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.