Sunday, March 26, 2017

And so it Begins

Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse

It takes 16 "W's" to win the WHL's Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Sixteen teams are participating in the league's playoffs all with the goal of raising that Cup.  Within two weeks that number of postseason participants will be down to eight teams.  By early May, only one team will be left standing. 

Seattle started out the postseason this weekend trying to make sure they are one of those eight teams advancing to the second round.  The T-Birds played two solid home games and as a result won the first two games of the postseason, defeating the Tri-City Americans 4-2 and 5-2.  The series will now shift to Kennewick's Toyota Center for Games 3 and 4 this coming week. 

The hope was Seattle would have both first line center Mathew Barzal, dealing with an illness, and number one goalie Rylan Toth, working through a lower body injury, back in the lineup for the start of the playoffs.  But why break with precedence?  Seattle has dealt with injuries to key players all season long, so why should the playoffs be any different?

Fortunately for Seattle, it would seem these injuries have not affected their ability to win games.  They finished the season with 46 wins, most in the Western Conference, and without Barzal and Toth the last five games of the regular season, they went 4-1.  Make that now 6-1 after these two wins to open the postseason with Barzal and Toth both still unavailable. 

Through the first two games against the Americans, depth was the key.  Seattle scored a combined nine goals in the two wins and those goals came from eight different players.  A third pairing defenseman, Austin Strand, scored the game winner opening night and third line winger Matthew Wedman broke the 2-2 tie Saturday.  If you had Seattle winning Game 2 without a goal from their top line or top D pairing, pat yourself on the back 'cause that's what happened.

The Thunderbirds still need to be more disciplined going forward.  They've given the Ams 12 power plays in the first two games and while Tri-City converted on just one, it's a recipe for disaster if Seattle keeps up that pace.  The good news for Seattle is their own power play, even without Barzal, is clicking at 40 percent so far in this series (4 of 10). 

So far in this series against Tri-City depth has been the difference.  I don' t think there are two teams in the Western Conference, heck the WHL, affected more by key injuries this season then Seattle and Tri-City.  The difference has been Seattle's ability to consistently overcome those injuries.  Seattle has four players who can center their top line if needed in Barzal, Alexander True, Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls.  That helps keep Seattle playing at an optimal level.  Tri-City, probably because of a younger roster, was streakier when those injuries hit.  So far it's clear that the loss of Michael Rasmussen and Nolan Yaremko is affecting the Americans. 

Another factor early in the series is probably playoff experience.  Seattle's roster features a large number of players who were with the team on their long playoff run to the league final last spring.  Many of them have been to the postseason four years in a row.  The loss to Brandon in the final series a year ago is motivating them to get back to the final again.  Tri-City missed the 2016 postseason and very few player on their roster have been in the WHL playoffs before.

That experience may have paid off for Seattle in Game 2.  After Tri-City erased the T-Birds two-goal lead early in the third period, they didn't panic.  They just kept coming.  Seattle ended the third period with 22 shots on goal and scored three times in the last five minutes to pull out the win. 

Now Seattle has to use that veteran playoff experience to realize they've won nothing yet.  It takes four wins to advance, not two.  Tri-City will be desperate to win and will look to use their home ice to their advantage.  Playoff experience or not, the Americans will be in desperation mode to get back in this series.  The T-Birds will need to match, if not exceed, the desperation level Tri-City will play with. 

Both Barzal and Toth were in the lockerroom post Game 2.  Not sure if that means they'll be available for the upcoming games in this series but it is a sign they are closer to a return to the lineup. 

Until last Sunday, on the final day of the regular season, Carl Stankowski had not played in a game at the ShoWare Center since an October 14th 3-2 shootout loss to Prince George.  That was over six months ago.  He's now won three straight on home ice in a week's time, including his first two playoff starts.  Stankowski, who turned 17 years old back on March 9th, has played 271 minutes of hockey at the ShoWare Center and has surrendered just nine goals on 120 shots.  That's a 2.43 GAA and .908 SVPCT on home ice with those numbers improving with each game played.

