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.