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.