Monday, October 30, 2017

Three Up, Three Down the Road

Halfway through their six-game road trip through the WHL's Central Division, the Thunderbirds sport a 2-1 record following back-to-back wins in Calgary and Lethbridge.  The two wins were a terrific response after Seattle dropped the first game of the nine-day journey last Friday in Cranbrook, 4-2, to the Kootenay Ice.

In reality, the T-Birds have played their last four game on the road.  Before heading east they made a stop in Everett and beat their division rivals, so Seattle has won three of four in what will eventually be seven straight on the road. 

Conventional wisdom would argue that a young, rebuilding team should struggle on the road where, as the visitor, they don't get last change and the chance to line match. But so far Seattle has bucked convention and are 4-2-0-1 through their first seven road games.  While it is still early, 13 games into a 72 game season, the T-Birds have yet to fall below .500 and it is that road record that is keeping them above break even. 

The team just finished their first 3-game-in-3-nights weekend of the season and you could argue they were better at the end then they were at the beginning.  Their 7-4 win Sunday in Lethbridge over the Hurricanes was their best 60 minutes of hockey so far on the trip.  In each of the first two games Seattle had one subpar period.  In the loss to Kootenay it was the second period when they surrendered three goals, fell behind and never caught up. 

Saturday at the Saddledome in Calgary it was the third period that almost proved the team's undoing.  They allowed three goals to the Hitmen, which erased Seattle's 3-0 lead, a lead they had built by dominating 5-on-5 play through the first two periods.  Thanks to Austin Strand's last minute marker, the T-Birds pulled out a 4-3 victory. Sunday in Lethbridge, while the team was certainly not perfect, they were more consistent from period to period. 

When you lose you want to improve on the mistakes you made in that loss and apply the lessons learned to the next game.  Friday in their loss to the Ice, Seattle had issues with puck management with too many turnovers.  For the most part, they cleaned up that issue in the next two games against the Hitmen and Hurricanes.  From my rather untrained eye, it certainly seemed Seattle controlled the puck for large segments of those last two games and had very few turnovers.

Seattle is currently the healthiest they've been this season.  Initially it didn't appear it was going to be that way for this road trip after both Jarret Tyszka and Aaron Hyman were hurt in the Everett game.  Both missed the Kootenay game but were back in the lineup by the time the team reached Calgary.  Meanwhile, Tyler Carpendale, who suffered a training camp injury, made his season debut Saturday night.  At the moment, only Carl Stankowski remains on the shelf. 

Carpendale certainly showed no rust in the games he played this past weekend.  He's a big bodied, power forward type who can muck it up and seems to excel in those puck battles along the boards. He also seems very willing to go to the front of the net. 

Another young player who showed some positive signs this weekend was Samuel Huo.  He just missed scoring his first WHL goal Sunday.  He had a couple of real good chances in front of the 'Canes net.  He seems to read the ice well, and not just in the offensive zone but in the defensive end as well.  For a young player, he made a couple of nice back checks in both Saturday's and Sunday's game.

It might be the emergence of players like Huo and Carpendale, along with Dillon Hamaliuk, and the need to develop younger guys like Holden Katzalay and Nikita Malukhin, that cost Luke Ormsby ice time and, eventually, a roster spot.  In this league that often happens when a younger player passes you on the depth chart.  Make no mistake though, Ormsby was a consummate team player and didn't complain.  He was the local kid thrilled to be a part of the local team he had watched growing up. He will always be a part of that first championship team in club history.  His name is forever etched on the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  He just saw the writing on the wall this season. I know he'll work hard to earn his ice with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL. 

Let's hope this is a trend.  In each game this weekend the T-Birds basically doubled their goal out put from the previous game, going from two to four to seven goals.  Overall, they tallied 13 goals in the three games, which is an average of just over four goals per contest.  More encouraging is that Seattle continues to create a ton of scoring chances each night.  Because of the youth of their forward group there will still be nights when they struggle to finish but at least they've been consistently creating opportunities to score every game.  It is frustrating to watch sometimes as they leave a rebound sitting in the crease rather then burying it in the back of the net but often we're talking about a 16 or 17-year old battling a 19 or 20-year old on the other team for that loose puck.

