Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The X(s and Os) Factor

Before I put the Thunderbirds 2016-17 championship season behind and look to the future, one final commentary on how this team got to the peak of the WHL mountain. 

To do that I do need to look at the T-birds just completed less then stellar showing in the Memorial Cup.  Well, not so much a look at how they fared in Windsor, but who they were up against.  First, let me acknowledge that I just didn't see a lot of the fire in the T-birds in their three Memorial Cup losses that I saw from this team all season, and especially in the 2017 WHL playoffs.  The team was physically present at the WFCU Centre, but mentally, I think they were absent.

But you also have to acknowledge that in Windsor, Seattle faced three teams with better, deeper rosters and that is getting to the heart of what I'm about to write; that the Thunderbirds won the 2017 WHL Championship because their coaching staff, specifically head coach Steve Konowalchuk, got the most out of what he had to work with.  It's a whole lot easier working with a team full of the most talented players.  They can cover up for a lack of top end skill further down the roster.  It takes some strong coaching to mold together a team of hard workers and grinders into championship material. 

Let's look at the eventual Memorial Cup winners, the Windsor Spitfires.  Despite not advancing out of the first round of the OHL playoffs (beaten in a seven game series by the defending OHL and Memorial Cup Champion London Knights), the Spitfires brought to the Memorial Cup a roster that featured ten NHL drafted players, including three first rounders and another in Gabriel Vilardi, who could go top five in the upcoming NHL draft and a goaltender in Michael DiPietro who could be the first goalie taken in the 2017 NHL draft.  Their rosters also included three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those ten NHL draft picks on the Spitfires roster, six of them were acquired at some point via trade.  In other words, the host team loaded up for this Memorial Cup run.

After a 68 game regular season, Windsor played just seven playoff games and had a six week layoff to get healthy and rested for the Memorial Cup.  One of the reasons given for the Spitfires fifth place finish in their conference and early playoff exit was injuries.  Apparently Windsor couldn't play through them.  Seattle played a 72 game regular season plus 20 playoff games, had top players out of the lineup for long stretches and had less then a week between winning the WHL and their first game in Windsor.  

Now, let's take a look at the runner up at the Memorial Cup, the OHL Champion Erie Otters.  The roster the Otters brought to Windsor only featured eight NHL drafted players, and only one, Dylan Strome (the Memorial Cup MVP), was a first round pick, albeit third overall in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes.  Erie did have three 2nd round NHL picks and two third rounders.  Of those eight NHL draft picks, two were acquired via trade. 

Finally, the team that eliminated Seattle from the Memorial Cup, the Saint John Sea Dogs, topped them all with 10 NHL drafted players and one NHL signed free agent on their roster and like Windsor, three of them were first round picks.  Four of them were 4th rounders.  Also like Windsor, nearly half of those NHL drafted players were brought in via trade as the Sea Dogs loaded up for their championship run. 

Now, let's take a look at the Thunderbirds roster.  Seattle featured just four players drafted into the NHL, all taken in the same 2015 draft.  Every one of them drafted and developed by Seattle.  Not one picked up in a trade.  They include a first round pick in Mat Barzal, a 2nd round selection in Ryan Gropp, a 3rd rounder in Keegan Kolesar and 5th round pick Ethan Bear.  They had a few players in Scott Eansor, Turner Ottenbreit and Aaron Hyman who have been invited to one or two NHL rookie/development camps, but none are signed.  They have a couple of players in Jarret Tyszka and Sami Moilanen who could have their names called in this next NHL draft but most likely not in the top half of the draft. 

When it came to strengthening this team for the run to the Chynoweth Cup, and the subsequent trip to the Memorial Cup, T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell certainly didn't "load up" in the manner of his cohorts in Windsor, Erie and Saint John.  Seattle didn't acquire any NHL first rounders prior to the trade deadline.  In fact Farwell didn't add one NHL drafted player to his roster in either of the past two seasons as Seattle twice made a trip to the Chynoweth Cup Final. 

What did Seattle do to make themselves better at this year's trade deadline?  They sent a third round Bantam Draft pick to Calgary for Hyman and swapped out Brandon Schuldhaus for Austin Strand in a deal with Red Deer.  Before that it was picking up Tyler Adams from Swift Current.  That's it.  Nothing along the lines of a blockbuster deal.  No bringing in a Julius Nattinen or a Graham Knott as Windsor did, no acquiring a Warren Foegele or Anthony Cirelli as Erie did and unlike Saint John, no trading for a Julien Gauthier.

Okay, so that's the Memorial Cup opposition.  What about in the WHL?  Well again Seattle's moves to get them the Ed Chynoweth Cup certainly weren't on the scale of Prince George which added a second round NHL pick in Brendan Guhle, a 5th round NHL selection in Radovan Bondra and a potential first rounder in Nikita Popugaev.  They didn't trade for a 40+ goal scorer in Reid Gardiner or a 3rd round NHL pick in Carsen Twarynski like Kelowna did.  And their roster couldn't match the seven NHL drafted players that Regina featured including a third rounder, Josh Mahura, acquired at the trade deadline. 

Unlike Portland did a few years back, there was no bringing in big guns like a Matt Dumba or a Seth Jones to strengthen the team for a championship run.   No trading away first round picks for a chance to win it all like Saskatoon.

Instead Farwell gave Konowalchuk and his staff role players.  Smaller pieces to finish the puzzle. It was up to Konowalchuk to make them champions. And he had to do it while some of those NHL drafted players missed games due to illness and injury.  He had to work them into a championship team while they combined to miss 309 games.  He had to do it while not having a full roster for nearly two dozen games.  He did it without either of the team's two 2013 first round bantam picks on the roster.   He did it by mixing and matching and using 4th liners on the 3rd line, 3rd line players on the 2nd line and sometimes 3rd liners on the 1st line. 

No one player epitomized what Konowalchuk and his staff could do with a player more then Reese Harsch.  The same Harsch who, in his only appearance as a 16 year old a season ago looked like he didn't belong at the WHL level, then was molded into a top six defenseman on a WHL Championship team a year later.    The T-birds didn't "load up" to win their first ever championship, they were "coached up".  It wasn't about who they were as individual players but about what they were together as a team.  No weak links.

And that chain of 25 players, that looked like it could break so many times during the course of the season and the playoffs, was held together by a coach and a coaching staff that wouldn't allow them to be pulled apart. 

You know what question it seems I got asked more then any other this postseason and during the Memorial Cup?  There were plenty about Carl Stankowski and his amazing postseason run.  Quite a few times I was asked about that "got-to-see-him-to-believe-him" player Scott Eansor.  But the question I seemed to get asked the most?  How is it Steve Konowalchuk isn't the WHL Coach of the Year? 

I don't have an answer to that question.  And Konowalchuk probably doesn't care he was overlooked.  Afterall, he may not have a voted-upon award but he does have a well earned championship. 




Sunday, May 28, 2017

Detours to a Championship

I was asked an interesting question the other day.  Which player on this roster was I most happy to see win a WHL Championship?  Heck, I'm happy for all of them.  Every player put in the hard work to get the chance to lift the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Everyone of them, at some point this season, did something to help win a regular season game or a playoff series. 

There are a couple of obvious answers such as every player on this year's roster who was on last season's club and felt the sting of the loss in the 2016 Championship Series to Brandon.  You never know if you'll get another chance and for many of them, another chance would be their last chance at the Cup.   So, I'm happy for those players who got a second opportunity and reached the goal they fell just short of last season.

Scott Eansor would be another obvious answer.  For every highly ranked bantam pick that leads their team to glory, there are hundreds more like Eansor.  His junior hockey story is a tale many players endure, more the norm then the exception.  Overlooked in the Bantam Draft, overlooked because of his size and overlooked because he didn't play much as a 16 year old following hip surgery.  He was a player given a chance and he made the most of it.   He earned a roster spot with Seattle, he claimed a spot with Team USA at last year's World Juniors in Helsinki, winning a bronze medal and so far, has earned two NHL camp invites.  Back when I was growing up in the '70s, they would have turned his story into an Afternoon Special on TV. 

But then I got to thinking about four players who took a number of detours to arrive with the Thunderbirds, some unwanted or unneeded by other teams until fate stepped in and sent them our way. They all became integral parts of Seattle's road to the title, not necessarily driving the bus but certainly they all had a hand in keeping the wheels turning. 

First and foremost is Tyler Adams.  Late this past preseason, Seattle had acquired 19 year old Layne Bensmiller from Prince Albert in the Nic Holowko trade.  But just seven games into his Thunderbirds career Bensmiller came up lame and eventually had to shut it down.  Two months into the season and all of a sudden Seattle was missing an older depth player for their third or fourth line.

T-birds management felt that lack of a veteran player on that fourth line was holding them back, especially with Mat Barzal and Alexander True about to leave the team for World Juniors and Keegan Kolesar just returning after a six week layoff following surgery.

Meanwhile out in Saskatchewan, the Swift Current Broncos were under the direction of a new coach, Manny Viveiros.  Viveiros wanted to give more ice time to some of his younger players.  That meant less ice was available for the 19 year old Adams, who despite being an older player on the Broncos roster, was only in his second WHL season.  It's not a new phenomenon when a new coach comes in.  Sometimes returning role players just don't fit the new coach's system or the coach and player don't see eye to eye on how best the players should be used.   After a solid rookie season, Adams was on the outs in Speedy Creek. 

