Monday, February 27, 2017

Time to March to the Playoffs

The Thunderbirds are officially in the postseason.  Seattle secured their playoff spot with their 6-1 win Sunday over Everett in their final game of February, ending the month with a 10-3-0-1 record.  Despite the flat performance in Friday's loss in Kennewick, Seattle still puts together another solid weekend by winning two of three games. 

And let's remember, there are no patsies on the schedule.  That Tri-City team they lost to is currently the hottest team in the Western Conference and right up there among the top contenders in the west.  The Kelowna team Seattle beat Saturday had earned points in nine of ten and the Silvertips were winners of seven straight before they ran into the T-birds.

When the weekend was over the T-birds found themselves with the second best record in the conference, a point behind Everett for the top spot and tied with Prince George for the most wins with 40.  It's the third time in the last four seasons that Seattle has hit the 40 win plateau.  The Thunderbirds have also won five of the last six against Everett.  Meanwhile, since Christmas Seattle has the best second half record in the WHL at 23-5-1-1.  They've put together that record despite playing shorthanded.  Nine times since January 8th Seattle has dressed less then 18 skaters yet in those games they are 8-1. 

For most of the second half they have been without their top scorer from the first half of the season, Scott Eansor.  Seattle players have combined to miss more then 100 games in the second half due to injury.  On many nights over 100 points have been sitting in the stands rather then on the bench. Yet, they just keep moving forward, finding different ways to win. 

After languishing in the bottom three on the power play for much of the season, Seattle is now ranked ninth in the league with the man advantage thanks to a 12 game power play goal scoring streak, including nine in their last three games.  In fact, the T-birds rank in the top ten in both special teams categories with a fifth ranked penalty kill. 

Not since Cody Rudkowsky posted 34 during the 1998-99 season (34-16-10-1) has a Seattle goalie earned more then 33 wins.  With nine regular season games left, Rylan Toth (33-17-1-1) needs one more win to equal Rudkowsky's total and two more to pass him. 

Ryan Gropp is having a banner final season in the WHL.  He's tied for the team scoring lead with 71 points (29g, 42a).  His 29 goals are tops on the team.  Yet he may not end up on the top of the team leaderboard when all is said and done.  His linemate, Mat Barzal, also has 71 points (9g, 62a) but Barzal has accomplished that total in 20 fewer games.  At their current pace, Gropp would finish with about 82 points.  Barzal though, is on pace for approximately 88 points.

Gotta love when the entire bench erupts in celebration for one of their teammates.  That happened late in the first period Sunday versus Everett when Anthony Bishop scored his first WHL goal.  Bishop, acquired from Saskatoon early in the season in the deal that sent goalie Logan Flodell to the Blades, has been one of several versatile players on the roster, asked to play in different spots on different nights. His natural position is back on the blue line but with injuries, as well as a desire to get him ice time, the coaches have often used him as a fourth line winger and he's not disappointed.  Fittingly though, his first goal was scored while playing as a defenseman. 

It's a good thing the T-birds have Bishop on the roster as their back end took a hit this weekend.  First Jarret Tyszka was injured late in Friday's game in Kennewick and he has not played since.  Seattle then lost d-man Ethan Bear in the second period Sunday and he did not return.  The T-birds ended the game against Everett with just five defensemen and played the final half of the game with only 16 skaters.   Bishop and fellow rookie defenseman Reese Harsch played big minute as a result and both came through.  For their effort they were named the games second and third stars. 

Seattle gets two more cracks at Everett this season.  This coming Saturday they travel up to Xfinity Arena then they will play one more time in Kent on March 10th.  If the T-birds are to pass the Silvertips for the top spot in the divison and the conference, those are probably must wins. Before the T-birds meet the 'Tips again though, they have two tough games this week, first against Kamloops Wednesday on the road and Friday at home against Tri-City.

My T-birds three Stars of the Weekend:

Third Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Gropp paced Seattle Saturday in their win over Kelowna with the fifth hat trick of his Thunderbirds career.  He added one more goal in the win Sunday over Everett.  As a result, he's one goal away from his third straight 30-goal season.  He's a big part of the team's resurgent power play, having now scored nine PPGs.  Meanwhile, he continues to be one of Seattle's best penalty killers too.

Second Star:  D Ethan Bear.  Bear now has 189 career points as a Thunderbird.  Who knows how much closer his assault on Shea Theodore's record for most career points by a T-birds defenseman would be had he not missed half of Sunday's game.  It would be a monumental task to catch Theodore's record  (212 pts.) with just nine games remaining, especially not knowing the status of Bear's injury. At the rate he's been scoring lately though, he might have had a chance.   He still contributed two points before he left midway through the second period, extending his point streak to 12 games.  He is now the franchise all time leader in goals scored by a defenseman with 64 and counting. 