Remember, Stankowski was the first goalie taken in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft and has represented Canada on the world stage at the U-17 Hockey Challenge. The bright lights of the WHL Playoffs shouldn't phase him.  

Which brings me to, my T-Birds Three Stars for the opening weekend of the 2017 postseason:

Third Star:  D Austin Strand.  Before coming over to Seattle in a late December trade with Red Deer, Strand had potted just one goal in 38 games.   In 36 regular season games with the T-Birds he registered eight goals.   He's now added one game winning playoff goal to that number.  He is currently tied for second in team playoff scoring with three points (1g, 2a).  A Wally Cleaver, aw shucks attitude off the ice, he doesn't mind being a little nasty on it.

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  Whether scoring or not, through the first two postseason games Kolesar has been putting his stamp on this series. He's really brought his game to an even higher level in the absence of Barzal.  Very physical effort the last two weeks.  He's the team's early playoff scoring leader with four points (2g, 2a). 

First Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  Out most of the season with an injury, there was a time back in November and December when Seattle didn't know whether they would have to shut down their prized future netminder and wait until next season.  Stankowski put in the rehab to get back sooner than later.  Pressed into the starting role at the beginning of the postseason, he is 2-0 with 2.00 GAA and SVPCT of .938.  His stopping of three breakaways and a penalty shot in a span of four minutes of the third period in Game 1, with Seattle clinging to a 3-2  lead, is the stuff that will have fans in three years saying "I was there when it all started for him".  It was the night the Stank Eye was born, when Stan the Man first flashed on the scene. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

And Now For Something Completely Different

With Sunday's 6-1 win over Vancouver the 2016-17 regular season comes to an end and it's on to the playoffs.  How competitive was the regular season in the Western Conference?  Well, Seattle didn't know who their first round playoff opponent would be until AFTER their final game concluded.  Tri-City overcame a late two goal deficit and roared back to tie Everett, then win in overtime.  That win , coupled with Portland's loss to Spokane Sunday, means Seattle will face the Americans in the opening round.

Amazingly, seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams finished the regular season with 40 or more wins, led by Seattle with 46.  Only Victoria, with 37, failed to reach the 40 win plateau and late injuries and illness helped cripple their chance at those 40 wins.  It should make for a very competitive first round out West.

Seattle, of course, fell just short of their goal of winning their second straight U.S. Division banner and the conference's top seed, falling just a couple points short.  Everett earned that top seed, but what an amazing second half by the T-birds to come roaring up from the back of the pack.  At one point Seattle sat in last place in the U.S. Division and well back in the conference standings too. 

The season both went as many predicted but also the script kept getting re-written as the T-birds made their push toward the top of the standings.  Most felt that with top players away with NHL teams to start the season, Seattle would use the first half to bring along a lot of young players and tread water while waiting the return of their stars.  While they unexpectedly had Ryan Gropp returned to them by the New York Rangers, an injury delayed the return of Keegan Kolesar and Mat Barzal remained with the New York Islanders for two months. 

The T-birds hovered around .500 while playing competitive hockey night in and night out until those players came back.  No sooner were Kolesar and Barzal back with the team, Seattle promptly lost Barzal and Alexander True to World Juniors.  Despite that, Seattle went into the Christmas break with a record four games above .500.

The expectation was Seattle would begin to soar up the standings the second half with their full compliment of players back by early January.  While that climb up the ladder did indeed happen, it wasn't accomplished so easily. As soon as Barzal and True returned, the injury bug hit. 

In no particular order, Seattle lost key players to long term injury.  Scott Easnor, who was leading the team in scoring when the season reached mid-January, would miss two months.  Other key players soon followed him to sick bay including Matthew Wedman who missed almost as much time as Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Jarret Tyszka.    Ethan Bear was out for a week.  Keegan Kolesar was absent for a few more games.  Tyszka got healthy and then was hurt again and unavailable until the final weekend.  Fellow defenseman Reese Harsh was sidelined for much of March and of course their best player, Barzal, missed the final five games, just as Seattle was battling for the top of the conference.  Did I mention Seattle played the final week without their number one goalie, Rylan Toth?

