Sunday, March 25, 2018

Lets Make like A Cheap Pair of Pants and Split

Two games into the first round of the playoffs and the series between Everett and Seattle is tied at one game apiece.  After a sub-standard performance in Game 1, Seattle bounces back in Game 2 for a 5-4 overtime win thanks to a beauty of a goal by Zack Andrusiak.

Games 3 and 4 now head to the accesso ShoWare Center. Seattle earned the road split to wrestle away home-ice advantage but that will only mean something if they protect home ice.  I'm not sure home-ice advantage means what it used to in postseason play.  Look around the rest of the WHL and through Saturday road teams, the lower seeds, won seven games opening weekend.  The T-Birds always get a boost from their rabid fans at the ShoWare Center.  Let's hope that is the difference this Tuesday and Friday. Come early, come often, be LOUD!

In Game 1 Friday, Seattle didn't seem as ready as Everett for the start of the series.  The Silvertips came out very aggressive.  The T-Birds struggled at times with puck management.  It led directly or indirectly to goals against.  Yet the turning point came early in the second period when Seattle, down just a goal, had a chance to tie things up on the power play.  Instead they turned the puck over.  It led to an Everett shorthanded goal and Seattle never recovered from that 2-0 deficit, eventually losing 4-1.

It was a slow start in Game 2 as well.  Everett had the first seven shots on goal and converted on an early chance.  Unlike Friday night though, Seattle took advantage of an early power play to tie the game and get the ice tilted back in their favor.  Austin Strand scored on the power play and soon after Sami Moilanen poked home a rebound giving Seattle their first lead.  After that it was back and forth until Andrusiak's overtime heroics.

Of note in this series, Seattle has scored six goals and they've come from five different players. Only Andrusiak, who had the T-Birds lone goal in Game 1, has scored twice.  By contrast Everett has scored eight goals and half of them have come off the stick of Garrett Pilon.  Patrick Bajkov has scored twice.  That's 3/4ths of their goals from their top line.  Seattle needs to keep up the balanced offenvise attack.

Everett gets the special teams nod in Game 1 since they scored the shorthanded goal.  Seattle earns the edge in Game 2 with a pair of power play goals, while limiting Everett to one on five chances.  So far in the series the T-birds have limited the Silvertips to just one power-play goal and that came with the 'Tips skating 5-on-3.

Shots on goal through two games heavily favor Everett 95-59.  Take that with a grain of salt.  Shots are typically inflated up in Everett.  I literally saw Liam Hughes cover up a loose puck on the side of the Seattle net and a SOG was added to the Everett tally. I will say that the 'Tips have had more puck possession, especially in Game 1 and that is what concerns Seattle more, not inflated shot totals. 

Everett does dump a lot pucks toward the net, which is what I would do as well and it is what Seattle should do against Carter Hart.  They did more of that in Game 2 then they did in Game 1.  No surprise that it led to a five goal outburst and a win.  This is the third time in the last three postseasons that the T-Birds have scored five goals in a playoff game against Hart. It is not easy to do but Seattle should have the confidence they can score on him.  In 11 playoff games versus Hart, the T-Birds have recorded 35 goals.  It takes a mindset that they have to consistently drive the net.  It may not be the first shot or the tenth shot that beats him but if you keep shooting, eventually you'll get pucks in. 

I think a lot of players think Hart can only be beaten with a perfect shot, so they sometimes are reluctant to shoot or teams overpass against Everett which leads to blocked shots, blocked passes and  turnovers.  The T-Birds need to use the KISS method, Keep It Simple Seattle.  Shoot, shoot and shoot some more.  Get traffic and get the greasy goals.

If the Thunderbirds are too pull off the upset, they'll need more of Game 2 and less of Game 1.  Limit the mistakes, the unforced turnovers and take fewer penalties.  I didn't think either goalie was at their sharpest in Game 2.  We'll see which one is on their game Tuesday in Game 3.  With that being said Hughes has faced more scoring chances and has come up with some key saves for Seattle.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the first two games:

Third Star: D Turner Ottenbreit.  Monster effort in Game 2 with three points (1g, 2a) while logging lots of ice time, especially after Seattle lost d-man Jake Lee for a good chunk of the game after he took a knee on knee hit.  Seattle played that entire third period with just five defenseman and Ottenbreit seemed to be the one taking up that ice time.

Second Star: G Liam Hughes.  He's been credited with 87 saves in two games, far and away more then any other goalie in the early postseason.  I don't think he's even played his best yet but Seattle would be in an 0-2 hole without him. He has that ability you want from your goalie to shake off a bad goal and come back with a key save.

