Sunday, January 21, 2018

Grin and Bear it, he's Otto-Matic

Somewhere former Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Jared Hauf is smiling.  A few years back when Hauf patrolled Seattle's blue line, the big d-man from Calgary somehow found himself on a breakaway, not once but twice.  On both occasions he was denied a goal.  When I asked him what his go-to move was in that situation he replied, "I don't have a go-to move".  Indeed, in 343 regular season games as a T-bird Hauf scored just 11 times. None of those goals were scored on a breakaway, nor did he ever get a chance in a shootout.

Fast forward to this weekend and one of Hauf's former teammates, current Seattle captain Turner Ottenbreit.  Like Hauf, Ottenbreit is known more as a stay-at-home defenseman but he does have some offensive upside with 21 goals in 259 games.  Yet until Friday night against Kelowna I'm not sure he ever had a chance to score on a breakaway. But there he was in the second period, corralling a loose puck just outside the T-birds blue line and heading up ice, a couple of Rockets in hot pursuit. As the Rockets players bore down on him, Otto let loose a shot and found the back of the net and a legend was born.

Now according to those who were there, as soon as he got to the Seattle bench he and his teammates were already lobbying for him to get a crack at it the next time the T-birds got into a shootout. Well, wouldn't you know 24 hours later Seattle found themselves in that situation?  Now, in the past, former Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk was rumored to have told the media that when it came to a shootout his strategy was "anyone but Otto".  And after Friday's breakaway goal against the Rockets, the assembled media asked first year head coach Matt O'Dette if that success would put Otttenbreit in the mix the next time a shootout situation arrived. His response?  "We might have to go pretty far down the list to get to him."

Well, I guess an eight round shootout is pretty far down the list.  Playing a hunch, O'Dette sent Ottenbreit out against Swift Current goalie Joel Hofer, to break a 2-2 shootout tie.  Otto admitted after the game to ESPN 710's Andy Eide that when his name was called, "it was kind of a shock" and "I didn't know what to do".  It was very similar to Hauf's "I have no go-to move" from a few years ago. So the big d-man from Yorkton, Saskatchewan just repeated his breakaway goal effort from the previous night and, lo and behold, he found the back of the net.  And when Seattle goalie Dorrin Luding stopped the Broncos last shooter, Andrew Fyten, the Ottenbreit goal stood as the shootout winner and Seattle secured it's fourth straight win and the Ottenbreit legend only grows bigger.

In their current four game winning streak the T-birds have accumulated 25 goals (technically 26 but the shootout win is recorded as a "team goal").  That's an average of 6.25 goals per game over the course of the streak.  Even when you add in the last loss Seattle suffered, a 5-4 setback in Portland back on January 13th,  they are still averaging 5.8 goals per game over their last five.    The offensive outburst over the last two months has pushed their goals per game average up from 3.03 to 3.76.  No coincidence that with the increase in scoring, the T-birds have gone 11-2-1-1 in their last 15 games, a stretch in which their goals per game average is over 4.5.  The streak has put them squarely in the battle for the top of the U.S. Division.

At the trade deadline earlier this month, three U.S. Division teams, Everett, Portland and Tri-City, were buyers, making big acquisitions to try and separate themselves from the pack in the Western Conference.  Seattle on the other hand, was a modest seller, trading away Elijah Brown and Aaron Hyman for young players and future draft picks.  Since the deadline though, the T-bird have gained ground on those three teams.

Before we get to my T-birds three stars for the week, I have a five-star honorable mention; you, the fans.  Back-to-back sellouts saw a combined 12-thousand-plus in the accesso ShoWare Center this weekend and the atmosphere was electric.  You can believe it when the players say they feed off the energy from an arena that is not only at capacity, but full-throated wild and crazy.  So, a big assist for the two wins goes to T-bird Nation, well done and see you Tuesday versus Brandon!

Now, the three stars for the week:

Third Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  The breakaway goal against Kelowna Friday night was enough to get him on the list but he topped that with the shootout winner Saturday versus Swift Current.  He also had an assist and was +5 in the two wins midweek up in Prince George. He now sits at +73 for his T-birds career.  Not bad for a former 12th round bantam pick acquired in a trade for an extra 20 year old.

Second Star: G-Dorrin Luding.   Pressed into service with the injury to Liam Hughes back on January 13th,  all he's done is start the last four games and go 4-0. It's one thing to twice beat a Prince George team that sits dead last in the Western Conference, but to prove he can handle the pressure, he picked up wins against the top team in the West, Kelowna, and the fourth ranked team in the entire CHL, Swift Current.  The rosters of those two teams are filled with NHL nine draft picks and four of the top 20 point producer in the WHL.   We all got a scare in the third period Saturday when he got kneed in the ribs, but he pushed through and earned the win.  Think about this, in three of the four games, the first shot he faced each night was an early breakaway.  He stopped three of the four.

First Star:  LW Nolan Volcan.  He recorded his first WHL hat trick Friday and followed that by scoring the Teddy Bear Toss goal on Saturday.  He leads the team in goals scored with 24 and is second in points to Donovan Neuls with 51, both career highs.  He finished the week with seven points (6g, 1a) in four games.  One of so many veterans on this team who lead by example, never giving less then 100-percent.  He wears an "A" on his jersey this season but you can bet, if he's back next season as a 20 year old, he's your captain.  

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