Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Final Nine

For Meatloaf, two out of three wasn't bad. For the T-Birds, three out of four ain't bad. Seattle isn't doing cartwheels after losing a, first period, three-goal lead at home to Portland Saturday night. They aren't giddy for missing that extra point in the standings. But big picture? This was a positive weekend for them as they continue to lead the chase for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. After a daunting schedule last weekend the T-Birds had a five point lead over the Kamloops Blazers. After another particularly tough go this weekend, they still maintain a five point cushion. Two weeks of hockey, five games, all against teams with winning records, and Seattle gave no ground. There is still work to be done and the task doesn't get any easier but the T-Birds now control their own destiny.

Seattle finished February with a 5-6-0-1 record. Doesn't seem like anything to brag about does it? But no team on their February schedule had a losing record. Statistically, the T-Birds had the hardest schedule of any WHL team the second half of the season. Seven of the 12 February games were against Everett and Portland, owners of two of the top five records in the WHL. The T-Birds played half those 12 games without one of their leading scorers, captain Nolan Volcan. They played the final seven games of the month without one of their top four d-men, Simon Kubicek. You can wilt from adversity or face it head on. Seattle faced it head on and survived. You know the old saying, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

The most important game of the season is always the next one on the schedule. For Seattle, that next game just happens to be in Kamloops against the Blazers Friday night. The result could very well determine which team earns that final playoff spot. This is the fourth and final head-to-head game between these two teams. Kamloops leads the season series, 2-games-to-1, primarily on the strength of Zane Franklin and his five goals. Kamloops possesses that one element that seems to give the T-Birds fits; small, speedy forwards. The T-Birds dropped the first two games to the Blazers by a combined 13-5 score (7-2 Oct. 26th in Kent and 6-3 Dec. 1st up at the Sandman Centre). Those two wins came in the first half of the season, before the T-Birds roster reset. In their most recent meeting, at the accesso ShoWare Center in late January, the T-Birds prevailed, 5-2. Newcomers Sean Richards and Henrik Rybinski combined for five points that night (1g, 4a) while mainstays Matthew Wedman and Noah Philp contributed six points (3g, 3a).

While the T-Birds will spend the week preparing for that important road tilt, they will also be huge Tri-City Americans fans. Tri-City travels to Kamloops for a midweek game. This is one of the two games Kamloops has in hand on Seattle. If Tri can win that game, especially in regulation, Seattle will go into Friday's game with their five point lead still intact. The game versus Kamloops is as close as you can get to a must-win game without it technically being a must-win game. The T-Birds will still have the lead for the final playoff spot no matter the outcome Friday. The question is how big will that lead be? It could be as much as seven points or down to just one.

The game versus Kamloops is not the only one on the schedule for Seattle this weekend. The T-Birds open March with three games in three nights. After the battle with the Blazers, they come back south for another road match up with Western Conference leading Everett. The weekend closes at home Sunday against Tri-City. The Kamloops game is their last against a team with a losing record. When all is said and done the T-Birds will have played 20 of their final 21 games against teams above .500. Their final eight will feature five games against the Western Conference's top three teams, Everett (2), Vancouver (1) and Portland (2). Kamloops final eight features four against below .500 teams Kelowna (2) and Prince George (2).

On paper that remaining schedule for Seattle looks like a playoff-chance killer. But in their last four games Seattle has played Everett and Portland a combined four times. The T-Birds record in those four games? 2-1-0-1 and five of eight points. These snarling pit bulls have proven they can play with the big dogs. I started this post with a little Meatloaf. Let's finish with a little from the late Tom Petty. You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won't back down. As intimidating as their schedule going forward may be, there's no chance the T-Birds are going to back down.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: D Jarret Tyszka. The Montreal Canadiens prospect registered four points in the two games. None was bigger then his overtime winning goal in Everett Friday night. With Kubicek out of the lineup, Seattle has juggled their d-pairings but Tyszka is still relied on to play heavy minutes in all situations. After missing a good chunk of the first half of the season with an injury, he's found his form in the second half. he has points in five straight games (2g, 6a) and is a key element in Seattle's improving power play.

