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.

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