Sunday, December 18, 2016

We'll Have a T-bird's Blue Christmas

That was an important win for Seattle Saturday night to close out the unofficial first half of the season.  Going into the Christmas break on a high beats the alternative of being gone for ten days with a four game losing streak hanging over your head.  It was a fight to get that win but props to the team's leadership for grinding their way to that 3-0 blanking of Tri-City and giving T-bird fans a nice early Christmas present. 

With the exception of a lopsided loss in Kelowna back on December 7th, Seattle has been competitive in every game so far this month.  It hasn't equated into enough wins as the T-birds are just 4-4 so far in the month but in seven of the eight games they've been in position to win or at least earn a point.

Consistency continues to be an issue.  Some nights it's the lack of a timely goal and on other occasions its the want of a timely save.  Seattle's up and down power play has let them down in some instances and in rare situations that need of just one more penalty kill has eluded them.

The good news is that the majority of Seattle's season still lies in front of them.  Unlike some teams, Kamloops and Tri-City for example, the T-birds reach the Christmas break having only played 33 games, not 36 or 37.  They won't begin the second half of their schedule until New Year's Eve down in Portland.    They still have another four or five games to play without two of their top three centers (Barzal, True) but they've shown they can compete without those two in the lineup. 

One player Seattle will not have for the second half of the season is Layne Bensmiller.  Bensmiller suffered a lower body injury after just seven games and has not responded well enough through treatment to resume playing.  Instead he'll go home to Alberta and use the second half of the season to rehab so he can resume his career next year.  At 19 years of age, he has one more year of WHL eligibility so he could be in the mix for a 20 year old spot with the T-birds in 2017-18.

The Bensmiller situation certainly explains why the T-birds found it necessary to acquire 19 year old Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  The early returns on the newest Thunderbird are positive if not glowing. In chatting with Adams it is clear he knows what his role is with this team.  He's not going to be relied on for offense.  He's going to be an energy player who brings a little physical edge to the roster. 

Right now he's playing on the third line and playing well.  He may stick as a third liner but when Barzal and True return, Adams gives the coach's option to use him up and down the line up.  He, Luke Ormsby and Matthew Wedman showed good chemistry in the win over the Americans. 

I've seen comments on this blog that put a good amount of blame for some of Seattle's first half issues on goaltending.  Let me say that I think Rylan Toth would be the first to tell you he can be better, that he's had an inconsistent first half performance.  The reality is though, that Toth enters the break with the sixth best GAA in the league.  Sure, you can argue that this is more of a team stat and that the real measure of a goalie is his save percentage and right now that doesn't look good for Toth sitting under .900.

But Seattle's goalies don't face a lot of shots.  So, for instance, if you give up two goals on just 18 shots, your save percentage is going to be .888.  Three goals on 24 shots?  .875.  That doesn't look good.   Unfortunately while allowing so few shots against, too many are top end scoring opportunities. 

Yes, you want your goalie to make that one big, game saving stop, something I'm sure Toth would readily agree with.  But look at the last week and you'll see he did that. In the two games in Prince George alone, Toth faced two shorthanded breakaways from Jesse Gabrielle.  He stopped one of two.  That's actually pretty good in that situation.   He stopped a point blank chance Saturday night versus Tri-City when the game was still 1-0.  Seattle overpassing the puck is leading to turnovers and odd man rushes.  As a result the T-birds just give up too many of those Grade A chances. 

Seattle has enough fire power though, that they should win most games when only allowing two or three goals against.  In my opinion, Seattle's biggest issue the first three months of the season hasn't been goaltending.  No, it has been their inability to finish prime scoring opportunities.  Most nights Seattle is outchancing and outshooting their opponent.  Too often the first half of the season they were getting 40+ shots a night and losing.  A prime example was a 4-3 overtime loss in Kamloops.  Seattle had 50+ shots and 29 were ten bell scoring chances, yet they lost.  Finish a few more of those top end scoring opportunities and no one is talking about Seattle's goaltending. 

When you lose 2-1 or 3-2 I find it odd to place all the blame on goaltending.  You win as a team, you lose as a team. 

Despite their inconsistency over the first 32 games, Seattle still hits the break four games above .500 and just seven points out of the third spot in the Conference with games in hand.   There is still the trade deadline and a chance to improve the roster. 

Their best player, Matt Barzal has played in only 13 games, less then half their schedule.  Keegan Kolesar less then that.  They counted on more games from Bensmiller, another WHL veteran. The T-birds have winnable games on the schedule before Barzal and Alexander True return from World Juniors. They need to find a way to win those games.  I believe their best hockey is ahead of them.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend. 

