Sunday, November 27, 2016

Pass the Gravy, then Pass the Puck

A busy Thanksgiving week saw the Thunderbirds play four games in five nights and come away with three wins. The Turkey Week success finds Seattle a season best four games above .500 as they head into the final game of November, Wednesday up in Kamloops. And while it has taken them a bit to find their legs and chemistry, the T-birds are now 6-1-1-0 since the return of Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar to the lineup.

Minus getting shutout Wednesday in Everett, Seattle has started to find it's offense, although even in that road loss to the Silvertips, they still put 37 shots on goal, including 18 in the first period. In their three wins they tallied 15 goals scoring exactly five times each night in besting Edmonton, Tri-City and Victoria. They have been at their best offensively early in games outshooting opponents in the first 20 minutes by a 2-to-1 margin in the past four games (60 shots to 30) while outscoring them in the first period over that stretch, 9-2.

This is occurring even though the team is still not at 100 percent health. Seattle's top two goalies are on the shelf and Layne Bensmiller hasn't played in over a month. As I said in my last blog post I don't expect Seattle to have its full roster available consistently until after World Juniors in early January. Seattle will play about 6-7 more games before they lose Barzal to Team Canada and Alexander True to Team Denmark. But, as they proved the first month of the season, they are capable of winning games with big guns absent from the lineup.

Even with Bensmiller unavailable Seattle has shown, especially the past two games, what they are capable of when their top three lines are playing at their optimal level. After a sluggish start since being reunited, the combo of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar is starting to hit their stride, accounting for 10 points (4g, 6a) and a +10 in the wins over the Americans and Royals. Not to be outdone, the line of Volcan-Eansor-Moilanen chipped in 8 points (3g, 5a) and were a combined +8. In the Tuesday win over the Oil Kings the T-birds third line did the damage and a week ago third line center Alexander True was the WHL Player of the Week as Seattle went 3-0-1-0.

I'll be curious to see where the coaches put Bensmiller once he is healthy. Initially I'm sure he'll be slotted on the fourth line until he gets back up to game speed. Once he is back and ready to take on more and more ice time, does the 19 year old stay on the fourth line or will he be elevated to the third line with True and Donovan Neuls? Matthew Wedman has been pretty effective on that third line and has made a case to stay there. It is a good problem to have. Either way let's hope Bensmiller gets healthy soon. the T-birds could use him when Barzal and True are gone next month.

I really liked the way Luke Ormsby played the last two games. Ormsby registered his first WHL point last December in a game at the Toyota Center in Kennewick. A return trip there Friday must have created a familiar spark. He had a consistent and solid game against the Americans and followed it up with a good effort at home Saturday against Victoria. Playing on the fourth line with Elijah Brown and Bryan Allbee, they were able to keep the Royals in their own end, creating offensive zone face-offs for Seattle's top lines.

Once Seattle has all their parts, namely the return of Bensmiller, the competition for ice time on that fourth line is going to be intense. If Ormsby can continue to play the way he did in the past two games he'll be hard to keep off the ice.

Remember back when Seattle's penalty kill surrendered 12 power play goals in the first eight games of the season and languished dead last in the league on the PK? Since then the T-birds penalty killing units have only given up eight power play goals over a 16 game stretch and have climbed up to #7 overall in the WHL. The power play is still inconsistent, ranked at #15, but going in the right direction after converting on three of seven chances the past two games.

After a slow start, Seattle is now above .500 both at home and on the road. More importantly Seattle already has gotten their longest road trip out of the way with a successful 4-2 trek through the Eastern Division at the start of November. The other taxing road trip on the schedule comes up early next month between December 7th and 10th, a three game trip that will take them first to Kelowna for one and then up to Prince George for two.