First Star:  C Mat Barzal.  Despite being held off the scoresheet Friday over at the Toyota Center, he still finished the weekend with eight points, thanks to a couple of four point nights against both Kelowna and Everett.  Despite playing in just 37 games, he is now tied for the team scoring lead with 71 points. He's quarterbacked the power play back into the top ten.  Injuries, World Junior duties for Team Canada, NHL training camps and a month in the NHL earlier this season with the New York Islanders will prevent Barzal from being a Thunderbirds record setter.  He'll still go down as one of the top players in franchise history.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Tyler Adams for President

What. A. Win. 

By the time the 72 game regular season is over, Seattle's 5-4 shootout win Sunday in Portland will be mostly forgotten and the two points they earned are no bigger then any of the other points they've earned this season. 

Yet that come-from-behind victory may be Seattle's signature win this season. They started the game knowing that, once again, they would dress one skater under the limit because of a spate of long term injuries to three of their top nine forwards.  Then, after taking warm ups, Keegan Kolesar, who was dinged up in the game the night before, was a late scratch.  This meant the T-birds would play the Sunday evening game in Portland with only 16 skaters.  Four of their top nine forwards would be missing.  In other words, 133 points, including 54 goals, were not dressed for the third game in three nights and fifth game in seven days. 

It was the third straight game Seattle would not be able to suit up a full roster (18 skaters, two goalies).  In reality it was the fifth straight time the T-birds went with a less then full lineup.  In two games earlier in the week Seattle brought in 15 year old prospect Cody Savey but he played only a few shifts.  Sunday they were playing a healthy Portland team that, like Seattle was playing its third game in three nights, but two of their games on the weekend were at home.  There only road game a quick jaunt up I-5 Saturday to face the T-birds in Kent.  Seattle had begun the weekend with a road game into Eastern Washington to face Tri-City. 

Under all those circumstances it would be easy to dismiss this game for Seattle, to understand that the injury situation may have finally caught up to the team.  It's one game out of 72 where you're playing with less then ideal conditions and so completely understandable if you lose after playing twice already on the weekend.   Even the best teams, champions, don't go through an entire season without a loss when facing adverse conditions.

But this is a different kind of team, this 2016-17 version of the Thunderbirds.  Even when they didn't play their best Friday night on the road against Tri-City, they were still coming on strong at the end.  Down two goals they were still fighting to get back in the game with just minutes left.  And if not for a post and a couple of spectacular saves by Tri-City goalie Rylan Parenteau, they may have accomplished that comeback.

Saturday night at home against Portland they fought hard to get a lead only to surrender it early in the third period.  Time to lay down right?  All these injuries, they just don't have the horses to overcome the adversity, do they?  Yet Seattle roars back for the 5-3 win. 

Which brings us to Sunday, less then 24 hours after expending all that energy in the come-from-behind home win, the last minute scratch of Kolesar, the 16 skaters and only 10 forwards, one a converted defenseman.  There's no way possible they can muster up enough for a road win. 

But here they are, grabbing an early lead on a fluky power play goal.  At least it will be respectable when they fall in this one.  There they are getting the lead back early in the second period on a great rush to the net by Alexander True. Okay, so they'll go down fighting.  Moral victory. 

Ah, here comes the inevitable, the Winterhawks strike for three goals to take a 4-2 lead midway through the third period. It was a game effort by Seattle but no shame losing this one. Come on, no Kolesar, no Eansor, no Volcan, no Wedman, certainly no comeback. 

But this team doesn't think that way. So many on the roster went through the wars a season ago that got them to the brink of a championship.  They know the sting of falling short of the ultimate prize.  This team is playing with focus, determination.  Short bench?  So what.  Third game in three nights?  Who cares?  Back up goalie in net?  He'll stand tall for us, we'll battle for him.  Down two goals with only half a period left?  Still time.  Final, Seattle 5 Portland 4.  Don't. Count. Them. Out.  The Comeback Kids.

Despite all the adversity, Seattle ends the weekend tied with Prince George for the most wins in the Western Conference and now own the conference's second best winning percentage, behind only Everett.  20-4-0-1 in their past 25 games. 25 games played in 50 days.   And now we exhale, if ever so briefly.  A week without games until another three-in-three nights next weekend. 

What was most remarkable about the just completed three game weekend was how this injury depleted Seattle team, playing with their shortened bench, was the better team in the third period all three games.  At the point of the game when the situation should dictate that you're the team that should be overtaxed and energy depleted, you are instead controlling the play.  Seattle outshot their opponents in the third periods of the three games by a combined 42-25 margin and outscored them 6-2. 

