Thursday, April 28, 2016

May Oh May!

WHL Hockey in May. Doesn't get any better then that.

Just some random thoughts to pass along after the Thunderbirds wrapped up the Western Conference Championship Wednesday night with a thrilling, come from behind, 5-4 double overtime win.

First, some advice; never take a pretty strong decongestant if you know the game is going an extra 30 minutes. I was fine if this had been wrapped in in regulation, but the time release decongestant I took at noon seemed to kick in right as overtime started. I had dry mouth the rest of the way. My tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. I was chugging down water like a thirsty man after crawling through the desert. I woke up Thursday morning with no voice. Good to have a week off.

In a game that featured nearly 90 minutes of hockey 16-year old rookie, fourth line center, Matthew Wedman probably logged only about six minutes of total ice time. He needed just about, oh six seconds, to cement his place in T-Birds lore though. What a moment. Wedman sat right behind me on all those bus rides this season. He always has a grin, not a smile, but a grin on his face. He always looks like he's just pulled a prank on someone and is waiting for them to figure it out, like, did he just stick a "kick me" sign on my back? How can this kid be so up all the time? Then you realize that's it, he's just a kid; a big, grinning, 16-year-old kid. He should be happy and up all the time. And now he's scored one of the biggest goals in Seattle Thunderbirds history.

In a postseason full of his excellent goaltending, Tuesday night Landon Bow probably had his best game of the playoffs, posting 36 saves in a 3-1 Game 3 win. He kept the T-Birds in position to win the game in the third period. Wednesday night in Game 4 he probably had his least affective game of the playoffs, fighting the puck all night and surrendering four goals. Tuesday he had his team's back, Wednesday his teammates had his back. That's what it takes to win this time of the season.

Seattle had the WHL's best penalty kill during the regular season. They've kept it going in the postseason. Kelowna went just 2-for-17 on the power play in the Western Conference Championship. With the game on the line, the T-Birds killed off four Rockets power plays in overtime.

So impressed by Rodney Southam's actions after the game. With his team spent and utterly dejected and consoling each other while the T-Birds celebrated just to their right Southam, the Rockets team captain, pulled Wedman's game-winning goal out of the back of the Rockets net. Did he blast it down ice out of frustration? No. Did he chuck it away? No. He picked it up, skated it over to Jerret Smith and handed it to the T-Birds captain. Even in season ending defeat he recognized what an important souvenir that piece of vulcanized rubber was to Seattle. Class act.

Rocket's goalie Michael Herringer started the season as a 19-year-old back up. He ended it as Kelowna's best player in the post season. 70 saves. Wow.

Ethan Bear with his shot dialed in...dangerous. Best T-Bird player on the ice in Game 4.

Seattle's four NHL drafted players in Game 4: 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 points and +6. That's your best players being the best players on the ice at the most important time of the season. After Games 1 and 2 I wrote about the game within the game between Matt Barzal and Kelowna's Rourke Chartier and how I gave just a slight edge to Chartier in the battle through the first two contests between what I considered to be the two best players in the series. After two more games Barzal clearly went ahead in that competition. Through the first two games each player had scored two goals. When the series was over Barzal added another goal and four assists and was +3 in Games 3 and 4. Meanwhile Chartier was kept off the scoreboard the final two games and went -5.

The T-Birds two overage defensemen so far in the playoffs, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, are a combined +27 without scoring a goal but logging a ton of ice time. Stats like goals and assists don't always tell the whole story about a player's importance to his team.

So far in the playoffs not one of Seattle's opponents has found an answer for the T-Birds second line of Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan. Buzz saws all.

Wednesday night was the first time in 13 postseason games Seattle allowed more than three goals. That's impressive. In fact, in the first 12 games they had only allowed three goals twice. Despite the four goals, of course, they still won.

Three Stars for the last two games of Western Conference Finals:

Third Star: Center Matthew Wedman. Just one goal but it was the biggest in franchise history since 1997. I mean, how can you not put him on this list based just on that. Remember too, he hadn't had a shift since early in the 3rd period, yet was ready to go when his number was called. Now has bragging rights over his two older brothers.

