Monday, January 30, 2017

Top of the Line

There is no question that Seattle's depth has been a major reason why they have won 11 of their past 12 games and gone 14-5-1 in their last 20. They started a bit slow, when they first lost a couple of players to World Juniors, playing .500 for the first week.  But once players adapted to new roles and more ice time and the coach's showed their confidence in them, they have been on a nice roll. 

At no time in that stretch, dating back to early December, has Seattle had a full, complete and healthy roster.  In fact I don't believe that has existed once this season.  Whether it was Mat Barzal and Alexander True representing their countries at the World Junior Championships, or more recently the injuries to Scott Eansor, Matthew Wedman or Jarret Tyszka, the T-birds have played that entire stretch with key components missing.  Yet, they have not missed a beat.  And Sunday, when Zack Andrusiak left the game in the first period with an illness, the T-birds, down to 11 forwards, played most of that game against Tri-City one player under the limit.  The result?  A 5-1 win to complete a three game weekend sweep. 

Saying all that though, it is undeniable that the T-birds have been led by their top players, in particular their top line of Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar.  In the three wins this weekend that trio combined for 19 points (5g, 14a) and were +15.  In Seattle's current five game winning streak those three have produced a total of 31 points (7g, 24a) and together are +27. 

Let's throw defenseman Ethan Bear into that mix as well, because along with those other three, that makes up Seattle's NHL-drafted-players pool.  During the current winning streak, that foursome has racked up 36 points (11g, 25a) and are +34.  To be at your best, your best players have to be the best players on the ice every night.  Over the past three weeks, Seattle has been able to check off that box. 

Remember, until his recent injury, Scott Eansor was the team's leading goal scorer and point producer.  Until Ethan Bear (41 pts.) and Ryan Gropp (40 pts.) recently passed him on the stat sheet, Eansor led the way with 37 points in 38 games.  But Eansor, who still tops the team with 18 goals, has missed eight straight games and 10 of the last 12 while dealing with a lower body injury. So Seattle has essentially played the month of January with their leading scorer on the sideline.

Seattle has survived Eansor's absence for a couple of reasons.  One, they got Barzal and True back from World Juniors.  The return of two of your top three centers helps alleviate the loss of one. 

Two, they have a versatile player like Donovan Neuls.  Neuls has stepped in between Sami Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, to center Seattle's second line and capably fill the void caused by Eansor's injury.  While Neuls doesn't produce the points like Eansor, he still was a plus player (+2) centering the second line the past eight games and contributed a game winning goal and  two assists.  More importantly he provides the same level of penalty killing as Eansor, helping the T-birds PK rise to third overall in the league. 

Under ideal conditions, Neuls would be playing wing on the T-birds third line with True and Wedman.  But over the past month the coach's have used him to center the top line, when Barzal was away, and now the second line with Eansor out.  

The truth be told, if every thing was perfect, Seattle's line combinations would probably look like this: 1.  Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar, 2. Volcan-Eansor-Moilanen, 3. Wedman-True-Neuls and 4. Tyler Adams-Luke Ormsby and either Elijah Brown, Andrusiak, Anthony Bishop or Wyatt Bear.  But it's not a perfect world.  In a physical game like hockey, injuries occur.  To keep playing your best under those circumstances, you have to adapt.  Seattle has. 

When Seattle acquired Adams from Swift Current in early December, it was to shore up their fourth line.  But with player absences and the injury to Wedman, Adams is playing exclusively on the third line with True and Ormsby and playing well. This is just another of those under-the-radar trades made by GM Russ Farwell that works out so well for the Thunderbirds. 

It's nice to see Wyatt Bear finally get back to playing games.  A lower body injury that carried over from last season, cost him over half this season as well. He's given the team some valuable shifts on the fourth line the past week.  He's got good size and plays physical.  You can see he has the ability to win battles along the boards. 