In the sports draft dictionary (unabridged edition of course) under the definition of BPA, or best-player-available, there should be a picture of Sami Moilanen. When everyone had Seattle filling a perceived need, and drafting a defenseman with their pick in last summer's CHL Import Draft, the T-birds instead went against popular conjecture and chose Moilanen, a 17 year old, 5'8", winger from Sipoo, Finland. He was taken with the 49th pick. He's on the cusp of being a point a game player with 21 points (7g, 14a) in his first 22 games. He's currently 6th in WHL rookie scoring while playing fewer games then everyone ahead of him on the list. In his last six games he has 10 points (3g, 7a)and is +5.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Thanksgiving Week:

Third Star: Goalie Matt Berlin. Recalled from Sherwood Park of the AJHL when Carl Stankowski came back from the U-17 Challenge with an injury, Berlin was going to back up Rylan Toth. Then Toth got dinged in the first period Wednesday in Everett and Berlin, all of a sudden, became "the guy" in goal. In eight periods of hockey, including two starts, he allowed just three goals, stopped 57 shots, went 2-0 and posted his first ever WHL shutout. Toth appears ready to return soon. I don't know yet about Stankowski's status but either way, Seattle knows they can rely on Berlin when called upon.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor: Eansor scored his fifth goal in five games Tuesday at home in the win over Edmonton. His goal scoring streak was only snapped by the crossbar the next night in Everett. He started a new point streak by accumulating three assists in two games this weekend. He and his linemates, Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, still get the task of shutting down the top scorers on other teams but their offensive production this season shows other team are having a hard time shutting them down. Late in Saturday's game with Seattle comfortably up 5-0 over Victoria, Eansor was on the ice blocking shots to help preserve Berlin's shutout.

First Star: Center Mat Barzal. You knew it was just a matter of time before Seattle's line of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar would get it going. Barzal, of course is the catalyst. He earned first star honors in each of Seattle's last two wins. He picked up three assists in Kennewick versus the Americans, then did himself one better by adding a goal to his three assists Saturday at home against Victoria. Seven points and +4 in those two games. Even when he's not scoring Seattle is a better team with him in the lineup. In the eight game since his return from the NHL the T-birds are 6-1-1-0. In 16 games without him they were 7-8-0-1.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Points Well Taken

Seattle may have had their three game win streak snapped Saturday with the overtime loss in Portland, but they still earned a valuable point and have accumulated 15 points since they left on their eastern road trip a little less then one month ago. That includes seven of eight points in their last four games.

And yet, as well as they have played the past three plus weeks, and it has been their best hockey of the young season, they are still not playing their best hockey. Two of their top players, Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar are still re-establishing their chemistry with Ryan Gropp on the top line. If you've watched the first three games since their reunion, you can see they are still a bit out of sync. And that should be no surprise since they've had little practice time together. Barzal had not seen much game action while up in the NHL, and Kolesar has only been skating for the past couple of weeks since having surgery that cost him the last six weeks.

Personally, I think the team is playing "okay" at the moment because of this and other factors. "Okay" is a relative term in this instance though. For some other teams the way the T-birds have played the past month would be considered the top of their game. For this Seattle team though, I think they know they have another level they can reach. Despite that, they have picked up the pace offensively, scoring 18 goals in their past four games in compiling a 3-0-1-0 record in that span. Once they find their cohesion, specifically on that top line, their offense should start to produce at an even better pace. Realistically, that may not happen until early January though. In less then a month Seattle will lose both Barzal and then the red hot Alexander True to World Junior competition.

While it won't be like last winter when the T-birds lost their top three centers to the WJC, they are still losing two of their top forwards. They have enough depth to get through it in good shape, but there will be stumbles along the way. There are a couple of things Seattle will have this time around that they didn't have late last December through early January; Scott Eansor and Sami Moilanen. This pair are two of the best 200 foot players in the league.

On the weekend Seattle's offense did it's job. The T-birds put up a combined 85 shots in their two games and scored eight goals. You would take that every weekend. They took advantage of the power play to score three. They did this and didn't get one goal from their top line. See what I mean by them not yet being in sync? That line is going to start going and it won't be at the expense of the two other Seattle lines that are scoring right now.

