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.