to six points and Seattle would be up five games in the win column.

So far the season series versus Spokane has been controlled by the home team with the Chiefs leading the eight game series, 4-2, by winning all four of their home games. The final two head-to-head regular season matchups will be at the ShoWare Center in Kent where the T-Birds are 2-0. Why is this important? Well, at the moment this is looking like a preview of a first round playoff series and Seattle is in position to earn home-ice advantage.

The T-Birds still have a chance to chase down Everett for first place in the U.S. Division, but to do that they need to figure out a way to beat the Silvertips. So far this season Seattle is just 1-5 against their rivals and the lone win was in overtime, meaning Everett has earned at least a point in every game so far in the season series (outpointing Seattle 11-2). With four games left against Everett, and Seattle five points behind them, the T-Birds probably have to sweep those four games to have a chance to pass them in the standings. The first of those four games will be Saturday up at Xfinity Arena.

The Thunderbirds went 3-1 this past week, meaning the results were mostly positive. They split a home and home with Kelowna to begin the week. They played a solid first period Monday afternoon in Kelowna, building a one goal lead. That effort dropped off in the second period but they escaped the period tied 2-2 despite being outshot 21-5. They actually led, 3-2, six minutes into the third before they took a couple of avoidable penalties. That's when the wheels fell off and Kelowna raced by them for a 7-4 win.

Seattle was much more consistent the next night at home against the Rockets. Playing one of their better 60-minute games of the season they blanked Kelowna, 6-0. It was the second time in 10 days that the T-Birds and goalie Logan Flodell had shut out the defending WHL Champions, having also done it back on January 31st, 2-0.

After a rare Friday night off, Seattle was back on the ice Saturday against their other division rival Portland. The T-Birds generated plenty of chances in this game and would need them all to win a thrilling 6-5 overtime game on a last second goal from Scott Eansor. This game had it all; three times the T-Birds came from behind to tie including twice in the third period. Twice Seattle erased two-goal deficits. There was a game winning OT goal by Portland rightly disallowed on video review, the T-Birds killing off a Winterhawks overtime power play and, of course, Eansor's last second heroics.

How do you top that? Well, how about another come-from-behind win Sunday against the hottest team in the league? Led by some stellar penalty killing in the second period the T-Birds erased another third period deficit. Scoring three goals they overcame Victoria and handed the Royals their first regulation loss since early January. In the process Seattle swept the season series from Victoria (4-0) and halted the Royals 11-game winning streak.

Steve Konowalchuk has been stressing the importance of going to the net and getting greasy goals. It seems the message is finally starting to register. I think the play of the fourth line has sparked the renewed effort to have a net front presence. They have been crashing and banging a lot lately. A great majority of the T-Birds 20 goals over the past four games were the result of traffic in front of the opposing goalie. The fact that Seattle, which had been struggling to find the back of the net recently, scored 20 goals over the last four games should be incentive enough to continue to put bodies in front of the opponent's net.

You're not going to score five goals every night but by going to the net, you at least create enough scoring chances that give you the opportunity to score five goals every game.

Special teams can win or lose you games. For Seattle it has been much more winning with special teams, then losing. The T-birds won both games this weekend because their league best penalty kill denied their opponents on 9 of 10 power plays. They stayed within striking distance of Victoria by killing off a Royals four minute, 5-on-4 power play in the second period. That prevented the Royals from increasing their one goal lead. Meanwhile Seattle's own power play is back where it was most of the first half of the season; in the top five at number four. This weekend Seattle scored four of their ten goals via the power play including the game winner Sunday. Seattle is tied for third in the league with 54 power play goals so far this season.

My T-birds three stars of the week:

First, an honorable mention to RW Keegan Kolesar. To try and create secondary scoring and not be so reliant on the top line for scoring, Konowalchuk has moved Kolesar, their leading goal scorer, off the top line. Instead of looking on the move as a demotion (which it is not) Kolesar responded this week with seven points (4g, 3a).

3rd Star. Goalie Logan Flodell. I debated this one, but in the end he did go 3-1. At times he was very good (shutting out Kelowna Tuesday and stopping 33 of 35 shots in the 4-2 win Sunday over Victoria). At other times he was, well, let's just say he was good enough as in the 6-5 win over Portland where he did have to make five key saves in overtime. Interesting stat line for Flodell: in his last ten starts against two of the best teams in the B.C. Division the last two seasons, Kelowna and Victoria, he is 7-2 with two shutouts and a sub 2.00 GAA.