Fun fact time now.  Seattle's back up goalies have helped the team earn a point in every game they've started.  Combined Matt Berlin (4-0-2-0) and Carl Stankowski (1-0-0-1) have not lost in regulation this season.  Stankowski continues to rehab from a lower body injury suffered at the World U-17 Challenge but it appears there is a chance we'll see him play at some point in the final two months of the regular season.  Berlin, meanwhile has earned wins against Moose Jaw, Victoria, Tri-City and Everett this season, four teams that have, so far, combined for 119 wins.  In those four wins, he's allowed just five goals. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  After a slow start following the first half surgery, the goals are starting to come now for the big forward.  Double digits in goals after the weekend with ten and 26 points in 31 games.  Seems most of his goals end up being game winners. 

Second Star:  Center Mat Barzal.  Really, we could play musical chairs with these three players but we'll give Mat a break from the top of the ladder this week.  Just type the following line when describing his game and you'll be spot on every time:  He makes the players around him better.  Seattle has five power play goals in the past four games and he's assisted on all of them. 

First Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Quietly has started to play at another level.  The 20 year old New York Rangers prospect, like his linemate Kolesar, is starting to rack up the points with 40 in 42 games, but he continues to consistently affect games now in ways that don't hit the scoresheet; a strong forecheck, timely backchecks and solid penalty killing. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Toth-ing the Line

After having one of their mid-week games postponed due to poor road conditions in Eastern Washington, the Thunderbirds got back on the ice and played two strong games this past weekend, and thus completed a 2-1-0-0 week.  If not for a disallowed goal (more on that later), the T-birds could be looking at a nine game winning streak or, at the very least, points in nine straight games.

Mark Twain popularized a phrase that went something like this; there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.  In other words, statistics are often used to prop up a weak argument.  If you go back to Friday's loss in Everett, Seattle outshot the Silvertips by a whole bunch the final two periods (26-9) and 33-14 for the game.  This would indicate they had the vast majority of puck possession and more time in the attacking zone. The conclusion from this?  Seattle was the better team on the night, right?  Well, at the end of the night Seattle lost, 1-0 so those statistics don't tell the complete story. 

The following night the T-birds did pretty much the same against Vancouver, outshooting the Giants 46-16.  Again this would indicate Seattle had most of the puck possession and spent more time inside the Vancouver blue line.  At the end of the night Seattle won 6-1. 

Obviously there are other stats (PP, PK) that come into play but at the end of the game, there is only one statistic that matters, goal for/goals against.  It is still all about putting the puck in the back of the net.

Of course, Seattle thought they had done that late in the third period Friday up in Everett.  The truth is they did.  Luke Ormsby banged in a loose puck that seemingly tied the game with the Silvertips at 1-1. Unfortunately, the referee in behind the Everett goal lost sight of the puck (rather quickly I might add) and blew the play dead just as Ormsby was scoring.  

A simple but frustrating explanation that has happened to many a team and will, at some point happen again.  There's nothing malicious about what the official did.  That's what they are trained to do in that situation.  Players make mistakes in games and so do officials.  They're human.  It happens. 

I did see an argument that claimed it was waived off due to goaltender inference which was not the case.  Had there been interference with the goalie there would have been a penalty on Seattle (there was not).  If the contact was unintentional, instead of a penalty, the face-off would have come back to the neutral zone which it didn't.

Here's what I didn't like about that play.  The referee who blew the play dead is not the official who offered up the explanation to the Seattle coaches as to why the goal was being disallowed.  He left that up to his partner.   In a tight game like that, when you make such a call, confidently go to the bench and explain yourself.   Are you most likely to encounter a coach with a sour disposition?  Most likely, but it's part of the job.

I actually liked Seattle's response to that disallowed goal.  They didn't pout or complain too vociferously.   Instead they went right back on the attack and created a few more, good scoring opportunities.  Just on this night, 'Tips goalie Carter Hart was able to keep them at bay with some solid and spectacular saves. 

