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.

1 comment:

  1. After all the mentions of the 2013 series, I was wondering how many on our current roster were even THERE for that series - thanks for answering that question!

    I would have to disagree on Bow - he's definitely had to be spectacular in spurts to keep the Tbirds in both games. Yes, the team played great defense, but if not for Bow, the beginning of that 3rd period in game 2 could have been a disaster.

    What a great trip to Kelowna - great hockey, great weather, great fan showing. I love hockey in April!!!!