2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Gropp accumulated eight points (3g, 5a) in the four games this past week. It might actually be four goals and four assists. Looking at a slowed down replay of the T-Birds second goal Sunday against Victoria it looks as though Gropp's original shot is knocked into the Royals goal by goalie Colman Vollrath, and while Keegan Kolesar is in the area jamming away at the loose puck, it appears his stick never touches it as it crossed the goal line. Either way that puck only gets into the net because Gropp makes a strong rush to the net.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. Barzal finished the four game week with 10 points, including a hat trick against Kelowna on Tuesday. That's over two points per game which is above his season average of 1.5 points per game. Every time Seattle fell behind Portland Saturday it was Barzal who sparked the T-Birds comebacks. Despite playing in just 44 games, his 67 points are tied for tenth most in the league. He's already established new WHL career highs this season in goals, assists and points. Your best players hate losing more then they love winning and Barzal is starting to play with that mindset.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Helmet on; Pedal to the Metal

"We know that if we play 60 minutes like that, we're tough to beat. I don't think there's a team that can keep up with us if we play like that. That's the standard for us the rest of the season."

That's a quote from Matt Barzal, as told to T-birds beat reporter Andy Eide, after Seattle ended their three game losing streak Tuesday night with a 6-0 throttling of the league-leading Kelowna Rockets. And Barzal is right, that has to be the standard for the rest of the season. The T-birds have to break free from their up and down play so far in the second half and find a consistency to their game for sixty minutes every game going forward.

There is no better blue print for that model of consistency then the win over Kelowna. Seattle put the key in the ignition at the start of that game, revved up the motor, put the foot on the gas and for the next three periods of hockey went fast and furious. They were relentless in their pursuit of the puck in all three zones and if they ever skidded off the road even the slightest, goaltender Logan Flodell was there to keep them on the track.

This effort Tuesday was reminiscent of so many of their games the first half of the season, when they were winning six in a row, 7 of 8 or 9 games out of 12. We've seen glimpses of it at times during the season's second half. Even Monday afternoon in Kelowna when the T-birds built a 1-0 lead after the first period with a similar effort. But they couldn't sustain the effort the rest of that game and lost a late lead and the game, 7-4.

We've seen this team, using two different goalies, post five shutouts in their last 14 games. We've also seen games over that span where they've surrendered 7, 6 and 5 goals against. An effort each game like they displayed Tuesday against the Rockets should take care of that. No pun intended, but it is not rocket science. When they play the way they played for a full sixty minutes against Kelowna, with that non-stop aggressive style, they'll put themselves in position to win most games, no matter the opponent. Again, it doesn't guarantee they'll win every game but if they don't play that way you can almost guarantee the result won't go in their favor.

Winning, as Cam Newton will tell you, is so much more fun then losing. But winning comes with a price tag. Seattle was willing to pay that price Tuesday and they were rewarded handsomely. But the goal isn't to pay the price for just one win, but to win every time you play. You have to be prepared to pay the toll each night you step onto the ice.

In the never ending pursuit to find secondary scoring, head coach Steve Konowalchuk continues to search for line combinations that will spark more offense. The thought that Seattle can be consistently successful with just one line scoring would be misguided. Opposing teams will key on the top line to shut them down.

Maybe, just maybe, the latest experiment with the line combos has discovered the winning forumula. Over the past two games the top line of Barzal, Scott Eansor and Ryan Gropp has combined for 14 points (6g, 8a), but Seattle has also picked up secondary scoring from the second line (1g, 2a), the third line (1g, 1a) and even the fourth line (1g, 1a) while the depleted back line has chipped in with five points (1g, 4a).

Seattle has had to play a lot of games since December shorthanded. Whether it was not enough forwards with three players away at World Juniors, or not enough defensemen because of injuries or suspension, The T-birds have had more then one key player out of the lineup almost every night over the past two months. They say that which doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. As we approach mid-February Seattle is still alive and kicking and getting key players back.

Jarret Tyszka played his first game since before the Christmas break Tuesday night. Turner Ottenbreit will be back in the lineup this weekend. Andreas Schumacher has returned from illness. The T-birds still await the return of goalie Landon Bow and captain Jerret Smith, so they are not a complete team again just yet but like Barzal said, when this team is 100 percent, and playing 60 minutes of hard-nosed hockey, they are tough to beat.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. With Jerret Smith sidelined with injury, Hauf has been the veteran presence on the back end for Seattle. The T-birds don't rely on him for offense, his game is defensive zone coverage, big hits and physical play. Monday in the loss, there were a lot of minus players on the scoresheet for Seattle, Hauf wasn't one of them. When Kelowna captain Rodney Southam tried to spark his team Tuesday by dropping the gloves with Hauf, Hauf got the better of him. The Rockets never got back in the game after that early second period tilt.

