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 end 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. 

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