Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Long and the Short of it

The Seattle Thunderbirds just completed a four game sweep of their first round playoff opponent, the Prince George Cougars, with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 4 up at the CN Centre Wednesday. Seattle could not have traveled any further for a first round matchup than the over 1,100 miles they bused back and forth to face PG in Games 3 and 4.

The payoff? Seattle could not ask to travel any less then the 90 miles they'll navigate back and forth in Round Two to face their U.S. Division rivals, the Everett Silvertips. Talk about going from one extreme bus ride to another; as in extremely long to extremely short.

Going into their first round match up with Prince George, on paper, the T-Birds had to be considered the favorites. They had the better regular season record, they were the higher seed and they finished the regular season on a 13-0-1-0 run while the Cougars finished on a five-game losing streak (0-4-0-1). But as you know, the games aren't played on a sheet of paper but rather a sheet of ice. For Seattle to win the series they had to ignore the press clippings and focus on playing their game and that's what they did. Very solid effort from all players for four games. There was a little lapse in Game 4 after grabbing the early two-goal lead, but they got it going again in the third period and overtime to complete the comeback after falling behind, 3-2.

Especially in the first two games, Seattle played a puck possession game. They outshot PG in Games 1 and 2, 94-41. While shot totals don't always give you a complete picture of the game, this disparity certainly indicates Seattle had the puck on their sticks a lot the first half of the series. While the shots weren't as lopsided the final two games up in Prince George, the T-Birds still outshot the Cougars both nights at the CN Centre, particularly in the third periods. This wasn't the result of some newly instituted playoff game plan; it was the same blue print followed during the final month and a half of the regular season.

Despite missing Ryan Gropp, their leading regular season goal scorer, for all four games of the first round, Seattle still found a way to average four goals per game. And the T-Birds spread the wealth around. 12 of the 19 skaters who played in at least one game against PG earned at least one point in the series. Eleven of those twelve picked up at least two points. Their leading point producer in the series, Mathew Barzal, didn't even score a goal instead earning seven assists. Their third line of Cavin Leth, Alexander True and Andreas Schumacher earned as many points (5g, 5a, 10 pts.) as Prince George's first line. Their four game-winning goals came from four different players. Their first goal each night came from four different players.

If you break down each game it was a team effort but a different line or set of players stepped up to provide the big goals each night. Without their two best goal scorers, Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, available for Game 4 it was Nolan Volcan who picked up the slack scoring twice, including the game winning, series clincher in overtime. In Game 3 Nick Holowko sparked the offense early with a goal and an assist. In Game 2 it was a pair of goals from Keegan Kolesar, while in Game 1 third line teammates Leth and True combined for a pair of key goals. The T-Birds found different ways to win each game; overtime, shutout, home or road, scoring first, coming from behind or playing an entire game with the lead. You have to have every weapon in your arsenal ready come playoffs.

Before the series began it was believed by some in the Prince George locker room that they had the edge in depth among the forward lines. When the series was over, Seattle forward line depth proved to be the difference. Seattle's 2nd and 3rd lines combined for 19 points (10g, 9a). And this wasn't at the expense of first line scoring as that line added 14 points of their own (4g, 10a).

There was a thought by some going into that series that the physical element to Prince George's game would wear down the T-Birds, if not in that series then for subsequent rounds in the postseason. Truth be told, the T-Brds were just as physical as the Cougars and Seattle came out relatively unscathed. And with their playoff lives on the line in Game 4, the Cougars seemed to back off the physical play a bit in order to stay out of the penalty box.

The one area Seattle got away with not being at their best was their power play which was just 2 of 16. Prince George's very good, very aggressive penalty kill was responsible for some of that but Seattle knows they can do better. It doesn't help when a key component of the power play, Gropp, is out of the lineup. Despite the lack of success with the man advantage in the series, with Game 4 on the line the T-Birds used a third period power-play goal from Ethan Bear to tie the game and force the game into overtime where Volcan ended it with his early OT heroics. So, when it needed to Seattle's power play rose to the occasion.

Great to see all the fan support from the T-Bird faithful who made the trek up north for the final two games. Nice to see them get rewarded by witnessing that series clinching win in person. Next up? What should be a classic series with the Silvertips with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. More on that next week.

