Seattle just completed one of their most successful extended eastern road trips in years with a 2-0-1-0 record the second half of their trek through the Central Division. As a result, the T-Birds end a stretch of seven straight on the road by going 5-1-1-0. Hindsight being what it is, if you look back on some of the results that didn't go the team's way, you realize how close they came to going 7-0.
In their only regulation loss against a Central Division team this season, a subpar second period put Seattle behind, but they battled back well enough in the third period to get within a goal against the Kootenay Ice before an empty net goal sealed their fate in a 4-2 loss. In their overtime loss to end the trip in Medicine Hat, the T-Birds hit at least two posts/crossbars and a questionable non-penalty call directly led to the Tigers third goal. Put those two issues together and that had Seattle chasing the game. Instead of lamenting the situation, Seattle came on strong with a pair of late goals to tie it up, earning a point, before falling early in the OT.
Before their October 21st home game versus Moose Jaw, head coach Matt O'Dette broke up his top line of Volcan-Neuls-Moilanen in order to spread more offensive production up and down the line up. At the time, Seattle was averaging just about 25 shots per game. Since then, the T-Birds have had over 30 shots a night in seven of eight games, including a high of 39 twice. One could argue fatigue, travel and playing their fifth game in seven nights is the only reason they didn't hit that 30 shot mark in Edmonton. Even so, Seattle still averaged 32.4 shots over that eight game stretch, an improvement of seven shots a game. That may not sound like much but they went 5-2-1-0 over that span and actually outshot their opponent in the three games they didn't get the win.
Only once in their last seven games have the Thunderbirds had their top six defenseman on the ice and available for all 60 minutes. In a couple of instances the T-Birds played with just their top three defensemen available. Often they had three rookie defensemen in the lineup. In Edmonton they utilized 15-year old prospect Ty Bauer, limited his shifts and still won the game. The strength of this team entering the season was going to be the return of five of their top six d-men from last season's championship team. Yet Seattle just went through a critical stretch of the season with many of those top defensemen unavailable and came out with a winning record.
That is a testament to the coaching staff's ability to coach up the young defenseman as well as make it clear to the forwards they have a responsibility in the defensive zone. Often on the road trip an opponent's scoring chance was thwarted by a backchecking center or winger. There were also time's when the other team scored because of a missed assignment by a forward in the defensive zone. It's all part of learning to play the 200 foot game.
The trade of Luke Ormsby to Everett and the departure of Elijah Brown, who left the team because he was unhappy with his ice time, has opened the door for other young forwards to get more ice time. Three of them have really stepped up and taken advantage of the situation. The more ice Sam Huo, Tyler Carpendale and Ian Briscoe get, the better they play. Briscoe in particular is benefitting as he is now seeing time on the power play as well. While he didn't officially earn an assist on the play, Briscoe's forecheck late in the game versus the Oil Kings, created a turnover that led directly to Zack Andrusiak's game-winning goal.
Do vets really help rookies develop? Maybe it works both ways. The Seattle coaches put veteran Donovan Neuls on a line with two rookies the second half of the road trip. The last few games Neuls has been centering a line featuring 17-year old rookie Dillon Hamaliuk and the 16-year old Huo. Neuls, who hadn't been scoring early in the year, put up a three-game goal scoring streak.
I think the popular sentiment is that Seattle is biding it's time in goal until Carl Stankowski returns. But with no definitive return date for Stankowski, the T-Birds current goaltending tandem of Matt Berlin and Liam Hughes are giving the team the opportunity to win every game. Hughes has really settled in since Seattle acquired him at the start of the season from Edmonton. he ended up starting four of the six games against the Central Division and went 3-0-1-0.
Thanks again to all the former players and parents who jumped onto our broadcasts during the road trip. All brought their own unique spin to our coverage of the games. It's always great to meet up with former players such as Steve Chaffin and Travis Toomey, and see how they've matured into adulthood.
My T-Birds Three Stars for the second half of the road trip:
Third Star: Goaltender Liam Hughes. He went 1-0-1-0 in his last two starts, 3-0-1-0 on the trip and has now improved his overall record on the season to 4-2-1-0. The road trip was a great chance for the coaches to get him lots of time between the pipes and get a better feel for his game going into the meat of the schedule.
Second Star: LW Nolan Volcan. In the last three games on the trip Volcan picked up four points (2g, 2a) and was +4. He plays a complete game and is very aggressive on the forecheck which helps create turnovers. His motor starts in fifth gear and never stops. After a bit of a slow start in the scoring department he is now close to averaging a point a game with 15 points in 16 games.
First Star: D Austin Strand. After finishing the first half of the road trip with a late, game-winning goal in his hometown of Calgary, he started the second half of the trip by scoring a goal and adding an assist in a win against his former team in Red Deer. He added a big power-play goal in the 3-1 win in Edmonton and had an assist on the game tying goal in Medicine Hat. He picked up four points (2g, 2a) and was +2 the final half of the trip and now is second in the league with eight power-play goals. He's also second in the WHL among defenseman in scoring with 22 points (9g, 13a) which also tops his own team's leaderboard. Don't be surprised if NHL scouts are taking notice.