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.