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 clichés 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.