Second star: Center Matt Barzal. A goal and four assists in the last two games. He wants the spotlight and excels in the moment. Kelowna dedicated a lot of attention to him in the series and he still ended up with 3g, 4a, 7pts. and was a plus player in the four games.

First Star: Defenseman Ethan Bear. Winning goal in Game 3, a big goal to pull the team within one late in Game 4 then the primary assist on the tying goal that sent the game to OT. Clutch.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Do the Hustle

During his baseball career, Pete Rose got the nickname "Charlie Hustle", because no matter if his team was up in a game or down, whether it was a typical ground out or a hot smash back up the middle, he played the same. He went all out. No play was routine to him. Any play could turn a team's fortune. He played every play as though the game results depended on his giving it 100 percent at that moment.

If I were a professional athlete, that's the reputation I would want. Even if I was the last guy, down on the end of the bench, with no discernable God-given talent (okay, that is who I was and still am), I'd want them so say of me, he gives 100 percent whenever he's on the field, the court, the pitch or the ice. Coach's love those kind of players because they can rely on them to give that consistent effort every time.

Funny how so often that effort is often embodied in the best players though. Players, who along with that "give-it-all-you-got" mentality also have high end skills to go with a high end motor. A player such as Scott Eansor. If Eansor doesn't skate hard on a routine dump in during a Seattle line change late in the third period of Game 2 up in Kelowna Saturday night, we might still be playing that game. It sure appeared as though it was headed to overtime. Was it a bit of a misplay by Kelowna goalie Michael Herringer? Sure, but how often do we see a goalie misplay a "routine" dump-in but because no one is going hard on the forecheck, that goalie is able to recover and the play is quickly forgotten? Every shift, every play, every moment matters.

Lost on that game winning goal by Eansor was the play made by Keegan Kolesar. It was Kolesar who got the puck from Eansor as they skated into the neutral zone. He got the puck across the center red line and, instead of dumping the puck into the corner put the puck on net, then turned to the bench for a line change. No official assist for Kolesar because Herringer played the puck but it could well turn out to be the biggest "unofficial" assist of the series.

We're only two games into this series but it has all the makings of a classic. Two, low scoring one-goal games with plenty of momentum shifts throughout both contests. Credit to Seattle for getting on top both nights on the road. Seattle is now 6-0 on the road in the postseason which is a franchise best. They had never won six road games in a postseason prior to this year. The T-Birds were two games under .500 on the road during the regular season at 16-18-2-0 but at one point were 10-18-1-0 before finishing off with a 6-0-1-0 run away from home. The Thunderbirds are now 12-0-1-0 in their last 13 road games dating back to February 26th.

Don't think Landon Bow has made a difference? During the regular season Seattle lost twice in Kelowna, outscored by the Rockets in the process 12-6. Bow didn't play a single minute of either game. In these two road playoff games the T-Birds have allowed just three goals with Bow in net both nights.

The game within the game. Got to love the head-to-head battle between Seattle's Mathew Barzal and Kelowna's Rourke Chartier. They are probably the two most skilled forwards in this series and are often on the ice at the same time. Both players have two goals through two games and those goals have all been "Top Ten- plays-of-the-Week" material. I might give a slight edge early on to Chartier, only because he has won a higher percentage of face-offs, but don't discount the fact both of Barzal's goals have opened the scoring. Scoring first has been a key for the T-Birds in the postseason. Seattle is 9-0 in the postseason when they score the games first goal.

Teddy Roosevelt was famous for his Big Stick foreign policy based on the "Speak softly and carry a big stick" proverb. That seems like a perfect description for the T-Birds 20-year-old blueliner, Jared Hauf. Hauf doesn't say a lot, but when he does speak, his teammates, especially the younger ones, listen. Mostly he's letting his actions do his talking and he's having a terrific postseason in his last year in the WHL. Through 11 games he has two assists and is +10, including +2 against the Rockets.

It's going to be mentioned. Not by the team, the players or the coaches, but it's going to be brought up. Probably by someone in the media (like, right here!) It's unavoidable. Someone, at some point will ask about it, most likely because it is part of their job to do so. It's part of the history between these two teams. You can't act as though it hasn't happened before, because it has happened not once but twice. So, just acknowledge it and move on because it has absolutely no bearing on this series.

