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.

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