Monday, February 26, 2018

No LOL, T-birds Looking for "O", Finding "L's"

The Thunderbirds enter the final game of February this coming Tuesday riding a four-game losing streak.  All four setbacks have been in regulation, meaning they haven't earned a point in the standings.  As a result, their lead over Kamloops for the final Western Conference playoff spot is a tenuous six points.

There have been a lot of factors at play in this skid.  Injuries to Sami Moilanen and Blake Barger have jumbled up their forward lines.  For his part, Moilanen was averaging nearly a point a game (19g, 18a in 40 games) when he left a contest in Everett on January 26th with an upper body injury.  He hasn't returned to the lineup yet, missing 13+ games to this point.  Bargar and his 24 points (11g, 13a) has missed the past three games with no timetable yet for his return.  These are two wingers who play in all situations for Seattle.

A struggling offense is another reason for the team's recent lack of wins. With the exception of the four goals they scored in a 5-4 loss Friday in Kelowna, Seattle has struggled to crack the three goal mark in many recent games.  in four of their last five outings they have been held to two or less goals.  In four of their last nine games the T-birds have been held to a single goal.  Not surprisingly, all four of those games were losses.  This is a stark contrast to the months of December and January when Seattle was averaging over four goals per game. 

Part of this is puck possession, or lack there of.  Shots on goal are usually a good indicator of who has more of the puck possession and in 11 of their last 14 games, Seattle has been outshot. Even in the three games where they outshot their opponent, the T-birds are 0-3.  Some of Seattle's struggles from the early part of the season have returned late in the year, an inability to finish chances.  They're losing too many puck battles in front of the opposing goal as they look for rebounds and deflections.

Another issue?  Not closing the door.  Seattle hasn't won a game in regulation since a 7-2 win over Kelowna on January 19th. That's 16 games without a regulation win.  Since then the T-birds have played beyond regulation eight times, posting a 5-3 record in those games.  A number of those games, it was Seattle fighting back for a tie but on several occasions the T-birds couldn't hold leads, having to go beyond 60 minutes to earn the extra point.

This weekend Seattle found two different ways to lose games that should have earned them points.  Well, to be fair they found one way to lose, and one way to lose found them.  Friday in Kelowna Seattle battled from two goals down in the third to forge a 4-all tie, only to give up the late winner by allowing Kelowna to get behind their defense on an odd man rush.  Not very good situational hockey and it cost them at least a point and a chance at a win.  An 0-for-4 power play didn't help either, especially since they were surrendering two goals while on the penalty kill in a frustrating road loss in which Seattle had the early 2-0 lead, only to fall behind 4-2.

Saturday's frustration comes from playing a fairly smart game that was greatly infected by less then stellar officiating.  Wait, I mean affected, no, I was right the first time, infected.  While Seattle's penalty kill was a perfect 4-for-4 against Everett, I thought a couple of the calls against Seattle were borderline, but, okay, will give it the benefit of the doubt and call those as correctly called penalties. But then let's be consistent with the calls. 

The non-call, on the obvious slashing in half of Donovan Neul's stick, was the seminal moment of the game.  It led directly to Everett's first goal.  Instead of Seattle being on the power play and up by a goal, the game is tied at 1-1. As soon as that sequence of events was over, slash-no call-Everett goal, you knew that goal would be the difference on the scoreboard and it was.   The excuse that the slash was at the bottom third of the stick is either a lie or wishful thinking.  The stick broke in the middle of the shaft.  That is the point of impact.  The evidence was lying on the ice for everyone to see.  If you missed the call, admit it.  So often the cover up is worse then the original crime.  Two things happened there.  The slash left Neuls without a stick to fight for the puck, essentially taking him out of the play, and it gave Everett possession of the puck in the Seattle zone.

You can argue Seattle still had enough time to win the game.  That they didn't do enough to over come that singular call.  That they missed a chance to tie on their only power play when they had the goalie beat but hit the post with the shot.   But I can argue that they did do just enough to get that game at least to overtime or a shootout.  They did enough to at least earn a point.  You can't have one team have to over come obstacles the other team doesn't have to deal with.  Seattle shouldn't have to argue the merits of a very easy-to-call slashing penalty.   As Abraham Lincoln would tell you, one play can alter the course of history.

