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.