So, on December 14th, with two games left before the Christmas break,  T-birds General Manager Russ Farwell, looking for some seasoned depth,  sent little used 17 year old forward Mackenzie Wight to Swift Current in exchange for Adams, who just wanted a chance to play.  It ended up being one of those deals between player and team that becomes a perfect fit.  In his first game as a T-bird, Adams quickly ingratiated himself with his new teammates and the ShoWare Center crowd, dropping the gloves with Prince George's Kody McDonald.  The next night he was all over the ice, delivering big hits and winning battles along the boards and being named the game's third star as Seattle blanked Tri-City, 3-0. 

Because of all the second half injuries to Seattle's forward lines, Adams rarely played on the T-birds fourth line, which was the intention when they acquired him.  But even without those injuries, his hard work earned him a more permanent spot on the third line, though at times he saw action on both the second and first lines as well.  He topped it off by getting to hoist the Chynoweth Cup in his home town of Regina, in a building he had been to many times as a kid watching his hometown Pats. 

If you ask him he'll probably tell you coming to Seattle was meant to be.  As we waited for the team bus outside the WFCU Centre after Seattle's loss to Saint John that ended their Memorial Cup in Windsor he thanked me for all the good things I had said about him during the broadcasts.  He said he found his hockey home with the T-birds and you could see on his face how genuinely grateful he was for the opportunity.  He went from being in hockey limbo in Swift Current to being a WHL Champion with Seattle. 

For that to happen, so many things had to fall in place.  Nic Holowko, wanting more ice time in Seattle had to ask for a trade.  He did.  Seattle had to accommodate that request which they did, sending him to Prince Albert for Bensmiller.  Then Bensmiller had to suffer an injury, one that he couldn't heal from, ending his season, which happened.  If any of that never happens Adams most likely never becomes a T-bird.  Pretty nice that the hockey gods aligned perfectly for Adams.

From Regina, to Swift Current to Seattle to lifting the Cup in Regina because of a trade request, an injury and a coach who didn't need him.

Before Farwell made the move for Adams, he made another under-the-radar trade in October with the Spokane Chiefs.  Seattle knew they would be losing young, rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski for two weeks in early November to the U-17 Hockey Challenge.  Outside of Stankowski and Rylan Toth, the T-birds had no signed goalies in their system, having just dealt Ryan Gilchrist to Lethbridge.  In need of a goalie to back up Toth for a few weeks Farwell sent a conditional 9th round draft pick to Spokane for 18 year old Matt Berlin. 

Berlin, who had played in one game early in the season for the Chiefs and in six games for them the previous season, was at the time playing Junior A in Alberta for Sherwood Park.  The plan was to have him join the team while Stankowski was away then return to Alberta with the promise he'd get a chance to make the T-bird roster fulltime the next season. 

And initially that's what happened. Berlin got one start on the T-birds six game road trip through Saskatchewan in early November, debuting with a 5-1 win in Moose Jaw.  When the team returned to Kent, Berlin headed back to Sherwood Park. But an injury Stankowski sustained at the U-17 Challenge wasn't healing.  A few weeks later, Berlin was back with the Thunderbirds for good.  He would get into 13 games, post a 7-2-2-0 record, 2.82 GAA and a SVPCT of .902.  With Toth hurt at the end of the regular season, Berlin became the primary back up to Stankowski during Seattle's 20 game playoff run.  When Alexander True scored the game winning, cup clinching, overtime goal in Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series, Berlin shot off the T-birds bench so fast you would have thought he was on the ice at the time of the game winner. 

From Spokane, to Sherwood Park, to Kent to a WHL Champion all because of an injury suffered at an international tournament by a 16 year old rookie. 

Not too long after the Berlin acquisition, Farwell was forced to make another deal, again with Prince Albert, when the New York Rangers returned 20 year old Ryan Gropp to the T-birds from their AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack.  It was an unexpected move, since Gropp was a signed prospect.  His return gave them one too many 20 year olds and someone would have to be traded or released. 

Meanwhile at some point this past offseason Zack Andrusiak had requested his release from the Tri-City Americans organization.  The 18 year old Andrusiak had been an Americans prospect but never suited up in a regular season game for them. Before the season began the Yorkton, SK native hooked up with Prince Albert and made it onto the Raiders regular season roster, playing in eight games and scoring his first WHL goal. 

When Seattle determined that Cavin Leth was the odd man out in the 20 year old situation they sent him to PA for a 2018 3rd round Bantam pick and also got Andrusiak thrown into the deal.  So, once again Andrusiak was on the move, coming back to the U.S. Division.  In 52 regular season games for the T-birds "Andy"  would contribute nine points (5g, 4a) then add one big playoff goal in a win in Game 2 of Seattle's second round sweep of Everett. 

From Yorkton to Kennewick to Prince Albert to Seattle and a WHL Championship all because the New York Rangers decided to send one of their top prospects back for one final season in the WHL. If Gropp sticks with Harford, Andrusiak is still a Raider. 

Before any of the above deals were consummated, there was another move made just after training camp and during the preseason.  With Landon Bow having moved on from the team after last season, the number one goaltending job with the T-birds heading into training camp this year was thought to belong to 19 year old Logan Flodell.  After two season's backing up Bow and, before him, Taran Kozun, Flodell was the next in line to be the team's number one netminder.  But in Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk's system, nothing is just handed to any player.  You have to earn it through competition.

Maybe not being named the team's starter before camp began weighing on Flodell, but for whatever reason he did not have a good camp with Seattle and then in two preseason starts, allowed eight goals.  The T-birds brain trust, knowing they had a team that could compete again for a league title, knew goaltending was crucial to that effort.  With their uncertainty about Flodell they made the decision to acquire 20 year old Rylan Toth from Red Deer, a playoff veteran who also had Memorial Cup experience. 

With an up and coming Carl Stankowski in the fold, there was no need for a 19 year old back up so Seattle dealt Flodell to Saskatoon. To his credit, Flodell had a solid season with the Blades. In return the T-birds received 18 year old defenseman Anthony Bishop.  Again, primarily because of injuries Bishop would split time with Seattle between playing wing and defense.  In 66 games he registered seven points (2g, 7a), then suited up for 11 of the 20 playoff games.

All because T-birds brass wasn't convinced Flodell could carry the load in goal Anthony Bishop went from the roster of a non-playoff team to having his name engraved on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Four players and four different, unexpected paths traveled to become part of a championship team.

Of course the opposite is true for some of those players who missed out on the chance to be a WHL Champion this season.  The players who were dealt away in those deals.  If I'm disappointed for any of those players it would be Cavin Leth.  In his short time with Seattle he was instrumental in helping them get to the WHL Championship Series against Brandon a year ago.  Like Adams, he seemed a perfect fit for a Steve Konowalchuk coached team.  It was nothing he did or didn't do that forced Seattle to ship him out.  He did play three games with Seattle this season before the trade that sent him to Prince Albert, so I feel a small part of that win in Regina should be shared with him. 

In the end, that's just part of the game.  You never know where a detour will take you. For these four players, it took them to the pinnacle of success, a WHL title.





Saturday, May 27, 2017

Good-bye to the Fab Five


According to those who chart such things, the planet earth has been around for about 3.5 billion years. So a four year span is but a mere speck, on a speck of dust, on our planet's long time line. Yet for Thunderbirds fans these last four years have been some of the best and most important in franchise history and the last two have been historic.

Four banners and one Chynoweth Cup earned, the first in franchise history and while it takes an entire team of 25 players to climb to the top of the WHL mountain, five players were front and center, leading the way.  Their names will live on in T-birds lore, etched now on that trophy for eternity.  Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar, Bear, Eansor. After playing together for four years, their work here is done.  They move on but not before leaving us with four years of terrific hockey moments and memories that will last us, and them, a lifetime.

Front and center is Mat Barzal.  It seems like only yesterday he was an unsigned 15 year old prospect, relegated to the role of spectator at the ShoWare Center in the spring of 2013.  Like many of us, he watched from the stands as Evan Wardley and the underdog T-birds scored an overtime playoff goal versus Kelowna.  Fast forward to the spring of 2017 and he's hoisting an Ed Chynoweth Cup on the ice of the Brandt Centre in Regina.  In between, 278 points in just 202 regular season games and then another 65 points in 49 playoff games capped by a WHL Championship Series MVP.  With the weight of a franchise on his back, along with his teammates, he carried the team to the top. 

He set records, he represented his country and when he was on the ice your eyes gravitated to him.  He matured into possibly the best player in the 40 year history of the T-birds franchise.  You can debate the Glen Goodall's and Patrick Marleau's but Barzal brought one thing to this franchise those two never did, a league title.  Maybe he had better talent around him but he still delivered the ultimate prize.  I would argue too, that he did it with higher expectations placed on him as a number one overall bantam pick, by a franchise that was at a crossroads after losing out on a playoff spot for three straight seasons. 

