Sunday, November 18, 2018

And We're Back.

The Thunderbird offense finally busted out Saturday in a 6-4 win over Portland. The win snapped a seven game winless skid, a streak in which the T-Birds scored just eight goals and no more then two in any game. Prior to Saturday night, the last time Seattle posted a "W" was October 27th, a 5-1 victory over the Vancouver Giants up in Langley.

Maybe the win over Portland shouldn't be too surprising despite the seven game skid. You could see the offense starting to come around the previous two games, both losses to Spokane. Seattle put a combined 73 shots on goal in those two games. They created a dozen scoring opportunities against the Chiefs each night. Just in the third periods alone against Spokane the Thunderbirds had a combined 35 shots on goal, but scored just once. They weren't finishing their chances. They weren't getting to rebounds and scoring greasy goals. Saturday against the Winterhawks, the T-Birds scored three of their six goals off rebounds. Four of the six were scored from inside the "house", that area just outside the crease.

We mention often Seattle's youth and the growing pains associated with a young team. Saturday night against Portland that youth experienced a bit of growth spurt. Down early 2-0, it was Seattle's young corp that sparked the comeback. Sixteen year old rookie Jared Davidson's first WHL goal lit the fuse, getting the T-Birds back in the game by putting back in a rebound. That rebound came off an initial shot from fellow 16-year old rookie, defenseman Tyrel Bauer. The T-Birds tied the game minutes later when 17-year old second year player Sam Huo banged home yet another rebound. This came after an offensive zone face off win by yet another 16-year old rookie, Payton Mount, who earned an assist on the goal. By the way, the night before in the loss in Spokane, another rookie winger, 17-year old Cody Savey earned his first WHL point with a third period assist.

18-year old winger Tyler Carpendale still seems like a rookie. That's because he got into only nine games as a rookie last season before an injury that required surgery sidelined him the rest of the way. An injury sidelined him again early this year and he missed eight games. He returned to the lineup with a vengeance this weekend, recording a goal and an assist in the two games. More importantly he helped set the tempo by playing the "T-Bird way", an aggressive physical brand of hockey. He gave the team energy both nights as he looked to be making up for lost time. On a line with Huo and Mount they seemed to be on the same page all night.

Able to roll four lines allowed Seattle to get their top line players out of a scoring funk. Matthew Wedman picked up three points (2g, 1a) versus Portland. Nolan Volcan earned three assists and put another shot off the crossbar. Andrej Kukuca ended the night with a goal and an assist while Zack Andrusiak completed the weekend with a pair of goals and now has lit the lamp in four of the last five games.

Seven of the eight goals scored by the T-Birds this weekend were even strength. The eighth one was scored shorthanded. Seattle still hasn't got their power play back on track and are mired in a 1-41 stretch with the man advantage. Injuries have affected the power play as Seattle has lost Noah Philp and now Reece Harsch and as of yet hasn't had Jarret Tyszka in the lineup. Still, they are creating chances. Too many shots lately are missing the net, which I think is a sign of guys pressing. But better traffic around the net could help. They need to take the goalies eyes away.

Hockey is a funny game. Goalie Liam Hughes was probably better in most of the losses during the losing streak then he was in Saturday night's win. A couple early shots got behind him, shots he usually stops. Great to see the offense pick him up. I will say there are lots of goalies who'd kill to have a 51 save effort on an "off night" like Hughes had. In the end he did what goalies are asked to do, give your team a chance to win.

No team wants to experience a seven game winless streak. It's very hard to make up lost ground. Despite that, when it was over, the T-Birds find themselves only a game below .500 with lots of hockey ahead of them.

With the return of Mount from the U-17 Challenge and Carpendale back from injury, Seattle coaches have cobbled together line combinations that look like they can get them through the absence of Philp. You want to be productive up and down the lineup so opposing team's can't focus on just shutting down your top line. The task is to get Saturday's effort each night. If you can get offense from the third and fourth lines more consistently, opponents have to game plan for that. The first test will come this Wednesday against Vancouver.

Maybe it was just me but for the first three weeks of the season Sam Huo looked lost. He just didn't seem like the same player who had such a solid rookie campaign. Then head coach Matt O'Dette moved Huo off the wing and inserted him at center. Since then Huo has been a different player. Centering the third or second line has put him closer to the front of the net. It's given him more responsibility, especially in the defensive zone. Maybe it forced him to concentrate more or maybe it's taking better advantage of his skill set. Doesn't seem like that big of a move, but it may have saved his season. Confidence is hard to quantify, but Huo seems like a much more confident player then he did through much of October. Scoring three goals will help that. Tip of the cap to O'Dette and his staff for watching the video and putting a player in a better situation for success.

Seattle's two wins this season against Portland have come without their two oldest defensemen, Tyszka and Harsch, in the lineup. With both those players sidelined they beat Portland opening night, 5-3. They did it again Saturday night. Seattle has potted 13 goals in three games against the Winterhawks, outscoring them 13-9 in the season series. Tyszka heads to Montreal this week to get a checkup on his injury from the Canadiens medical staff. The T-Birds hope when he returns, he's a step closer to returning to the lineup. The biggest beneficiary of the Tyszka/Harsch absence has been Bauer. Did anyone notice the young Canmore, Alberta native ended the weekend with a +3 rating?

My T-Virds three stars for the week:

Third star: C/W Jared Davidson. It wasn't just that he recorded his first WHL goal this weekend. It was the timeliness of the goal. Seattle, in the midst of a seven game skid had just surrendered two early goals to Portland. The T-Birds were in a fragile situation. They could have hung their heads and wilted. Davidson's goal got them back in the game. It gave them back their mojo. It put them back on their toes instead of on their heels. The undrafted Davidson was the surprise of training camp, making the regular season roster when most pundits didn't see that coming. Just you watch, that first goal will be the first of many in his T-Bird career. He reminds me a bit of Greg Scott, another undrafted player who had a pretty good career with Seattle. Only Scott didn't make the roster until he was 17.

Second Star: W Zack Andrusiak. For Seattle to win consistently, they need Andrusiak to score consistently. He was their leading goal scorer a year ago. He now leads the team in goal scoring again this season with 10, including four in his last five games. His breakaway goal in the third period Saturday essentially iced the win over Portland. Goal scorers are usually streaky. Lets hope Andrusiak is in a hot streak that continues this coming week. He can play up and down the lineup which helps spread the offense.

First Star: C/W Jaxan Kaluksi. Very quietly Kaluski has been Seattle's best player the past week. It may not put his name on the scoresheet a lot, he had two assists in the three games, but his work rate is off the charts. He's also found some chemistry with Andrusiak on the second line. He's showed his versatility playing both center and wing. He's a tremendous penalty killer. Twice Friday in Spokane he stripped the puck away from the Chiefs best player, and a #1 NHL draft pick, defenseman Ty Smith, while the T-Birds were shorthanded. The first time he did it, it led to a shorthanded Andrusiak goal. His presence is most obvious winning puck battles in the corners. There is a reason he now wears an "A" on his jersey. The coaches trust him, very much in the vein of a Nolan Volcan.

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