Third Star:  LW Tyler Adams.  Tough thing to do, play one night for another team, in another town, get the news after the game you've been traded then board a plane to a new city and be asked to contribute big minutes with a new team your unfamiliar with.  Adams kept it simple, provided the energy his coaches asked from him.  In doing so he endeared himself to his new teammates and quickly became a fan favorite.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  It's not just the offense as the Finnish rookie now has 11 goals and 25 points in 30 games.  It's how physical he plays with his 5'8" frame. No opponent is too big too throw a check at.  No opponent is too strong to strip a puck from.  Would have loved to see him get invited to the Top Prospects Game.  Seattle was denied on four breakaway chances this weekend.  Not on the fifth where Moilanen scored shorthanded against Tri. 

First Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls is like the utility player in baseball.  He can play a variety of positions well. With Barzal and True gone he moved up from third line winger to center the team's top line.  He was excellent on the PK in both games and earned a big assist on the Moilanen shorty. I was most impressed by how often he planted himself in front of the opposing goal, something Seattle has lacked this season. 

Merry Christmas to all! 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Point-ing in the Right Direction

Seattle ends November and opens the month of December by taking five of a possible six points from their last three games. A few too many casual moments in the first of those three games cost them another point, even though they were up against one of the CHL's top goalies. By gaining 18 of 22 points in their last 11 games, Seattle is now just three points out of third place in the Western Conference with three games in hand. It's is eerily similar to where they were in the standings last season at this time.

Seattle opened the week on the road in Kamloops against the Blazers and goaltender Connor Ingram. Ingram has been invited to Canada's World Junior selection camp and I've heard buzz he could be Canada's #1 goalie for the tournament that begins just after Christmas. The T-birds knew they would have to work to score on him, but work they did. Seattle put 55 legitimate shots on goal and upwards of 30 of them were grade "A" scoring opportunities. Ingram made a number of acrobatic stops and a few pucks caromed of posts and crossbars but the effort from Seattle was there.

I didn't take issue with Seattle only scoring three goals on those 55 shots. Where I was more concerned is that Kamloops scored three even strength goals on three rather egregious defensive zone sins by the T-birds. The 'Birds limited the Blazers to just 21 shots in the game. Most of those came in the third period but Seattle allowed two goals against in just nine shots through the first two periods. Maybe Seattle had so much puck possession and spend 90 percent of the game in the Kamloops end of the ice, they forgot about defensive zone responsibility. Still Seattle earned a point in the overtime loss and road points are hard to come by. So far this season, the T-birds have earned 18 away points out of a possible 30.

Seattle didn't play quite as well two nights later at home against Kootenay and once again were forced into overtime. This time Scott Eansor ended the suspense with the T-birds first OT winning goal of the season (in 4 games). I can't read into the players heads, but I know they read the standings and probably saw a five win Kootenay team on the schedule and thought the game wouldn't require the same kind of effort they put out versus Kamloops. Seattle had a slow start and, I think, lacked a bit of intensity. That changed when they found themselves down a goal after two periods. Seattle was pretty much in control the remainder of the game. They outshot the Ice 17-3 in the third period and found a tying goal on the power play before Eansor's extra time heroics sealed the win.

Saturday night may have been the team's most complete effort of the season in a 7-1 demolishing of the Central Division leading Medicine Hat Tigers. It started in net with Rylan Toth playing his best game as a T-bird. He wasn't tested much but he made a number of quality, confident saves including one off the opening faceoff. Seattle then began their barrage by scoring on their first shot, courtesy of Ryan Gropp. The T-birds then not only killed off two Tigers power play chances but held the WHL's best power play unit to zero shots. Shortly after each of the two Medicine Hat power plays ended, Seattle scored. That can be demoralizing to an opponent.

Instead of letting off the gas with that three goal lead, Seattle continued their onslaught in the second period with three goals from three different goal scorers. And while they didn't score on the power play (they only had three PP chances), that too looked dangerous.

Up by six going into the final period might seem an ideal time to coast to the finish line but I appreciated how the team stuck to the game plan, continued to attack, continued to block shots and added to the lead with a second Donovan Neuls goal.

My T-birds Three Stars of the week.

Third Star: C/W Matthew Wedman. Wedman is normally on the third line with Alexander True and Donovan Neuls. On occasion this past week Coach Konowalchuk has pushed him onto the first line with Mat Barzal and Ryan Gropp. Whatever line he's been on this week, he has produced. He's really starting to use his size and physicality around the opposing goal. As a result he finished the week with five points (1g, 3a) and was +4.

Second Star: D Ethan Bear. Bear is riding a five game goal scoring streak and in that streak he has two game winners. He compiled six points in three games this week (3g, 3a), averaging two points a game. He is now currently second on the team in scoring to Eansor and is approaching point a game status for the season.

First Star: Center Matt Barzal. No coincidence that Seattle's success over their past 11 games coincides with Barzal's return to the lineup. Since he rejoined the team from the NHL they are 8-1-2-0. The trick will be for them to keep it up when he leaves here shortly for World Juniors and won't return until early January. Over his last three games he's earned eight points (1g 7a) over his last five games he has 15 pts. (2g, 13a).