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.


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