Seattle got back into the win column Saturday night with their first shutout win of the season, a 2-0 blanking of Everett at the accesso ShoWare Center. The win earned them a split of the weekend home-and-home series with their division rivals after falling Friday, 3-2, up at Xfinity Arena. The home win snapped a five game winless skein for the T-birds who suffered some frustrating losses in a series of very winnable games.
Even with the win, Seattle continues to miss out on scoring chances despite their ability to create opportunities for more goals. It hasn't helped that one of their top offensive weapons, Sami Moilanen, has missed most of the last four games with injury. But even without Moilanen in the lineup, the T-birds continue to create scoring chances, even with a younger group of forwards picking up Moilanen's ice time. Still, the T-birds scored just four times on the weekend and all four goals came off the stick of veteran left winger Nolan Volcan.
The scoring foibles of this team remind me of another young Thunderbirds team from five years ago. The 2013-14 T-birds featured a set of five fresh faced rookies by the names of Barzal, Gropp, Bear, Kolesar and Eansor who combined to play 288 games that season. They had some veterans leaders as well, but it took making midseason trades for more veteran forwards to bump up that team's goals per game average to 3.3.
This year's team currently sports a 3.04 goal per game average and to get it up to 3.3 or higher, I would suspect the improvement will come from in house, not via trades. The group of rookies this season is much larger then the 2013-14 rookie group. Already this season Seattle's primary group of eight rookies (Hamaliuk, Lee, Terretta, McNelly, Carpendale, Huo, Katzalay and Malukhin) has played a combined 102 games. that doesn't include Ian Briscoe's 13 games because Briscoe, who played in 20 games last season, doesn't technically qualify as a rookie this season.
This year's rookies are being asked to carry more of the freight then that 2013-14 rookie class. While this year's team does feature solid veteran forwards like Volcan, Moilanen, Donovan Neuls, Blake Bargar and Noah Philp, that 2013-14 team had Alexander Delnov, Branden Troock, Roberts Lipsbergs, Justin Hickman, Mitch Elliot and eventually Jamien Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Russell Maxwell (not to mention an 18 year old Shea Theodore on the back end) to carry most of the load.
I could be wrong, but my impression is that the Thunderbirds are willing to go through the expected growing pains this season with this young group and I doubt they are looking to add more veteran players. They seem fine with putting these rookies out in key situations such as the power play or penalty kill, or out on the ice late in close games. The expectation is that it will expedite their development. We're almost one third of the way through this season and this team, with this young roster, is playing at a .524 winning clip and you can certainly argue they've been in most games 'til the end and could have won a few more then the 10 they have so far.
There is no question that the early ice time for players like Hamaliuk, Carpendale, Lee and Huo is paying off. They are all better players now then they were in late September when the season began. Much of that is confidence. They're more sure of themselves and their roles on the team. It's also confidence from the coaching staff that is willing to play them in all situations. But there is still much to learn. I would guess some of these young players started to doubt themselves a little during the losing streak. Hopefully, they learned valuable lessons about the need to keep grinding to work your way out of a slump.
The expectations that were on the T-birds team the past couple of seasons of playing for and winning championships, are not on this year's team. That doesn't mean expectations on these young players aren't high. Their job is to embrace the culture of winning created by the team the past four years. That means playing the right way, playing a 200 foot game and taking no shortcuts. It means earning your ice time by putting in the work off the ice and in practice that prepare you for a 72 game season.
The one aspect of Matt O'Dette's coaching that is a direct carry over from the Steve Konowalchuk era is this: veteran or rookie, you're not guaranteed anything. Age, draft status or what you did in Midget or Bantam hockey or your stats from last season don't automatically put you in the lineup. It's all about competition and earning your ice.
My T-birds Three Stars for the past weekend:
Third Star: C Matthew Wedman. Weds is starting to remind me a little of Alexander True and not just because of their similar builds. True did a lot of things well but it took him a while to find a consistent scoring touch. There were so many times when True was in the right place at the right time but just couldn't bury a loose puck around the opposing goal. Wedman is still looking for that scoring touch too. But he plays a big man's game, has improved his skating a good deal over last season and makes a living around the other team's net. Scouts still have to be intrigued by his size. If he can starts scoring consistently he'll have more eyes on him.
Second Star: G Matt Berlin. Seattle could have lost that game Saturday to Everett in the first period were it not for Berlin. While the rest of the club got off to a slow start, Berlin stood tall and stopped 12 shots, kept the game scoreless and finished with a 27 save shutout, the second of his T-birds career. When your goalie is playing well, you want to reward the effort. Saturday Seattle did and Berlin was a big reason the T-birds snapped the losing streak.
First Star: LW Nolan Volcan. Volcan erupted for four goals this weekend. That was every goal Seattle scored in 120 minutes of hockey. In fact by himself, he outscored the entire Everett team in the two games, 4-3. He is now a point a game player with 22 points (10g, 12a) in 21 games. He is so much more then his offensive numbers though. He's the Tasmanian Devil, a non-stop whirling bundle of energy. The T-birds currently sit third in the league on the penalty kill and his willingness to block shots with any body part is a big key.