I also loved Seattle's response the next night to their first game in over a month against a team outside the U.S. Division.  After 11 straight games with a playoff like atmosphere, including four against the division leading Silvertips, it would have been easy for the T-birds to let down their guard and look past a Vancouver team that sits in last place and outside the playoff picture in the Western Conference.  It was just the opposite.  Maybe it being Teddy Bear Toss Night helped the team keep their focus.  I'd like to think they are playing to their strength and not worrying about the opponents weaknesses. 

Hard to fathom why Seattle's power play is so inconsistent and as a result sits just 19th in the league.  Seattle has basically the same power play personnel that finished third best in the league with the man advantage a season ago. Currently the T-birds have scored a league low 27 power play goals.  Last year Seattle finished with 70, so over halfway through the current season, they don't even have half as many as they did in 2015-16.  Amazing to think they are ten games over .500 without a major part of their arsenal contributing much to their attack.  Just 16 percent of their offense so far comes with the extra attacker.  Let's be glass-half-full optimist and believe they'll get the power play untracked.  How much more dangerous will they be when that happens!?

Jumping back to those damn statistics now.  Seattle and Rylan Toth, who was just named the WHL Goalie of the Week, (2-1-0-0, a 1.01 GAA and .944 SV %). have allowed just three goals in their last three games. It is hard for opposing teams to score when they don't have the puck or can't get shots through.  In their last nine periods of hockey the Thunderbirds have outshot their opponents by a combined 112-54. In seven of their last nine periods the T-birds have limited the opposition to seven or fewer shots and in six of those periods, it has been five shots or less.  When you don't face many shots, a goalie has to stay on his toes to stay engaged in the play.   Toth was very good in that category as well. 

Most encouraging about that is Seattle's ability to limit shots with one of their best players on the sideline.  Scott Eansor is not only the team's current leading scorer but also one of their best defensive forwards, yet he missed all three games with a lower body injury.  Let's also not underestimate what the absence of Matthew Wedman means to this team.   The 17 year old center was really starting to come in to his own, particularly on the forecheck, when he suffered his own lower body injury earlier this month. 

Three players have really stepped up their game in the absence of those two; Donovan Neuls, Tyler Adams and Luke Ormsby.  Neuls has taken Eansor's spot,  centering Sami Moilanen and Nolan Volcan, and that line hasn't missed a beat.  With Wedman out and Neuls moved up to the second line, Adams and Orsmby have moved up to the third line to form a formidable physical presence with Alexander True.

Adams has taken up the role that Andreas Schumacher had for Seattle in the second half last season. He isn't going to light up the scoreboard, but he's big, physical, is winning 50/50 puck battles along the boards and chips in with the occasional point.  I think one advantage he has over Schumacher is he appears to be a better skater. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit. Come on, you have to have the guy who scored the Teddy Bear Toss goal on this list.  Seriously though, Ottenbreit's a big reason so few shots are getting through against the Seattle defense.  He's one of the best at blocking those shots.  He also was +6 in the three games this week and is head and shoulders above the rest of the team on the season at +25.  The next closest is Ethan Bear at +17.

2nd Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  After having his five game point streak snapped Friday, he got right back at it Saturday with a three assist performance.  Even in the loss to Everett he came close on a number of scoring chances only to be robbed by Hart.  He's also become on the team's top penalty killers.  Five assists and +5 for the week.  With 33 points in 38 games, he's methodically creeping up to being a point a game player again.

1st Star:  C Mat Barzal.  I'd be surprised if he doesn't sit in this spot every week from now until the end of the season.  28 points in just 18 games this season.  Three goals, two assists and +5 for the week.  He's tallied nine points (4g, 5a) in his last four games.  Starting to become reminiscent of last season when the majority of his 27 goals came in the final 30+ games. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

A High Five

With their two wins this weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds are now riding a, season best, five game winning streak. Seattle is also nine games over .500 for the first time all year and, since December 17th, are 7-1-1-0. 