It says something about a player, when despite his team winning a playoff series without him as the T-birds did in sweeping Tri-City in Round 1, the biggest question is "When is Barzal coming back?"  We all knew he was the linchpin. 

Ryan Gropp came with some hype of his own.  He was the 8th overall pick in the first round of the 2011 Bantam Draft.  A pure goal scorer.  Seattle had to wait as he juggled whether to go the college route or to major junior, but in the end, the wait was worth it. 

I remember his first game with the T-birds at the Toyota Center in Kennewick just a few nights after signing with the team.  His first shift, his first shot, a first goal and a sign of things to come.  The image of him flashing down the left wing, speeding past a defender and beating a goalie with his pinpoint shot is how most of us will remember him as a T-bird.  And I'll never forget his shot late in Game 6 on a Sunday night in Regina that sparked a comeback that led to overtime, that led to a win that brought this team a championship.  The last of his 132 goals as a T-bird. 

When he was sent back to Seattle this season by the New York Rangers he didn't ask "Why me?"  He said, "Let's get going."  And now, in a flash, his time in Kent is done too. 

Barzal and Gropp were both first round bantam picks.  We sometimes forget the same is true of Keegan Kolesar. Maybe that gets lost when you consider he was the second of Seattle's two first round picks in a deep 2012 draft.  He was chosen 19th overall, 18 selections after Barzal went first. Kolesar was the prize for trading Marcel Noebels to Portland that winter.  He never lacked for confidence and had a flair for the dramatic.  A last second goal in Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Championship to tie it and send it to overtime where Seattle would capture just their second conference title. 

It was an omen of things to come as just over a year later he scored another late goal to force overtime in Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series.  A game that Seattle would, once again, win in overtime and he had a big assist on the game winner.  A big goal and a big assist from a big player, in a big moment.  With baseball and football in his family tree, thank goodness he found hockey and the T-birds found him.  And along with Barzal and Gropp, he has taken off his Thunderbird jersey for the last time. 

From that same draft that produced Barzal and Kolesar came defenseman Ethan Bear.  A second round pick, 25th overall.  When he was drafted, his hometown was sometimes listed as Whitewood, Saskatchewan.  Of course we all know now that he's from Ochapowace.  We'll never forget that he came from Ochapowace.

Twice in the last four seasons the T-birds stopped off at the Ochapowace reservation and the residents there welcomed the team with open arms.  You see, not only did the T-birds draft Ethan on that day in May back in 2012, they drafted the whole Bear clan.  Of all the things we are going to miss about Bear, his booming slapshot in particular, I think the traveling Ethan Bear Fan Club will be missed the most.  It just won't be the same without 20 to 30 #25 Bear jerseys in the stands the next time Seattle visits the prairies. 

The irony about Bear is that, at age 15, he missed a good portion of his first Thunderbirds training camp with an injured shoulder.  He comes full circle by ending his time as a T-bird with a busted hand. Only this time there was no way a couple of broken digits were going to keep him off the ice.  What a gutsy way to end his time in Kent.  That broken hand didn't stop him from hoisting the Cup though.  And now, like Barzal, Gropp and Kolesar, he too hangs up that #25 sweater, puts the Thunderbirds behind and embarks on the next chapter in his hockey life. 

Last, but certainly not least, there is Scott Eansor.  Well traveled as a youngster with family stops in Michigan, the east coast and Colorado, Eansor missed his 16 year old season because of surgery on both hips.  Undrafted his bantam year, Seattle took a flyer on him.  They listed him and invited him to camp at age 17.  He wasn't sure what to expect here and the team wasn't sure what to expect from him.  In the end, it was a perfect match.

Early on he played with too much emotion.  He probably still does.  You need those guys though, guys who play the game with their heart on their sleeve. But when he learned to rein it in he became one of the most important cogs on the team.

We often talk about how Barzal makes the players around him better.  I think the same can be said of Eansor. In his second season with the team he was put on a line with two older players in Sam McKechnie and Jamien Yakubowski and they became a tremendous shut down line, putting the clamps on the best forwards on the opposition.  In his third season he was paired with younger teammates Nolan Volcan and Donovan Neuls and history repeated itself.  This season, Sami Moilanen was put on that line with Eansor and Volcan and the results were the same.  In all three instances Eansor was the common denominator.

Eansor was at his best in the playoffs, twice leading the team in postseason goals scored.  His 21 career playoff goals are now a team record.  He went from an unknown commodity to a team captain on a championship club.  And now he's the answer to a trivia question.  Who was the first player wearing a Seattle jersey to ever raise the Ed Chynoweth Cup?  Scott Eansor. 

And now he follows his teammates Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear out the door and onto the next stage.  Five players together for four years.  Together they brought us a division championship, two conference titles and the first league championship in Thunderbirds history.  Well done and a standing "O" to the Fab Five. 










Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Best T-birds Loss Ever



Don't let the headline fool you.  I'm not going to write about the Thunderbirds disappointing results from the Memorial Cup.   While the coaches and players will never make excuses, it's my personal belief that this team was emotionally and mentally spent after beating Regina in the WHL Championship series.

It was another learning experience for this franchise, getting to the Memorial Cup Tournament for the first time in franchise history as WHL champions. Less then 48 hours after returning from Regina, the T-birds were on a plane to Windsor.  The tournament came up on them so quickly after that Cup clinching, Game 6 road game against the Pats, they were never able to re-focus and flip that switch back to "on". 

Add to that Seattle was probably the underdog in the tournament. A quick peek of the rosters of the other three teams shows that all had an average of ten NHL drafted and/or signed players.  The T-birds had four. 

No, the loss I'm going to write about happened on the final weekend of the 2011-12 regular season, in their final home game that season and it was the best loss this franchise ever suffered.  It's a case of winning by losing because without that loss the T-birds would not be where they are today, 2017 WHL Champions.

Going into the final weekend that season, Seattle was battling Everett for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.  The prize for either team would be a first round playoff matchup with the Western Conference's top seed, the 50 win Tri-City Americans.   The loser would be out of the playoffs and fall into the draft lottery. 

Both Seattle and Everett entered that final weekend with 52 points.  The T-birds actually had four more wins then did the Silvertips (25-21) going into that game, but because of eight shootout losses, Everett had the same number of points as the Thunderbirds. 

The T-birds final weekend consisted of that Saturday night home game against Everett, on St. Patrick's Day no less, followed by a Sunday afternoon road game down in Portland.  For Everett, the Saturday game in Kent was the 72nd and last one on their regular season schedule.  It would be their last chance to control their own destiny.  Meanwhile, all Seattle needed on the weekend was to win the March 17th showdown with the Silvertips at the ShoWare Center and they would claim the last spot into the postseason. 

Now, they could still lose at home to Everett and force a play-in game for the final spot if they won versus the Winterhawks the next day, but the chances of that happening were slim and none.  Up to that point that season Seattle was a mere 1-10 against Portland including eight straight losses by a combined score of 57-14.  So the battle for the last playoff spot would come down to that home game against the 'Tips. 

The T-birds opened the scoring with a Conner Honey goal with just over 90 seconds left in the first period.  Seattle took that lead into the intermission, but early in period two Everett tied the game on a goal from Manraj Hayer.  The game stayed tied until Branden Troock potted his 14th of the season at the 7:16 mark of the period.  Hayer's second of the night evened the score at 2-2 at 15:46.  A minute later with Burke Gallimore in the penalty box, Seattle's Luke Lockhart was awarded a penalty shot and converted to put the T-birds back on top, 3-2. 

The wild second period continued when the 'Tips Josh Birkholz tied the game at 3-3 on the power play at 18:04.  But with 28 seconds left in period two, Seattle regained the advantage when Honey potted his second of the night with Seattle on the man advantage.  The second period ended with Seattle on top, 4-3.  The T-birds were 20 minute away from a playoff spot after missing the postseason the year before by a mere three points.  A one goal lead with a full house in the building to spur them on.  Twenty minutes away from a date with Tri-City in Round One. 

The third period started well enough for Seattle.  They held their one-goal lead through most of the first half of the period, but at 8:31 Everett found the equalizer off the stick of Zach McPhee.  Just over 11 minutes left and it was tied at 4-4.  Anyone's game.  Then, with just under five minutes remaining, the Silvertips took the lead.  Cody Fowlie scored his 14th of the season and it was now 5-4 'Tips. 

With time running down and looking for a tying goal, first year head coach Steve Konowalchuk pulled goalie Calvin Pickard for the extra attacker. But with 19 seconds left Everett's Ryan Harrision scored into the empty net.  Final score:  Everett 6 Seattle 4.  The next day Seattle would fall, 8-2 down in Portland and be officially eliminated from postseason play, but it was that loss to Everett that really doomed them.  It put the Silvertips up two points in the standings, despite having three fewer wins then the T-birds.   Everett's reward for that win was a four game sweep at the hands of the Americans. 

Think about that, Seattle had a 4-3 lead on home ice with 11:29 left in the game.  They were that close to a "W" and a postseason berth.  Thank goodness they couldn't hold onto that lead!  What you say?  You wanted them to lose?  Well, not at the time I didn't.  You are always pulling for your team to win.  And Seattle played that night to win.  But that loss changed the course of the franchise.