What a nice bounce back in goal for Matt Berlin.  Took until February 13th before a team could beat Seattle's back up goalie.  And even then it took a monster third period from Kelowna to accomplish that.  He was at his best late versus Portland, preserving Seattle's chance to get the shootout win with a big stop on an Evan Weinger penalty shot with just over three minutes left in the game.  At the time Portland was up, 4-3.  If Weinger scores, it's a two-goal Portland lead and Seattle's chance for a comeback probably evaporates.  He followed that with another game preserving save on Caleb Jones in overtime.   For the price of a late round draft pick, the T-birds have gotten 14 of a possible 18 points in Berlin's nine starts.

Tyler Adams, Winterhawks slayer.  Each of his three goals for Seattle have been scored against Portland.  Two have opened the scoring, one was a game winner. Adams was acquired to shore up Seattle's fourth line.  Sunday he finished the night playing along side Mat Barzal and Ryan Gropp on Seattle's first line. 

Zack Andrusiak didn't register a point this weekend but his speed and tenacity were on display, especially against Portland.  Fans look at stat sheets to define a player's worth.  Coaches look at the video.  Seattle coaches are going to like what they saw from Andrusiak in the two games against the Winterhawks.

The T-birds are a one line team?  This past weekend Seattle potted 11 goals in three games.  Six of those goals came from their makeshift 2nd and 3rd lines.  Defenseman Ethan Bear had two.  Only three came from their top line.  Do you know how many goals Barzal and Kolesar have combined to score in the series against Portland?  So far just two.  31 goals this season against the Winterhawks, 16 different goal scorers.   Seattle's top line has just six of those 31 goals.  Donovan Neuls, True and Adams have combined for 10. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star,  The Unsung Heroes.  Players like Andusiak, Anthony Bishop, Luke Ormsby and Elijah Brown who have stepped up to take on more minutes with Seattle's injury situation affecting their top three lines. And let's not forget Seattle's back end, the top six defenseman who just do a solid job every night without the limelight falling on them.

Second Stars:  D Ethan Bear, C Mat Barzal.  When you are playing with a depleted roster, the best players, the veterans have to step up.  Bear finished the weekend with six points (3g, 3a).  First Seattle defenseman since the 1994-95 season to hit the 25 goal plateau. And now he follows Barzal by being named the WHL Player of the Week.   Barzal got his points this weekend with assists all three nights to extend his point streak to ten games. But that is almost incidental to everything else he does on the ice.  He controls the game, he controls the puck.  He plays a 200 foot game.  At least three times this weekend he was diving into his own crease to keep a puck out of the Seattle net. And most importantly, with his team shorthanded, he logs a ton of minutes, especially in the third period.

First Star:  LW Tyler Adams.  His weekend consisted of two goals, including a game winner Saturday.  He scored a  power play goal Sunday in what might have been his first shift on the power play since joining Seattle.   He added a fighting major Friday in Kennewick as he tried to spark his team to a comeback against the Americans. Overall, he had some real strong physical play both nights versus Portland.  Canadian or not, it's President's Day and with the names of three U.S. presidents in his name (John Tyler, John Adams, John Quincy Adams), It's only appropriate Tyler Adams is the first star!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who's LIne is it Anyway?

Since returning from the Christmas break, Seattle skaters have combined to miss over 50 games due to injury.  Not just any players either, we're talking three top nine forwards in Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman.  111 points out of the lineup many nights with that trio unavailable and it coincides with the busiest time on the schedule.  24 games in 50 days with much more to come.

That doesn't even factor in the 17 games Keegan Kolesar missed the first half of the season or all the time out of action for young goaltender Carl Stankowski or rookie winger Wyatt Bear.  And we're only talking games missed due to injury so I haven't included the combined 32 games the T-birds didn't have Mat Barzal or Alexander True because of NHL time or time spent at World Juniors. 

Yet all I hear in some circles is that Seattle is a one line team.  I hear that the T-birds better hope nothing happens to any of the players on that top line because if it does, boy, they'll be in trouble.  Is Seattle the only team in the WHL with a top line?  Isn't that statement true for any team?  Why would it only apply to the T-birds?  Take away one or two of the best players on any team for a month or two and you would expect them to stumble, right?