Through that stretch the T-birds had checked the box on almost every aspect of their game save one.  They had been getting strong goaltending, timely scoring and points from all four lines.  They've been winning games at home, on the road, in regulation and in overtime and shootouts.  They've stayed disciplined and the few times they've been penalized, they've had a strong penalty kill.  The missing ingredient?  The power play. 

Seattle's struggles with the extra attacker saw them drop to 20th in the 22 team league in that category.  Remember, this was a team, with virtually the same personnel, that finished third in the league in that department a year ago.  But they were winning games recently despite a stretch of just 1-for-33 with the man advantage.  While one game doesn't completely cure what ails you, Sunday the T-birds were a perfect 3-for-3 on the power play in their 6-4 win over Spokane. 

You have to actually go back to Saturday's overtime win in Everett to see the seeds of power play improvement had been planted with the return of Mat Barzal and, a now, completely healthy Keegan Kolesar.  Seattle had just one power play against the Silvertips and they didn't score.  But you could see they were on the right path.  They passed the puck crisply and shot quickly.  It would bear fruit less then 24 hours later.

After the T-birds third power play goal against the Chiefs Sunday, with about seven and a half minutes left in the game, pushed their lead to 6-2, head coach Steve Konowalchuk wisely gave his top players the rest of the night off.  I don't think Barzal, Kolesar, Ryan Gropp, Alexander True and Ethan Bear saw another shift.  Knowing they start a stretch of four games in five nights at home Tuesday, it was a chance to give those players an extra bit of rest.  It was also a bit of a reward for his third and fourth lines, who were given the extra ice time.  Seattle doesn't go 7-1-1-0 over their last nine games without those players and their contributions. 

For all the treading water Seattle did the first half of the season, they never were very far from the top half of the Western Conference standings.  And now, after this five game winning streak, they are just five points from the fourth spot with games in hand.  With 23 wins, Seattle is just four behind Everett in the win column. 

The 2017 WHL trade deadline has come and gone.  Seattle made three trades in the four weeks leading up to the January 10th deadline but didn't make a last minute deal like a number of other teams did.  Frankly, after seeing the prices paid for good but not elite players, I can see why GM Russ Farwell held on to his best assets.  Farwell did say he looked into adding a top nine forward but none of the players available were better then what he currently had on the roster. Meanwhile other teams were giving away top prospects and high draft picks for third liners.

Remember to get something, you have to give something.  I didn't see a player moved at the deadline that I personally would have sacrificed a first round pick or top prospect for.  Even Everett, which acquired one of the better players available in 20 year old defenseman Aaron Irving from Edmonton, had to pay a heavy price, dealing away a 2018 first round pick, a top prospect in 16 year old Brett Kemp (a former 2015 2nd round pick) and 20 year old winger Graham Millar. 

For Seattle it just didn't make sense to sacrifice the future for a player who would barely crack your top nine, let alone wouldn't be in your top six. 

Meanwhile Seattle surrendered just a third round pick, a disgruntled defenseman (former 2013 fifth rounder Brandon Schuldhaus) and a mid range prospect (MacKenzie Wight) for Tyler Adams, Aaron Hyman and Austin Strand.  With Adams in the lineup the Thunderbirds are 7-2-1-0.  With Hyman in the lineup they are 6-1-1-0.  With Strand in their lineup the T-birds are 5-0-0-0. 

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  D Ethan Bear.  The highlight of the weekend was Bear's perfect stretch pass to Kolesar Saturday night in Everett that led to the T-birds game winning overtime goal.  The Edmonton Oilers prospect finished the weekend with four points (2g, 2a) and now has three straight multi-point games. 

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  If you were wondering if Kolesar is finally 100% after the surgery that cost him much of the first half of the season, wonder no more. His OT game winner in Everett told you all you needed to know.  Kolesar had logged a lot of minutes in the third period of that game and then a bunch more ice time in the overtime.  In fact he was probably at the end of a shift, yet he had enough juice left to skate away from the Everett defense and get off a perfect shot to beat Carter Hart for the game winner.  He capped the weekend with three assists versus Spokane Sunday. 