How so?  Well, by losing that game (and the next day in Portland) Seattle missed the playoffs.  By missing the postseason Seattle finished with the third worst record in the WHL and they were relegated to the draft lottery.  By finishing with the third worst record, when Seattle won the draft lottery that April, they moved up two spots from the third overall pick in the first round to the first overall pick.  With the first overall pick, the T-birds selected Mat Barzal. 

Had Seattle won that mid-March night in 2012, instead of picking first that draft they would have been picking 7th.  Prince George used the 7th overall pick that year, one they acquired from Everett, to select Brad Morrison. Morrison has had a solid WHL career with the Cougars, even selected in the 4th round of the 2015 NHL draft by the new York Rangers.  But he's no Mat Barzal.  Interestingly, Everett had traded that pick to PG in exchange for the rights to Jujar Kharia.  That swap occurred on draft day though.  Had Everett lost to Seattle in that March 17th game, it might have been the 'Tips who won the draft lottery and thus the right to draft Barzal.  I doubt they are moving that pick to PG.  Did one game between two rivals change both club's fortunes? 

If the T-birds win that March 17th, 2012 game against Everett they don't get Barzal and with no Barzal I doubt Seattle is hanging a 2016 U.S. Division Champions banner.  I doubt they are putting up  2016 and 2017 Western Conference Champions banners and they are probably not  hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup as 2017 WHL Champions and there's no trip to Windsor to play in the Memorial Cup.  It takes a team of 25 players to win a championship but make no mistake, Barzal was the catalyst.  He ends his Seattle career as one of, if not the best player in franchise history.  He came to the team with a lot of hype and he lived up to it.   When he was drafted, fans saw him as a savior who could take them to the promised land.  Others in similar situations have crumbled under the weight of those expectations.  He thrived under it.

One game, one loss that changed the course of the franchise.  The best loss ever! 



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

This Magic Moment


They say a picture is worth a thousand words but this one might leave you speechless.  This, of course, is the moment Alexander True scored the game winning goal in overtime of Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series, earning Seattle their first ever Ed Chynoweth Cup.  A moment in time captured on video that will live forever in Thunderbirds lore.  It's only appropriate the photo was taken from his back side, because this team had each others backs all season long. And in the end, the T-birds were the last team standing in the WHL!

I'll have more to write about later, but for now it's on to the Memorial Cup in Windsor. Enjoy! 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Best of Five Now

After splitting the first two games of the WHL Championship Series in Regina, the action for the Thunderbirds and Pats now shifts to the ShoWare Center for Games 3,4 and 5.  The series is now a best-of-five with the first three schedule on Seattle's ice. 

So far in the 2017 postseason, the T-birds are 6-1 on home ice with the lone loss occurring in Game 2 of the Western Conference Championship Series, a 4-3 overtime loss to Kelowna.  Seattle has outscored their opponents, 31-20 in those seven home playoff games.

Regina is 5-3 on the road in postseason play so far this spring and they have scored 34 road playoff goals in those eight games. Two of those eight road playoffs games have gone to overtime including a three OT affair in Round 2 versus Swift Current.

In the first two games of this series, Seattle has allowed five goals against.  Three of those have been scored by the Pats on the power play. Regina is 3-for-11 with the man advantage.  The two even strength goals were both scored unassisted, after the T-birds committed two cringe worthy turnovers against little pressure, in their own end.  Suffice it to say, Seattle has to be more disciplined going forward in this series and they must do a better job of puck management in the defensive zone. 

Goaltending in the first two games was outstanding.  Neither team should have any complaints about how their 'tenders have played in a pair of games that went overtime.  Carl Stankowski for Seattle and Tyler Brown of Regina have each given their team a chance to win both nights. 

It was terrific, entertaining hockey in the first two games up at the Brandt Center.  Lots of physical play, end-to-end action with edge-of-your-seat moments throughout. I would expect that to continue now that the series has come south of the border.

We all know that Ethan Bear has been playing with an injury to his hand.  It's a heavy burden to play at less then 100 percent at such a crucial time of the season and still try to deliver your best.  But as we've seen in the first two games of this series, Bear has handled that burden well. 

There is another weight Bear carries and it has nothing to do with his injury. It is a weight on his shoulders that he, pardon the pun, gladly bears.   Bear hails from the Ochapowace Cree Reservation two hours outside of Regina.  The youngsters there look up to him as a role model. He's not just a good hockey player and NHL prospect of the Edmonton Oilers, he's also an outstanding citizen and example of what hard work and goal setting can accomplish.  But it's not just the youth in Ochapowace that look up to him.   Other First Nations children from around Western Canada also look at him too.

Seattle stayed four nights at a hotel in downtown Regina.  Also staying at that same hotel was a pee wee team from a Reservation in Alberta, just outside of Edmonton.  Every time I hit the lobby, or even the elevator, wearing my polo shirt with the T-birds logo emblazoned on it, these young players and their family members I encountered would ask me, "Is this the team with Ethan Bear?"  or, "Do you know Ethan?"  And when I would say yes they looked at me, their eyes big and wide in amazement, like I had touched a rock star. 

When we returned to the hotel after Game 1 Friday night, Bear was mobbed by these young kids as he stepped off the bus and entered the lobby. He patiently took the time to greet them all.  Then, before Game 2, as Seattle arrived at the Brandt Center, waiting outside the bus at the players entrance was another small group of older, teenaged First Nations youth.  While his teammates filed off the bus and into the arena, Bear stepped aside and took a few moments to pose for a photo. 

I don't know what it is like to be a minority.  And I only know how to be a role model for my own two kids.  Ethan Bear has to be a role model for hundreds if not thousands.  And he has to do it at the ripe old age of 19!  When I see how he handles it I'm amazed at his maturity.  You can see in his face, with each of these encounters, that he recognizes what he represents to these kids and their parents.  He knows each time he meets these youngsters, he's going to have an impact on them and he's sure to make it a positive one.  He does all this while trying to help the Thunderbirds win a championship.  He does all this while trying to improve himself, to become a better hockey player. He does all this while still striving to reach his own goal of playing in the NHL.

He should be proud of the way he carries himself, but he's probably too humble for that.  His parents should be proud of the way they raised him. He is who he is because of them.  His Ochapowace community should be proud of the way he represents them.  He takes them with him wherever he goes. 

Game 3 Tuesday night.  Gonna be a lot of fun! 




Monday, May 1, 2017

Back-to-Back!

Feeling the Blue!
Photo courtesy of Marissa Baecker

Seattle Thunderbirds, 2017 Western Conference Champions.  Has a nice ring to it doesn't it?  Twice as nice as Seattle Thunderbirds, 2016 Western Conference Champions, right?

After watching the Brandon Wheat Kings celebrate a WHL title on the ShoWare Center ice last May, on a Friday the 13th no less, the Seattle Thunderbirds had one goal in mind this season, get back to the WHL Final. Get one more crack at the Chynoweth Cup with this core group. 

It wasn't easy.  Over the past seven months T-birds players have missed nearly 300 man games due to injury, illness, the NHL or international tournaments.  Injuries were the biggest adversary, taking some of Seattle's best players out of the lineup for extended periods of time.  But 12 months and 92 games later (six preseason, 72 regular season and 14 playoff games versus the Western Conference) this club has persevered, overcome all those obstacles and here they are back in the WHL Final after disposing of the Kelowna Rockets Sunday evening up at Prospera Place. 

As Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk said prior to Game 6, this was a series of depth players as both teams dealt with key injuries.  In the end Seattle's depth shined just a little brighter. 

A season ago in the league championship series, they faced the Wheat Kings, who were the CHL's 2015-16 number one ranked team preseason. This time around?  They get the current CHL top ranked club, the Regina Pats.  Seattle's response?  You want to be the best, you have to beat the best.  Bring 'em on. 

This recent six game series with Kelowna should serve as a great preparation for the Final.  Despite going one game short of a full best-of-seven, this match up with the Rockets was a battle.  Kelowna, a team with seven current NHL prospects and probably 4 or 5 future NHL draft picks, was physical, they were at times relentless.  At times in the series the Rockets came at Seattle in waves, a team of highly skilled, well coached, smart hockey players.  Kelowna used their speed to challenge Seattle.  They made the T-birds play at their best to win this series.

By the time Game 6 rolled around, that is exactly what Seattle did.  They played their best game of the series in the final game.  That was textbook Steve Konowalchuk T-birds hockey.  The Thunderbirds were unrelenting on the forecheck, they tipped the puck possession game back in their favor and forced Kelowna to play a 200 foot game all night.  Win or lose, ever since Konowalchuk arrived on the scene in 2011 that's how this team has played.  They are a direct reflection of their coach.

Goaltenders rarely steal an entire series for their team.  A game or two yes, but not a series.  But stealing a game can help you win a series.  In a playoff series with two evenly matched teams like this one between the T-birds and Rockets, Carl Stankowski did that for Seattle in Game 3 up in Kelowna.  The T-birds were outplayed that night but Stankowski came up with 34 saves, beaten only by a controversial goal that looked to be knocked in with a high stick.  He gave the T-birds a chance to win that game despite being back on their heels for most of sixty minutes and they did with a very late Keegan Kolesar goal.   If Kelowna gets that win, I'm not sure Seattle is going to the WHL Final for a second straight year.

