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.