2nd Star. Goalie Logan Flodell. The scoresheet may say Flodell allowed six goals in the loss Monday but the reality is his team hung him out to dry in that game. It was Flodell's 21 save effort in the second period Monday that even allowed the T-birds a chance to have a lead in the third period. Flodell displayed the maturity necessary to shake that game off and come back the next day to post a 31 save shutout. In his three career wins against the potent Rockets offense, going back to late last season, Flodell has allowed just two goals while facing 98 shots. Until Bow returns from injury, the job is Flodell's.

First Star: Center Matt Barzal. It just wasn't the hat trick Tuesday that puts Barzal at the top of list, but the highlight reel effort of all three goals, in particular the third goal, faking a wrap around and tucking it inside the post. After being held off the scoresheet in three straight games he has five points (4g, 1a) in his last two.

Monday, February 1, 2016

A What Might Have Been Weekend

The Thunderbirds came through Sunday to salvage a three game weekend with a 2-0 shutout of the Kelowna Rockets at the ShoWare Center. As a result, the T-birds end the weekend exactly where they began it; five points behind Everett for first place in the U.S. Division. But, oh, what could have been had they gotten a little bit of puck luck Saturday up in Everett or held on to a lead Friday in Spokane. There is still plenty of time, plenty of games and plenty of head-to-head matches with the Silvertips remaining to try and catch the top spot in the division, but they certainly can't afford to miss more opportunities like they had this weekend.

With Everett losing 4 of 5 Seattle had a chance to climb back on top but they dropped 3 of 4. Certainly a chance missed but with five games over a seven day span this coming week, including another game against the Silvertips, Seattle will get another crack at it.

Friday over in Spokane the T-birds lost a two goal lead for the second straight game. They had done the same in their previous outing when they lost to Portland back on January 23rd. The common denominator in both losses? Seattle built their lead, were in control of the game and took their foot off the gas allowing the opponent to get back in the game and steal momentum. The moral of the story? Finish what you started.

And finishing has been an issue lately. Not just finishing games, but finishing scoring chances. The T-birds dominated the Chiefs in the first period but left too many scoring chances on the ice, including hitting the post twice. Instead of being up three or four goals after the first, Seattle enjoyed just a 1-0 lead. They added a shorthanded goal early in period two to increase their lead but again missed a few more opportunities to stretch it. That included ringing another shot off the crossbar. Too often when you let a team hang around they get this idea they can come back on you and that is exactly what Spokane did with four third period goals enroute to their 5-4 comeback win.

Seattle put the loss to the Chiefs behind them and came back with another strong effort Saturday up at Xfinity Arena. It was a really good road effort against the Silvertips as Seattle had a good deal of the puck possession and put 35 shots on goal. But the god of puck luck was not in their corner on this night. A beautiful wrap around by Scott Eansor somehow didn't go in, riding the goal line from post to post before sneaking out the back side. A couple of juicy rebounds eluded their sticks in front of the Silvertips goal and Everett goalie Carter Hart came up with big, timely saves. Then, with the game in the last two minutes and appearing headed to overtime, a clearing attempt by the T-birds in the defensive zone deflected off a skate and caromed to the 'Tips Graham Millar all alone in front of the Seattle net where he backhanded in the game winner.

A loss such as that, in fact back-to-back-to-back losses such as the T-birds suffered on their three-game losing streak, could certainly weigh you down mentally. How do you get back in the right frame of mind after you lose a game you probably feel you deserved to win? Especially when the next game is less then 24 hours later on the back side of a busy 3-in-3 weekend? I think you need to credit the coaching staff. They won't let the team dwell on the last game, whether it is a win or a loss. They work to get the team's attention re-focused on the next game. We are talking teenagers here so often that is easier said then done but after each recent loss, the T-birds were ready to go from the start.