T-Birds Three Stars for the Week:

G Liam Hughes:  Hughes may have lost both his decisions this week, a 4-2 setback Wednesday in Kennewick and the 2-1 loss Saturday to Everett, but he was the main reason Seattle was in both those games.  He faced a combined 84 shots in the two games, making 79 saves.  While his record may be .500, his .907 save percentage is among the best in the league

LW Dillon Hamaliuk.  The 17 year old  rookie from Edmonton had the first three point game of his young WHL career with a goal and two assists in the loss to Kelowna Friday.  In 61 games he has 35 points (14g, 21a) and leads the team in plus/minus at +10.   Just by comparison, Ryan Gropp, who was a first round bantam pick by Seattle in 2011, finished with 42 points (18g, 24a)  in 59 games and was -5 in his 17 year old season rookie season.  I'm not saying they are the same player , but I like the comparison because both are 6'3" left wingers who skate well.    

W Nolan Volcan.  In three games he registered four points (1g, 3a) and was +4.  He leads the team in both goals scored, with 26 and points with 62. The 26 goals are ten more then he had last season.  One of just two point-per-game players on the team, along with Donovan Neuls.  He's had the progression through his WHL career you expect, increasing his point totals each season.  Normally a left winger, he has been playing right wing the past week with the injuries to Moilanen and Bargar.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Long and Grinding Road

A taxing weekend for Seattle, playing three games in three nights, going 1-1-1-0 and earning three of a possible six points.  It was the third time in the past 24 days the Thunderbirds played three games in three nights.  It was also the second time they played three games in three nights in less then a month, where the team they were facing on the third night was only playing their second game.  No surprise that in both instances the T-Birds were out of gas by the third period.

Thank goodness that's over right?  Well, brace yourself because the team is about to embark on a stretch of four games in seven nights to end the month of February that will include a long travel day in between two road games.  Ah, the life of the WHL player!  And those three-in -three's on the schedule are not done.  Seattle has two more such scenarios on the schedule in March when they will play 10 games in 17 days.  Better eat your Wheaties!

All this with a playoff spot still at stake.  Despite the 1-1-1 record this past weekend, it was actually a positive result because the T-Birds gained two points on Kamloops, a team chasing them for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.  And Seattle is still within striking distance of fourth place Tri-City in the U.S. Division.  They are just a point back with a key showdown with the Americans in Kennewick this Wednesday. The two teams also meet twice more  in March. Despite the loss to Spokane Sunday, Seattle is just six points back of the Chiefs for third place in the division with two more games against them on the schedule.

Seattle has played Everett seven times this season now and has won four of those games.  They've all been down-to-the-wire battles. Three of the games, the last three, have gone past 60 minutes.  Of the four games decided in regulation, Seattle is 2-2.  Each team has won once in regulation by a single goal and each team has a two-goal regulation win.  There are three more games on the schedule between the division rivals, including Saturday's game at the accesso ShoWare Center.  Anyone want to guess as to how that game will go?

Not the best belated birthday present for Austin Strand Sunday.  His 21st birthday was Saturday and he spent it in Everett helping Seattle to a 3-2 shootout win.  A day later he was losing a few teeth and needing stitches after getting a high stick from Spokane's Riley McKay to the chops.  He had to leave the game until late in the second period.  Without him on the ice a scoreless game turned into a two-goal lead for the Chiefs.

One of the few drawbacks of my broadcast location in the southeast corner of the ShoWare Center is missing some details on play in the northeast area of the ice.  The crowd, the benches and the boards often impede my view.  When Strand initially went down, neither I or my broadcast partner Tim Pigulski could see what happened. A few texts I received said it was an inadvertent stick from a teammate.  After the game we found out otherwise.

Sunday, February 11th, Donovan Neuls gets slashed twice on a partial breakaway down in Portland.  No call.  Friday at home against Everett, Dillon Hamaliuk gets slashed skating the puck out of the Seattle end.  No call.  Then the high stick to Strand.  No call.  Every team "gets away with a few" and officials aren't perfect but those three non-calls are hard to ignore.  They affect outcomes of games.  Look how impactful the non-call on the Strand play was.

