...The more they stay the same. A year ago Seattle beat the Victoria Royals in all four head-to-head games during the course of the regular season. Three times last season the T-birds won by a 4-2 score, and on the other occasion, Seattle was a 3-1 winner against the eventual Scotty Munro Trophy winners (best regular season record). Fast forward to the first of four games between the two teams this season, Friday night at the ShoWare Center, and a much different looking Seattle team beat the Royals in similar fashion, 3-1. In fact, the Thunderbirds have won their last six games against Victoria and are 6-0-0-1 in the last seven versus the Royals, dating back to March 2nd, 2015.
Last season, in outscoring Victoria 15-7, the T-birds got ten of those 15 goals from their top line of Keegan Kolesar (6), Mathew Barzal (2) and Ryan Gropp (2). Move the calendar ahead to the 2016-17 season and that trio is not in the Seattle lineup. No matter, as Alexander True (2) and Nolan Volcan (1) pick up the scoring. It should be noted that last season in their series against the Royals True and Volcan had four of the five goals that Kolesar/Barzal/Gropp didn't score. Still, Seattle accomplished another win over the Royals despite not having nine of their top 15 scorers from a season ago in the lineup Friday.
Meanwhile, the Royals, despite returning a roster featuring 11 of their top 15 scorers from a season ago, could muster just one goal on 29 shots. Friday night Seattle thwarted the Royals on 5 of 6 power plays including their first four. A season ago it was a similar story as the Royals could muster just 2 power play goals, on 22 chances, in the four games.
It was just a matter of time before we saw the Rylan Toth we expected to see when Seattle acquired him from Red Deer just before the start of the season. First, it was a team effort by the Thunderbirds to surrender a total of six power play goals in his first two starts. But you got the feeling that Toth, being the competitor he is, was a bit tired of giving up those power play goals. Friday against Victoria he was Seattle's best penalty killer in the first period when the Royals were awarded the games first three power play chances. His work in the crease set the tone. Seattle fed off that and used it as momentum to score two goals early in the second and they never looked back.
Secondly, Toth didn't have a preseason. Other then practice, he barely played in game action at Rebel's camp. His last significant playing time had been last May in the Memorial Cup. My guess is no one benefited more from the week of practice between that 6-1 loss to Portland and the Friday game versus Victoria as much as Toth did. He was finally able to acclimate himself to his new teammates and his new surroundings.
Can Alexander True keep it going? I'm not asking if True is going to average a goal a game as he is doing through the first four games of this season. Remember though, a year ago the big Dane had a good start to the season with four goals in the first month, then went into a prolonged scoring slump. It wasn't until the second half of the season that he found the back of the net again. One thing that should help him keep the scoring touch going forward this season is the presence of a playmaker, like Sami Moilanen, on one wing and a speedy Cavin Leth on the other wing. The biggest help in that department though, should come from True himself. Now a 19 year old in his third season in the league, he's bigger, faster and harder to play against down low.
From the strange but true department: In their two wins this season Seattle has dressed seven defensemen and just 11 forwards. In their two losses, they went with just six d-men and 12 forwards. What does that say? Well, I think it is a message to the young forwards that are not getting ice time that winning offensive zone puck battles, back checking and defensive zone responsibility are key factors if you want to play for Steve Konowalchuk.
A year ago through the first four games of the season, Seattle was 2-1-1-0 with one of their two win coming in a shootout. So, sitting currently at 2-2-0-0 going into Tuesday's home game against the Spokane Chiefs, the T-birds are not far off the pace they started with last season. As they did a year ago Seattle again has had to get through the early part of their schedule with key players missing. This time around it might be a little longer before the T-birds get those missing players back. We know Kolesar is out for at least another 4-5 weeks as he recovers from supra-umbilical hernia surgery. 20 year old Ryan Gropp, of course, is not returning. As expected, the New York Rangers assigned him to their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack, earlier this week. The bigger question still remains on whether the NHL's New York Islanders return Barzal to Seattle.
Seattle did make a trade Friday, acquiring 18 year old goaltender Matt Berlin from Spokane in exchange for a conditional draft pick. With 16 year old goalie Carl Stankowski expected to be named to play for Canada at the U-17 Hockey Challenge in early November, Seattle was in the market for a 3rd netminder. The T-birds will be in the midst of a six-game road trip during Stankowski's absence and will need someone to back up Toth. After trading Ryan Gilchrist to Lethbridge Seattle did not have another signed goalie in their system. I'm not sure if Berlin, who was 1-1-2-0 in just seven games with the Chiefs last season, will join the T-birds immediately and start practicing with the team or if Seattle will wait until they are out east to add him to the roster.
The T-birds could also lose Elijah Brown to that U-17 challenge. Roster announcements are expected this week. Meanwhile, the T-birds were rewarded for a solid 2016 Bantam Draft when five of their draft picks were chosen to play for their provincial teams at the U-16 Hockey Challenge. First round pick Jake Lee will play for Team Alberta, 2nd rounder Eric Fawkes, along with 6th round selection Nakodan Greyeyes, will suit up for Team Manitoba while a pair of 3rd rounders, Alex Swetlikoff and Layton Ahac will be teammates on Team B.C.
Just one game on the weekend so the three stars are pretty easy to choose:
3rd Star: W Sami Moilanen. He took a silly tripping penalty in the first period but then the crafty Finn atoned for his sin as he picked up his first two points of the season with a pair of nifty assists against the Royals. He's not just good on the puck but also showed his willingness to play physical, to back check and at times, be a pest against Victoria. Let's not forget that earlier in the week the NHL's Central Scouting listed him as a C prospect for next spring's NHL Draft, a rating he can certainly improve as the season goes forward.
2nd Star: G Rylan Toth. His big glove save on Victoria's first power play was a tone setter. It was the equivalent of him announcing his presence with authority. It was early in the game but it gave you the feeling that he was not to be denied his first win as a T-bird. He did what you would expect from a 20 year old goalie at this level of hockey. He made the spectacular as well as the routine save. Every time Victoria threatened early in that game, he shut the door.
1st Star: C Alexander True. With No Gropp, and for the time being at least, no Barzal and no Kolesar, Seattle needs someone to pick up the scoring. True potted two against Victoria including the game winner. He was a crossbar away from a hat trick and now has a three game goal scoring streak. He looks more determined this season and that confidence is paying off. But it wasn't just his scoring that helped lead Seattle to the win. he was physical and very defensive zone-responsible.