My Three Stars for the First Round:

3rd Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Certainly not tested as much as his Prince George counterpart, Ty Edmonds, but he came up with key saves at key moments in just about every game. He posted the first shutout of his WHL career in Game 3. In Game 4 a couple of timely saves kept Seattle within striking distance, setting up their come-from-behind series clinching win. After going winless in his only other playoff appearance last season with Swift Current, he's 4-0 so far this go 'round.

2nd Star: Center Scott Eansor. He's been Seattle's leading goal scorer in each of their last two playoff runs and he's got two so far this spring plus an assist. He was a pest, a thorn in the side of the Cougars top offensive players all series. His speed and puck handling gave them fits, especially in Game 3. With Kolesar unavailable for Game 4 he moved up to the top line to start the game and promptly scored a goal.

1st Star: Center Mathew Barzal. It sure seemed PG made a concerted effort to shutdown Barzal. They were physical with him to the point it cost them one of their better offensive players for Game 4 when Jesse Gabrielle tried to goad Barzal into a fight but instead drew a one game suspension for himself. You may contain Barzal for a shift or two, but long term he still put his stamp on this series with seven assists. His effort with the puck in overtime of Game 4 set up the Volcan series winner. By concentrating some of their effort on shutting down Barzal, Prince George opened up opportunity for other T-Birds to step up.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Playoffs, We're Talkin' Playoffs

Seattle finished the regular season the right way. With nothing at stake in any of the three games, resting top players and giving younger guys more ice time, the T-Birds still earned five of a possible six points on the weekend. They had their 11-game winning streak snapped, but still earned a point, Friday night with an overtime loss in Kennewick before winning a pair against Portland to close out the 72 game schedule.

Here's what I like about all the statistical minutiae that's come out of the T-Birds tremendous sprint to the finish line of the regular season; most of these numbers are team stats, not individual stats.

Seattle finished with the second best regular season record in franchise history. They led the league in home wins with 29. Seattle finished up at home with a 10-game home ice winning streak. The T-Birds went without a regulation loss in their final 14 games. They earned 35 out of a possible 38 points in their last 19 games. After struggling at times on the road this season, the T-Birds went 6-0-1-0 in their final seven road games. Seattle was 23-14-3 against the U.S. Division and 15-5-0-0 vs. the B.C. Division.

They ended the season tops in the WHL on the penalty kill and number three on the power play. The 44 power-play goals against was second fewest in the league to Victoria's 41. They finished third in the league with 70 power-play goals scored. They were tops in the league with eight shutouts distributed between two goalies. These are all team oriented statistics.

The Thunderbirds only had one player, Matt Barzal at #11, in the top 30 in league scoring yet they still averaged over three goals per game. They finished with two players averaging over a point a game, Barzal and Ryan Gropp, and two who finished just under a point per game in Ethan Bear and Keegan Kolesar. Every player who played in at least one game for them this season earned at least a point except for defenseman Reece Harsch, who had maybe four shifts playing in one game this season.

The old saying though, goes something like this: offense sells the tickets, defense wins the championships. Don't think so? Well look at the Tri-City Americans, the only team from the U.S. Division to miss the playoffs. Tri-City scored more goals then any other U.S. Division team this season with 236. That's eight more then Seattle. Yet the T-Birds goal differential is +42 while the Americans goal differential is -17. That's because Seattle kept the puck out of the back of their net, allowing just 186 goals against. That was the third fewest in the league behind only Victoria and Everett.

Seattle's first round playoff opponent will be the Prince George Cougars. The best-of-seven matchup begins Friday at the ShoWare Center at 7:35. Game 2 is Saturday, also in Kent, at 7:05, before the series shifts north for games 3 and 4 the following Tuesday and Wednesday. During the regular season the two teams split four games with each team winning once at home and once on the road.

The T-Birds beat the Cougars, 4-1, way back on October 3rd at the ShoWare Center in the team's home opener. Seattle played the game without Barzal and Gropp who were still at NHL camps. Scott Eansor led the way with three points (1g, 2a) while Jerret Smith chipped in two goals. Prince George won, 6-2, December 15th at the ShoWare Center. The T-Birds again played that night without Barzal, as well as Eansor and Alexander True, who were away at World Juniors, and Nolan Volcan who was out with a lower body injury.