Speaking of Strand, what a past 14 months he's had.  Traded from Red Deer to Seattle on New Year's Eve 2016, he helps Seattle to their first ever WHL Championship last spring.  The season ends with his second straight trip to the Memorial Cup (Red Deer was the 2016 host team).  His strong first half to this season earns the undrafted d-man an NHL entry level contract with the L.A. Kings.  Meanwhile, he continues to rack up the points, hitting the 19 goal mark in Sunday's loss.  His 52 points are 20 more then he had in 74 regular season games last year.  Since arriving in Kent he has scored 27 goals and picked up 42 assists (69 pts.) in 91 games plus 14 more points (4g, 10a) in 20 postseason games.  He even added a goal in the Memorial Cup to his resume.  Contrast that to his first two and a half seasons in Red Deer (164 games) where he only tallied 41 points (7g, 34a).

For the latest on the Carl Stankowski situation, be sure to check Andy Eide's article over at  I'm guessing at this point of the season, no one can be too shocked by the news that Carl is unlikely to return this year.

Once again, we have to remember this is a development league and that is part of what the Thunderbirds coaching staff is tasked with doing; developing these young players so they can further their hockey careers past the WHL level.  It's a two-way street.  Players need to take the coaching they get and apply it in games.  They need to play well enough to earn the confidence and trust of their coaches.  The coaches in turn have to trust that they've taught the players what they need in order to play in all situations.  The latest example of that is 17-year old T-Bird rookie Holden Katzalay.  A player who was often a healthy scratch through the first two-thirds of the season has been getting plenty of ice time recently.  He's earned the trust of the coaches to the point he is getting steady play on the penalty kill.   Still to come is his first WHL goal.  So close lately, so close!

My T-Birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star:  G Dorrin Luding.  With a little extra juice going up against his former team in Everett Saturday, Luding came up with a 41 save performance, including 21 in the third period.  He then stopped two of three in the shootout to earn Seattle a hard fought 3-2 road win.  Since joining Seattle in late November Luding's record is 6-6-1-0, but he's 6-2 in his last eight decisions.  Meanwhile he's quietly chipped in with two assists.

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  The T-Birds captain ended the weekend with a goal and two assists.  His lone goal was a big one, tying the game Friday versus Everett that earned Seattle a crucial point in the standings.  With Strand out for a good chunk of Sunday's game he played a ton of minutes against Spokane.  Coming off their championship season, with six of the team's top players graduating to the pro ranks, The T-birds needed strong leadership for a young roster.  They are getting that from the Yorkton, SK native.

First Star:  D Austin Strand.  Two goals and an assist in the three games.  He registered a big power-play goal in the Friday third period comeback.  His absence on the ice for a good part of Sunday's game was noticeable, both on the ice and on the scoreboard.  Came back from that high stick to score the team's only goal.  His 19 goals is third in the WHL among all defensemen.  And he also celebrated his 21st birthday.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Gone to the Dogs