What is it? "It" is the T-Birds leading a best-of-seven playoff series against the Rockets, 2-0, after winning the first two games on the road. It happened in the 2005 postseason and it happened again in the 2013 playoffs. Each time Seattle came home from Prospera Place with that two-game series lead; each win by a single goal. Two of the wins in overtime. Each time Seattle couldn't close out the series. In 2005 they lost the next two games at home, shutout in Games 3 and 4 at KeyArena. They would win Game 5 on the road that year but then lost the next two. They were shutout again at home in Game 6, then lost Game 7, 2-1, in Kelowna.

In 2013 The T-Birds not only won Games 1 and 2 in OT up in Kelowna, but they won Game 3 in overtime as well at the ShoWare Center, behind an Evan Wardley blast. But Kelowna would fight back to win that series in seven games as well, turning the tables with two overtime wins of their own, including the series clincher at Prospera Place.

But as they say, that was then, this is now. No one on the current roster, and no one on the current coaching staff, had anything to do with that series in 2005. Heck, unless you tell them, they most certainly have no idea it even happened. The players on this year's T-Birds team were all under the age of 10 when that series took place.

Well you say, what about the more recent history, the 2013 first round playoff matchup? As tough as it was to go up three games to none in that series then lose, let's remember that in 2013 the Rockets were heavy favorites to win that playoff round. Most prognosticators didn't give the T-Birds a tinker's chance in hades of winning one game let alone winning three and forcing that series into a seventh game. The T-birds lost the regular season series 3-1 and in two regular season games up in Kelowna that season, Seattle was outscored by a combined 12-to-1. I'm guessing the consensus among the prognosticators that spring was Rockets in a 4-game sweep. The 2013 season was Seattle's first foray back into the WHL postseason after a three year absence. In the regular season that year the B.C. Division champion Rockets (52-16-3-1)had more then double the wins the T-Birds produced (24-38-7-3). Kelowna outpointed Seattle that season 108-58. I don't think it surprised anyone that Kelowna came back to win that series.

And while three current T-birds participated in that 2013 playoff matchup with the Rockets, it was a then 17-year-old rookie defenseman Jerret Smith, a 17-year-old second year d-man in Jared Hauf and a 15-year-old Keegan Kolesar, pressed into Game 7 duty because of suspensions to Connor Honey and Justin Hickman. That was then, this is now.

I will only say this; if you need something that happened 11 years ago, or even four years ago, to find motivation, then you're not focused on this series. And I don't think what happened in 2005 or 2013 matters one iota to any player on either team this go 'round. These two clubs are focused on the here and now and the here and now is Game 3 at the ShoWare Center Tuesday night. I've been told often enough in recent years by a certain coach that if you spend too much time peeking into the rearview mirror, you're probably going to run into a head on collision that knocks you off course.

The atmosphere in the building for both games in Kelowna was electric. I've been in attendance for a lot of postseason games at Prospera Place over the past 14 seasons and hands down that was the best atmosphere I've ever encountered there. Great job by the Kelowna faithful but a small part of that was due to a great contingent of traveling T-Bird fans.

So T-Bird fans, the gauntlet has been thrown down. It is now your turn to match or exceed that Prospera Place atmosphere for Games 3 and 4. Are you up to the task? North of San Jose and West of the Rockies, north or south of the border, this is the best hockey going, don't miss it!

My T-Birds Three Stars for the weekend.

Third Star: Goaltender Landon Bow. This is exactly why Seattle GM Russ Farwell made the trade deadline deal to get Bow from Swift Current; a deep playoff run where, in a low scoring series, goaltending can be the difference. While Bow hasn't necessarily had to be spectacular through two games against the Rockets, he has been remarkably consistent and steady. Through 11 postseason games this spring he is 10-1 with two shutouts, a 1.43 GAA and .938 SVPT. The least demonstrative goalie I've encountered in my time with the T-Birds. Every game is business as usual with the St. Albert, Alberta native.

2nd Star: Center Mathew Barzal. I wrote earlier of the importance of scoring first on the road in this series for Seattle and the T-Birds did that both nights thanks to this New York Islanders prospect. He's helped revive what had been a stagnant postseason power play with two perfectly placed shots. To slow him down the Rockets are putting their top line out on the ice against him. He's often double shifted by centering the fourth line as well. Seattle's 2nd line benefits by that attention opposing teams put on closing him down.