Red Deer, Edmonton and Medicine Hat remain on the trip. One more win guarantees a .500 swing through Alberta.  Two more and the team would equal their win total from last season's trip through the Eastern Division. Considering the roster change over from last season, to get to at least .500 on the trip would make it a success. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star:  C Donovan Neuls.  Seattle needs Neuls to score to be successful and he potted goals in the last two games of the weekend, hopefully a good sign moving forward.  Despite the lack of offense he always plays hard at both ends of the ice and continues to be solid in the face off circle and the team's best penalty killer.

Second Star:  D Austin Strand.  Strand had the big last minute goal Saturday night in his hometown of Calgary, helping Seattle snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat after blowing a three-goal third period lead.  He also sored in the loss to Kootenay and added three assists on the weekend.  He's averaging well over a point a game on 7g, 11a through 13 games.

First Star:  LW Zack Andrusiak.  It's been a great start to the road trip for the Yorkton, Sask. native highlighted by his hat trick Sunday versus Lethbridge.  He added an assist for a four-point night.  In the three games on the weekend he finished with six points (4g, 2a).  He's already tied both his goal total and total points from last season.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Heading Down the Highway

After a 1-1weekend, the Thunderbirds are ready to embark on their longest road trip of the season, their bi-annual trip through the Central Division of the Eastern Conference, a trek that will have them play six games in just nine days.

The journey actually begins Wednesday with a bus ride up to Cranbrook, B.C.  That's where they'll begin the action with a Friday night game against the Kootenay Ice.  The battle against the Ice marks the start of a 3-games-in-3 nights weekend.  The T-birds will be in Calgary to face the Hitmen on Saturday before a Sunday stop in Lethbridge versus the Hurricanes.

Seattle gets a slight respite before resuming the trip next Wednesday in Red Deer against the Rebels, followed by a Thursday game in Edmonton as they take on the Oil Kings.  The trip ends in Medicine Hat on Saturday, November 4th versus the Tigers.  The T-birds finally make their way back home in time for a November 10th game at the accesso ShoWare Center for their third meeting of the season against divisional rival Tri-City.

By the time the Central Division road trip ends, the T-birds will have played seven straight games on the road.  It started this past Sunday up in Everett with a well earned 4-3 win in the first of ten meetings this season with the Silvertips.  The win completed a two game weekend that began Saturday with a frustrating 3-1 home ice loss to Moose Jaw.

Seattle played extremely well both nights.  In fact, I actually thought the effort in the home loss to the Warriors was slightly better then the road win over the 'Tips.  The team was more consistent over the course of the sixty minutes in the loss, then they were in the win.  They certainly created more ten bell scoring chances against Moose Jaw then they did against Everett.

A late neutral zone error, and their inability to cash in on those  numerous scoring chances, is what did in the T-birds in the loss to Moose Jaw.  They played well enough to earn at least a point in that game, and in fact were 75-seconds away from overtime, when a costly, late miscue turned into a game winning goal for the Warriors.   Add to that, the T-birds hit a post just seconds earlier.  If that Zack Andrusiak shot is an inch lower, Seattle is up 2-1.  Alas, the hockey gods did not smile upon the T-birds at that moment.

The Moose Jaw game was eerily similar to the game Seattle played against Victoria a week earlier.  Just like versus Moose Jaw, Seattle created plenty of scoring opportunities against the Royals but failed to capitalize and it resulted in a 6-1 loss.  These are the so called teachable moments for so many of the young players who occupy so many spots on the roster this season. When you think you are doing enough, the situation may actually call for just that extra bit of effort.  So often it can be the difference between winning and losing.

Seattle's penalty killing has been exceptional in the early going this season, but even the best penalty killing teams will have an off-night.  That happened to the T-birds Sunday up at Xfinity Arena as the Silvertips cashed in on three of six power play chances.  But because Seattle was the better team 5-on-5 they were able to keep the 'Tips from generating much at even strength.  Meanwhile the T-birds struck for three even strength goals and added one power play marker of their own.