Busy weekend.  Busy for the Thunderbirds too.  I'm a little late with the blog post because the in-laws were in town from Denver.  They are guide dog puppy raisers, through a program called Guide Dogs for the Blind.  They came up to the Pacific Northwest this past week to attend the graduation of one of their puppies into a fully qualified guide dog.   
Guide Dogs for the Blind has a main campus in San Rafael, California but they have a satellite campus in Boring, Oregon, not too far east of Portland.  The puppy my in-laws raised was matched with a sight impaired young woman from Southern Oregon and the graduation was held in Portland.  So that they could spend time with their grandkids, the in-laws flew into Sea-Tac, stayed with us, then drove down to Portland for the graduation ceremony, then came back up north.   
Unfortunately the hockey schedule didn't quite marry up with the graduation ceremony.  That took place Saturday while the T-birds were home versus the Winterhawks.  So my wife and kids drove down with her parents for the ceremony while I stayed home with our two dogs.  Then Sunday, after they came back, I hit the road to Portland for the final game of the weekend.  Two ships passing in the night.  At least I had company, with the always affable Andy Eide in the Pilot's seat (literally, Andy owns a Honda Pilot), for the ride down I-5.  
The in-laws spent a few more days with us but are now on their way back to the Mile High City. They are expected to return here in June for another graduation.  This time for a human.  Their oldest grandchild, my son Conner, will graduate from Stadium High School this spring.  I reminded my wife's parents before they left that kibbles and bits plus a chew toy will still be an acceptable gift for that graduation as well.   
You might wonder why I bring all this up.  Well, every time the in-laws have one of their puppies become a guide dog, I'm reminded of Chloe McDonald.  This young woman is a die hard T-birds fan who also happens to be legally blind.  She's at every home game. She doesn't have a guide dog, but I believe she has a guide dad!   She also listens to our radio broadcasts and follows our twitter feeds. So I think about her and others in similar situations, who rely on us painting a picture for them so they can follow the action.  It just goes to show that there are many ways to enjoy the great game of hockey.   
The T-birds meanwhile played four games over the past week and as expected, all four were close results.  Unfortunately Seattle could come up with only one win, last Tuesday's shootout victory over the Tri-City Americans.  Points are so important right now with just 17 games remaining.  The T-birds are battling Spokane and Tri for third place in the U.S. Division while also trying to fend off a challenge from behind, from the Kamloops Blazers, for one of those two Western Conference wild card spots.   
The one game Seattle may lament not earning two points from this past weekend is probably Friday's 2-1 overtime loss in Langley to the Vancouver Giants.  The T-birds dominated the game in every area but the scoreboard.  Seattle put 50 shots on goal but could find the back of the net just once against Giants goalie David Tendeck.  At one point early in that game the shots were 7-2 in favor of Vancouver.  The T-birds would outshoot the Giants over the final 50 minutes or so 48-14.   
The T-birds finished the weekend with the home-and-home against Portland.  Two winnable games. Seattle's offensive drought (4 goals on 121 shots over three games) continued in the 4-1 home loss Saturday.  The T-birds played most of that game without two of their best offensive weapons as Sami Moilanen continues to miss time with an upper body injury while Nolan Volcan left the contest in the second period with an apparent upper body injury of his own.  It was that second period that cost Seattle as the Winterhawks scored three times.  Seattle had a pretty strong first and played with great desperation in the third.  They actually ended up outshooting Portland 29-28.  
Without Moilanen and Volcan in the lineup down in Portland Sunday, Seattle still was in a position to pull out a win, or at least a point, but the lack of veteran depth without those two available caught up to Seattle in the third period and turned a 3-2 lead into a 5-3 setback, with the 5th goal into an empty net. 
Remember, on both nights Seattle was going up against a fully healthy Portland lineup that boasts seven NHL draft picks, including four first rounders.  Seattle did a pretty good job of skating toe-to-toe with them most of the weekend.  Through the first five periods the shot totals were even at 47-47, Portland had scored two more goals but one of those was an empty netter.  Seattle just couldn't answer the bell in that third period, particularly the last ten minutes. They were outscored 3-0 and outshot 17-4.  
Very disappointing that no penalty was called on Donovan Neuls partial breakaway Sunday.  Replay sure seemed to show him getting slashed not once but twice.  That's a scoring chance and I'm not sure how an official looks the other way on that, especially in what turns out to be essentially a one goal game.  

My T-birds Three Stars for the Week:

Third Star(s):  Forwards Payton Mount and Graeme Bryks.  More of the T-birds future was on display this past weekend.  2017 first round Bantam pick Mount earned his first WHL point Friday in Langley and the just-turned-16 year old was one of the best players on  the ice.  Not just one of the T-birds best players, one of the best players among the two teams.  He's now played in three games and has yet to look out of place.  The 16-year old Bryks, who actually started the season with Seattle and got into two games before going back to the AJHL to play with the Spruce Grove Saints, returned in time to score his first WHL goal, also in just his third WHL game, Saturday night against Portland.

Second Star:  C Matthew Wedman.  Weds scored a couple of goals in the four games and is now at a career best 13 on the season, more then doubling his career best of six goals each of the past two seasons.  He's also 15 points better then his 20 point season a year ago. Sometimes it seems Wedman has been a T-bird forever but he's still just 18 and his best hockey is still to come.  

First Star:  C Noah Philp.  Philp had a goal and a pair of assists on the week and he was instrumental in both Mount and Bryks first WHL points.  He seems to work well with the younger players as he also assisted on rookie Dillon Hamaliuk's 13th goal of the season.  Philp has already established career bests in goals and points, is used in all situations and is one of the T-birds best in the face off circle.