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.