The U.S. Division continually shows itself to be the most competitive division in the WHL and this season is no different. Entering the final 22 games of the schedule, Seattle is bunched tightly with the other four teams in the division. Just 10 points separates first from fifth. The third, fourth and fifth place teams are only one point apart.
The T-Birds maintained a spot in the middle of the division this weekend despite a 1-2 mark in their three games, played in three nights. It was a stretch that also saw Seattle play eight games in 12 days and 10 in 16. The T-Birds came out of it with a 6-4-0-0 mark, allowing them to finish January with a 9-4 record, their second straight winning month of hockey.
Seattle gets a bit of a rest, a chance to recharge the batteries, with a rare five days between games. But it gets back to busy once they hit the ice again this weekend. The T-Birds will play 12 games in 24 days between February 3rd and 27th. It includes another three-in-three mid-month and seven game in 12 days the back half of February. A lot of young players on the roster, who haven't had to concern themselves with such things in the past, are learning about proper nutrition, hydration and body maintenance with the busy second half of the season in full bloom.
It's the time of the season when the ability to stay healthy and recover quickly from one game in order to be ready for the next, could decide your final place in the standings. Injuries are the great equalizer. Seattle, like all teams, has had their fair share again this season. I'm not sure I've seen a team get dinged at one specific position, maybe the most important position on the ice, as the T-Birds have this season in goal. Yet despite multiple goaltenders on the injury list for long stretches, the team has persevered. Knock on wood Liam Hughes and Dorrin Luding, two players who weren't even on the opening night roster, stay healthy going forward.
Over the course of the three games this weekend, Seattle never trailed by more then a goal except the final 10 minutes of the weekend opener up in Everett and that came after they missed tying the game at 2-2, when they rang a shot off the cross bar, moments before allowing the third Everett goal. Most of the weekend they were down by one goal, ahead by a goal or tied. A lot of nail biting hockey. Expect more of the same going forward. Seattle competes hard, they have all season.
Payton Mount, the T-Birds first round Bantam selection from last spring's WHL draft, made his Thunderbirds debut, playing in the last two games of the weekend in the absence of the injured Sami Moilanen. Mount put on display what we saw from him in training camp back in late August/early September; hockey smarts. Physical maturity was the only thing separating the just-turned-16 year old from the older players on the ice. He doesn't make mistakes. He's another name to put into that mix of youth that includes the likes of Lee, Hamaliuk and Huo.
My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:
Third Star: G Dorrin Luding. After playing the role of back up the first two games of the weekend, Luding got the start Sunday in Kennewick against Tri-City and was doing all he could to keep the T-Birds ahead, 1-0. He stopped numerous breakaways and odd man rushes. He ended the night with 29 saves on 31 shots. Unfortunately his tired team ran out of gas in a 3-2 loss.
Second Star: G Liam Hughes. Hughes showed no signs of rust after missing five games to injury. He jumped back in with a pair of starts against division leading Everett and went 1-1. He actually outdueled the Silvertips Carter Hart. Hughes faced more shots (69-53) than Hart and made 14 more saves. He topped it by besting Hart in Saturday's T-Birds shootout win by denying all three Everett shooters while Hart was beaten by Seattle d-man Austin Strand.
First Star: C Matthew Wedman. The third year player from Edmonton finished the weekend with three points (1g, 2a) and a +2 rating. His power-play goal Saturday versus Everett tied things up in the third period, allowing Seattle to go on to win the shootout. He's already established career bests in goals (11) and points (32). He's trending upwards with 11 points in his last eight games.