In all Seattle players missed well over 200 man games this season.  Most of those were missed the second half.  How did the team respond to the adversity?  Twelve times in the final 35 games, or one third of those games, Seattle dressed either one or two players under the limit.  They went 11-1 in those games.  Three or four times the 18th dressed skater was a 15 year old call up who only saw two or three shifts.  They used three different goalies the final five games and went 4-1. 

Seattle played 39 games after Christmas.  In 11 of those games they had no Barzal. I've heard many outsiders opine that without Barzal, Seattle would be in trouble.  In those 11 Barzal-less second half games, the T-birds posted an 8-2-1-0 mark.  Seattle also posted a winning record with no Eansor for much of the second half, a winning record in games without Volcan, and a winning record in games without Wedman.  For most of the second half they had four or five players on the shelf and over 100 points out of the lineup.  When one player went down, another stepped up. 

39 post Christmas games under less then ideal conditions, starting back in the pack in the Western Conference standings and the T-birds went 29-6-3-1.  They earned points in 33 of those 39 games.  In the end that remarkable feat brought them within an eyelash of the division banner and the conference top seed. 

He probably won't even be in the conversation but how can you not consider Steve Konowalchuk for WHL Coach of the Year?  Because he had players such as Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar, Easnor and Bear on his roster I'm guessing he'll be overlooked. 

It's easy to dismiss the thought of choosing him for the award when you're said to have some of the best players. Pretty easy to stand behind a bench with top talent sitting in front of you, right?   But those players alone missed a combined 92 games. And yet Seattle still won more games then any team in the Western Conference and the third most in the league.  Why?  Because the coach taught those players at the end of the bench to believe in themselves, to believe in each other and to believe in him. 

This isn't about coaching a team to victories when they are expected to win, it is about coaching a team to victory when they're expected to lose.  The T-birds could have easily fallen off the pace and blamed injuries to top personnel.  Instead they made no excuses and buckled down and worked with the players they had available and didn't worry about those players who were up in the stands.  That's a direct reflection of the coach. 

You can play the what-if game.  What if Eansor and his point per game average hadn't missed so many key games?   What if Barzal and his over a point per game average was available Saturday night at home against Portland?  What if Kolesar hadn't gotten hurt at training camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets back in September?  What if the referee hadn't lost sight of the puck and was too quick to stop play back on January 20th up in Everett, negating an easy Luke Ormsby tap in goal that would have tied the game late in the third period and probably earned Seattle one more point, if not two, in the standings? 

It's all water under the bridge now.  Celebrate the accomplishment and don't dwell on what might have been.  Time to move on to the postseason.  To get ready for Tri-City and their potent attack. If the motto for the season was "Climb the Ladder", then the goal for the playoffs is to "Finish the Mission."  As great as the run through the playoffs was last spring, the loss in the league final was a bitter pill to swallow.  The majority of the players from that team are back for another crack at it and their focus is on raising the Chynoweth Cup.  Let the journey begin.

My T-birds Three Stars for the 2016-17 regular season:

Third Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Gropp was expecting to play his 20 year old season with the New York Rangers AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. Instead, to the surprise of most, the Rangers sent their 2015, signed second round draft pick back to Seattle for one final year of seasoning in the WHL.  Gropp could have pouted and sulked but instead he embraced the opportunity to come back to the T-birds, work on his 200 foot game, become one of the team's top penalty killers and still post another 30-plus goal season. 

Second Star:  D Ethan Bear.  Bear rode the high expectations of producing another big offensive season from the back end into his final campaign with Seattle and didn't disappoint.  The Edmonton Oilers prospect registered 28 goals, 70 points and a +34.  Like Gropp, his offensive game overshadows the improvements he's made in his 200 foot game.  He's constantly on the ice against the opposing team's top scorers.  He is now the T-birds all-time leading goal scorer among defensemen in franchise history. 

