Monday, March 18, 2019

The Surge

Back on January 14th, as Seattle came off their six game trip through the Eastern Division I wrote the following: "Of the 28 games left for the T-Birds to play, 25 will be against teams with winning records. 12 of those games will be against either Everett or Portland who have a combined record of 59-21-4-3. In 10 games against those two division rivals, the first half of the season, Seattle was just 2-8."

The key for Seattle's playoff hopes was going to be their success or failure against those two division rivals. How did the T-Birds do in those 12 games? It didn't start off well as the T-Birds went winless in the first four meetings, going 0-3-1-0. Through the first half dozen of those 12 games Seattle was just 1-4-1-0. But the final six games they compiled a 4-0-1-1 record. So overall in those dozen games the T-birds went 5-4-2-1, which may not seem all that impressive, but those were 13 crucial points earned in their playoff chase.

As I posted that story back on January 14th, a Monday, Seattle was still sitting in 10th place in the 10 team Western Conference standings. They were looking up at everybody. Their next game wasn't until the next weekend and they would drop a 3-2 shootout over in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans on Friday, January 18th. That means Seattle was still sitting in last place in the conference as late as January 19th. With 27 games left, and still 12 head-to-head versus Everett and Portland, the T-Birds were still not in a playoff position.

Through the first 13 of those 27 games the T-Birds played .500 hockey at 6-6-1-0. Eleven of those 13 games were against teams with winning records. It would be the next 12 games, with 11 against teams with winning records, including six against Everett and Portland, where Seattle put the fate of their season in their own hands. The T-Birds would compile an 8-2-1-1 record, picking up 18 points and zipping by Kamloops into the second wild card spot, clinching their playoff berth with two games to spare.

Seattle's second half record, the final 34 games, saw them reverse their first half performance. The T-Birds won 20 of their final 34 games. The T-Birds earned points in four other games they lost in either overtime or shootouts. In the end Seattle got points in 24 of their final 34 games, compiling 44 second half points. They rendered the final two games of the regular season meaningless, but still went 2-0 for a second half record of 20-10-2-2.

After the 6-5 win in the regular season finale in Portland Sunday, I was reminded of a similar game in the T-Birds championship season. Seattle went down to Portland on February 19th of that year to play a third game in three nights. Like this past Sunday, that game too was in the Veterans Memorial Coliseum. At the time, Seattle still had designs on the U.S. Division banner, so two points were critical. The T-Birds had opened that weekend with a 4-2 road win over Tri-City then followed up with a Saturday night 5-3 home win against the Winterhawks. But the weekend had exacted a price and by the time they got to Portland for that Sunday game they were minus Scott Eansor, Rylan Toth, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman, all out with injuries. Just before the game started, Keegan Kolesar was announced as a late scratch. The T-Birds dressed only 16 skaters and had no back up goalie.

You could forgive Seattle if they just didn't have it in them for a third win that weekend against a healthy Portland team. After Portland pulled on top 4-2 midway through the third period on three unanswered goals, you thought, good effort but the T-Birds are just too shorthanded to come back. But Seattle did come back, scoring the final two goals of regulation, the last with under a minute to play. Okay, nice, they've earned a point but no blame if they fall in overtime. You know where this is going, right? Seattle survived the overtime and when Mat Barzal and Sami Moilanen scored in the shootout, the shorthanded T-Birds had an improbable third win on the weekend.

Which brings us back to Sunday and the 68th and final game of the 2018-19 regular season. The T-Birds had nothing to play for. Their playoff spot was locked in. With no need for the win, Head Coach Matt O'Dette rested his top three scorers and his number one goalie. No Volcan, Wedman or Philp and no Ross between the pipes. Over 200 points out of the line up. On Saint Patrick's Day, Seattle inserted a lot of green players onto the bench. Portland, on the other hand, still had something to play for. They needed a win to earn home-ice advantage in their opening round playoff matchup with Spokane.

Portland quickly grabbed a 2-0 lead. Someone forgot to tell these young T-Birds they were supposed to lie down and roll over. 16-year old Jared Davidson, 15-year old Kai Uchacz and barely turned 17-year old Simon Kubicek turned the deficit into a 3-2 lead. Okay, Seattle had it's moment, right? The Winterhawks struck back with two quick goals to regain the lead, 4-3. Portland was back in control and headed to victory. A funny thing happened after that though. Seattle not only fought back, they took over the game. Led by rookie goalie Cole Schwebius, they closed the door on Portland's high powered offense. And when Sean Richards and Jarret Tyszka scored third period goals with still 12 minutes left, you sensed it was over. The Winterhawks got a cosmetic 6-on-4 power play goal with one second remaining but the win that Portland needed instead, belonged to Seattle.

Those two wins, two seasons apart, when you could excuse the T-Birds if they had dropped both of them, are instead prime examples of what O'Dette talks about when he mentions playing the T-Bird way. You give it your best effort for 60 minutes, no matter who's in the lineup and who is out. As long as there's time on the clock, there's time to win. Don't worry about the standings, the opponent, tomorrow or yesterday. Concern yourself with your effort and make sure you are giving it 100 percent and at the end of the game, win or lose, if you can say you did that, then you've played the T-Bird way.

Second half wins (final 34 games):

Vancouver 26
Everett 21
Portland 21
Seattle 20
Spokane 20
Victoria 16
Tri-City 16
Kamloops 14
Kelowna 12
Prince George 7

Vancouver leads the way in the second half with 26 wins but remember, they played 17 of their final 34 games against teams with losing records. Don't blame the Giants, they played the schedule they were given. Vancouver went 9-5-2-1 against those winning teams and 15-0-1-1 against those sub .500 teams the second half. They took care of business. By contrast though, Seattle played 29 of their final 34 games against teams with winning records. Seattle was 5-0 against their sub .500 opponents and 15-10-2-2 against the teams with winning records. The T-Birds also took care of business.

Does it mean anything for the upcoming playoff series? No. Heck, I think Seattle's best game against the Giants might have been the recent 5-1 loss to Vancouver on March 12th, but that's like saying except for the category four hurricane, my vacation to Key West was fabulous. Winning is all that matters. But after Seattle split the four game regular season series with the Giants and after their very successful second half, I'm looking forward to a competitive playoff series.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the last regular season weekend:

Third Star: C Kai Uchacz. The 15-year old, 2018 first round Bantam pick not only scored his first career WHL goal Sunday in Portland but he added an assist as well, finishing the game at +1. He also won 15 of 34 faceoffs in the two games versus Portland. A great start to a promising Thunderbirds career.

Second Star: C Noah Philp. Philp had five points in his last two regular season games. Wednesday he picked up two assists in Kennewick, including the primary assist on the overtime game winner that clinched Seattle's playoff spot. He then added two goals in Seattle's 5-2 win Saturday night in the regular season home finale. Philp finished the regular season with a career best 75 points.

First Star: LW Nolan Volcan. The captain made his last regular season home game memorable by recording his 100th career Thunderbirds goal Saturday night. That was just the follow up to his hat trick in Kennewick Wednesday. He had four goals and was +2 in his final two regular season WHL games. For his career, a five year span all with Seattle, he totaled 321 games played with 231 points and a +30 rating. Oh, and there is one U.S. Division banner, two Western Conference Championship banners and one Ed Chynoweth Cup Championship on his resume as well.

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