The teams split a pair of games mid-January up at the CN Centre. On January 12th the Cougars won, 6-2. It was a 2-1 game until PG scored a late second period goal, then added two more, 20 seconds apart, (including one on a penalty shot) early in the third. It was not a good night for Logan Flodell who surrendered five goals on just 22 shots before being pulled after those two third period markers. Prince George scored their last goal into an empty net. It wasn't a good night for Seattle's power play either as they went 0-for-6. The T-Birds bounced back the next night behind Landon Bow and shutout the Cougars, 4-0, as Cavin Leth scored twice. Bow, who finished in net the night before, played 73.23 minutes of hockey against PG this season and stopped all 32 shots he faced.

Flodell played all but 13.23 minutes in three games against the Cougars this season and went 1-2 but he'll be backing up Bow in the postseason. Ty Edmonds was solid playing every minute in the four regular season games against the T-Birds but Seattle still managed to average just over three goals a game against him.

There seems to be a perception that penalties are down in the postseason and there is more five on five hockey and that somehow that would negate Seattle's stellar special teams play. This isn't scientific but I randomly clicked on five playoff games from last season, from different rounds. The average number of combined power play chances per contest in those five games was 7.4. I then randomly clicked on five games from the last weekend of the regular season. Guess what the average number of combined power plays was in those five games? Yep, 7.4. A penalty is still a penalty, whether in the regular season or the postseason. You could probably click on five other random games and you'll end up with different numbers, but funny how those numbers came out in my experiment.

Prince George, like Seattle, has a good penalty kill. They finished third best in that category in the league, but during the 2015-16 regular season, no WHL team accrued more penalty minutes then Prince George with 1292. That's about 18 penalty minutes per game. That was true of the regular season series against Seattle. In the four games Seattle received an average of five power play chances per game and went 4-for-21 overall with the man advantage. Meanwhile Prince George was 0-for-14 against Seattle's league best penalty kill. One aspect of the Cougars penalty kill that is dangerous? They scored 14 shorthanded goals, second best in the league to Brandon's 15. By comparison, Seattle scored seven shorthanded goals.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the final weekend of the regular season:

Third Star: Center Elijah Brown. The T-Birds 2015 first round bantam pick out of Edmonton made his regular season debut in Saturday's 4-3 shootout win over Portland and was solid. I wonder if that shootout had gone on longer if he would have been given the call? The next night, in the regular season finale down in Portland he earned his first point with an assist on Seattle's first goal in the second period; the goal that tied the game at 1-1. Brown, who celebrated his 16th birthday in early January, then capped Seattle's regular season with a late power-play goal, the first of his WHL career.

Second Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell got two starts this past weekend and went 1-0-1-0. His stellar play early in both road games allowed Seattle to stay close on the scoreboard. In just over 122 minutes he stopped 60 of 63 shots. He finished his first full season in the WHL 22-13-4-0 with three shutouts a 2.68 GAA and a .904 SVPCT. That's good enough to place him in the top ten in the WHL this season.

First Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. Neuls shootout goal won it for Seattle Saturday night, giving the T-Birds their league best 29th win on home ice. He had an assist earlier in the game as the T-Birds came back from a three-goal deficit. He then added a goal and an assist in the road win Sunday. Neuls finished the season with 37 points (13g, 24a), a 13 point improvement from his rookie season. It's the things that don't end up on the scoresheet though, the forechecking and penalty killing, his role on the shutdown line, that make him such a valuable member of the team.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Banner Season?

The Seattle Thunderbirds have four games remaining in the regular season. Four games, needing one win to earn the U.S. Division banner. It's a nice little payout for a hard fought season. But it's not an end, it is, hopefully, just a beginning. Winning the division is just one step reached on the ladder to higher goals. The move up to the next step will start later this month when the team begins the postseason.

Who will they play in the first round? that remains to be seen. If Seattle finishes first in the U.S. Division, they will face either Kamloops or Prince George. Those two teams have two games left to play and those two games are against each other. If Kamloops earns just one point in either of those two games then the T-birds first round opponent will be PG. If Prince George earns two regulation wins against the Blazers, then Seattle will face Kamloops.

Should the T-birds finish second in the U.S. Division they will face either Portland, Spokane or Tri-City in the first round. All three teams are still fighting for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference as the final week of the regular season begins.