First Star:  C Mat Barzal.  Seattle made the Coquitlam, B.C. native the first overall pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, a position that comes with lofty expectations and a lot of weight on the shoulders of a teenager.  He didn't disappoint and has completely lived up to the billing over the course of his four year T-birds career.  Talent is only part of the equation with the New York Islanders 2016 first round draft pick.  His makeup is talent plus dedication plus desire. He works at improving his game both on and off the ice.   In just 41 games this season he registered 79 points.  He spent two months this season in the NHL and another month representing Canada at World Juniors.  Despite not playing a full season with the T-birds he should be under consideration for the WHL player of the year honors.  The conversation for best player in Thunderbirds history also  cannot be held without his name in the debate. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Three to Get Ready

After a successful two win weekend, Seattle is down to their final three regular seasons games as they begin to take aim at the playoffs.  We don't know who their first round playoff opponent will be, or whether Seattle goes into the postseason as division champs for a second straight year, but we do know they will open the postseason at home on March 24th and 25th. 

Seattle will begin the assault on the final week of the regular season Wednesday in Spokane, holding a one point lead on Everett for the top spot in the U.S. Division.  Everett has a game in hand.  Again, as long as the opportunity exists, the T-Birds goal is to win the U.S. Division and grab the Western Conference's top seed.  We know they can't achieve that without help from other teams but, in all likelihood, the only way to help themselves is to win out the final three games.  The question right now is, does another division banner matter at this point?   Seattle is winning while at less then full strength.  Personally I'd put the team getting healthy as a higher priority then winning the division.  Ideally, they do both. 

Seattle just swept a weekend series against their two biggest rivals without their best player in the lineup.  They won both games playing most of those 120 minutes with just 16 skaters.  They skated both nights with just five defensemen.  As a precaution, they pulled their number one goalie from a scoreless game and still won.  Not only did they not have Mat Barzal but let's remember they've played essentially the entire second half of the season without their number two center as well, Scott Eansor.  They've played a good chunk of the second half without one of their top four defensemen, Jarret Tyszka.   Both Friday at home and Saturday on the road, they had 151 points missing from the lineup.  Yet both nights, they were clearly the better team on the ice against two playoff teams who have combined for 82 wins. 

Winning the division is A goal.  Being the top seed in the conference is A goal.  Neither is THE goal. Right now, it is clear to see this team is focused, focused on THE goal of winning what they fell short of winning last spring,  the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Focus is one of those intangibles you can't always describe but you know it when you see it.  Right now, I see that focus in the players on this team.  It's in the way Keegan Kolesar played this weekend.  In two games where he didn't register a point, he was one of the best players on the ice, driven to pick up for his sick linemate, Barzal. 

Focus as in the way Alexander True stepped up to the plate in Barzal's absence.  He picked up the mantel, moving from third line center to the top line and playing two of the best games of his T-Birds career.  That focus is 20 players with a singular mindset to follow the recipe for success by sacrificing everything for sixty minutes every game.  It's blocking shots with you legs or your face as Turner Ottenbreit did both nights.  It's jumping into a bigger role then you've ever had before as the games take on more importance as Anthony Bishop has done the past week.  It's coming off the bench cold in a scoreless game and backstopping your team to a 6-3 win so your number one goalie can rest a lower body tweak, as Matt Berlin did Saturday for Rylan Toth. 

Many will say the story of the weekend was Seattle winning two important games without Barzal available. I would argue the story of the weekend was every other player available pushing their game to the next level to earn two wins.  The story was a player like Sami Moilanen and his Rocky Balboa approach to the game.  It's not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.  Take a hit, give a hit, get knocked down, get right back up, get pushed into the boards, push right back.  Give up a goal, score a goal.  Be the last man standing.

Twelve games with less then a full line up the last two months, 11-1 record in those games.  Remarkable. 

So when it comes to the playoffs, sure you'd like home-ice advantage as much as possible, especially when your home venue is the ShoWare Cente where Seattle fans have made it one of the most intimidating places for opposing teams to play. But in the end it's not about where you play but how you play.  And under less then ideal conditions over the past two months, Seattle has been playing the right way most nights. 

