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.