Second Star: C Matthew Wedman. The team's leading point producer had a Gordie Howe Hat Trick Weekend, with a goal, two assists and a fighting major over the course of the two games. Wedman also stretched his point streak to 10 games. Most importantly he's feeling it right now and is shooting from everywhere. His all around game is what sets him apart though and is what is drawing attention his way from NHL scouts. It's not unheard of for a 19-year old to be chosen in the NHL draft. Heck, Prince Albert's 19 year old Brett Leason is projected to be a first rounder. Like Leason, Wedman has 33 goals. If Leason is first round material, what's Wedman? Big bodied centers like Wedman are a hot commodity in the NHL.

First Star: RW Andrej Kukuca. Since early in the season I've been asking Andrej if he's ready to do a radio interview. His standard response each time is "next game". He's clever like that. If he keeps playing the way he has the second half of the season, I'll keep waiting until the next game for that interview. He now has goals in six of his last seven games. Kukuca contributed two power-play goals on the weekend and also assisted on the Tyszka OT game winner in Everett, In fact, Kukuca has assisted on the last two T-Bird OT game winning goals. His 23 goals is second most on the team, trailing only Wedman. Since returning from World Juniors Kukuca has been a different player for the T-Birds, scoring 16 of his 23 goals over those 24 games. He's added nine assists and is now a +12 player. When Kukuca was drafted in last summer's CHL Import Draft, it was thought the 19-year old Slovakian would be a one-year wonder, but has his second half performance changed that thought process in Seattle's front office? Seattle is already losing what, by season's end, will be over 150 points from Nolan Volcan, Noah Philp and Sean Richards to graduation. What if Wedman is not only drafted this spring, but signed? he could end up in the AHL next year. That would be another 70+ points gone from the lineup for next season. Would the T-Birds bring Kukuca back as a two-spotter (20 year old and Import)? Of course I imagine his second half play is garnering attention from scouts. If not those in North America then certainly those in Europe.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Piling Up Points

Daunting schedule or not, the Thunderbirds know to hold onto their playoff spot in the Western Conference, they need points, points and more points. Any way they can get them, they need them. Regulation wins, overtime losses, it doesn't matter, they need points to hold off either Kamloops or Kelowna. If Kelowna and Kamloops drop games, all the better for Seattle.

That is why this past week was a success for the T-Birds. Seattle went 3-2 their last five games. That one game-above-.500 mark may not seem like much but combine that with the fact Kamloops is just 1-3-1 in their last five and Kelowna 2-3 in their last five and that is a net gain in the standings for the T-birds. Over that span Seattle played five teams with winning records and won three. The Blazers played three teams above .500 and won once. The Rockets went head-to-head with three teams over .500 in that span and lost them all.

Seattle will face Kamloops March 1st up at the Sandman Centre in what assuredly will be the most important game of the 11 they have remaining. Before Seattle gets to that game they have to, once again, head into the eye of the storm this coming weekend with games at Everett Friday and then at home versus Portland Saturday. As they did this past weekend, the T-birds have to find points in one, if not both, of those games. While Seattle awaits those weekend games, Kamloops has a Monday matinee against Tri-City, then hosts Conference bottom dweller Prince George Friday before traveling to Kelowna to meet up with the Rockets Saturday. Before that home game against the Blazers next weekend, Kelowna will hit the road for a pair of games in Victoria then a single in Spokane.

I'm sure all three teams, Seattle, Kamloops and Kelowna, are treating every game left on their respective regular season schedules as if it is a playoff game. There's no postseason for one of them if they don't. Even with that said, one of these team is going to be the odd man out. There is only room in the postseason for two of them. On paper Seattle, even with their current five point lead for the eighth spot, has the more difficult path, 11 games left and ten against teams with winning records. Seven are against the top three teams in the conference; Vancouver (1), Everett (3) and Portland (3). Seattle has six on home ice and five on the road.

