Monday, December 18, 2017

A Tale of Two Weekends

Seattle's final four games going into the Christmas break were like night and day.  First there was night. Two games, two losses and 15 goals allowed.  Next came day.  Two games, two wins and 15 goals scored.  Despite the ugliness of the first two games Seattle still earned five of a possible eight points and goes into the holiday break on a two game winning streak and both above .500 and sitting in a playoff spot.

Last weekend against division opponents Tri-City and Spokane we saw a Seattle team we really hadn't seen much the first half of the season.  The compete level was off.  There were too many breakdowns.  Missing two veteran defenseman in those two games certainly had its affect as both Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman were unavailable.  The T-Birds were full marks for their roaring, three-goal comeback late in the third period against the Americans that got the game into overtime before they lost.  But that may only have masked the team's shortcomings on the weekend.  The next night in Spokane, after a solid first period, they fell back into the bad habits of the previous night and were drubbed 9-2.

Two games left before the eight day break.  Which Seattle team would show up?  Fortunately it was the team we witnessed through much of the first half.  The team that, win or lose, played hard for 60 minutes.  Seattle put up a solid first period against Prince George at home on Friday, and though they were back on their heels a bit in the second, finished with a dominate third period in a 5-3 win.  That win came with Strand back in the lineup but without Sami Moilanen who was the team's leading goal scorer entering the weekend.   It also came with Tyler Carpendale sidelined after suffering an injury in practice that week.

Then came the rematch in Spokane against the Chiefs, a Chiefs team riding a two-game winning streak with those wins coming against the top two teams in the Western Conference. I think scoring a goal just 20 seconds in helped get Seattle over any worries about the drubbing they took the week before.  Even after Spokane tied the game shortly after that first goal, Seattle played add-on and eventually exacted their revenge with a convincing 10-3 win.  A total team win in the last game before scattering home to celebrate the holiday with family as 15 of the 18 skaters registered a point.

What a nice early Christmas present for many of the rookies on the roster who earned the first point of their WHL careers, and in the case of Nikita Malukhin, his first two goals.  Holden Katzalay, Sam Huo and newly signed Mike MacLean all earned their first assist.

The happiest T-Bird after that win Sunday over the Chiefs was probably former Chief Matt Berlin.  The Seattle goalie earned the win against the team with which he started his WHL career.  The most exhausted T-Bird was probably Nolan Volcan who puts in a tireless effort every night.  Any energy he had stored up is completely spent by the time the weekend was over. He left it all on the ice both nights.

My T-Birds three stars for the first half:

Third Star:  LW Zack Andrusiak.  We knew he had a scoring touch but with a deep offensive team a year ago, we didn't get to see it on a consistent basis during the Thunderbirds championship run.  But really, who had him on the cusp of 20 goals and leading the team in that category after 33 games?  He's nearly a point a game player with 30 points (17g, 12a).  He's already nearly tripled his point total from last season.

Second Star:  D Austin Strand.  The 20-year old has done his best to pick up the offensive punch lost with the departure of Ethan Bear.  He's done his best to emulate his former teammate while on the power play where he has registered 10 of his 12 goals.  Like Andrusiak he is nearly a point a game player (12, 20a) with 32 points, making him one of the top scoring defenseman in the WHL.  His work has paid off.  He signed an entry level NHL deal with the L.A. Kings early this season.

First Star:  LW Nolan Volcan. He leads the team with 36 points in 33 games and punctuated his first half with a five point night (1g, 4a, +4) Sunday in Spokane.  He plays in all situations, he plays physical and he plays to win. The best word to describe him is "relentless".  He served as captain when Turner Ottenbreit was out of the lineup a few games early in the season which is no surprise.  He leads by word and deed and is a great example for the younger players of what hard work can do for your game.  Five minutes after a game he looks totally exhausted.  Ten minutes later he looks like he's ready to go another sixty minutes.  You can't play the way he plays if you don't love the game.  His passion for hockey bleeds through.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

No Game of Horseshoes

Being close only counts if your goal is the silver medal.  Maybe you like a close shave.  And as the old saying goes, closeness only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.  This past nine days Seattle has been close, right there 'til the end in five of six games.   In the six games the goal totals are thus:  Opposition 17, T-birds 16.  All they have to show for it though, are three out of  12 points and a 1-4-1-0 record.  The biggest culprit?  Opponents scored nearly half those 17 goals (8) in the third period or later.

Close wasn't good enough.  A win equals two points in the standings, a moral victory equals zero.  Seattle let too many points slip away in the last seconds of games.  They were gut wrenching, soul crushing losses and points lost that you can't get back.  The worst thing you can hear after a defeat is "you outplayed them and deserved a better fate".  That's akin to kicking someone when they are already down, adding insult to injury. It means there were too many self-inflicted wounds.

Fortunately there is still a lot of season to play and this team is young and resilient.  Despite the cringe worthy late losses, they are still playing .500 hockey.  Those last second losses haven't deterred them from getting right back on the horse the next game and battling, full throttle, looking for a better result.

For the first eight games of the season the Thunderbirds averaged about 25 shots per game.  In the 16 games since, they've averaged 31 shots per game.  In the first eight games Seattle averaged 3.1 goals per game.  In the next 20 games, with their shot total increasing by six shots a games, their scoring has slightly decreased to 3.06 goals per game.  As Sami Moilanen might say, it all comes down to the finish.  Seattle has to just keep grinding and doing a better job of scoring off rebounds and on loose pucks around the opponents net.

Saturday night at home was Seattle's sixth game in nine nights and the first five had been on the road.  It was also their fourth games in five days.  It showed.  They were sluggish most of that game and seemed sapped by the third period and for one of the few times this season their compete level wasn't up to their standards late in a game.  To see the compete level drop off for this team this season is so rare it was clearly noticeable the final 20 minutes of that loss to Kamloops.

It came less then 24 hours after one of their better sixty minute efforts Friday in Kennewick in a 5-1 win over Tri-City.  That was vintage Thunderbirds with their very aggressive and physical game dictating play.  It's how they play most every night, even if they don't always get a result like they did against the Americans.

And stinging, late second losses aside, that is what makes this team fun to watch.  They compete.  They play to the whistle, they stick to their systems and that puts them in a position to win most nights, even if they don't.  They do it with a lot of young players slowly taking on bigger roles on the team.

My T-birds Three Stars for the six game stretch:

Third Star:  G Matt Berlin.  Berlin was in net for the only two games Seattle earned points in, the win in Kennewick and the overtime loss in Vancouver.  Playing in four of the past six games he registered a 2.73 GAA with an .895 SVPCT.

Second Star:  W Tyler Carpendale/W Dillon Hamaliuk.  This rookie duo combined to score four goals the past three games.  Not only did Carpendale record his first WHL goal Wednesday night up in Kamloops, but he scored again the next game in Kennewick.  He also chipped in with an assist.  He also has the best middle name in hockey; Fletch.  Hamaliuk meanwhile, seems to create 2-3 good scoring chances for himself each night but has been a bit unlucky so it was nice to see him pot two on the power play.  They are both big bodied, physical players but boy, can they both skate.  Move over Starsky and Hutch, here come Hammer and Fletch!

First Star:  W Zack Andrusiak.  Five goals in 60 games last season, Andrusiak already has 14 in just 28 games this go 'round.  He is now second to Moilanen (15) on the team in goals scored.  The coaches knew he had a scoring touch.  What is impressing them most about his play so far this season is his improved 200 foot game.  No where is that more evident then in the past six games as he registered four goals and was +4.