To pick up the Western Conference Championship trophy or not?  Teams usually leave the conference championship trophy alone because that's not the ultimate piece of hardware they're after.  A year ago Seattle captain Jerret Smith honored that longtime tradition of not touching it, barely looking at it.  Seattle then lost to Brandon in five games in the league final. 

This time around, the T-birds not only touched it, picked it up and raised it over their heads, they took selfies with it.  This team is different.  They've overcome adversity. Just when you think another, bigger obstacle has been laid in their path, they dig deeper and overcome it.   They bucked the trend of going deep in the postseason despite all the pitfalls they encountered.  Superstitions be damned.  They earned that trophy so they celebrated the moment. 

Last season's team was a close knit group. Because of all the things they've gone through the past seven months, this year's team is even closer.  In Game 5 versus Kelowna, they played inspired hockey for their injured teammate Ethan Bear, and won 5-3.  In Game 6, they picked up Keegan Kolesar after he was sent off late in the first period with a five minute major and game misconduct.  When you are the next man up, when you play for the guy to the right of you and the guy to the left of you, there are no weak links. 

Final power play chances from this series:  Rockets 42 T-birds 24.  Final power play goal totals:  Rockets 10 T-birds 8.  Seattle's penalty killers were terrific.  Another big reason why Seattle is moving on.  The turning point in Game 6 certainly had to be the T-birds, already down a goal, killing off that five minute major.  Kelowna didn't get even one shot on goal.  Momentum shifter.  Not long after killing that off Seattle tied the game, then scored twice more to take the lead for good.

When you play an important series such as this and a rookie defenseman logs a lot of ice but you don't notice him too much because he's going about his business the right way, that's a good thing.  Well done Reese Harsch.  In the absence of Bear, Harsch logged some big minutes on the penalty kill against that potent Rockets power play.  His slashing penalty late in the series clinching win may have actually saved a goal. 

Kelowna rolled just four defense most of this series, primarily due to injury so I'm sure fatigue played a factor, but those are four really good d-men featuring a current NHL first rounder in Lucas Johansen, a future first rounder in Cal Foote and a 5th round NHL pick in Devonte Stephens.  Time and again though I saw Seattle's Sami Moilanen win puck battles from them deep in the Rockets end.  Some NHL team is going to get the steal of the draft should they pick Sami this June. 

The last time Seattle and Regina played was six months and 76 games ago, October 30th at the Brandt Centre.  It was the second game on the T-birds six-game eastern road trip.  Seattle lost that night, 6-3, but that final score is misleading.  The game was tied, 3-3, midway through the third period when Regina scored on an Adam Brooks power play goal to take the lead, then added two late empty netters.  It was a special teams game that night.  The T-birds went 3-for-5 on the PP, the Pats 2-for-5.   The shots were even, 29-29.  The T-birds played that game with no Mat Barzal, who was still up in the NHL with the New York Islanders, and no Keegan Kolesar, still out with an injury suffered at NHL training camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Also missing was  19 year old Layne Bensmiller, out with an injury that would eventually cost him the rest of the season. 

Seattle's back end looked considerably different as well.  GM Russ Farwell had not yet made the trades that brought in Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman. 

Six rookies dressed and five played in that game for the T-birds, including 17 year old Mackenzie Wight, who is no longer with the club, having been traded to Swift Current for Tyler Adams a month later. It was one of the few games in the early going where Wight wasn't a healthy scratch but he went into the lineup that night in place of another 17 year old rookie, Ian Briscoe.

The Seattle lineup also featured two defensemen in Bryan Allbee and Brandon Schuldhaus, who are no longer with the team and rookie Dillon Hamaliuk, who after six more games would be re-assigned to the AAA Midget Leduc Oil Kings.  The other rookies were defenseman Anthony Bishop and forwards  Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak along with back up goalie Matt Berlin. A lot has changed, for both teams, in the ensuing six months. 

My T-birds three stars for the Western Conference Championship:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls finished the series with five points (1g, 4a) and a +4 rating.  With the T-birds shorthanded 42 times in the series, he was one of their best penalty killers.  With Kolesar out most of Game 6 he stepped up to the top line as well as the top power play unit and earned a huge assist on the game winning goal.  Averaging well over a point per game in the postseason (1.29) on six goals, including two game winners, and 12 assists with a +8.  With all those penalties assessed to Seattle versus Kelowna, he stayed out of the box and so far hasn't picked up one penalty minute in the postseason.

2nd Star:  C Mat Barzal.  Barzal had a point in every game of the series versus Kelowna and is currently riding a 10-game point streak.  He hadn't scored a goal in the first five games against the Rockets but his goal in Game 6 was huge, giving Seattle a two goal cushion.  Like a season ago against Kelowna in the playoffs, he got better as the series moved along and was the best skater on the ice in Games 5 and 6.  After missing the first round of the postseason against Tri-City now has 17 points (5g, 12a) in 10 playoff games, averaging almost two points per game (1.70). 

First Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  It takes a herculean effort to upstage Barzal but even Mat would probably agree Stanky was the series MVP.  He stole Game 3 in Kelowna with 34 saves.  While facing only 18 shots in Game 6, many of his stops were of the highlight reel variety.  While he gave up 17 goals in the six games, remember that in just four regular season games versus the Rockets, the T-birds other goalies surrendered 20 goals.  this was a Rockets team that led the Western Conference with 283 goals during the regular season and was scoring in bunches in the playoffs (38 in their first 11 postseason games).  When Seattle needed a big save, he delivered time and time again. 




















Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Series We Expected


Putting the Focus on Game Three!
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse

Two games into the Western Conference Final and Seattle and Kelowna are tied at a game a piece in the best of seven series.  These teams are very evenly matched.  They were separated by just one win and a mere three points in the final regular season Western Conference standings. both possess depth among their forward lines, a solid defensive group and are among the best in the league with their special teams.  Add it all up and you have two one goal games, games that in both instances were won in the final seconds.

The chances of running the table in the postseason are pretty slim.  The fact that the T-birds started the postseason 9-0 is remarkable.  In a couple of instances they were the beneficiary of a good bounce going their way.   Sure that loss in Game 2 is disappointing, especially the way it ended, with a Seattle defensive zone turnover leading to the game winner.  But this isn't the NFL where you play one game a week and it's one and done.  In the NFL you have to run the table in the postseason to become champion.  Not so in hockey where you play a best-of-seven series.  This loss stings but the T-birds get a chance to shake it off and bounce back Tuesday in Kelowna.

Oddly, I though Kelowna had the better of play in the series opener, yet Seattle ended up winning, 5-4, on the late Ethan Bear power play goal.  I thought Seattle carried more of the play in Game 2 yet the Rockets pull it out on Reid Gardiner's overtime winner.  Of course it is splitting hairs here because the edge either team may be enjoying has been fairly miniscule.

Seattle did a better job in Game 2 on the penalty kill, limiting the Rockets to just one goal, but they still need to clean things up in the discipline department.  After giving up seven power play chances to Kelowna in Game 1, they allowed six more in Game 2.  Power play chances through two games favor the Rockets, 13-7 but power play goals are just 4-3 in favor of Kelowna.  Seattle needs to stay out of the box.  Elbowing, high sticking and checking from behind are all avoidable infractions. 

You can't have casual moments in the playoffs, especially not in Round Three when the two teams are so evenly matched.  A momentary lapse can be the difference in a tightly contested game.  It certainly was in Game 2.  Seattle took their foot off the gas pedal and coasted back to a loose puck while on the power play late in the first period.   Not so Kelowna.  Shorthanded they came hard after the T-birds and the puck.  Calvin Thurkauf forced a turnover and found Gardiner all by his lonesome in the slot.  Gardiner blasted it past Carl Stankowski with less then a second remaining in the period. Every second, every fraction of a second, counts.

I don't think Seattle's top line has played up to their best yet through the first two games of the series.  It speaks to their talent that the Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar trio have combined for eight points (2g, 8a) but I expect more from them going forward.  Credit the Rockets for keeping them in check.

This conference championship series is a good argument to keep imports as part of the makeup of WHL rosters.  Kelowna's Thurkauf (Switzerland) and the T-birds Sami Moilanen (Finland) have been two of the best players for their respective teams through the first two games.  Meanwhile both Seattle's Alexander True (Denmark) and the Rockets Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic) have cashed in with goals by putting their big bodies around the net.  A few years back the CHL eliminated import goalies from the picture.  I hope that is a far as it goes.   A lot of times these import players become fan favorites because the fans appreciate the sacrifice these young men are making to leave their families and come overseas to North America to follow their hockey dreams.

Speaking of goalies, there have been a combined 16 goals scored in the first two games of this series, eight for each team.  Yet those goal numbers belie how good the goaltending has been between  21 year old Michael Herringer of the Rockets and Seattle's rookie, Stankowski.   The reason for the large amount of goals isn't because of these two.  Instead it is the elite talent level on these teams which is leading to a high number of quality scoring chances at both ends. Herringer and Stankowski are earning their accolades.

Ironically, it was an injury last year to Kelowna's number one goalie, Jackson Whistle, that thrust Herringer into the starting role.  A year later, the shoe...er skate, is on the T-birds foot. 