At the other end Seattle allowed just 49 shots against in the two games but surrendered eight goals against. How? Well, because the quality of scoring chances they gave up were too high. This was a result of the T-birds mismanaging the puck in their own end, specifically on their break outs. Simply put, they turned the puck over way too often. It would be one thing if those turnovers were caused by an opponents strong forecheck, but the reality is that in most instances, they were unforced turnovers caused by Seattle's own recklessness with the puck. I just thought Seattle was too cute with the puck at times coming up ice and they paid the price.

Look at a few of Seattle's best games in terms of shot totals. Saturday they outshoot Portland 46-28, last Friday they limited Calgary to just 16 shots while registering 28. Back on October 11th, they outshot Spokane 45-20. The T-birds record in those three games? 0-2-0-1. Shots don't often tell the whole story of a game but they do show who has the puck on their sticks more often. In all three instances, Seattle turned the puck over enough to give the opponent high end scoring chances, what the coach calls "ten bell' chances. It's an area Seattle must clean up going forward.

The scoresheet will say the T-birds lost the game Saturday in overtime, but in reality, they lost it in the second half of the first period. After dominating Portland in the first ten minutes, not allowing the Winterhawks a shot on goal, Seattle left their game on the bench after the mid-period media timeout. They started turning the puck over, taking penalties and as a result surrendered two goals. It was a tale of two teams. The Seattle team that played the first ten minutes was lights out and the one that played the second half of the period, couldn't find the light switch. Hopefully that ten minutes of complacency is a reminder that there are no times in this league you can take your foot off the gas.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. He has quietly gone about becoming the T-birds best overall defenseman the first month and a half of the season. He's playing smart and physical, blocking shots at key moments and is chipping in offensively. He registered three points in the two games on a goal and two assists.

Second Star: Winger Sami Moilanen. After missing two-plus games with an upper body injury he returned to the lineup and picked up right were he left off. He recorded four assists in the two games. He continues to win puck battles against players much bigger then he is. He constantly gets his shot on target, especially quick one timers.

First Star: Center Alexander True. Is anyone in the league hotter right now then the big Dane? True is now tied with Scott Eansor for the goal scoring lead on the team with 10 after registering five goals in his last three games. In four games this past week he also chipped in with three assists and was +4. That's two points per game over that span and he is now just four goals off his total from all of last season.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Split, but no Sunday

Playing for the first time since returning from their successful eastern road trip, the Thunderbirds earned a split in their two games this past weekend. Seattle dropped a 3-1 decision at home to the Calgary Hitmen but rebounded nicely Saturday in Langley for a 5-3 win over the Vancouver Giants.

Maybe Calgary just has Seattle's number; similar to how the T-birds seem to always beat Victoria lately. The T-birds and Hitmen only meet once a season but each of the past two years Seattle has dominated Calgary for large stretches but still found a way to come away empty handed. Seattle has now lost five in a row to the Hitmen, and all but one have been by a single goal.

Friday night Calgary wasn't able to mount much of an offensive threat through two periods. Seattle's forecheck kept the puck mostly inside the Calgary end of the ice for the first two periods. Unfortunately the T-birds did themselves no favors by not converting on their chances, but also by not making their chances dangerous enough. The one thing the Hitmen did do well was get in the way of shots and clog the slot, keeping Seattle mostly to the outside.

As that game wore on it started to feel more like one of those contests where, if you let the inferior team hang around, they gain confidence and all they need is one break. Calgary got it late in the 2nd period with a last second power play goal. Then a Seattle turnover early in the third led to a second goal and the T-birds never recovered. This game wasn't as one-sided in terms of scoring chances as some of Seattle's other frustrating losses, where their inability to finish their chances costs them either a point or win in the standings. More concerning was the fact Calgary put up such little fight it was disconcerting that the T-birds couldn't do enough for the victory.

One issue for Seattle versus Calgary was the injury that cost them Sami Moilanen over the last two periods and an injury to Donovan Neuls that cost him a couple shifts in the second period. Seattle had to scramble to piece together line combinations but never found the right chemistry the final 40 minutes. In contrast, on their six game road trip east, Seattle was essentially able to keep their four line combinations together for the duration. It's been a bit of an exaggeration but in Steve Konowahuk's five-plus year tenure as head coach in Kent, he has probably had a full, healthy roster for a grand total of one week.

