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.