First Star: LW Zack Andrusiak.  Andrusiak now has three playoff goals in his last five playoff games versus Everett and Hart, dating back to last spring.  Seattle's leading goal scorer in the regular season is also leading them in playoff goals.  His overtime winner Saturday put on display his offensive attributes; good skating, good puck handling, a nose for the net and a deft scoring touch.  You want your best goal scorer to have confidence he can score from anywhere on the ice.  Andrusiak is not lacking in that confidence.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

And so it Begins

Playoffs, the second season, the postseason.  Whatever you call it, it's here.  The 72-game regular season completed and it is time for Seattle to begin the defense of their 2017 WHL Championship.

Unlike last season, and even the season before, the T-birds do not go into the playoffs as one of the favorites to win it all.  As the eighth seed, they are the decided underdogs, especially in Round 1 where they face the Western Conference's top seed, Everett.  I don't make predictions.  It would not shock me though if Seattle won the series against the 'Tips, but if they do it, it will be an upset.

As for the just completed regular season,  I think most who adjudicate such things would say Seattle exceeded expectations.  It is well documented that the T-birds lost over 300 points from their championship team.  In the cyclical world of Major Junior hockey, this was to be a "rebuilding" year. Yet they finished above .500 playing in what arguably could be the toughest division in the WHL.  It's a 72-game schedule.  Seattle played 22 of those games, almost one-third, against the top two teams in the conference, Everett (10) and Portland (12).

Going into the campaign many of us wondered where the offense would come from with Barzal, Bear, Gropp, Kolesar, True and Eansor gone.  Yet when the season ended the T-birds put 250 goals on the board.  that is just three fewer then they scored with that group I just mentioned, last season.  

They made the playoffs despite not having their presumptive number one goalie, Carl Stankowski, all season.  They went to goaltender-by-committee much of the season with different goalies suffering injuries at various times.  Things finally settled down with the emergence of Liam Hughes. Down the stretch with a playoff spot and playoff seeding on the line, Hughes won six games against some of the best offenses in the conference, often facing 40+ shots nightly.

They got back to the playoffs because players who had been role players in the past, third and fourth line muckers, stepped up and led the team.  Players like Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan, Austin Strand, Zack Andrusiak and Turner Ottenbreit, among others, not only took on bigger roles, but they embraced them and all had career seasons. Meanwhile, young rookies such as Dillon Hamaliuk, Jake Lee and Sam Huo became major contributors right from the start.  Looking ahead, Seattle will have seven of their top ten scorers back next season and 11 of their top 15.

The coaches probably didn't enjoy watching the team give Tri-City eight power plays in that meaningless, last regular season game but I appreciated watching all the ice time the rookies and young players got against the Americans, who iced a fairly veteran lineup, in that 5-2 loss.  The T-birds rested over 270 points in that game and hit a couple of posts so it could have been a closer game at the end.  I was intrigued by the play of Cody Savey who headed back to Canada after the game to join his Junior B team for the playoffs.

On to the playoffs, or second season or postseason...whatever you call it!

My T-birds three stars for the regular season:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Finished tied atop the team's scoring leaderboard with 76 points with a career year featuring 22 goals and 54 assists.  In four seasons with the T-birds he played in 283 regular season games and finished with 180 points (57g, 123a) and +30.  Not bad for an 8th round bantam pick.

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit.  Seattle's captain had to adjust his game at the start of the season after being suspended for a hit in last year's Championship Series and another early this season.  He did exactly that without neutering his physical game.  After starting his WHL career as a Saskatoon Blade's 12th round Bantam pick, he spends nearly four season with the T-birds, playing in 284 regular season games and scoring 108 points (24g, 84a) while finishing a remarkable +76.

First Star:  W Nolan Volcan.  With 76 points he tied Neuls for the scoring lead on the team.  His 32 goals were second to Zack Andrusiak's 36, but double his previous best of 16 from last season.  Unless he signs a pro deal this offseason, he should be back to lead the team as a 20 year old next year and most likely wearing the "C".  He is a pitbull on the ice, plays in all situations, hits like a pile driver and never gives anything but 100 percent and could be a 40 goal scorer next season.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Picking off Points

A 2-1-1-0 week may not, on its surface, sound like a big winning week but in reality Seattle earned five points and a huge three points against the two top teams in the Western Conference and greatly improved their chance of nailing down a playoff berth.

Playing twice against Portland and once versus Everett, with two of those games on the road, Seattle came within a whisker of earning points in all three games while not necessarily playing their best hockey, at least not for a full 60 minutes each night.  Those two teams are a combined 88-38-3-7 on the season and 15-3-0-2 in their last twenty games.

Seattle began the week with an impressive comeback overtime win Tuesday against Vancouver.  Down 4-1 in the second, Seattle roared back for a 5-4 victory.  It was a theme for Seattle this past weekend; never giving up and fighting back.  They did it again Friday in Portland.  After squandering a 3-1 lead and falling behind 4-3, the T-birds got a huge late goal to force overtime before eventually winning in a shootout.  Saturday in Everett they gave up the game's first goal but found an equalizer in the second period and held on to at least earn a point in an overtime loss.  Sunday the weary 'Birds again fell behind to Portland, this time 5-1, and fought back to within a goal late in the third.  Alas, they couldn't complete the comeback as the Winterhawks hit the empty net twice for the 7-4 victory.

