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. 

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