Only, Seattle hasn't stumbled.  The record will show that without Barzal in the lineup the T-birds are a .500 team.  But when Barzal was missing, so was Kolesar for a portion of that time, so was True for six games.  Seattle played a couple of games without their top two centers.  Go ahead, check the box score January 6th vs. Everett.  No Barzal, no Eansor yet Seattle won.  Do you know who scored in that game for the Thunderbirds?  Donovan Neuls, Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak.  Not exactly first line players.  From December 17th to January 8th, the T-birds went 5-1-1-0 WITHOUT Barzal in the lineup, but yeah, they're a one line team.   

The point is, Seattle is NOT a one line team. Most definitely their top line of Kolesar, Gropp and Barzal is very likely the best line in the league but, when healthy, this team rolls four lines very effectively. The problem as you know, is they aren't healthy.  For much of the past month and a half, they've only been able to roll three lines most nights and their second and third lines are makeshift combinations featuring fourth line players and guys, who when the team is at full strength, would be healthy scratches.  Two thirds of their second line have been out of lineup yet with that and the other injury issues, they are 18-2-0-1 since December 31st and 20-3-1-1 since Christmas. Sure, they are going to rely more on that top line under that situation, what team wouldn't?  But you don't play 16 games over .500 while dealing with long term injuries to key personnel if you are just a one line team. 

You catch yourself thinking sometimes lately, I wonder how they'd be doing over this stretch if they had a healthy Eansor, a healthy Wedman and a healthy Volcan?   Or what would their record be if they didn't miss Turner Ottenbreit for a game and a half or have to play four games while dressing just 17 or 16 skaters?  You contemplate how much further along would they be if they didn't have to bring up a couple of 15 year olds to fill out the roster for a few games?  Then you realize, wait, they're winning in spite of this.  Hard to improve on winning. 

Only once in that stretch has that short bench caught up with them.  That was Monday afternoon in Kelowna, playing their fifth game in seven days with no days off in between because of travel, when they were unable to hold a late 3-2 lead.  You could see they didn't have any legs left the final 8-9 minutes of that game but still were just eight minutes away from another "W".   The team's response to that loss?  They said they needed to dig deeper, keep their intensity longer and hold on to their desperation.  No excuses, only disappointment they couldn't get it done.   One time over the course of 50 days, playing on average a game every other day with a depleted lineup, they had a hiccup.   If you want to complain about that, you're too much of a perfectionist.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  The Columbus Blue Jackets prospect  has put his early season injury behind him and is starting to pile up the points.  Nine points in the last four games (4g, 5a) including another game winning goal, his fifth this season.  As a result he is now averaging a point a game (40 games, 40 pts.). 

Second Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  The Kamloops native and New York Rangers draft pick is hotter then a cup of McDonald's coffee right now.  Goals in eight straight games and 31 points over his last 14 games.  In his last four games he has 11 points (5g, 6a).   On the season he now has 61 points in 51 games. 

First Star:  Center Mat Barzal.  Simply playing the best hockey of his Thunderbirds career the second half of this season, highlighted by a six point night Saturday vs. Portland.  His big week earned him both WHL and CHL Player of the Week honors.  There are a lot of really good hockey players in the WHL including future NHLers.  Barzal is just a notch above them at the moment. He is now averaging over an assist per game in his career with Seattle (196 assists in 192 games).  Despite playing in just 31 games so far this season, he is second on the team to Gropp with 58 points. 


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Next Man Up

Injuries in sports are often the great equalizer.  They can reduce a great team to being just a good team, a championship caliber club into a playoff also-ran or slide a good team back into mediocrity.  Injuries can disrupt a well oiled machine and turn it into a sputtering mess.  That is, if you let them.  But it doesn't have to be that way and the Thunderbirds, this past month, heck this entire season, have proved that. 

Maybe it's because Seattle is used to playing so many games with so many players missing from the lineup, and key players at that.  It seems the past three or four years that it has become routine for them, the rule and not the exception, to have top players watching from the stands. 

Over his T-birds coaching career head coach Steve Konowalchuk has become a master at juggling his lineup.  He has lost top players like Branden Troock, Connor Honey, Justin Hickman, Shea Theodore, Alexander True, Mat Barzal, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor, Jarret Tyszka, Ryan Gropp and Matthew Wedman to long term injuries. It's hard to remember them all but I'm sure there are a few other names I'm forgetting that could be added to that list.  And they are the kind of injuries that end up being week-to-week rather then day-to-day. 

Some of them have been season or even of the career ending variety. In some cases multiple players on that list are, or were, out of the lineup at the same time, and some of those players were out for a lengthy spell on more then one occasion.  Yet despite the injury setbacks, the Thunderbirds have persevered.  Over the past three seasons Seattle has still averaged 41 wins and are in line for another 40-plus win season this year.   It's out of situations like this we get clich├ęs like "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger."