First Star:  C Mat Barzal.  He hasn't played but 15 games with the T-birds this season but there can be no question that Barzal has had his impact.  Seattle's record in those games?  11-2-2.  In their two wins this weekend he registered four points (1g, 3a) and was +3.  Even better, with Kolesar seemingly back to 100%, Seattle's KGB line (Kolesar, Gropp and Barzal) was back to hacking away at the opposition (see what I did there?). In the two games they combined for 10 points (3g, 7a) and were +8.  Two of those three goals were game winners.

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Dozen and the Division

Back on December 17th, their last game before the Christmas break, Seattle played host to the Tri-City Americans.  The 3-0 shutout win would be the first of 12 straight games against the U.S. Division.  Over a month of hockey for Seattle against primarily Spokane and Everett but also Portland and the Americans. 

The first seven of those games, including that win over Tri-City, would be without Mat Barzal, who would be away at World Juniors with Team Canada.  The first five would also be without Alexander True who was representing Denmark at the same tournament.  Two of them would be without leading scorer Scott Eansor, nursing a lower body injury.  In a couple of instances, they played without all three players in the lineup.

Through the first seven games of the 12 straight against the division, Seattle has gone 5-1-1-0.  That includes three straight after a 3-2 win New Year's Eve down in Portland, a 4-3 shootout win Friday at home over the Silvertips and a 2-1 win on the road in Spokane Sunday. 

This coming weekend, facing Everett and Spokane yet again, may be the first time since a 3-2 win December 9th up in Prince George, that the T-birds have all three players back together in the lineup.   I bring this up because last season, under similar circumstances, the T-birds won just twice with those conditions.  It probably is what prompted GM Russ Farwell to make certain trades, that brought in Landon Bow, Andreas Schumacher and Cavin Leth. 

This time around Seattle had players on the roster who stepped up, probably none bigger then goaltender Rylan Toth, who has improved his season numbers by bringing down his GAA to 2.79 and his save percentage up to .902.   But Toth is a WHL veteran and his improvement should be expected after an up and down first half.

The real work to pick up the slack created by the absence of Barzal, True and Eansor, was done by rookies and second year players such as Matthew Wedman, Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak, to name a few.  Working in concert with the remaining veterans and new trade acquisitions, they helped Seattle play a complete team game most every night.    Instead of relying on one or two lines, Seattle was able to roll four.  That was something Seattle didn't do until after the trade deadline last season.

So often players at the end of the roster covet more ice time, believing if the coaching staff would give them that chance they will prove they are worthy of a regular shift.  Often times though, we find out these players are at the end of the bench for a reason, whether it's too young or too inconsistent.  But these past few weeks these particular T-bird players showed their value  With the return of Barzal, True and Eansor these guys are going to see their ice time trimmed, but not the confidence the coaches now have to use them.

Yes, Seattle did surrender three power play goals to Everett Friday, and with them their three goal lead, before coming back to win that shootout. The issue was Seattle took some very preventable penalties.  Through most of the past month Seattle has done well to stay out of the box.  That night, hopefully was an anomaly. Seattle didn't have it's best penalty killer in the lineup for that game in Scott Eansor, and then two of Seattle's other top penalty killers, True and Turner Ottenbreit, took those avoidable penalties to start the third period. 

It often sounds odd to call a 19 year old player a seasoned veteran but in this league where most players graduate out at that age or at age 20, those are your most experienced players.  And despite still being a teenager Ottenbreit has been able to impart his WHL elder statesman status to younger players.  17 year old rookie defenseman Reese Harsh told me it wasn't until he was paired with Ottenbreit in mid to late October, that he felt comfortable on the ice and that he felt he belonged in the WHL.  Just two years difference in age between them but a world of difference in experience.  It's enough to make, well, all the difference in the world.   It's another reason why, in Barzal's absence, you've seen Ottenbreit sharing the "C" with Eansor. 