The T-birds roster got a boost the following night up in Langley when Mat Barzal played his first game with the team since he was returned to Seattle by the NHL's New York Islanders. Even the best player in the league will show some rust from a lack of playing games and Barzal did show some. After all, he played just under 20 minutes combined in two NHL games over a month's time. Over the past two weeks, all he has been doing is practicing and not with his Seattle teammates, but with NHLers.

It is clear Barzal put in the offseason work in order to do all he could to stay at the NHL level. He is stronger and, if it's possible, seems faster then he did last spring in the WHL Final. He really isn't that far off from being an NHL regular, so the T-birds are fortunate to get him back for one more season. Once again opposing team's are going to have to pay lots of attention to him. That will open up space for his teammates as was evident on Seattle's first goal from Ethan Bear Saturday. And once again his teammates are going to have to be alert that at any moment, a Barzal pass will be coming their way. There were probably three other times when he threaded a pass through traffic, set up a teammate perfectly for a scoring chance, only to see that chance flubbed. Keep your head up.

With Barzal back, he and Scott Eansor will share the role of team captain. Big stick tap to Eansor for leading this team through the first month of the season, playing break even hockey with some big components missing from the lineup. Not wearing the "C" against the Giants didn't affect his game. His strong third period (1g, 2a) gave Seattle the cushion to earn their 8th win.

When the T-birds finally do get healthy, Konowalchuk has some interesting pieces to work with up front. Conventional wisdom says you just reconfigure that top line from last season that produced 91 goals. No question that Barzal with Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar has ready-made chemistry. And the Eansor-Nolan Volcan-Donovan Neuls line, back together against the Giants, produced a seven point night (3g, 4a) and were a combined +7.

But there is a wild card at play here as well, and he goes by the name of Sami Moilanen. He's a dynamic 200 foot player. Similar to Barzal, he makes players around him on the ice better. His injury Friday puts a bit of a monkey wrench into the works so hopefully it is a short term absence, but there is some thought that if you put him on the ice together with Barzal, they would be a combined handful for opposing teams. Of course the two have never met, let alone skated together. We have no idea how they would fit together, if at all. Moilanen didn't make the trip to Langley and Barzal, who didn't attend T-birds training camp and met the team bus outside the arena before Saturday's road game, has not been in Kent since last spring. First things first is a meet-and-greet between the two new teammates.

Of course on the trip out east, Seattle put Moilanen on a line with Eansor and Volcan and that worked to the tune of averaging four goals a game. Just keeping that line together would be another easy decision. And Moilanen is so versatile he could play on a third line with Alexander True and one of either Matthew Wedman, Elijah Brown or, a when healthy, Layne Bensmiller.

It's too early to be a trend but it does raise they eyebrow a bit if not yet setting off alarm bells but in their last two home games Seattle has scored a total of two goals. In their last two road games Seattle has scored a total of 10 goals. Overall, in eight home games this season Seattle has scored just 12 times. That's just 1.5 goals per home game. Pretty easy to figure out why Seattle has a sub .500 home record at the moment.

Meanwhile in nine road games the Thunderbirds have scored 30 times (3.3 per game) and have an above .500 record currently away from home. I think the biggest reason for this is that Seattle has been, for the most part, a healthier team for away games then they have been for home games. One thing that Seattle does, regardless of venue though, is on average, game in and game out, they are outshooting their opponents.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Goalie Rylan Toth. Toth started both games and went 1-1. He allowed five goals but with the possible exception of the third goal to the Giants, it would be very difficult to scrutinize those goals and put the blame for them on his shoulders. In the first two periods in the win over Vancouver he was the best Seattle player on the ice, making 19 saves on 20 shots including three point blank stops on one sequence after a Seattle turnover. In the Friday loss to Calgary he made an incredible initial save on the eventual game winner. The problem again was a terrible turnover that essentially gave the Hitmen a 2-on-0 opportunity.

