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.

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