In the second period Sunday Seattle got into some penalty trouble.  They were also upset with the officiating.  Their emotions started to get in the way of their game.  They got to the end of the second period tied at 2-2 and then used the intermission to collect themselves and get their emotions in check.  As a result the T-birds were able focus on their game and came out and dominated the first half of the third period and built a two-goal lead.  It was enough of a cushion to carry them through the back end of that game.

With injuries and penalties Seattle played a good chunk of the final 20+ minutes in Everett with just three available defensemen, prompting them to move their jack-of-all trades forward Donovan Neuls back to the blue line for a few shifts. He held his own and Seattle held off Everett down the stretch.

Despite the 1-1 record on the weekend, Seattle's two goaltenders combined to stop 62 of 67 shots.  Both Liam Hughes Saturday and Matt Berlin Sunday, did what you ask your goalie to do, give your team a chance to win.  This weekend the opposition scored just two even strength goals, three were scored with Seattle shorthanded and the other was into an empty net.  I like their chances when that happens.

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star.  The goaltenders, both Liam Hughes and Matt Berlin.  As stated above they put their team in a position to win.  Hard to fault your goalie when he only allows two goals against as Hughes did in that loss to Moose Jaw.  Against some pretty potent offensive players Hughes showed a really good ability to track the puck.  Berlin did a good job Sunday of getting onto pucks and letting his centers win defensive zone faceoffs. He seemed to eat up every puck that got remotely near him.  I don't recall too many second chance opportunities for Everett in that game.

Second Star.  W Sami Moilanen.  One goal, two assists and a +2 rating on the weekend for the feisty Finn who also delivered some massive checks, particularly Saturday against Moose Jaw.  Moilanen continues to prove that size doesn't matter, heart does.  In the fist ten games of this season (nine goals) he is almost half way to his goal total of 21 goals in 70 games last season.  So far in his 80 game T-birs career, the 18 year old has already amassed 57 points.

First Star:  W Dillon Hamaliuk.  The 17 year old rookie had quite the weekend, registering the first 2-goal game of his WHL career Sunday in Everett.  He added an assist on Saturday as well and finished with a +3 rating in the two games.  Listed at 6'3", 182 lbs. and growing, when he gets moving, he's like a locomotive roaring down the tracks.  The offense was great, and hopefully a sign of things to come, but watch him play both ends because he's very cognizant of needing a 200-foot game. He does a good job of getting back up ice into the defensive zone.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

What the Blazes? A Giant Win

In an early season schedule with very few games, Seattle got a taste of what's to come when they played three games in four nights this past week.  Despite a stumble at home in the first game, the T-birds came out of the week with a pair of wins and four points.

The ten spot allowed to Portland in the loss last Saturday is concerning but not as much as you'd think since the Winterhawks have been scoring at will against most of their opponents. It's not just a Seattle thing.  Seattle did not play well though, especially after an early Zack Andrusiak goal put then on top.
Portland's game is up tempo, push the pace, run and gun hockey.  For it to work they have to have puck possession.  To minimize it, you have to eliminate turnovers.  Way too many Seattle turnovers in that game.  The T-birds still scored five goals and that should be enough to win most nights.  This was not one of those nights.  In their two games against Portland, Seattle has allowed 17 goals against.  In their other five games, they've only allowed 11.

The T-birds didn't get the best goaltending in that loss either. But both Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes bounced back with solid efforts in Seattle's two wins.  Berlin made 32 saves Sunday in Kamloops, in a 4-3 win over the Blazers, and Hughes earned his first win as a Thunderbird on Tuesday with a 33 save effort (plus two more in the shootout), in a 3-2 win over Vancouver at the accesso ShoWare Center.

Seattle is getting solid early season play from their special teams.  The power play is clicking at just under 31 percent on 8-for-26 success.  The T-birds have been shorthanded 30 times in the first seven games but have only surrendered seven goals and two of those were scored while the opposition was skating 5-on-3.  

The T-birds got down to the 20 year old roster limit by placing Tyler Adams on long term injured reserve.  Adams needed hip surgery and has gone back home to Regina where he'll face a long recovery. By not releasing him Seattle could bring him back at some point later this season, although I'm not sure whether this type of surgery will allow Adams to play again at this level. 

