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.