Thunderbirds management, understanding the level of talent they had on this year's team, knew they had a team that could make another deep playoff run.  With that in mind they traded for veteran goalie Rylan Toth from Red Deer just before the start of the season.  The 20 year old Toth has both WHL playoff and Memorial Cup experience from his time with the Rebels. He led all WHL goalies this season with 36 wins.  Yet a late season injury has put him on the shelf. 

It would appear that injury would put Seattle's deep playoff aspirations in jeopardy, but enter the just-turned-17 year old Stankowski who has been nothing short of brilliant in posting a 9-0-1 playoff record. In seven regular season games he went 3-0-0-1. So in 17 game in his young WHL career, he has still not lost a game in regulation.  The overtime loss in Game 2 was definitely not on the shoulders of the young goalie.  Three Seattle turnovers left him all alone against some pretty top end offensive talent in Gardiner (twice) and Nick Merkley.

Don't forget his big stop in Game 1 on a late Devonte Stephens breakaway.  Without it Bear doesn't get the chance to be the last second hero.  And he added three or four point blank stops late in Game 2 that helped Seattle get that game to overtime.

I know a lot of people out there are asking Carl who?  As though he just popped up on the scene out of nowhere. Again, Stankowski was the first goalie selected in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.  He participated in the U-17 Challenge for Hockey Canada. He was slated to get 15-18 starts this season for the T-birds but an injury at the U-17s cost him four months of service.  He's not playing over his head, nor is he out of his element on this big playoff stage.  This is exactly why the T-birds drafted him.

Seattle brass knew what they had in the young Calgarian.  The coaching staff has all the confidence in the world in him and he is delivering.  Toth was Plan A, but sometimes fate throws a monkey wrench into the works (this season there have been a lot of monkey wrenches tossed at the T-birds best laid plans).  If Carl Stankowski is the fall back, that is one heck of a Plan B. 

Stankowski's rise reminds me a bit of Carter Hart in Everett, who took over the show for the Silvertips as a 16 year old (from an older, quality starter in Austin Lotz) and never looked back. It's my opinion that if, at some point, Toth gets healthy, I think you go back to him.  Seattle traded a valuable commodity, a third round bantam pick, to acquire him for exactly this purpose, a long playoff run with a more seasoned roster.  Ultimately, if it comes to a decision, the coaches and not me, will have to choose.  I'm just of the  mindset that you don't sit a healthy 20 year old in the postseason. But if that never happens, the T-birds are in good hands with the Stank Eye.

In their last six playoff games, going back to the 2016 Western Conference Final, Seattle and Kelowna have played in five one goal games. The sixth game was decided by two goals with that extra goal being scored in the final 90 seconds.  Two of those five games were decided in overtime.  So essentially, that's nearly six straight playoff games between these two combatants with one goal providing the margin of victory most every night. 

My T-birds Three Stars for Games 1 and 2 of Round 3:

Third Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  He did enough both nights to give his team a chance for a win in both games.  Was far too often put on an island by his teammates in Game 2 because of poor puck management in the defensive zone.  Big saves late both nights.   Was really flashing the trapper in the third period of Game 2, making 12 saves.  In order for Seattle to mount their two goal comeback, he couldn't afford to surrender a goal and he didn't. 

Second Star:  W Sami Moilanen.  Kelowna is doing a very good job of containing Seattle's top line.  But Seattle's second line is playing extremely well and Moilanen is a big reason.  He had a huge three point night in Game 1, including an assist on the game winner. He continues to go into battles along the wall against bigger players and win a good number of 50/50 pucks.  In the first period of Game 2, he beat Kelowna's big d-man, Cal Foote, to the front of the net, ready to take a pass from Mat Barzal.   Foote dragged him down to prevent a scoring chance.  Moilanen has that ability to get into tight spaces with speed and agility, and most importantly, no fear.

First Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  What a postseason coming out party for the Grenfell, Saskatchewan native.  The 19 year old has at least one point in all ten Seattle playoff games and has three points (1g, 2a) and is +2 in this series. Assisted on one and scored the other goal as Seattle came from two goals down in the third period to force overtime in Game 2.  Got the puck on net in the dying seconds of the second period of Game 1 to set up Alexander True's goal. 







Saturday, April 15, 2017

Face Forward and Focus


"I'm focused on the next round, are you?"
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse


At some point it will happen, just not now.  Because of the cyclical nature of junior hockey, the constant roster turnover and the reloads and the rebuilds, it will happen, just not now.  Because of the playoff format currently in place in the WHL, where you are more likely to face a division opponent in round one, and if you get there, round two, it will happen, just not now.   At some point it will happen just because the odds say it will, just not now.

At some point Everett will win a playoff series against the T-birds.  Just. Not. Now. 

The T-birds won their third postseason series, third in the last four years, against their division rival with a four game sweep in round two of the 2017 Western Conference playoffs. For the first decade of this rivalry these teams didn't meet once in the second season.  Now, over the past 48 months they've met three times and Seattle is 12-2 against the Silvertips.

It means Seattle moves on to the Western Conference Final for a second straight year.  Once again they will face the Kelowna Rockets, just as they did last spring.  The irony here is that to get to this point two years in a row Seattle had to defeat their current closest geographical rival, Everett,  in order to play their former closest geographic rival, the Rockets.  Kelowna began life in the WHL 26 year ago down in Tacoma. 

It also means what we've suspected most of the season.  That Seattle was and is the best team in the U.S. Division for 2016-17.  They won the season series from Everett, 6-4.  They won six of the last eight head-to-head regular season games and then swept the 'Tips from the postseason.  Seattle ended the regular seasons with two more wins, 46-44.  Just two more points and Seattle would have finished atop the division. 

Mat Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Scott Eansor, Alexander True, Sami Moilanen, Jarret Tyszka, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman combined for 503 points this season (191g, 312a).  They also combined to miss 156 regular season games.  I don't think it would be going out on a limb to say Seattle could have found two more points or one more win during the regular season with any combination of that group available for just three or four more games. 

But missing players is part of the game.  Injuries, illness and other scenarios caused player absences.  So Seattle didn't repeat as U.S. Division Champions and Everett claimed it fair and square.  So, the T-birds settled the argument in the playoffs instead. 4-0. 

And once again we reach that point where it is time for Seattle to put the Everett series behind them.  Less then 24 hours after their series victory, it's time to turn the page and ready for the next chapter.
It's time to put all the focus on this coming Friday night and the first game of a new series against Kelowna.

This should be a battle.  There is plenty of incentive on both sides.  Kelowna looking to avenge last spring's series loss.  Seattle trying to get back to the league final and another crack at the Chynoweth Cup.  These were the two best teams in the Western Conference the second half of the season, especially after the trade deadline, and now they get a chance to decide on the ice who's number one and who will represent the conference in the championship series against the champions of the East.

I love the game that occurs off the scoresheet.  The line of Sami Moilanen, Scott Eansor and Nolan Volcan did not register one point in Game Four versus Everett.  Yet every time the 'Tips started to get a little bit of momentum, T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk sent out his attack dogs, a trio of pitbulls, and they shut it down.  They effectively turned the tide back in Seattle's favor.  The average size of that line?  5' 8.6", 186 lbs.  It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog. 

One other thing I like?  The under-the-radar trade.  Seattle GM Russ Farwell is becoming a master at these.  Back on December 27th He picked up 18 year old defenseman Aaron Hyman from Calgary for a third round bantam pick.  Hyman has been at the top of his game in the postseason.  In eight playoff games he's registered five points (1g, 4a) and is tied with Turner Ottenbreit for the team lead in +/- at +9.  Just as important, Hyman is eligible to play two more seasons with Seattle.  Did you know Calgary drafted Hyman back in 2013 with a pick they got from Seattle in the Brandon Glover deal? 

My T-bird Three Stars for the Second Round:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls has now recorded a point in all eight playoff games.  He's second in the postseason in goal scoring for Seattle with five.  Against Everett he had the huge, late game winner in Game One.  In Game Four he opened the scoring with the breakaway goal.  He started the postseason on the first line and now is back on the third line but it hasn't changed his approach.  Playing center or playing on the wing, on the power play or the penalty kill, he's playing the best hockey of his T-birds career at the right time.

Second Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  I think it is time we stop being in awe of the young man.  His 24 save effort in Game Four versus the Silvertips was probably his best game to date, rivaling what he did in the playoff opener against Tri-City.  4-0 in the series, 8-0 in the postseason.  Even in Game Three, when he allowed four second period goals, he still made big saves that prevented Everett from extending their lead, giving Seattle the chance for the comeback.  He's not a wide-eyed rookie, he's an outstanding goaltender. 

First Stars:  C Mat Barzal and RW Keegan Kolesar.  The dynamic duo, the combo platter.  Everett had no answer for these two.  In the four game sweep they registered 13 points (7g, 6a).  'Tips goalie Carter Hart will be seeing Kolesar's backside in his sleep for a few days.  The big winger made himself at home in front of the Everett net all series long.  The playmaking Barzal, who had just 10 goals in 41 regular season games, now has four in four playoff games including a Game Three overtime winner.  Meanwhile Kolesar had the game winner in Game Four.   