First Star: Center Scott Eansor. Scotty Hustle has been the best player through the first two games of this series; not just Seattle's best player but the series' best player. In his first two postseasons with the T-Birds this shutdown, defensive center has led his team in goal scoring. He's doing it against this spring with a team high seven goals through 11 games, including the game winning goals in both Game 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Championship. Eansor is the epitome of a Steve Konowalchuk type player; a rink rat with a non-stop motor and never quit attitude. He wears his love for the game, and his love of competition, on his sleeve.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Eight is not Enough

The Seattle Thunderbirds improved their playoff record to 8-1 and advanced to the Western Conference Championship with a 3-2 win over Everett Saturday night before a raucous crowd at the ShoWare Center. The T-Birds win the second round match up four games to one, winning the last four after dropping Game 1. It was the second time in the past three years that the T-Birds have eliminated their closest geographic rival from postseason play. Seattle also knocked out the Silvertips in the first round of the 2014 postseason, winning that series four games to one as well.

One of the keys for the Thunderbirds in this series was finding ways to get pucks past Everett goalie Carter Hart. During the regular season series against the 'Tips Seattle could only muster 15 goals in 10 games, an average of just 1.5 goals per contest. Hart then blanked the T-Birds, 3-0, in Game 1 of this series. It didn't help that Seattle played the game without their top two goal scorers in Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, as well as their best defenseman in Jerret Smith. Seattle compounded the issue by giving Everett nine power plays. Hard to generate offense when you're shorthanded for one-third of the game.

The answer? Really quite simple. Just put pucks on net and get scoring by committee. Over the final four games of the series Seattle scored 12 times on Hart, or 3.0 goals per game, doubling their season average. Nine different players scored those 12 goals. Each of Seattle's four lines had at least one goal in those final four games. Seattle won the series despite not getting a point from their top line the last three games. And getting Gropp back in the lineup for Games 3 and 4 didn't hurt. Gropp led Seattle in scoring versus Everett in the regular season with 10 points in 10 games. But the big winger missed the first three games of the series with injury. Once back in the lineup, even though he was playing primarily on the 4th line, he picked up where he left off against the 'Tips, scoring two game winning goals and adding an assist.

Everett, which allowed just 172 goals against during the regular season (second best in the WHL to Victoria's 166) is known as a defensive hockey team. They don't score a lot, potting just 182 this season, but they keep the score low, their opponents close, and finish the chances they get. But in hockey the best defense is puck possession and in this series Seattle dominated that category. In their four wins Seattle outshot the Silvertips 143-82 and outshot them 169-111 in the series.

Seattle was at their best at the start and finish of games. The T-Birds outshot Everett 48-24 in the first period through the five games. In their Game 4 win up at Xfinity Arena the T-Birds allowed Everett just one first period shot on goal and that came with 29 seconds left in the period. In the clinching fifth game at home Seattle held the 'Tips to just three first period shots. This allowed Seattle to get the lead both nights; leads they would never relinquish. In the final two games of the series the 'Birds outshot the Silvertips by a whopping 25-4 margin in the first periods.

Start strong, finish strong. Seattle was just as good in the third period putting 55 shots on goal in the final frame in the series while allowing jut 21 shots against. In Games 3 and 4, protecting one goal leads each night, the Thunderbirds limited Everett to four and five third period shots respectively, outshooting them in the third period the final two nights 31-9.

When you dominate the shots-on-goal department like that your own goaltending can get lost in the shuffle. Landon Bow may have only faced an average of 22 shots per game versus Everett but he still was a big factor in Seattle advancing. When most of the play is at the other end of the ice, it can be hard to stay mentally involved in the game. But Bow was focused. In the second period of Game 5 he made an acrobatic save to clear a puck that seemed destined for the back of the net. Had it gone in Everett would have tied the game and had all the momentum on their side. Twice in the postseason he has posted road shutouts in critical Game 3's.

Through nine playoff games 16 of the 21 skaters who have suited up for at least one postseason game have registered a point. You win in the playoffs with everyone contributing. Nowhere is that more evident then when your fourth line rookie center, in this case Matthew Wedman, assists on back-to-back game winning goals including the series clincher.

