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.