Kamloops went into Monday with 14 games left on their schedule. Three of those are head-to-head battles with division rival Kelowna. they also have three left against last place Prince George, including two to finish the regular season. Their other eight games feature a pair against Tri-City, of course the Seattle game, three against the B.C. Division leading Vancouver Giants, and one each against Victoria and Spokane. Ten of the Blazers remaining game are at home and just four are on the road.

Keep an eye on Kelowna. They may end up the team Seattle has to beat out for a postseason spot. The Rockets sit currently third in the B.C. Division but actually have one point less then Seattle (52-51). They also are only four points up on Kamloops. They may end up having as tough a path to the postseason as the T-birds. Going into Monday games, Kelowna has 12 games remaining. They have the three huge head-to-head games with the Blazers but their other nine games are all against teams with winning marks including a combined five games with Vancouver and Portland. The Rockets split their last dozen games with six at home and six on the road.

As to the past weekend games, Seattle played well in all three. Just some mismanagement with the puck in the Portland game that directly led to a couple of Winterhawks goals. Seattle, down 4-2, was pushing hard the first half of the third period to get one back and make it a one goal game but just couldn't find the lucky strike. Portland got the fifth goal and that was that.

My T-birds three stars for the weekend:

Third Star: W Henrik Rybinski. The more I see of him the more I won't be surprised if some NHL team uses a late round draft pick on him come June. A Tasmanian Devil on the forecheck. He has an uncanny knack for winning puck battles. He almost sneaks up on opposing players to do it. The scoring will come around now that he knows the coaches want him to shoot more but I think he will always be a pass first type of player and rack up a lot of apples. Finished the weekend with five points (2g, 3a). This deal to acquire him from Medicine Hat is enough to give new General Manager Bil LaForge an A+ grade for his first WHL trade deadline.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Ross went 2-0 on the weekend, highlighted by a stellar 46 save performance against Everett. He was at his best in the first ten minutes of the contest as the T-birds were being outshot, 9-0. His play kept Seattle in it while they found their game. He collected 72 saves in his two wins. He now has as many wins (10) in just over a month of play as former goalie Liam Hughes had in three-plus months the first half of the season. Yes, a better supporting cast around him, but the defensive group is actually younger.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. I'm just wondering which NHL rookie or development camp he will attend next fall because there's practically no way NHL scouts aren't taking notice of his all around game. What a beast he's been. When Nolan Volcan missed nine and a half games with injury Seattle was able to tread water (4-5-1) because Wedman wouldn't let them sink. He's on an eight game points streak (9g, 5a 14 pts). In the three games this weekend he finished with six points (4g, 2a) and now leads the team in points with 63 on 32 goals and 31 assists. While it came in a loss, his wrap around power play goal Sunday in Portland should be a WHL Play of the Week candidate.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Snow My Goodness!

While we dig out from one snow blast and await the next round of the Puget Sound Snow-pocalypse 2019, let's update that playoff chase. After this weekend, Seattle not only maintained it's position in the eight spot in the Western Conference (the second wild card position), it increased its lead over Kamloops to three points after the Blazers dropped two games. Kamloops still has a game in hand on the T-birds, which made Seattle's 4-3 overtime win Saturday over Medicine Hat, all the more crucial.

The two teams still have one more game head-to-head, coming up March 1st up at the Sandman Centre in Kamloops, but between now and then the T-birds play six tough games against four teams with winning records. Four of those six are against either Everett or Portland. Kamloops will also play six times before they host the T-birds with two of those games against B.C. Division teams Prince George and Kelowna, both with sub .500 records. Because Seattle has the tougher schedule going forward, earning points anyway possible is of key importance. That's why a couple of recent overtime wins have been crucial for the T-birds playoff hopes.