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Construction Zone; Men at Work

I'm back!!  And I want you at the ShoWare Center Tuesday night! 
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse


Six games into the postseason and Seattle has yet to drop a game.  It's the first time in franchise history Seattle has started the playoffs with six straight wins.  It's a good position to be in but, as every one of Seattle's players will tell you, they are still a work in progress and they are building for something bigger.

The Thunderbirds were in a similar position in round one, up two games to none on Tri-City, but knew it takes four "W's" to win a series.  They weren't celebrating those first two wins but rather focusing on Game 3.  The same is true here in round two.  After winning twice up at Xfinity Arena to open the second round series, the T-Birds are putting those two games behind them and focusing all their energy on Tuesday's Game 3 at ShoWare Center. 

When Seattle gave up two goals midway through the first period in Game 2, it marked the first time in the postseason they had trailed in a game.  Prior to that the T-Birds had played 312:52 seconds of the postseason either tied or in the lead. So of course we were curious to see how they would respond to their first playoff deficit.  What a response as they exploded for three goals in about a five minute span of the second period, to retake the lead. 

Six games into the postseason and 15 of the 19 skaters Seattle has dressed in the playoffs have registered at least one goal.  Two of the bigger goals in the first two games of the Everett series have been scored by a pair of unlikely sources.  Tyler Adams diving backhander in the second period of Game 1 gave Seattle a 2-1 lead and came right after an Everett push to take the lead had been thwarted.

In Game 2 Zack Andrusiak got his first postseason goal to put the T-Birds back into a 2-2 tie.  It also seemed to give the Thunderbirds a boost of energy and they responded quickly with two more goals to build a 4-2 lead enroute to their 4-3 win.  I had written last week that Andrusiak played well in the opening round against Tri-City, giving his coaches confidence to use him in big game situations.  He had shown sporadically through the regular season that he has a terrific shot.  His goal against Carter Hart was no cheapie. 

There were three keys to that Andrusiak goal.  One, defenseman Ethan Bear with a heady play to jump on a loose puck just outside the Seattle blue line and push it up to Luke Ormsby.  Two, the speed of Ormsby and Andrusiak to gain the Everett zone, creating a 2-on-1 rush and, three, a perfect pass from Ormsby to Andrusiak.  Remember, that's Seattle's fourth line creating that goal.  The night before it was Adams and Seattle's third line with the key goal.

Seattle's winning goal Saturday was Bear's power-play goal at 16:34 of the second period. The T-Birds don't get the power play without the aggressive play of Sami Moilanen.  Moilanen fought along the boards at center ice for a loose puck, then muscled his way around Everett defenseman Jake Christansen and was about to break into the Silvertips zone when Christiansen slashed him.  A minute later Bear one timed a Donovan Neuls pass into the back of the Everett net.  Moilanen's name doesn't end up on the scoresheet there, but his effort will get a big assist from the coaches. 

I hope the NHL scouts in the buildings over the last month are taking notice of how big the 5'8" Moilanen plays.  Meanwhile he also has a deft scoring touch as was evident on his go-ahead goal Saturday from in close on Hart.  Forehand-backhand-forehand from within three feet of the goal line while skating left to right.  He showed terrific patience, no panic and an ability to think the game in a key moment. Smart, smart hockey player. 

Over the course of six playoff games, a goaltender is probably going to have an off night or a few moments where he's not at the top of his game.  Saturday in Everett it was evident that young Carl Stankowski was fighting the puck at times.  He had issues with his rebound control which directly led to the Silvertips first goal. But when he needed to make a big save he did.  That's the sign of a goalie who doesn't let anything bother him.  After the 'Tips took the lead midway through the first period, they had at least two or three chances before that period ended to add to their lead. Stankowski held them at bay.  The Stank Eye may have blinked, but in the end he won the stare down.

At least four times throughout the second and third period Saturday I got texts or tweets wondering why they weren't counting all the shots being taken.  Seattle was credited with just one shot in the third period and only five in the second.  Did they really only get one shot at the Everett goal the final 20 minutes?  I don't know how accurate that is but I do know they had the puck deep in the Everett zone for long stretches of the final frame.  Often they had the puck pinned in the corner by virtue of a suffocating forecheck. 

This is another case where a player's hard work doesn't end up on the scoresheet but that was Seattle's third line of Adams-Matthew Wedman and Alexander True at their finest.  Adams in particular seemed to be in Noah Juulsen's hip pocket much of that third period.  Of course Juulsen was probably skating on fumes.  The Montreal Canadians prospect has logged a lot of minutes so far in this postseason. 

Which makes me wonder how the 'Tips could end up with seven third period shots to Seattle's one when the 'Tips could barely get up ice with the puck.  If those shot counts are accurate, I do know this; Seattle scored on 50% of their final six shots. 

We figured special teams would factor into this series and they certainly have.  Seattle is 2-for-5 on the power play while the 'Tips are 0-for-5.  Those two Seattle power play goals, one each night, have been the difference on the scoreboard in a pair of one goal games. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for Games 1 and 2:

Third Star: G Carl Stankowski.  Yes, he struggled a bit in Game 2 with his rebound control, but he came up with the big stops at key moments.  He was also rock solid in Game 1.  Both nights he's been at his best late, protecting a one goal lead.  He's been mentally focused as both nights there have been long stretches where all the action is taking place at the other end of the ice.  He now has twice as many playoff wins (6) as he does regular season wins (3).   Tell me a month ago if you knew this would be the scenario (no Rylan Toth and a seldom used rookie in net) that you had Seattle 6-0 in the playoffs.  They're 6-0 BECAUSE of Stankowski, not in spite him.

Second Star:  LW/C Donovan Neuls.  One big game winning goal in Game 1 and one big assist on a game winning goal in Game 2.  Three points so far in the series.  His game winner late in the first game was a thing of beauty. Not only that, it kept the game from going overtime.  It also crushed a potential serious shift in momentum as Everett had just tied the game moments before.  Third on the team in playoff scoring (one point behind Bear and Keegan Kolesar), he's also 7th in the league with 11 points (4g, 7a).  Two of his four goals are game winners.

First Star:  C Mathew Barzal.  Seattle has goals from 15 different players so far in the postseason.  They have points from 18 of the 21 players who have seen postseason ice time. Yet Barzal is still the straw that stirs the drink and that was most evident in his first two games back from illness. After a month of inaction he picked up where he left off.  Three points (1g, 2a), +3 and a lot of puck possession.  His weave through the Everett defense late in Game 1 led to the Neuls game winner. His deke to the front of the net and persistence to bang away at his own rebound, led to the power-play goal in the same game.  His work along the boards in underrated.  And I lost count of how many times he stripped the puck away.  After the long layoff, he's only going to get better the more he plays.









Saturday, April 1, 2017

Sweep Caroline! Four and-Oh-Oh-Oh

The Stank Eye! Carl Stankowski
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse


For the second straight spring, Seattle has swept through their first round playoff opponent.  A year ago it was Prince George vanquished in four games.  This time around it was the Tri-City Americans. 

No one anticipates a series sweep, especially not Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk, who, as cliché as it may sound, really believes in the one game at a time mantra.  He prepares for a hard fought, lengthy playoff battle but never looks beyond the game his team is about to play. There are no tomorrows if you don't focus on today.

What is most surprising about this sweep over the Americans is that Seattle accomplished it playing the series without their best player, WHL Western Conference Player of the Year, Mat Barzal.  He didn't see one minute of ice time.  They got the sweep sans goalie Rylan Toth, who led all WHL goaltenders in the regular season with 36 wins. He never stepped foot on the ice.   They played the last half of the series without their leading goal scorer and top point producer, Ryan Gropp, who was injured late in Game 2.  The first half of the series Seattle scored nine goals.  The second half of the series the T-birds scored 14 goals.

During the regular season, Tri-City finished with the league's fourth ranked power play. They averaged just slightly over one power play goal per game. Even without Michael Rasmussen, they are a dangerous team with the man advantage.  When the dust settled on this series, the T-birds had clamped down on the Ams power play, allowing just one power play goal on 19 chances. 

Meanwhile, the T-birds, minus two-fifths of their top power play unit most of the series, finished 8-for-20 with the man advantage.  Those eight power play goals came from seven different players. 

While Tri-City was getting a few key players back in the lineup from injury late in the series Seattle was, once again, never at full strength. At the end of Game 3 they had two players sitting on the bench in obvious pain, unable to take another shift.  In Game 4 another player missed a couple of shifts after blocking a shot with his arm.  They soldiered on. 

A sweep under those conditions is not supposed to happen.  You know, Seattle is just a one line team and two-thirds of that one line missed most of the series. Sayonora Seattle, right?  Lose a 20 year old, playoff seasoned goalie and replace him with a, just-turned 17 year old, rookie netminder with not one minute of playoff experience and coming off a nearly season long injury?  Hasta la vista, baby! Si?

It was so frustrating watching a Seattle team with no forward depth struggle so mightily to score goals in that first round. Definitely disappointing as we watched a young T-birds goalie incapable of keeping pucks out of his net.  Wait, is my sarcasm font button not on?  Sorry or should I say, April Fool's! 