The T-birds are 16 seconds away from 15 straight games without a loss in regulation. A bad deflection off a stanchion in Everett is all that separates them from having at least 29 points and possibly 30 in their last 15 games. So I guess they have to settle for earning 28 of 30 points over that stretch. Are they skating teams off the ice in that span? No, not really. A few games in there where they pulled away but eight of those games were decided by just one goal.

Actually, it is more like nine because Seattle scored into an empty net late for a two goal win in another. There were three other two-goal wins in that stretch as well. In one of those two goal wins, it was 3-3 midway through the third period. In another Seattle was down, 2-1, with under six minutes to play. In other words Seattle has played a lot of edge-of-your-seat hockey this past month and they've found a way to win them. It's called attention to detail.

Playoff games aren't normally won by five or six goal margins. They are won 3-2 or 4-3. They are won in the last minutes by blocking shots or making a key save. Playoff series aren't won in Game 1. They are won by having the stamina to stick to the details in the fourth game in six nights. They're won with puck possession and they are won by playing every shift as if it was the most important shift of the game or the series. These are all things Seattle has been doing, is doing, to win ten in a row and 14 of 15.

If the Division is clinched Tuesday and with home ice advantage in round one secured, I would expect the T-birds might rest a player or two over the last three games. What I don't expect is for the team's compete level to take a night off. The coach won't allow it. You want to make it easier for him to determine who will be a healthy scratch over these next four games? Don't work hard at practice or don't compete hard during the game. Of course, that's not even a consideration if Seattle doesn't clinch the division top spot before next weekend.

After playing 3-in-3 each of the past two weekends, with a midweek game in between, the T-birds got off light this past weekend (said tongue-in-cheek, of course)with just two games on the schedule. Yep, just two games against their two fiercest rivals. Just two more one goal games. One against the team chasing you in the standings; one against a team trying to clinch a playoff spot.

When Keegan Kolesar went out with an upper body injury back on February 26th, coach Konowalchuk reunited the Seattle shutdown line of Donovan Neuls, Scott Eansor and Nolan Volcan, that had been both affective and effective for him a season ago. Over the past nine games that trio has produced 21 points (7g, 14a). Three of those goals were game winners and they added one shootout winning goal as well.

Speaking of Kolesar, he's not come back from that layoff timid at all. He's been physical both games, especially against Portland. The last two nights he and Jared Hauf have delivered some big hits. Those are plays that will fire up your teammates.

Seattle just can't seem to get through a week without a player getting injured. Saturday it was Jarret Tyszka who left the game in the first period with an apparent upper body injury. We now wait and hope it is not significant. Tyszka already missed two months of the season with a hand injury suffered back in December. He's been very solid upon his return.

My T-birds Three Stars for the two game weekend:

Third Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. In his final season in Seattle the 20 year old veteran is probably playing the most consistent, if not the best, hockey of his T-bird career. He's been a Steady Eddie on the back end while delivering some huge hits that spark his team. Opposing teams are finding it next to impossible to beat him down the wing. He's really learned how to use his size and physicality and is not just relying on his long reach to dislodge the puck from opponents.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor. He set up two of the T-birds three goals in the Portland game Saturday, including the game winner, by just being strong on pucks. He's eight inches shorter then his teammate Hauf, but he too has learned to use his size and physicality to his advantage. Non-stop motor that compliments his current linemates, Neuls and Volcan.

First Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Two games, two wins, only two goals allowed in 120 minutes. He now leads the WHL with seven shutouts, five of them with Seattle. Since being acquired by Seattle at the trade deadline in January his Seattle numbers read as follows: 14-6-0-0 record in 21 games. A 1.75 GAA and a SVPCT of .939. Since coming back from a lower body injury that cost him three weeks in February, he is 7-0 with a 1.13 GAA and .961 SVPCT.

Monday, March 7, 2016

March Madness

The Thunderbirds had a very good first half of the season. But in early December, when they were missing a few players to injuries and then World Juniors came calling and took a few more players, Seattle started to feel the affects. The wins stopped coming as frequently. They went into the holiday break with a 3-4-1-0 record in the first half of December.

Their first 15 games post Christmas was more .500 hockey going 8-7-0-0 as players came back and new players were added via trade while others were sent out. The T-Birds continued to play that .500 hockey into early February as they looked to mesh everyone into a cohesive unit and find the right chemistry with all the new faces while still dealing with key injuries. It may have taken longer then they had wanted but the T-Birds are rolling again, in fact, probably playing better hockey now then they did through the first two and a half months of the season. They played two months of up and down hockey but are now finding their groove. It's been worth the wait.