Usually though, the getting stronger part comes after the near death experience.  The injuries mount and the team's win-loss record suffers until players return and the club bounces back to top form.  It's played out that way each of the past two seasons.  With injuries and World Juniors, Seattle has nose dived only to kick their way back to the surface from the bottom of the pool the second half of the season.

This year has been different.  With Barzal in the NHL or with Team Canada and Kolesar injured, and losing True to World Juniors, the T-birds still did more then tread water through the season's first half.  They competed every night and gave themselves a chance to win most every game. Seattle made it to the Chirstmas break at 17-13-2-1 then went 4-1-0-1 after the break, before Barzal returned.

Then of course, no sooner did Barzal and True get back Seattle then lost first Eansor, then Wedman and Tyszka, to injuries that have so far cost them a combined 31 games over the past month.  That's 75 points out of the lineup.  In the second period Saturday down in Portland they lost Nolan Volcan and his 36 points.  111 points sitting on the sideline. Woe is us, right?  Not in the least.  Over the last 12 games the Thunderbirds are 10-1-0-1.  Twice in that span they finished a game one skater under the limit, still earning three of four points in those games (1-0-0-1).

Yes, it doesn't hurt that the Thunderbirds have quality players, NHL drafted players, at the top of their roster.  But they've also drafted and traded well lately, acquiring good depth to get them through trying times. 

So, instead of falling back in the standings, the T-birds have forged ahead.  They've moved into second place in the U.S. Division and have gained 11 points on the first place Everett Silvertips in a span of three weeks.  Quietly they've crept within eight points of the top of the Western Conference with four games in hand. 

You can lament injuries and feel sorry for yourself.  There's no arguing that injuries to key personnel on any team are not easy to overcome and make the task of winning a little more difficult.  There is no guarantee you will overcome them no matter how hard you play.  You can leave everything on the ice and still get saddled with a loss.  There may come a point when the injuries mount up and Seattle can't overcome them, but, as Andy and Red said in the movie "The Shawshank Redemption",  you can get busy living or get busy dying.  the T-birds have chosen to get busy living. 
Seattle finishes another busy week by earning five of six points.  All three games went beyond 60 minutes and the T-birds found a way to win two of them.  When you are chasing the top of the division or the conference, any win is a good win, any point is a good point.  At the end of the season they don't ask how, they ask how many. 

The Thunderbirds top line of Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar continues to set the pace.  You can make a strong argument they are the top line in the WHL. Regina has a good one in Steel-Brooks-Wagner but I like the way the T-birds top line is playing their 200 foot game right now.

To win games though, you need a complete team effort, shorthanded or not.  This week Seattle got nine goals from six different players.  They got a game winning shootout goal from a fourth line winger.  They got outstanding goaltending from the WHL Goaltender of the Month and earned points in all three games while using fourth line guys on the third and second lines and fourth line players on the third line. 

You have to love the dedication of Tyler Adams.  Knowing his team is already missing players, he blocks a shot in the second period Saturday in Portland, and you can see it stung him, but he doesn't miss a shift despite being in obvious pain.  He hobbled and limped around for a few shifts before the feeling in his foot finally came back.  That's twice since Seattle acquired him in early December from Swift Current, that he's done that. 

My T-bird Three Stars of the Week:

Third Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The Frenzied Finn was all over the ice Saturday in Portland, scoring a goal, killing off penalties and drawing a penalty against the Winterhawks, sending his fellow countrymen Henri Jokiharju to the box no less.  He also scored a goal and was assessed his first WHL fighting major earlier in the week versus Kamloops. Pretty good rookie season so far with 33 points (16g, 17a).  Listed at 5'8" but plays like he's 6'5".  This is a player who knows if he is to get to the next level, this is the way he has to play. 

Second Star:  Defenseman Ethan Bear.  Bear finished the week with four points (2g, 2a) and a +4 rating.  Seattle now with power play goals in five of their last seven games and it is usually he and Barzal who key Seattle's attack with the man advantage.  When he hits the net with his shot, if he doesn't score he usually creates a nice, juicy rebound. 

First Star:  Goalie Rylan Toth.  Toth was named WHL Goaltender of the Month for January by posting a 10-1-0-0 record along with a 2.05 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.  He then opened February by going 1-0-0-1 in the first two games, stopping 72 of 77 shots in 130 minutes of hockey then 13 of 16 shootout attempts. His huge stop on a couple of Cody Glass point blank chances down in Portland this weekend were a big reason Seattle earned a point in that game. In the three games this week he was 2-0-0-1, logging 195 minutes in goal while posting a .921 SV PCT and a GAA of 2.48.