It's been a remarkable last two months for Seattle, posting a 21-1-1-0 record in their last 23 games to advance to the Western Conference Finals for just the third time in franchise history. Will the third time be the charm? The first time they played in the conference finals, in the spring of 1997, they defeated Prince George in six games and made it to the WHL Finals only to be swept by Lethbridge. The last time they got this far, in the spring of 2003 they lost in the Conference Finals to Kelowna in five games.

My Three Stars for the Second Round:

Third Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Bow may not have been as busy as his Everett counterpart in this series but he did what he's supposed to do; stop pucks and win games. His GAA in the series versus Everett was a paltry 1.40 and he recorded his second shutout of the postseason with a 5-0 road win in Game 3 that restored home ice advantage for the T-Birds.

Second Star: Defenseman Jerett Smith. The captain showed his value to this team. He missed the first game after an emergency appendectomy and the T-Birds lost that game. A few days later, with Smitty back in the lineup, Seattle evened the series at 1-1 with a 3-1 home win and Smith was +2. He finished the series at +4 in the four games he played. Even after the surgery he probably was one of the leaders in ice time for the team.

First Star: Center Scott Eansor. Eansor just has a good habit of ratcheting up his play in the postseason. For the third straight year he has scored at least four playoff goals. His speed, quickness and relentless motor are a big reason why Everett spent much of the series in their own end and why the 'Tips top scoring line was held in check most of the series. His wrap around goal in Game 5 that opened the scoring was a prime example of never giving up on a play as just moments before he had a scoring chance denied.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Deuce

Round Two of the postseason begins Friday night at home for the Thunderbirds. Seattle goes head-to-head in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal against, their division as well as closest geographic rival, the Everett Silvertips. This will be just the second time since Everett joined the league back in 2003 that these two teams have met in postseason play, but the second time in the past three years.

This should be an exciting series. One of these two teams occupied the top spot in the U.S. Division just about every day this season. At the very least you are getting the two most consistent, if not the top two teams, in the division in this round of postseason play. These clubs seem to bring out the best in each other's competitive nature.

Two seasons ago the T-birds opened the 2014 playoffs by winning a first round best-of-seven series by beating the 'Tips in five games. Seattle won two of those games by a single goal, including a pivotal Game 3 in overtime. each team also registered a 5-goal win. So, the series was closer then the final outcome might indicate.

Only seven current T-birds who participated in that series remain on the roster of this year's Seattle team. Only six Silvertips on this year's version of Everett were on that team two springs ago. But each of those 13 players who participated in the series in 2014, will have a much bigger role to play this time around then they did back then. Two players who did have an impact on that series could do so again this year. Seattle's Scott Eansor and Everett's Patrick Bajkov both tallied three goals in that five game set. Oddly, both players wear #8.

Like this postseason, Seattle also had home ice advantage when these two teams met in the 2014 playoffs but there were no back-to-back home games for either team as the two organizations agreed on a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format. That won't be the case this time around as they will play a traditional 2-2-1-1-1 series.

Often when playoffs roll around we talk about throwing out the regular season but, I think, in this case both teams can get some confidence from what took place over the ten game, regular season series. Everett won six of the ten games while Seattle won the last three head-to-head.

As far as this series goes? I wouldn't expect anything different in style and effort from what we saw during the regular season. I would expect low scoring, grind-it-out battles typical not just of this rivalry but fairly typical of what you get as you go deeper into the playoffs. Both these teams do a good job of rolling four lines, of maximizing their rosters by getting the most out of every player on the bench. Is their a key to winning for either team? I'd say with scoring chances most likely at a premium, the one that capitalizes on those rare chances will prevail. I know that sounds like the understatement of the year but how often do you see a low scoring battle turn, not on the goals scored, but the chances missed?

Both teams are probably tired of practicing but not playing. Both Seattle and Everett closed out their first round series in four games. The T-birds, of course, took out the Prince George Cougars while Everett was sweeping the Portland Winterhawks. Both haven't played since last Wednesday meaning if will be well over a week between games, for both teams, when they finally set skate blade back on the ice Friday night at the ShoWare Center for Game 1. I would expect though, that both teams are prepared to go the distance with seven games scheduled over the course of 11 days.