On average Seattle is currently earning .905 points per game this season and are on pace for 62 points. Kamloops is averaging .865 points per game and is on pace for 59 points. Again though, the degree of difficulty in their schedule going forward is Seattle's biggest roadblock, making it tough for them to maintain that 62 point pace.

From the "You-don't-realize-how-important-he-is-until-he's-gone" department: In two games last week against Victoria, Seattle was outshot 83-46 by the Royals without defenseman Jarret Tyszka in the lineup. They were a Roddy Ross 41 save performance away from being swept in those two games. With Tyszka back in the lineup in two games this weekend, The T-birds outshot two opponents by a combined 66-58 margin and earned a split. Better finish against Portland Friday night might have given them a chance to win both games. Tyszka's ability to skate the puck up out of the defensive zone and get pucks in deep at the other end, gives Seattle a better chance to win the puck possession battle. That is even more important now with the upper body injury to fellow defenseman Simon Kubicek. It's a good explanation as to why the team held onto Tyszka at the trade deadline.

Speaking of defensemen, was that Jake Lee's best game as a Thunderbird Saturday against Medicine Hat? He played with a lot of confidence, to the point he was calling for the puck on his stick during that third period comeback. It led to a big assist on Seattle's second goal, and of course he scored the third goal that tied the game to force overtime.

The Thunderbirds hosted prospect Brendan Williamson and his mom this past weekend. The T-birds acquired Williamson's rights from Everett in the Zack Andrusiak trade back on New Year's Day. Williamson was originally listed by Everett when current T-birds general manager Bil LaForge was the Silvertips Director of Player Personnel. Monday, the T-birds announced they had signed Williamson to a standard WHL PLayer Agreement. This now gives the team the maximum return on that Andrusiak deal; 20 year old Sean Richards, a 2019 second round draft pick, a 2021 third round draft pick plus Williamson. I could be wrong but assume because Williamson chose to sign with the T-birds, Seattle does not get the 2022 conditional fourth round pick that was also part of the deal and it reverts back to Everett.

By the way, Seattle doesn't win Saturday, doesn't even get the game to overtime, without the play of Richards. Richards assisted on the second goal by going right to the net with the puck, then delivered a crunching hit along the boards that freed up the puck, leading to the tying goal. In 15 games with the T-birds Richards has 13 points (5g, 8a) and is +2. With Nolan Volcan currently shelved with an upper body injury, Richards becomes an even more important piece to the T-birds playoff hopes.

My T-bird Three Stars for the week:

Third Star: W Andrej Kukuca. Koo-Koo KAH-Choooo! The Slovakian winger picked up six points in four games (4g, 2a) and had a nice bank pass to set up the Matthew Wedman overtime winner Saturday night. Seems to do most of his damage against Victoria as he now has four goals against the Royals in three games. Since returning from World Juniors he has 19 points (11g, 8a) in 18 games, doing most of his damage within four feet of the goal. He now has 43 points on the season with a +11 rating.

Second Star: G Roddy Ross. Robbin' Roddy Ross was nothing short of spectacular last Tuesday in Victoria stealing a win for Seattle with a stand-on-his-head 41 save performance. He closed out the weekend with a monster overtime save against Medicine Hat just before the T-birds game winner. Don't forget his stop of former T-bird Elijah Brown in that game as well. Ross now has eight wins in 12 starts. remember, the first half of the year former T-bird Liam Hughes had just 10 wins in 29 starts. Ross's most telling stat? A .914 save percentage.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Weds is the defacto on ice, team captain with Volcan out injured for the time being. Like Volcan he leads by example. He, along with Noah Philp, leads the team in scoring with 55 points. He also leads the team in goals with 27 and leads in plus/minus as well at +19. His 55 points in 52 games is eight points more then he had all of last season in 72 games. He registered six points in the four games (4g, 2a) capped by the big OT game winner Saturday. Oh, and his mom beat Volcan's mom in the intermission shootout Friday night. Pretty good week for the Wedman family.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Lost Weekend