Tremendous weekend of hockey for two NHL drafted T-birds.  Both Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp have picked up their game since the team returned from the holiday break.  Gropp in particular has really started to show he can be a physical presence, a trait Kolesar has always had on display.  Teamed with True Sunday in Spokane, that line presented a physical challenge for the Chiefs.  It was no surprise then that Kolesar and Gropp scored the two goals that brought the T-birds from a goal down to a 2-1 win. 

Where did that come from?  In the first period Friday versus Everett new Seattle d-man Aaron Hyman went coast-to-coast with the puck, weaving through the 'Tips usually staunch defense before having his shot saved by Mario Petit.  Just wasn't expecting that from the big guy.  I'm not sure Everett was either. 

The only downside of the Thunderbirds weekend?  An upper body injury in the second period Sunday to Sami Moilanen.  Too early to tell if it will be long term or not.  The young draft-eligible Finn loves to play and is a terrific two way player who, despite his small stature, plays with grit.  He was sincerely bummed on the bus ride home.  Get well soon Sami!

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  The big 6'2", 220 lb. power forward got Seattle's comeback started with his game tying goal six minutes into the third period.  You could almost see it coming though, the way he had played most of the game up to that point. Really strong along the boards, then constantly going to the front of the net.  He was on the ice for both goals and earned a +2 and was +3 for the weekend.  Of course this came after providing the only goal of the shootout in the win Friday against Everett.

Second Star:  G Rylan Toth.  Four straight starts, a 3-1 mark and in the only loss, he surrendered just two goals in a 2-1 setback.  This weekend he was 2-0 with a 1.92 GAA and SVPCT of .942.  That included a 38 save effort against Everett.  he hasn't allowed a 5-on-5 goal in over 148 minutes. 

First Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Gropp finished off the weekend with a game winning goal in Spokane, a very un-Gropp like goal at that, as he went to the front of the net and tipped in a hard point shot from Ethan Bear.  So often if Gropp is scoring it's off the rush or a snap shot from the slot or the face off dots.  It's his stepped up two-way, physical game that has impressed me the most lately and that includes a strong backchecking effort. Finished the weekend with two points and a +3 rating. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Better Half?

With the home-and-home against Portland to wrap up the month of December behind them, Seattle has finished off the first half of their schedule and begun the second half.  The Thunderbirds sit at 19-14-3-1 after 37 games with 35 more to play.  After next weekend they should get two big pieces of the puzzle back in their lineup and be whole again, something they haven't been a lot the first half of the season. 

Five games into a stretch of 12 straight games against the U.S. Division the T-birds are 3-1-1-0 and have done it so far without two of their top centers Mat Barzal and Alexander True, who are away at World Juniors.  And they've done it while transitioning their back end, replacing two defenseman who left the team and mixing in two new d-men into their top four. Both Aaron Hyman and Austin Strand logged big minutes despite just joining the team this week.

Strand's first game Saturday in Portland was quite the adventure.  While he arrived after the trade Friday from Red Deer, his gear did not.  He played the game against the Winterhawks with a mix of equipment, including Wyatt Bear's skates.   Despite not having a practice with his new team, there he was, late in the game, helping kill off a Portland power play with Seattle clinging to a one goal lead.  He had an important clear of a loose puck in front of the Seattle goal. 

As far as I know, Seattle had no intention of dropping Bryan Allbee from the roster and were counting on Brandon Schuldhaus to be a top six defenseman the second half of the season, just as he was the first half.  The decision to leave was the players' in both instances.  Seattle GM Russ Farwell had to scramble to find two replacements.  That said, I think Seattle's top six defenseman are better today then they were when the team broke for Christmas back on December 17th.   Along with acquiring winger Tyler Adams from Swift Current earlier in the month, The T-birds are now better overall then they were three weeks ago. 

