Sunday, September 25, 2016

Undefeated Season Vanishes on Opening Night

Seattle dropped their season opener down in Portland Saturday, 7-3, a final score that was not indicative of what was a much closer game. The game was knotted at 3-3 past the midpoint of the third period when the Winterhawks scored to push back on top for good with just under eight minutes remaining.

About a minute later it appeared Seattle's Cavin Leth was held as he was about to skate past a Portland defenseman onto a loose puck just outside the T-birds blue line but the referee either didn't see the play or didn't feel it was enough to warrant a holding or interference penalty. So, rather then Seattle being on the power play down a goal, play continued. Moments later Seattle was assessed a bench minor for too many men on the ice. Portland capitalized with their second power play goal of the game and the two goal deficit was too much for Seattle to overcome. The 'Hawks would add an empty netter and one more goal late to round out the scoring.

You've probably heard this before; you can't win a game in the first period but you can certainly lose it. Missed chances early came back to bite Seattle in the end. Ian Briscoe could have started his WHL career off with a bang but instead it started with a "ping", as in he pinged one off the crossbar early in the first period. Too bad too, because it was a nifty play to go to his back hand after getting the Portland goalie to go down. Briscoe is a guy who put up solid numbers in AAA Midget a season ago. He registered 19g, 22a and 41pts. in 44 regular season games with the Winnipeg Wild then was a point a game player in their playoffs (4g, 6a, in 10 games). That early close, but not quite chance may be a sign this 17 year old rookie's game will translate well to the WHL level.

Briscoe wasn't the only one to miss the mark. Seattle had three or four other quality first period scoring chances and others throughout the game but in most instances missed the net. And it wasn't just rookies, it was older players as well. Layne Bensmiller, Scott Eansor, Leth and Sami Moilanen all had their opportunities. The T-birds had just one power play in the game and it came in the first period. Lots of offensive zone time with the puck on that 5-on-4 situation, and about four shots on goal, but they couldn't convert. Special teams, as they often are, ended up being the difference in the game. Seattle was 0-1 with the man advantage while Portland went 2-4.

The T-birds weren't particularly undisciplined but a few stick infraction (a slash, a hook and a high stick) are certainly avoidable. A bench minor with new faces and young rookies in the lineup for the first time is not too uncommon but these are issues that need to be addressed this week in practice. Why were the Thunderbirds the beneficiary of only one power play on the night? Their lack of a physical game was a major culprit. Playing physical and strong along the boards often draws penalties on your opponent. There wasn't enough of that from the T-birds Saturday night.

In the first period the T-birds were able to get contribution from all four lines, despite being held off the scoreboard. Over the final two periods they became too reliant on their top line of Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan and unfortunately, it was some of the other veteran players who were AWOL over the final 40 minutes. Remember, two points in game one mean the same as two points in game 36 or game 72. Preseason is over, it's all business now.

Don't fault Rylan Toth too much for allowing six goals on 34 shots in his T-birds debut. One, I understand from goaltending coach Ian Gordon that Toth had not played in any meaningful game action since the first week of preseason while still a member of the Red Deer Rebels. That was just half of one game, playing 28 minutes on September 2nd against the Edmonton Oil Kings. The Rebels participated in the Tri-City preseason tournament in Kennewick the following weekend but Toth didn't travel with the team. Of course the next week he was traded to Seattle and was in transit when the Thunderbirds played their final two preseason games against Everett. So Toth's last game action before facing Portland was three weeks ago.

Two, Seattle had too many missed defensive zone assignments as forwards, both rookies and vets, were caught puck watching on Portland's 3rd and 4th goals. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk stresses backchecking and defensive zone responsibility and was not a happy camper postgame because of those lapses. Twice a Winterhawks player skated the puck behind the Seattle goal and on both occasions forwards failed to cover the player in the slot. Toth had little chance on those two quick one timers.

Luke Ormsby came up last December for a cup of coffee with the T-birds and played in all of four games as a 16 year old. He registered one assist in a game in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans as we got a glimpse of his speed and offensive ability. Saturday down at the Moda Center, the Monroe, WA. native showed off both of those assets again in registering his first WHL goal, getting in behind the Winterhawk defense on a break and then not giving up on the puck after an initial save to score on the rebound. Like the 17 year old Briscoe, the 17 year old Ormsby can provide an offensive threat, but also like Briscoe, the work he needs to do is to improve his game in the defensive zone.

With that goal Ormsby, I believe, becomes the first Washingtonian player since Spokane native, and current assistant coach, Tyler Alos, to score a goal for the Thunderbirds. Is he the first "local" player to do so? Time to check the record books. I believe he's the first player from the Puget Sound region to be on the Seattle roster since goaltender Doug Bonner (1992-96), who hailed from my hometown, University Place, down near Tacoma.

Don't sleep on Donovan Neuls and his ability to have 30 or more goals this season in his 19 year old year. The jack-of-all-trades forward from Grenfell, Sask. potted two opening night. Skating with Eansor and Volcan again this season should provide him with plenty more opportunities to light the lamp. Remember too, with a full roster, that line would be the T-birds second line most nights, not their number one line.

Defenseman Anthony Bishop, obtained from Saskatoon in the trade that sent Logan Flodell to the Blades, made his T-birds debut as well down in the Rose City. Touted as an offensive-defensemen, I was actually more impressed with his defensive zone play. Time and again he used solid positioning to break up a Portland chance or steal the puck back for the T-birds. He wasn't perfect as he got beat once and had to take a slashing penalty to break up a Portland scoring chance, but hopefully as he gets more comfortable with his new teammates and D-partner, he will only get better. Have the T-birds stolen another diamond in the rough from Saskatoon, ala Turner Ottenbreit, with the acquisition of the Kelowna native?

I like the new hybrid icing if for no other reason then at least twice in the game Seattle used their speed to negate what would have been an icing call against them. In one instance it led to a scoring opportunity from Eansor.

In summary, opening night 2016 reminded me a lot of opening night 2015 when Seattle faced off against the Giants up in Vancouver. Seattle fell behind in that game, fought back on a couple of occasions to tie it but could never get the lead, then lost on a late power play goal. They rebounded to win nine of their next 11 games, going 9-1-1-0. Deja Vu' anyone?

Seattle's three stars opening night:

3rd Star: I'll give it to Luke Ormsby for collecting his first career WHL goal. I liked the fact he never gave up on that puck and willed it in past the goalie. His mindset there seemed to be he wasn't going to be denied.

2nd Star: Scott Eansor. He did shoot wide on a glorious scoring chance but was all over the ice as usual. The T-birds newest captain was officially credited with just one assist by games end, but I think he should have two and wouldn't be surprised if one is added upon video review.

1st Star: Donovan Neuls. Great way to open the season, scoring a pair of goals. His goal that tied the game early in the third was all about patience, tenacity and good hands.