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!