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 WHL.ca. 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.