Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Hit and a Miss

Before the Thunderbirds began their two game weekend homestand, they first resolved their 20 year old situation. Seattle traded Cavin Leth to Prince Albert in exchange for 18 year old right winger Zack Andrusiak and a 2018 third round Bantam pick. So, Seattle got down to the league mandated roster limit of three 20 year olds. No sooner had they done that though, then Ryan Gropp comes up with a lower body injury and is unavailable for either game. So within a span of a few days the T-birds went from having 4 healthy 20 year olds to just two.

To complicate things further, Seattle was also without 19 year old winger Layne Bensmiller, who also came up lame with a lower body injury. Then Andrusiak's arrival was delayed enough that he wouldn't make the lineup for Friday night's game against Portland. This of course was on top of longer term injuries to forwards Keegan Kolesar, Wyatt Bear and Mackenzie Wight. Every team goes through injuries over the course of the season and for Seattle, it seems that time is now.

So Seattle entered the weekend's first game with just 10 forwards available for the first game and just 11 for the second, Saturday night against Kelowna. To help the situation, the T-birds coach's moved defenseman Anthony Bishop up to a forward line both nights. So, Seattle went with six rookie forwards in both contests plus Bishop to augment their forward attack. All things considered then, to come out of the weekend 1-1 is sort of a small victory.

From the midway point of the first period of their game back on the 15th up in Everett until the five minute mark of the second period Saturday versus the Rockets, Seattle had allowed just one goal, a power play goal, over a span of 132 minutes. Unfortunately it is what happened before and after those 132 minutes that did them in, allowing Everett three goals in the first 11 minutes of that game and then giving up five goals to the Rockets the final 35 minutes Saturday night.

This past weekend may have featured their best 60 minutes in the 3-1 win over the Winterhawks, but we probably also saw their worst 40 minute stretch when they were outscored by Kelowna the final two periods, 5-1. The affects of the shortened bench may have caught up with the team Saturday. After a solid opening period versus Kelowna the T-birds effort and energy seemed to steadily decline the last two periods. Turnovers began to pile up, shots starting missing the mark and players started getting away from team concepts and trying to do too much individually.

Seattle continues to struggle to finish scoring chances. The T-birds put 65 shots on goal this weekend, many of which could be considered quality scoring chances, and could muster only 4 goals and one of those was into an empty net. Even in the win over Portland they missed on scoring opportunities that could have pushed their slim one goal lead. The biggest concerns continue to be a lack of production on the power play and lack of second chance scoring or goals off rebounds.

Despite these issues, Seattle continues to hover around .500 and has played just nine games. They are using a younger roster then they probably anticipated having to employ. The silver lining is these young players are getting baptized into the WHL at a faster pace then expected which, theoretically, should pay dividends by seasons end. Meanwhile, re-enforcements are on the way. Gropp, Bensmiller, Kolesar and others will get healthy and return to the lineup and the potential of a Mat Barzal return from the New York Islanders is still out there.

In their nine games Seattle has played seven different opponents (They faced Portland three times) and Sami Moilanen is the best import player I've seen so far. That does come with an asterisk because Eetu Tuulola was hurt and didn't play when the T-birds faced Everett. Still, the draft eligible Moilanen, who had his four game point streak snapped in the loss to Kelowna, is a dynamic 200 foot player who is only going to get better, especially when this team is healthy. When the import draft rolled around early this past summer the conventional thinking was Seattle would select a defenseman to help fill a void with the loss of both Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf. Credit GM Russ Farwell with finding the best player he could, regardless of position, and credit the team's scouts for discovering this gem.

Andrusiak had his debut delayed 24 hours but he gave a good accounting in the Kelowna game. In a game where Seattle surrendered five even strength goals, he ended the night +1. He definitely appears to be a Konowalchuk type player; quick, aggressive and plays 200 feet. Congrats to Ian Briscoe on his first WHL goal in the loss Saturday. Briscoe almost scored opening night down in Portland, only to be denied by the cross bar. In and out of the line up since, his late game blast against the Rockets was a no-doubter.

Nine of Seattle's next 11 games will be on the road beginning with six straight against the Eastern Division teams. It will seem like old home week as the T-birds face former teammates in Swift Current, Saskatoon and Prince Albert plus a WHL Final rematch against Brandon. Hop on the bus Gus.

My Thunderbird Three Stars for the weekend, which are based essentially off the first four periods because, well, the last two periods were not star worthy:

3rd Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear got his first goal of the season in the win Friday against Portland and it turned out to be a game winner. I thought he was the best player on the ice most of the night.

2nd Star: G Rylan Toth. Before his defense let him down the last two periods against the Rockets, Toth was the primary reason Seattle had surrendered just one goal over the previous 132 minutes. He was at his best in the third period Friday night protecting a one goal lead in an eventual 3-1 win over Portland.

1st Star: W Nolan Volcan. He had a big first goal against Portland and then played fast and physical the rest of the night. He also drew a couple of penalties against Kelowna. Unfortunately Seattle couldn't capitalize on the power plays. He also helped Seattle revive it's penalty kill, which has now killed off four straight, which is a mild accomplishment considering the early struggles in that department.

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