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.

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