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.

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