Seattle GM Russ Farwell has made many under-the-radar trades over the last five or six seasons.  Taran Kozun comes to mind, but the Kozun deal still cost Seattle two players and two fourth round draft picks.  Meanwhile, Adams only cost Seattle a prospect, Mckenzie White.  Adams addition seemed to settle down the Thunderbirds when he came over last December. He became a multi-purpose tool as the T-birds were able to use him up and down their top four lines.  The ability to plug him in anywhere in the lineup when other players were out was a key to Seattle's run to the championship.

You don't want to toot a rookie's horn too loudly so early in the season.  You wouldn't want them to start reading their press clippings and begin thinking they've got it all figured out.  I don't think Dillon Hamaliuk is the type of player who would let praise go to his head.  At least for now it appears he's found a spot on the T-birds second line with Noah Philp and Matthew Wedman.  First and foremost, he works hard at both ends of the ice.  He's strong on the boards and in the past couple of games has shown a knack for being around the front of the net when pucks are there.  His game still has a lot of developing left but he's on the right track.  Along with another rookie, defenseman Jake Lee, Hammer leads the team with a +3 rating.

The good news for Hamaliuk is that, while this is his 17 year old season, he is a late birthday and thus not eligible for the NHL draft until the spring of 2019.  This means he still has two seasons to impress the scouts, instead of one.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week:

Third Star:  Defenseman Jarrett Tyszka.  The Montreal Canadiens prospect
 had four assists in three games and is currently riding a five game point streak.  He has taken on a bigger role this season on the Seattle power play and that is one reason it is currently top five in the WHL.

2nd Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  Four goals in the three games and now has eight on the season to lead the team.  In fact, as of Thursday his eight goals tied him with three other players for second most in the WHL.  The native of Finland looks very comfortable out there at the start of his second season in North America.

First Star:  C/W Noah Philp.  Snake bitten in the first few games of the season with his new team, he's come on lately and picked up five points (2g, 3a).  Listed as a center by trade, he is playing wing on the second line with Wedman the pivot.  He, Weds and Hamaliuk have created some very good, early season chemistry. Facing defeat, his shootout goal against Vancouver Tuesday pushed the T-birds fortunes around.  Had he missed, Seattle would have lost.  By scoring, he gave Andrusiak, and Hughes, a chance to win it.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

One and One Equals Two

In their first multiple game weekend of the season the Thunderbirds earned a split, winning at home Friday and falling on the road Saturday, thus earning two points and leaving the month of September with a 2-1-0-0 record.

There were equal parts good and not so good elements in both games.  Friday, in their 5-1 win over Prince George at the accesso ShoWare Center, the T-birds had a solid start and 25 minute into the game had built a four goal lead.  As so often happens in a game you dominate on the scoreboard early, players start getting away from the structure of their game plan and start looking for individual reward. This got Seattle into trouble with turnovers and penalties.  It almost allowed the Cougars back into the game.  Seattle survived and earned a 5-1 win.  Hopefully a lesson learned by the young team going forward.  A similar scenario against a stronger team might result in a different outcome.

Saturday down in Portland the Thunderbirds compete level kept them in the game well into the third period before a few negative elements of their game caught up with them.  A postive?  Surprisingly, while deploying an entirely new top unit from a year ago, the T-birds power play has been solid in the early going and provided them with both goals against the Winterhawks. 

One negative?  Puck management, especially on breakouts.  Seattle just turned the puck over too often in all three zones on the ice.  Part of that was due to Portland's aggressive nature.  They employ a very good forecheck and use speed and quickness to create an in-your-face style to get Seattle off pucks.  This is all the more reason then for the T-birds to pay attention to the small details that go into puck management.

The effort was there from Seattle but effort does not always equal execution.  There was a need for the T-birds to make better passes and a better job of carrying the puck out of the defensive zone.  It's not the amount of shots on goal by Portland that will be worrisome to the coaching staff, it will be the amount of extra puck possession time given to the Winterhawks by the lack of consistent puck management by Seattle.