Only it's not an April Fool's joke because these are things I've heard whispered from the outside about this team.  Yep, Seattle is gonna be in trouble come playoff time because they overuse that top line and they'll just tire them out.  Take away Barzal and Gropp and you take away their chance to win.  Hmmm, four, cough, cough, and oh, cough, cough. 

Yet that no-depth team just got points from 16 of the 20 players who skated in that first round series.  And they did it against a very good, 41 win team.  Sure, they got the unexpected sweep, but that series was by no means a pushover.  Tri-City plays a physical, punishing style.  They have a high powered offense.  Seattle earned every inch of ice and every one of those four "W"s against a team of up and comers. 

If I had told you that after Round 1, the T-birds back up goalie would have more points then their number one center, you'd say that is a recipe for failure.  Instead, Seattle is on to the second round without dropping a game.  Who writes that script? 

After the Game 4 series clinching win, the Thunderbirds pulled away from the Toyota Center in Kennewick Friday night and put the Americans in their rear view mirror, both literally and figuratively.  It's time turn the page.  A new challenge awaits in either the form of the Everett Silvertips or Victoria Royals.  But the real challenge is the Seattle Thunderbirds. It's preparing themselves for the next game, no matter the opponent.  It's getting their focus on playing the right way and paying attention to details.  It's correcting any flaw, no matter how minor, that may have occurred in the first round.  It's about being better today they you were yesterday.

When a team deals with injuries to top end players throughout the season, we often talk about the silver lining.  That the unexpected, extra ice time being picked up by the players at the end of the roster will only help to serve the team well in the future. 

Outside of Stankowski, no one player on the Seattle roster exemplified that more in Round 1 then Zack Andrusiak. Getting regular minutes on Seattle's third line, he played like a seasoned, playoff vet.  Only he had never tasted the WHL postseason before.  He didn't light up the scoresheet, registering just one assist, but he logged valuable minutes and created offensive opportunities off the forecheck. 

As Seattle hopefully gets healthier going forward, Andrusiak's ice time may diminish, but he has shown the coach's he can be a reliable player in big games. 

My T-birds Three Stars for Round 1:

Third Star:  D Ethan Bear.  Almost a quiet nine point (2g, 7a, +4) first round for the Edmonton Oilers draft pick.  Maybe it's because we've just come to expect that from him.  Ever since he arrived in Kent he's been pegged as an offensive minded defenseman, but his game is well-rounded.  The Western Conference Defenseman of the Year plays a complete 200-foot game, providing a quiet but affective brand of leadership as well.  When Seattle got in a little trouble in their own end, you let out a sigh of relief when the puck landed on his stick. 

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  It just seemed, in this series, he was determined to show that he is a top player in this league, and not a complimentary piece, no matter who his linemates are. With no Barzal to center his line in the series, and no Gropp on his line the last two games, it just seemed he got better with each performance.  He ended the series by leading the WHL in playoff points with 11 (3g,8a, +5).  That's 2.75 points per game.   It often looks like Barzal, when he's in the lineup, puts the team on his back at key moments.  There were times in this series where it looked like Kolesar was doing the same. 

First Star.  G Carl Stankowski.  Up until the last week of the regular season and this playoff series, the high point of Stankowski's rookie WHL campaign may have been celebrating his 17th birthday March 9th.  An injury cost him four months and probably 10-12 starts.  Remember this, his low point was his first start after the four month layoff.  He gave up two goals on five shots the first four minutes in a February 24th start in Kennewick against the Americans and was pulled. Well, he was still just 16 back then.  Pressed into the starting role in the first round of the postseason against that same Tri-City team he goes 4-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .932 SVPCT.  He looks more like an altar boy then a top prospect goalie, but on a team stocked with playoff veterans, he stole the show.






Sunday, March 26, 2017

And so it Begins

Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse

It takes 16 "W's" to win the WHL's Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Sixteen teams are participating in the league's playoffs all with the goal of raising that Cup.  Within two weeks that number of postseason participants will be down to eight teams.  By early May, only one team will be left standing. 

Seattle started out the postseason this weekend trying to make sure they are one of those eight teams advancing to the second round.  The T-Birds played two solid home games and as a result won the first two games of the postseason, defeating the Tri-City Americans 4-2 and 5-2.  The series will now shift to Kennewick's Toyota Center for Games 3 and 4 this coming week. 

The hope was Seattle would have both first line center Mathew Barzal, dealing with an illness, and number one goalie Rylan Toth, working through a lower body injury, back in the lineup for the start of the playoffs.  But why break with precedence?  Seattle has dealt with injuries to key players all season long, so why should the playoffs be any different?

Fortunately for Seattle, it would seem these injuries have not affected their ability to win games.  They finished the season with 46 wins, most in the Western Conference, and without Barzal and Toth the last five games of the regular season, they went 4-1.  Make that now 6-1 after these two wins to open the postseason with Barzal and Toth both still unavailable. 

Through the first two games against the Americans, depth was the key.  Seattle scored a combined nine goals in the two wins and those goals came from eight different players.  A third pairing defenseman, Austin Strand, scored the game winner opening night and third line winger Matthew Wedman broke the 2-2 tie Saturday.  If you had Seattle winning Game 2 without a goal from their top line or top D pairing, pat yourself on the back 'cause that's what happened.

The Thunderbirds still need to be more disciplined going forward.  They've given the Ams 12 power plays in the first two games and while Tri-City converted on just one, it's a recipe for disaster if Seattle keeps up that pace.  The good news for Seattle is their own power play, even without Barzal, is clicking at 40 percent so far in this series (4 of 10). 

So far in this series against Tri-City depth has been the difference.  I don' t think there are two teams in the Western Conference, heck the WHL, affected more by key injuries this season then Seattle and Tri-City.  The difference has been Seattle's ability to consistently overcome those injuries.  Seattle has four players who can center their top line if needed in Barzal, Alexander True, Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls.  That helps keep Seattle playing at an optimal level.  Tri-City, probably because of a younger roster, was streakier when those injuries hit.  So far it's clear that the loss of Michael Rasmussen and Nolan Yaremko is affecting the Americans. 

Another factor early in the series is probably playoff experience.  Seattle's roster features a large number of players who were with the team on their long playoff run to the league final last spring.  Many of them have been to the postseason four years in a row.  The loss to Brandon in the final series a year ago is motivating them to get back to the final again.  Tri-City missed the 2016 postseason and very few player on their roster have been in the WHL playoffs before.

That experience may have paid off for Seattle in Game 2.  After Tri-City erased the T-Birds two-goal lead early in the third period, they didn't panic.  They just kept coming.  Seattle ended the third period with 22 shots on goal and scored three times in the last five minutes to pull out the win. 

Now Seattle has to use that veteran playoff experience to realize they've won nothing yet.  It takes four wins to advance, not two.  Tri-City will be desperate to win and will look to use their home ice to their advantage.  Playoff experience or not, the Americans will be in desperation mode to get back in this series.  The T-Birds will need to match, if not exceed, the desperation level Tri-City will play with. 

Both Barzal and Toth were in the lockerroom post Game 2.  Not sure if that means they'll be available for the upcoming games in this series but it is a sign they are closer to a return to the lineup. 

Until last Sunday, on the final day of the regular season, Carl Stankowski had not played in a game at the ShoWare Center since an October 14th 3-2 shootout loss to Prince George.  That was over six months ago.  He's now won three straight on home ice in a week's time, including his first two playoff starts.  Stankowski, who turned 17 years old back on March 9th, has played 271 minutes of hockey at the ShoWare Center and has surrendered just nine goals on 120 shots.  That's a 2.43 GAA and .908 SVPCT on home ice with those numbers improving with each game played.

Remember, Stankowski was the first goalie taken in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft and has represented Canada on the world stage at the U-17 Hockey Challenge. The bright lights of the WHL Playoffs shouldn't phase him.  

Which brings me to, my T-Birds Three Stars for the opening weekend of the 2017 postseason:

Third Star:  D Austin Strand.  Before coming over to Seattle in a late December trade with Red Deer, Strand had potted just one goal in 38 games.   In 36 regular season games with the T-Birds he registered eight goals.   He's now added one game winning playoff goal to that number.  He is currently tied for second in team playoff scoring with three points (1g, 2a).  A Wally Cleaver, aw shucks attitude off the ice, he doesn't mind being a little nasty on it.

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  Whether scoring or not, through the first two postseason games Kolesar has been putting his stamp on this series. He's really brought his game to an even higher level in the absence of Barzal.  Very physical effort the last two weeks.  He's the team's early playoff scoring leader with four points (2g, 2a). 

First Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  Out most of the season with an injury, there was a time back in November and December when Seattle didn't know whether they would have to shut down their prized future netminder and wait until next season.  Stankowski put in the rehab to get back sooner than later.  Pressed into the starting role at the beginning of the postseason, he is 2-0 with 2.00 GAA and SVPCT of .938.  His stopping of three breakaways and a penalty shot in a span of four minutes of the third period in Game 1, with Seattle clinging to a 3-2  lead, is the stuff that will have fans in three years saying "I was there when it all started for him".  It was the night the Stank Eye was born, when Stan the Man first flashed on the scene.