Monday, January 1, 2018

Merry New Year!

Seattle returned from the Christmas break and promptly earned seven of eight points, going 3-0-1-0 in the last four games of 2017.  Only a blown 3-1 lead in the third period in Spokane the first game back from the break, prevented the T-birds from a four game sweep. They had to settle for a point in an overtime loss.  Add to that their two wins before the break and the T-birds ended the year on a six game point streak, earning 11 of a possible 12 points by going 5-0-1-0 to close out December.  Oh well, if "if and buts" were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.  Wait, I think we did have a Merry Christmas...and a Happy New Year too.

When the season started did you have Seattle four games above the break even mark and just seven points out of the Division lead on New Year's Day?  I take it you won the lottery too then.

Let's give props where props are due, the coaching staff.  Specifically first year head coach Matt O'Dette who inherited a team sans Barzal, Bear, Gropp, Kolesar, Toth, True and Eansor and a goaltending situation in flux. This team is currently four games above .500 and trending in the right direction because he has this team ready to play almost every night through the first half of the schedule.  No one knows how the second half will unfold or what their final record will be, but this team will be better when the season ends then when it began. Young players will have developed at a solid pace.  That's due to the coaching they get both on and off the ice, during games and during practice and that's because of O'Dette and his assistants Kyle Hagel and Castan Sommer.

The one thing Hagel and Sommer bring to the table, that offsets their coaching inexperience, is their enthusiasm.  They both show a great desire to want to teach.  They believe in their players and are eager to help them improve as they strive for pro careers. Sometimes a fresh perspective can help a franchise stay at or near the top, or keep a winning atmosphere like the T-birds have created the last few seasons, from growing stale.

Those players mentioned above were all key cogs in Seattle's top tier special teams the past two seasons, yet without them the T-birds are still ranked among the best in the league in both the power play (8th) and the penalty kill (3rd) at the halfway point.  The past four seasons as an assistant under Steve Konowalchuk, O'Dette was the PK guru.  Despite being elevated to head coach his influence is all over the penalty kill.  Players, whether they are four year veterans or first year rookies, have bought into the program.  While implementing his own coaching style, O'Dette is smart enough not to fix what ain't broke, instead building on what Konowalchuk started.

Let's not forget the architect of this team has been General Manager Russ Farwell.  He built a team that played in two straight league finals and won a Chynoweth Cup and did it without mortgaging away the future.  It's much easier to rebuild, or reload, if you have most of your best assets still in your back pocket.  In getting to the WHL Championship series each of the past two seasons he made no major blockbuster deal that cost him a big chunk of the future.  Instead he relied on his scouts to one, recommend players he could trade for who fit the T-birds systems while complementing the roster they already had and two, recommend the drafting and signing of young prospects who could develop quickly into good WHL players. 

Here we are, a week from the trade deadline, and so many rumors are flying about blockbuster deals, or a about Team X or team Y potentially mortgaging their future by trading away high picks and top prospects to make a run at the Cup. That's something Farwell didn't have to do.

Seattle's first four games following Christmas were not perfect sixty minute games yet they found ways to get wins or points in all of them.  The New Year's Eve win down in Portland, the third game in three nights, may have been their most complete effort. That was an attribute of last year's team too. So often last year Seattle was the better team at the end of a busy stretch because of their compete level.   It's not talent alone that wins, it is talent plus desire.  It's not often that throwing the first punch wins the fight.  Often it is the ability to take the hit and get back up and hit back even harder.    That's a pretty apt description of a Seattle team the past four to five seasons and it continues this season as well.

Thirty five games to go before the playoffs.  Four dozen games in 77 days between now and March 18th.  19 of those games will be at home including a three game homestand beginning next Saturday.  Hope you got your Holiday Flex Pack for Christmas because you'll want to watch this team fight and compete for one of those eight Western Conference playoff spots up for grabs.  The race is on!

My T-birds Three Stars for the first four post Christmas games:

Third Star:  G-Matt Berlin.  Berlin faced 75 shots in his two starts, both against Spokane, and made 66 saves to go 1-0-1-0.  Plenty of those 75 shots were high end scoring chances.  His lateral quickness seems to be improving as he made a couple of memorable side to side saves against his former team.  Now 19-9-4-1 in net in his T-birds career.  Not bad for a guy acquired for a 9th round bantam pick who was originally brought in to be an emergency back up goalie for a few weeks last October.

Second Star:  G-Liam Hughes.  When Berlin suffered a lower body tweak in the final seconds against Spokane Friday night, Hughes came off the injury list to start the final two games of the weekend.  Showing no rust from having been sidelined since mid-November, he went 2-0  with a 2.80 GAA by stopping 64 of 70 shots in two games versus Portland and showed terrific rebound control.  He capped it by stopping all three Winterhawks shooters in the shootout New Year's Eve.  Like Berlin, Hughes was acquired out of necessity (Stankowski injury) but only cost Seattle a mid round draft pick to get him out of Edmonton.  

First Star: D Turner Ottenbreit.   Over the four game stretch he had five points (1g, 4a) but it was his whole game that earns him the honor.  He puts in big minutes on the ice as part of Seattle's top D pairing. But he also sets the tone by delivering big hits, especially early in games. Just his way of letting the opponent know they're going to be in for a battle.  He stood up for his teammates all weekend.  He may be the most scrutinized player in the WHL when it comes to officiating but he's not changing his approach.  Turner is still going to be Turner and that benefits the T-birds.

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