These are some of the growing pains this team will go through with their young forward group.  Its a need to be more consistent from shift to shift.  It's no surprise that Seattle's first and second lines, their older lines, were more consistent with the puck in both games. The bottom six forwards, the young first and second year players, are getting their on the job training. The goal?  To be better tomorrow then they were today, to be better at the end of the season then they are at the beginning.

One young forward whose game I liked this weekend was Dillon Hamaliuk.  Hammer actually caught my eye at the start of last season too when, as a 16 year old, he played in 17 regular season games and recorded his first WHL goal before being sent down when all the older players like Ryan Gropp, Mat Barzal and Keegan Kolesar returned.  He did come back up and play in two postseason games, including the Chynoweth Cup clinching Game Six in Regina.

Listed at 6'3" and 182 lbs, the Leduc, Alberta native may still be filling out his frame but he is already a physical presence.  He's a strong battler along the boards and seems well on his way to becoming a prototypical WHL power forward.  In fact, Seattle has a number of young players who seem to fit that same physical mode.  The T-birds currently have nine rookies on the roster, either 16 or 17 years old, who average 6'2" and 189 lbs. and they are still growing.  They offer lots of promise.  Of course size means nothing without the skill and that is the task before these players, to develop their game to best utilize that size.

I have no problem with the third period Turner Ottenbreit hit on Joachim Blichfeld being called a penalty. Bang-bang play and in real time you have to give the official the right to make that call as he sees it.  I don't believe it was a check to the head though.  Interference was probably the more proper call as it looks like the puck is past both players at the point of contact.  But after seeing the replay from two different camera shots, Ottenbreit never leaves his skates, tucks his right arm into his body and delivers a shoulder to shoulder check.

The pass up ice put Blichfeld in a vulnerable position.  He's reaching for the puck with his head down.  Ottenbreit's job is to separate the player from the puck and prevent him from entering the defensive zone cleanly.  It's a timing play and Otto's timing may have been off by a mere fraction of a second. Is it a dirty play?  No.  Is it an intent to injure play?  No.  It's a hockey play.  To not make the hit would be asking Ottenbreit to give Blichfeld a potential breakaway opportunity.  Does Ottenbreit play the game on the edge?  Yes, but so do most of those who play this game.  The WHL, and hockey in general for that matter, would like to get those high hits out of the game.  Player safety should be paramount but its a contact sport and the hit delivered by Otto is taught throughout the game.

What isn't up for debate is the response by Portland's Alex Overhardt.  In the heat of the moment he races up ice to deliver a two-handed baseball bat-like swinging slash to the back of Ottenbreit's knees.  This is not a hockey play.  This is a play with one purpose, intent to injure.  Suspend Ottenbreit because you deem him a repeat offender?  Fine, but Overhardt deserves a suspension as well.  A crime of passion is still a crime. Do I think Overhardt is a dirty player?  No, he got caught up in the heat of the moment and tried to deliver frontier justice.  But the league needs to come down hard on his actions otherwise, they are condoning it. You can't complain about the Ottenbreit hit then look past Overhardt's actions.  That would be the height of hypocrisy.

My T-birds three stars for September:

Third Star:  Goalie Matt Berlin.  Carl Stankowski injured?  Call the Wall.  All Berlin does with Stankowski on the sideline is win games or earn Seattle points in the standings.  He's now 9-2-2-0 in his T-birds career which isn't yet one year old.  That includes 2-0 and 64 saves on 68 shots to begin the new season.

Second Star:  RW Sami Moilanen.  The Sipoo, Finland native is off to a strong start in his second season, scoring four goals in three games, including a hat trick in Friday's win over PG.  What sometimes gets lost in his offensive numbers is his ability to play a complete 200-foot game and be a strong penalty killer. He's a definite candidate to represent Finland this winter at the World Junior Championships.

First Star:  Defenseman Austin Strand. Through three games he's Seattle's top scorer, averaging two points per game with six points (2g, 4a) and a +3 rating.  At least early on he's filling the void on the power play created by the departure of Ethan Bear.  His second power play goal Saturday in Portland was WHL Plays of the Week worthy.