After a stellar month of January that saw the T-birds go 8-3-1-1 and climb back into playoff contention, February started off with a thud as Seattle dropped both ends of a home-and-home with division rival Everett. It was a case of Seattle playing 60 good minutes of hockey on the weekend when they needed 120. The team knows their schedule going forward is daunting. They need to find points against the top teams if they're going to grab that final playoff spot in the west. Every team they play this month has a winning record. The opportunity was there this weekend, they didn't take it.

Friday night at home Seattle was full marks through the first two periods. They played right there with the Silvertips, even grabbing the lead. A T-birds power play miscue late in the second though, led to an Everett shorthanded breakaway goal and instead of a lead after two the game was tied. Then Seattle ran into penalty trouble in the third and couldn't survive Everett's power play.

The story was almost similar Saturday on the road. The T-birds played a solid first period, only to surrender a late goal. Giving up a goal in the final thirty seconds of that first period was like erasing 19 and a half minutes of good hockey. Then another penalty early in the second and an Everett power play goal follows. In the span of three minutes Seattle went from going toe-to-toe with the 'Tips to being down a pair, which on the road looks like a mountain to climb.

If Seattle fails to make the postseason, the biggest culprit, along with that difficult second half schedule, will be their special teams. That's not surprising with a young club. The T-birds don't have those high end, older, NHL drafted players on the power play they relied on a few years ago like Barzal, Bear and Gropp. But even they took a season or two to get their power play mojo going. There's no Barzal to control the power play with his puck possession and skating skills. The lack of a Bear-type player to play the point is most evident. In a couple years they may have that as Simon Kubicek continues to develop, but he just recently turned 17. Sixteen year old Tyrel Bauer and his booming shot may eventually integrate into the power play. Both are already seeing plenty of action on the PK. Both players are still growing into their roles. Both players are still rookies. The learning curve is a lot higher now with this relatively green team.

I understand the frustration T-birds head coach Matt O'Dette had with the officiating this weekend. He lost a number of players the first half of the season to flagrant, penalty worthy hits. One of those players, top six forward Dillon Hamaliuk, is out for the season. Look, refs miss calls through the course of a game against both teams. And some hits that look penalty worthy in real time aren't such upon video scrutiny when you can look at it frame-by-frame. But it appeared the officials this weekend were really singularly focused in on calling any Seattle contact that was borderline, a penalty. Why? Where is that reputation coming from? The recent history between Seattle and Everett would suggest it should have been Everett under the ref's microscope, not Seattle. Over the past two seasons of the rivalry it has been Silvertips players (that's players plural, because it was not always Sean Richards), not T-birds with the suspension-worthy hits. Did Seattle deserve some of those calls against them this weekend? You bet, but there were no halos above the heads of the Everett players. The officials need to police both teams. Even the appearance of a bias against one team is not good. As they say, perception is often perceived as reality.

Are you nostalgic? Do you long for the good old days? Tri-City has 12 extra points because they are 12-3 in overtime/shootout games. Seattle has one extra point because they are just 1-6 in overtime/shootout games. If games just ended in ties as they did many years ago, Seattle's record would be 18-24-7. Tri-City's record would be 14-19-15. Tri-City would have 43 points not 55, Seattle would have 42, just two less then their current 44. Tri-City is up in the standing because they've been able to get games past 60 minutes. That's taking advantage of the system. Meanwhile the other teams Seattle is battling with for a playoff spot, Kelowna and Kamloops, are playing in more three point games as well. The Rockets have played in 11, the Blazers have played in 9. Again if games just ended in ties, Kelowna would be 15-25-11 with 41 points. Kamloops would be sitting at 16-25-9 with 41 points as well. The race to the playoffs would be still be tight but the T-birds might have more wiggle room. Loser points matter.