2nd Star: Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit. Was his solid self in the defensive zone both games. Let's give the 19 year old Yorkton, Saskatchewan product some kudos too for helping in the development of his defensive partner, rookie Reese Harsch. Harsch's game is made a bit easier by having the savvy veteran back with him. Saturday against Vancouver Ottenbreit quietly put together a three assist night. His game got overshadowed by the return of Barzal but it deserves to be recognized.

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Very graciously accepted the idea of sharing the captaincy with Barzal. As captain he didn't make excuses for the loss to Calgary then without the "C" on his jersey versus the Giants almost single-handedly won the third period, and the game for Seattle. He leads the team in scoring at nearly a point a game (7g, 9a, 16 pts.) through 17 games and is also the team's +/- leader at +5 while continuing to shutdown opposing team's top offensive threats. Case in point, Saturday in Lagley the Giants Ty Ronning and Tyler Benson produced one assist between them and were a combined -3.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A Warm Prairie Greeting

What a very terrific road trip through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Oh, and the hockey was pretty good too! For the most part Seattle was greeted by sunshine and temperatures hovering near 60 degrees (F) at each of their six stops along the way. I say "yes" to shirt sleeve weather in late October and early November on the eastern swing! Maybe not having to worry about biting cold and snow as you step off the bus makes it easier to focus on hockey because a very focused group of T-Birds went 4-2 playing six games in nine days.

It is natural when you have that kind of success that competitive, passionate hockey players will lament the ones that got away, rather then focus on the wins. Certainly with a fortuitous bounce or two Seattle could have gone 5-1 or even 6-0. That's how well they played on the trip. Steve Konowalchuk always says the good players hate to lose more then they love to win; that they think more about the goal they allowed then the one they scored. Of course you strive to be as perfect as possible. Big picture though, this team won four of six on the road playing its best hockey so far this young season.

And once again it was another year in which Seattle played through their longest road trip of the season at less then full strength. No Keegan Kolsear, no Layne Bensmiller and for most of two games, no Ethan Bear (and, if you believe he's coming back to the team at some point, no Matt Barzal). Those are all 19-year old players, your veterans, and three NHL drafted players. No problem though as young second year players and first season rookies stepped up to fill the void.

Youngsters like Dillon Hamaliuk and Reece Harsch recorded their first WHL goals, goals they earned through hard play throughout the trip. Second year center Matthew Wedman, challenged by his coach to take his game up a notch, recorded four assists in his last three games. Rookie Finnish import Sami Moilanen continues his adjustment to the North American game, coming off the road with five points (2g, 3a) and a stitched up cheek. Meanwhile second year defenseman Jarret Tyszka, playing a good chunk of the trip with a swollen face courtesy of a high stick to the mouth, averaged a point per game with six assists, helping pick up the slack the last two games in Bear's absence.

Of course to win, the best players on your roster have to be your best players on the ice. When Seattle was winning their four games and coming oh-so-close to winning two others, it was because of the play of guys like Bear, Ryan Gropp, Nolan Volcan, Turner Ottenbreit, Alexander True and Scott Eansor. That fivesome accounted for 32 points in the six games (14g,18a), led by Eansor's seven (5g, 2a). Eansor capped off his last trek to the prairies with the most unique of hat tricks, getting three goals by scoring shorthanded, even strength and on the power play, in the final game.

Were the Thunderbirds in agreement with the officiating on the Ethan Bear first period penalty in Brandon that essentially cost them their best defenseman for most of the final two games? Of course not. They agreed there was a foul committed but certainly didn't think it warranted being called a match penalty, which it originally was, or a five-minute major, which it was eventually changed to. Do they think it warranted a one game suspension? No. But, it is as they say, what it is. No use crying over spilt milk. Without Bear in the lineup for two and a half periods against the Wheat Kings Seattle still came within a cross bar and a late spectacular save from getting at least a point out of that game. They did miss Bear on the power play that night, going just 1-for-10. Then on short rest, and Bear out of the lineup again, they came back the next night with their best, and most complete game of the trip, winning 5-1 in Moose Jaw.