The T-Birds have won eight in a row, 13 of their last 14 and have recaptured what they lost at the end of December, first place in the U.S. Division. Over the last month they made up a nine point difference in the standings. Everyone is contributing as the team heads towards the playoffs. They aren't relying on their top line for all their offense. Sunday's 4-0 win in Kennewick over Tri-City is the latest example of that. Four goals and not one of them scored by their top three goal producers. Eight points and not one point from their top three point producers. They aren't relying on their top goaltender to win every night. Seventeen saves on Sunday but not one by their number one goalie. A shutout but not a shutout from their goalie who leads the league in shutouts. Contributions from up and down the lineup; a complete team effort.

And they are winning in all manner and variety of ways. Need to win it with offense? How about 7-2 and 5-3 victories. Winning with defense? How about 2-0 and 4-0 shutouts behind two different goaltenders. Late game heroics? How about an overtime win with .08 seconds left or capturing a seven round shootout. Home, road it hasn't mattered. Seattle hasn't lost at home in a month (8-0) and is riding a season best four-game road winning streak as well.

Yet, despite all this success, other than officially clinching their postseason berth, the T-Birds haven't won anything yet. There is still work to do. The goals they set before the season are still out there. Their lead atop the division is not secured. Six games left and the hard work that got them to this point must continue.

By sweeping the three games this past weekend Seattle pushed their win total to 40. That's two more then they won last season with a half dozen games still to play. Seattle also maintains their lofty special teams status; number one in the WHL on the penalty kill, number two on the power play.

The T-Birds current season best, eight-game winning streak began with a 5-3 victory over Vancouver back on February 23rd. The Giants are a below .500 team and out of the playoff picture. But every other win has been against a team above .500 at the time Seattle played them. Every other win has been against a team fighting for a playoff spot or playoff position.

Through the first 40 games this season the Thunderbirds hadn't recorded one shutout. In the last 26 games they have shutout the opponent seven times. During their eight-game winning streak Seattle has allowed just 12 goals against, or just 1.5 goals against per game. Meanwhile the Seattle offense has produced 29 goals during that span. They've done that without Keegan Kolsear in the lineup for the last seven of those games. At the time Kolesar went out of the lineup with his upper body injury, he was the team's leading goal scorer and was second on the team to Matt Barzal in points.

Some goaltenders will tell you it is hard to stay mentally engaged in a game where you face very few shots. But Sunday Logan Flodell, who hadn't played in a week, was very sharp even though he faced just 17 shots from the Americans. His best asset Sunday was his ability to clear pucks to the corners and out of harms way. Tri-City got very few second chance opportunities as a result. He wasn't challenged often in the game but he earned his shutout, his third in just over a month.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: Defenseman Jerret Smith. Seattle wins first with their defense and the captain leads the way. The T-Birds allowed just two goal against this weekend and Smith and his crew on the blue line were a big reason why. Smith is an integral part of Seattle's top ranked special teams, especially the penalty kill. While he didn't register a point on the weekend, he was +3. He came within an inch or two of winning that shootout Friday in Everett only to see his backhander clang off the post. Topped off the weekend by taking to Twitter and inviting Justin Bieber, who performs in Seattle Wednesday night, to a T-Birds practice.

Second Star: LW Nolan Volcan. All Volcan did this weekend was score the game winner in the shootout Friday in Everett, snipe in the game winning goal Saturday at home against Portland then set up the game winner Sunday in Kennewick. Volcan seemed a bit tentative with his play coming off an injury layoff in late November, early December. But he seems to be back to playing with his reckless abandon that makes him such a force on the ice.

First Star: Goalie Landon Bow. In a couple of goaltending duels to start the weekend Bow came out on top both nights. First he made 40 saves through 65 minutes of hockey Friday in Everett then stoned all seven Silvertips in the shootout to outduel the 'Tips Carter Hart in Seattle's thrilling 2-1 victory. He followed that with a 32-save effort against Portland Saturday, one better then Adin Hill, in Seattle's 2-1 win over the Winterhawks. His week began with a 7-2 win Tuesday over the Americans. Since coming off the injury list Bow is 5-0 with one shutout.