Injuries are not an excuse, but a fact of life in sports, especially one as physical as hockey.  Seattle finally got  Reece Harsch and Sami Moilanen back in the lineup after absences of 19 and 14 games respectively, but are now dealing with the loss of Blake Bargar and Jaxan Kaluski.  Let's not forget the T-birds are playing much of the season without Tyler Carpendale.  Sure, he was in his rookie season, but he was starting to round into form when he was lost for the season.

These players on the shelf have done a couple of things. One, they've jumbled up the forward line combinations.  At the time of his injury Carpendale was beginning to find a chemistry with fellow rookie Dillon Hamaliuk.  Without Bargar, Seattle's special teams have taken a hit.  Kaluski was coming into his own and starting to feel comfortable on the ice with his new team when he was knocked out of the lineup.  Inject those three players into the lineup for any of the three games this past weekend and instead of three points, the T-birds may have earned four, five or six.

Secondly, and this is the silver lining to those absences, development of young players was hastened because of increased ice time.  Holden Katzalay, yet another 17 year old rookie, has really taken advantage of the situation and we've seen his game improve dramatically the past month.  He, Hamaliuk and 16 year old Sam Huo are being used in all situations.  It is making them better players now and in the future.  Even a player such as Graeme Bryks (yes, still yet another 17 year old rookie), who has only been with the team a short while, will benefit from the limited and unexpected ice he is getting.

No team goes through a season unscathed by the injury bug.  But Seattle hasn't played one game with a full, healthy roster.  As terrific as the deal Russ Farwell made to acquire Liam Hughes has been, how many more wins might Seattle have with Carl Stankowski between the pipes?  Even if it is just two or three more "W's", it could be a big difference in the standings in the tight Western Conference or U.S. Division.

So, while it's frustrating that the team hasn't won a game in regulation since January 19th, the fact they are in just about every game since then without some key players should give us hope.  11 times since that 7-2 win over Kelowna the T-birds have earned points in games by fighting for sixty minutes, earning points, whether it be one or two, by going the distance and them some.  All 11 of those OT/SO games the past two months have been against teams with winning records.  Four of them have been against conference leading Everett.  It also includes games against Portland and Swift Current.  Those three teams, the Silvertips, Winterhawks and Broncos, have three of the top four records in the WHL and the T-birds continuously find ways to get points from them because they never give up.  

That's a big reason why I admire what this team has done this season and the praise has to go to the players but don't overlook the work of the coaching staff, led by Matt O'Dette.  A 30-25-8-2 record may not jump out at you but all things considered, it's actually a quite remarkable feat.  Remember, Seattle graduated out well over 300 points off last season's roster.  Two of it's best players from a year ago, Mat Barzal and Ethan Bear, are now playing in the NHL.  Their leading goal scorer this season, Zack Andrusiask, had all of six goals on his resume prior to this year.  The core of the team is a veteran leadership of hard workers but in reality it's also a  group of 17 and 16 year old rookies.

Think about this,  Everett first year head coach Dennis Williams will probably be named the WHL Coach of the Year, at  the very least he'll get the Western Conference honor.  Without his #1, two time WHL goalie of the year Carter Hart the first two months of the regular season, the 'Tips were well below .500.  Meanwhile, O'Dette, without ever having his #1, Chynoweth Cup winning goalie Carl Stankowski, and using a goalie carousel of castoffs from other teams the entire season, has been above .500 most of the year and was never more then a few games under the break even point through the first couple of weeks.   That's making the most out of what you've got. That's coaching.

My T-birds Three Stars of the Week.

G Liam Hughes.  Hughes earned points for the team in all three games he started, going 2-0-1-0.  His best effort actually came in his only loss, the overtime setback in Everett in which he willed Seattle to a point with a 20 save effort in the third period as the T-birds were being outshot 20-1.  It took seven shots and a power play for the Silvertips to beat him on overtime.

C Noah Philp .  Philp scored a huge tying goal down in Portland after Seattle blew a 3-1 lead.  he then helped win it with a shootout goal.  His 47 points are more then double his previous best in the WHL with Kootenay two years ago.  In four games this week he registered seven points (2g, 5a) and was +3.  He's a plug and play player, fitting in comfortably on any line.  Hard to see him not back here next season as a 20 year old.

W Zack Andruskiak.  Andruskiak is a goal scorer who continues to work on his complete game.  Goal scorers can be streaky and fortunately for Seattle, Andrusiak is on a hot streak with seven goals in his last six games. This past week he record nine points (6g, 3a) as well as both an overtime and shootout winner.  He now leads the team with 30 goals, 24 more then he had in the WHL before the start of this season.