Not only does Seattle have the tougher road to the playoffs, they have to do it with out two top six forwards with Hamaliuk out for the season and Nolan Volcan out week-to-week with just six weeks left. Despite the two losses to Everett, I liked how Seattle initially responded to Volcan's absence by earning five out of six points in the first three games. That's not an easy thing to do, filling a 73 point (30g, 43a) gap, while trying to earn points against some of the best teams in the league. Both of those players would also be logging power play and penalty kill minutes, especially Volcan.

Another glimpse of the not too distant future for the T-birds with the debut of 2018 first round bantam pick, 15 year old Kai Uchacz, Friday night. Not a lot of ice time, playing on the fourth line, but he gave a good accounting for himself. A bit nervous his first shift, but then he just went out and played hockey. He won three of four faceoffs, had one shot on goal and nearly scored. I was more impressed with his play along the boards, winning a couple of 50-50 battles against much older players.

The T-birds top three picks from the most recent draft have now all made their debuts and the initial reaction is the team's scouts got the top of that draft right. I'm not predicting future glory and multiple championships, but I am saying they chose three players who show the skills to be effective first line players. I don't think I'm going too far to say all three of those guys will be on the roster next season and playing every night. They're good enough to make the roster right now. They're just not eligible.

The T-birds picked three other forwards later in that draft (Sam Popowich, Reid Schaeffer and Mekai Sanders) and have signed them to standard WHL Player Agreements as well. Late round picks are not the sure thing the front of the draft picks usually are but in talking to the T-birds talent evaluators, they like the progress those three players are making and believe they will be impactful at the WHL level. With Payton Mount and Jared Davidson (don't sleep on Davey, he's going to be a good one) already here, the T-birds have compiled a quality group of young forwards for the next three to four seasons.

My T-birds Three Stars for the month of January (let's be real here, February didn't start off too well):

Third Star: G Roddy Ross. Did you know Ross has been the WHL Rookie of the Month, every month he's been in the league? Okay, he's only played one month but still that was an impressive first month. In nine games he was 6-1-0-1 with a 2.30 GAA and .922 save percentage. He's so calm in goal and making some early saves in those games seemed to give the team in front of him the confidence necessary to go out and earn those wins. That was most evident when Seattle knocked off the CHL's #1 ranked team, Prince Albert, back on January 9th. He had a couple of early stops against their explosive top line and then Seattle settled in and skated to a 4-1 win. He gives his team a chance to win every night.

Second Star: C/W Henrik Rybinski. His overtime winner in Kelowna was enough by itself to get him on the list but his overall play is his strength. A tenacious forechecker he doesn't give up on puck battles. He makes effective use of his stick to break up pass plays and scoring chances. 13 points and +8 in 12 January games and his only goal was a game winner. In just his 17 year old season, another part of that young forward group going forward. He's listed as a C skater by NHL Central Scouting for the upcoming draft. I think he needs to start potting some more goals, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that some NHL team takes a late round flyer on him. At the very least he's on the radar. Smart decision by G.M. Bil LaForge to go get Rybinski, who had been on the trade block and available to all WHL teams since October.

First Star: C Matthew Wedman. Talk about someone who has probably put himself on the radar of NHL teams, Wedman would be that prototypical late bloomer. He has the size, has found a scoring touch, wins his fair share of faceoffs and plays in all situations. In the absence of Volcan he stepped up and delivered not just offense, but leadership. I'll lay money that at the very least he gets an invite to an NHL development/training camp before next season. There's even an outside chance he gets drafted in a late round. His skating has improved quite a bit since his 16 year old season. He just surpassed last season's point total with 19 games to go. He leads the team with 23 goals, six more then he had in 72 games last season. Usually paired up against the opponent's top line he is +19 on the year. He registered 17 points (11g, 6a) in 12 January games and was +13.