Early season special teams struggles seem to be behind the T-Birds now. The power play had risen from the depths to sit at 10th in the league at one point on the trip, only to be knocked back to 14th by that 1-for-10 night in Brandon. The penalty killing, which cost Seattle a few games early in the season and wallowed dead last in the league for the first month of the season, has climbed out of the cellar and is currently 15th. Both aspects of the T-Birds special teams should continue to rise, especially once they get Keegan Kolesar finally into the lineup and Layne Bensmiller back from his injury.

A stick tap to Anthony Bishop. A defenseman by trade Bishop, whom Seattle picked up from Saskatoon in the Logan Flodell trade, has been seeing extensive time on the wing for Seattle's fourth line in the absence of some injured players. He did a pretty good job of it too. When Bear went out, the coaches moved Bishop back to the blue line the last two games and he responded well. In those two games back on the blue line he finished at +1 on the team's third defensive pairing. Seattle's coaches will always put their best players on the ice, players who have earned their ice time in practice. This is why Bishop gets time up on a forward line but when they needed him back on the blue line he stepped up.

Speaking of kudos, thanks to all the T-Birds fans along with T-Birds parent and family who followed the team on their travels and made a few of those games out East seem like Thunderbirds home games. Well done!

Having not seen WHL game action since he was a part of the Spokane Chiefs back in late September, before a trade brought him to the Thunderbirds, there was definitely some curiosity to see how Matt Berlin would react to his first start in goal for Seattle. Berlin made sure all that hard work in practice paid off with a 29 save effort in the win over Moose Jaw. Berlin came within eight minutes of debuting with a shutout. He was at his best in the second period helping Seattle kill off three Warrior power plays, then stoned a Moose Jaw breakaway, with a terrific glove save, with Seattle nursing a 2-0 lead. With Carl Stankowski ready to return from the U-17 Hockey Challenge, is Berlin headed back to Junior A or will his effort Saturday keep three goalies on the roster? Inquiring minds want to know!

Also returning from the U-17 tournament will be 16-year old rookie Elijah Brown. Brown was off to a very good start for Seattle before he left, recording four assists and a +2 rating in nine games. In his absence other young forwards stepped up, particularly Hamaliuk. As a result, competition for ice time among those young players, Brown, Hamaliuk, Luke Ormsby, Ian Briscoe, Zack Andrusiak and MacKenzie White, will only intensify. When Kolesar, Bensmiller and eventually Wyatt Bear (and potentially Barzal) get healthy and/or return to the lineup, ice time for those players will be at a premium. Let's see who steps up to the challenge.

My Three Stars for the road trip:

3rd Star: Winger Nolan Volcan. The Edmonton product registered six points (3g, 3a) in six games. He was his physical self as well on the trip, throwing the body and finishing just about every check. What I really like though was his focus on shooting the puck any chance he got. There are times Seattle gets too cute with the puck and overpasses, letting scoring chances slip away. That has not been the case with Volcan who seems to have adopted a "shoot first" approach.

2nd Star. D-man Jarret Tyszka. Had he been available for all six games it would have been Ethan Bear, who was on pace for just over a point a game on the road trip. Instead, with Bear out most of the fifth game and all of the sixth game, it was Tyszka, fat lip and all, who stepped up with a point-a-game effort, registering six assists. With Bear gone Tyszka moved onto a d-pairing with Turner Ottenbreit and Seattle didn't miss a beat. Can't help but think he helped his draft stock for next spring's NHL Draft, not only because of how he played but that he did so playing through injury and not missing a beat.

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Not only is Eansor scoring, with seven points on the trip, but he continues to get tasked with shutting down the other team's top scorers. On the trip, Eansor and his linemates blanked the likes of Reid Duke, Noah Gregor, Simon Stransky, Austin Glover and Lane Pederson. Sam Steel of Regina was held off the scoreboard until a late empty netter while Adam Brooks only found the net on a late power play. More and more Eansor is buzzing the front of the opposing goal. He should be able to pot some greasy goals as he did on his third goal at Mosaic Place.