That paid off Sunday with the shutout win over Kelowna. Were the Rockets a tired team playing their third game in three nights including an overnight bus ride to get to Kent? Sure. But it was also Seattle's third game of the weekend, with the first two having been played on the road while the Rockets just finished playing two at home. The T-birds also played the game with just five healthy defenseman after Jerret Smith was injured the night before up in Everett. Let's not forget that another of Seattle's top six defensemen, Jarret Tyszka, is still on the mend from his hand injury and wasn't available either. So, the playing field was fairly even for both squads.

The T-birds came out strong, peppered the Kelowna net with shots and midway into the first period scored the only goal they would need when Ryan Gropp put back a ricochet of an Ethan Bear shot that kicked off the end boards. Seattle continued their onslaught of shots and during a mad scramble in front of the Rockets goal in the middle of the second period, added an insurance goal thanks to Bryan Allbee. From their it was just solid team defense and top notch goaltending that put this one in the win column.

Even strength goals have been rare lately for Seattle so it was nice to see both goal Sunday were of the even strength variety. Even more significant was how they were scored; one off a rebound and the other off a net front scramble. The T-birds have been inconsistent going to the net this season so it was good to see both goals scored off second chance opportunities. A couple of greasy goals for the win!

With Smith now joining Tyszka on the sidelines as injured T-birds defensemen, rookie Brandon Schuldhaus has been given a bigger role and responded well Sunday. The Calgarian rotated into the game along with the other five healthy d-men and also saw time on the penalty kill. It was probably the most minutes he's played in a game this season and he took advantage of the opportunity to play one of his best games. Kelowna has some highly regarded young defensemen logging lots of minutes on their blueline, but Schuldhaus was the one who impressed me the most on Sunday.

News and Notes: The Thunderbirds continue to lead the league in killing off penalties. The T-birds were a perfect 12-for-12 on the PK in the three games this weekend. Only Kamloops has allowed fewer power play goals this season (27) then Seattle (30), but the T-birds have been shorthanded 38 more times then the Blazers. It should be interesting to see these top penalty killing units matched up Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center.

What do the Thunderbirds last four wins have in common? They've all come via shutout. January 13th, Landon Bow shut out the Cougars, 4-0, up in Prince George. He then put up back-to-back shutouts against Saskatoon (also 4-0) at home on the 19th and versus the Winterhawks (3-0) down in Portland on the 22nd. Logan Flodell's 23 save effort Sunday gave Seattle four shutouts in their last nine games after going the first 40 games of the season without one.

Have the T-birds fully recovered from World Juniors yet? Before their top three centers left for the tournament in Finland, Seattle had won nine of 13 (9-3-1-0). With those three players away, plus a couple of injuries, they went 2-5-1, often playing with a less then full roster through December. Since everyone has returned and players have been added at the trade deadline, they are 6-6. I think January was a month of adjustment, integrating everyone back into the lineup. Let's see if February finds the team rolling again. They'll still need to find consistent scoring and that means getting secondary scoring from throughout the lineup.

One reason for optimism is Seattle seems to have found a combination of players who give them good minutes on the fourth line. Matthew Wedman, Andreas Schumacher, Garan Magnes and Josh Uhrich are becoming hard to play against. They are aggressive and physical with nonstop motors. It was Schumacher driving the net that set up the scramble for Seattle's second goal against Kelowna.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. Kolesar may be have been the unluckiest T-bird this weekend as he hit a couple of posts and had a few shots go off target, but on a team that sometimes seems reluctant to shoot he was shooting pucks all weekend. He still managed a two point night (1g, 1a) Friday in Spokane. He continues to stand up for his teammates as he did Friday when Ryan Gropp got clocked in front of the Chiefs net. I thought he was really strong along the boards Saturday in Everett as well and was big reason why Seattle dominated possession and territorial play Sunday versus Kelowna.

2nd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Seattle, finishing off a busy weekend and trying to snap a three game losing streak, needed Flodell to be at his best against the high scoring Rockets on Sunday and he was. In his first start in three weeks, he made 23 saves to earn his first career WHL shutout while picking up his 14th win of the season. With Flodell and Bow, Seattle is one of just two WHL teams with two goaltenders in the top 11 statistically. the other is league-leading Lethbridge.

1st Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Gropp scored a goal in each game this weekend, including the game winner Sunday. He now has 24 goals on the season and that ties him for the team lead with Kolesar. With points in ten of his last 11 games the New York Rangers prospect has 46 points in 46 games (24g, 22a). Gropp also had a good weekend defensively as he continues to work on improving that part of his game. He, Kolesar and Matt Barzal seem to have it going again which is good news for the T-birds going forward.