Over the last three games the T-Birds have scored 14 goals in compiling three wins.  Seattle's so-called  "one line team" has gotten goals from 10 different players.  Apparently Seattle has a 10 player first line. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week.  So many players stepped up I just put all their names on a dart board, put on a blindfold and tossed three darts. 

Third Star:  D Anthony Bishop.  With just five healthy defensemen, it was important not just to have Ethan Bear,  Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman at their best, which they were and then some, but also for Bishop to embrace his role in that top five.  He had to play with confidence and not be intimidated by the moment.  He did exactly that.  Even added a goal in Tuesday's win over Spokane. 

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit. This is saying a lot when you have an Ethan Bear on the team who played exceptionally well in his return to the lineup after a three game absence, but I thought Ottenbreit was the best two-way d-man on the ice every night this past week.   He blocked shots, scored goals, delivered hits and chipped in with a few assists while providing leadership in the absence of the captain. 

First Star:  C Alexander True.  No one was affected as much by the absence of Barzal this weekend then True who moved up from the third line to center the top line between Kolesar and Ryan Gropp.  True scored a goal in each of the three wins including a pair of shorties on the weekend.  He and Gropp are two of Seattle's best penalty killers and the T-Birds were 11 of 12 on the PK.  Ended the week with four points (3g, 1a).  Most importantly, his strong play diminished the affects of Barzal's absence. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ready to Spring Forward

The Thunderbirds go in to Tuesday night's home game versus Spokane with just six regular season games left on the schedule. With two weeks left before the end of the 72 game schedule, nothing has been decided, not the top of the division, not the top of the conference and not even first round playoff matchups.

Seattle got a mixed bag in its past three games.  They gutted out a road point with their, once-again, depleted lineup, losing 5-4 in overtime up in Kamloops last Wednesday.  They returned home Friday night, got Matthew Wedman back in the lineup after a 22 game absence, and earned a solid 3-2 win over Tri-City.  But even with Wedman back, once again the T-birds had over 100 points sitting in the stands.  Seattle got no lineup relief Saturday, but also didn't help themselves in a lackluster 4-2 loss in Everett. 

Will Seattle be any closer to full strength for the final half dozen games? I would suspect that they'll get Ethan Bear back this week, and maybe Jarret Tyszka by week's end but the jury is still out as to when Scott Eansor will be back.  Seattle has managed to play very well the second half of the season through all of it, Saturday in Everett not withstanding, but at some point it sure would be nice to see what this team could do with a roster at 100 percent health. 

Defenseman Tyson Terretta, who turned 17 in early January, made his Thunderbirds regular season debut by playing in both games on the weekend. Another young prospect getting the baptism-by-fire treatment.  With Seattle missing two of it's top four defenseman, Terretta ate up some important minutes and fared well considering the circumstances.  With this spate of injuries recently,  Seattle has had to use the combination of Terretta and 15 year olds Jake Lee and Cody Savey in seven games the past month.   No easing them in.  Playing them wasn't a luxury, it was a necessity. 

Hard to know if Seattle's power play struggled in the absence of Bear.  Obviously the veteran defenseman is a key reason why the T-birds power play has been resurgent the past month, but with Bear missing three games Seattle was only awarded five power plays in that span, and only two on the weekend, and went 0-for-5.   They had zero power plays against Tri-City. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  He played in just one game, and although he didn't start vs. Everett, he faced 34 shots in just over 50 minutes and was outstanding stopping 33 of them. He gave the T-birds every chance to mount a comeback. Five games is not a lot to go on but the 16 year old is 1-0-0-1 with a 2.52 GAA and .907 SVPCT in that limited action. 

Second Star: LW Ryan Gropp.  Playing for the final time in his hometown last Wednesday, Gropp finished with a pair of goals and an assist in the OT loss to Kamloops.  After a slow start, he's hit the 30-goal plateau for the third straight season. 

First Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The rookie from Sipoo, Finland came up with a two goal effort in the win at home over the Americans Saturday. Moilanen continues to have a strong freshman campaign in the WHL with 39 points (20g, 19a).  We've talked about his 5'8" frame not deterring him from playing a physical brand of hockey. He takes his fair share of hits but always seems to come back from them.