Speaking of Wyatt Bear, the 17 year old winger from Hodgson, Manitoba hasn't needed his skates the first half of the season while recuperating from minor surgery and a lower body injury.  Now though, he'll need to sharpen the blades.  He told me he has begun skating again and soon will be in the mix for minutes on the fourth line.  Last season, as a 16 year old, Bear got into nine games, registered one assist and was +3 before being re-assigned to his Junior A team after Christmas. 

What difference does a year make?  Last season at this time with their top three centers at World Juniors in Helsinki, Finland, Seattle went 2-5-1-0 through the first eight games and were outscored 16-28.  The T-birds allowed six power play goals on 29 chances. 

So far this season, in similar circumstances, Seattle is 3-4-1-0  (but 3-1-1-0 in their last four games). Three of those losses were by one goal as they were only outscored over that stretch 21-23.  The two goal difference?  Two empty-netters.   Additionally the T-birds have killed off 27 of 29 power plays including 16 straight. 

In his last five starts, dating back to December 16th, Seattle goaltender Rylan Toth has fashioned a 1.82 GAA and a SVPCT of .944.  For the month of December Toth put together a 2.55 GAA and .915 SVPCT.  He's been at his best recently with Seattle's best offensive weapon, Barzal, out of the lineup. 

I'd like to take credit when credit is due.  Before the New Year's Eve game in Portland Saturday night I chatted with Zack Andrusiak about taking advantage of the ice time he was getting in the absence of Barzal and True.  Andrusiak did just that, scoring the tying goal and assisting on the game winner.  The goal was his third of the season but second of the week.  He also scored Wednesday in the T-birds 5-4 overtime loss in Spokane. 

Luke Ormsby has great affection for the Moda Center in Portland.  He's scored two goals in his brief WHL career and both have been in that building.  He has one goal at each end of the ice, having scored his first career goal there back on opening night, September 24th. 

With the acquisition of two defensemen, Hyman and Strand, who figure to get top six if not top four minutes on the Seattle blue line, it would appear rookie d-man Anthony Bishop would be the odd-man-out.  But the versatile Bishop will now get into the mix for those available fourth line minutes.  He played quite a bit on the wing the first half of the season. 

His speed and aggressive style make him a good fit in that role.  And, as he showed in the first three games Post-Christmas, if need be he can play his natural position as a defensemen when such a situation arises.  He acquitted himself quite well back on the blue line in those three games and picked up one assist.   

My T-birds three Stars for the four post-Christmas games:

Third Star:  Defenseman Jarret Tyszka.  Tyszka must have gotten a boost of confidence for Christmas this year.  He seemed to bring his game up another level lately.  The draft eligible, Langley B.C. native is shooting more, doing a good job of keeping pucks from leaving the offensive zone and playing with a more physical edge in the D-zone too.  It culminated with two big assists in Portland New Year's Eve, one the tying goal and one on the winning goal, in the third period comeback. 

Second Star:  I'm gonna split this between two big forwards, 20 year old winger Ryan Gropp and 17 year old  center Matthew Wedman.  Both are prime examples of how you can affect a game without getting points.  Gropp was all over the ice the past four games.  I think that is what the New York Ranges want to see from their 2015 2nd round draft pick; the Kamloops native affecting games away from the puck.  He had some key backchecks New Year's Eve and was strong along the boards.

Wedman, meanwhile, is becoming a physical force.  He is really starting to use his size and strength to his advantage.  It's becoming very difficult for opposing teams to knock him off the puck.  He's become one of the best forecheckers on the team.   The best part about his game is he is still growing and filling out his 6'3" frame.  When challenged after delivering a huge, clean hit Saturday, he held his own.

First Star:  Goalie Rylan Toth. As noted above, he's played his best hockey in his most recent games, as he finds a consistency from start to start that wasn't there early in the season.   He still faces more "ten bell" scoring chances then you would expect on a team as talented as Seattle but his rebound control has improved from the first part of the season.  Despite facing some grade A scoring chances from opponents, he has allowed just six goals in his last four starts.