Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Never Say Never

Someone opined the morning before Game 6 in Edmonton that, were the T-birds able to come back from being down three games to one in the WHL Championship Series, this team would have been the stuff of legends.  They would have been talked about for decades. 

They would have come from behind in their last three playoff series.  They would have won eight straight do or die games.  They would have won six of eight elimination game on the road, including four in a row. And they would have won Games 5, 6 and 7 of the Championship Series in their opponent's barn.  

Alas, while they came close, they fell just short, falling in Game 6 and losing the Chynoweth Cup to the Oil Kings four games to two.

Maybe they won't be hockey or WHL legends, but they will be Thunderbirds legends.  Had they pulled off the fete I would have placed the 2021-22 team at the top of the class in T-birds history. Yes, even ahead of the 2017 team which won the franchise's first ever championship, which is saying something considering how good that team was.

As it is, they are probably right on that team's heels for best in franchise history. Great things were expected from that 2017 version of the T-birds.  Nobody outside the T-birds organization had this version getting to Game 6 of the league final this season. Certainly not in the fashion they did it, time after time refusing to go quietly into the night, with their season on life support seven times.

You'll hear a lot of talk outside of the organization that this team overachieved. You'll hear they exceded expectations and weren't built to win this season but were expected to compete for a title next season or the season after that. But inside the T-birds room, they would say none of that is true. In fact, they will tell you that falling short of the Cup means they didn't meet their expected goal of winning it all. Because from day one, this team confidently believed they could win the whole enchilada. 

And that's the way they should view it.  Certainly they accomplished a lot in 2021-22, including a Western Conference Championship. But the goal for this franchise should always be to compete for the crown and win it.  You can't have the mindset of, we're playing for next year, because next year is not guarenteed. Tell the graduating players that winning this season wasn't the goal. That's a slap in the face to all their hard work and their dream of hoisting the trophy. They're not here next season.  This was their year.

If General Manager Bil Laforge was waiting for next season, he wouldn't have spent a first round draft pick and more to acquire Lukas Svejkovsky.  But he saw the Western Conference was wide open.  He saw he had a talented group of players. Young? Yes, but with the skill to win against anyone. He saw this team battle throught Covid and injuires and still said, we're in it to win it.  And they almost did.

What they accomplished this season and what they almost accomplished was no fluke. It wasn't luck.  It was hard work paying off.  In the end they were the second best team in the WHL and that is something to be proud of, the stuff of legends

Thomas Milic was the T-birds playoff MVP, no question.  I would like to think that his 25 game postseason performance will get him drafted into the NHL next month but it's no sure thing.  It will certainly get him an invite to an NHL camp next fall.  He went up against four drafted or signed goaltenders and, in my opinion, outshined them all. 

I'd hate to think Ty Bauer's last game as a T-bird was just a couple of shifts in the first five minutes, and then an early exit as a result of a questionable five minute major that led to a two game suspension.  In the 21 or so years I've been with the franchise, he's been the best captain I can remember and Seattle has had some great leaders wearing that C.

Sam Knazko coming over from Finland in late November was a bit of luck, but his arrival meant Seattle didn't have to spend more valuable draft capital to seek a high end defenseman at the trade deadline.  He quickly solidified the T-birds back end.

Matt Rempe saved his best for last.  What a terrific postseason he had with eight goals, including a first round, overtime series clincher.  And I think he's only scratching the surface of his potential.  He's still learning to play with his size and frame. 

My T-birds Three Stars are Seattle's three 20 year olds.  

Third Star: D Ryan Gottfried.  Gotts came in a trade early in the 2019-20 season.  He was the second of two defenseman Seattle traded for as injuries decimated their back end.  He was the one who stuck. He made himself into a reliable reargaurd. He was especially adept at blocking shots and killing penalties and he was a great role model for Seattle's young group of d-men.

Second Star: W Lukas Svejkovsky.  He only played six months as a T-bird but Seattle got from him exactly what they were hoping for when they made the trade to acquire him right after Christmas, instant offense.  In 33 regular season games as a Thunderbird he accumulated 36 points (22g, 24a). In 24 playoff games he earned another 28 points (11g, 17a). He was the final piece to the puzzle in their drive to the Championship Series.

First Star: C Henrik Rybinski.  The tone setter for this team.  A heart and soul guy.  He never gave you less then 100 percent on any shift.  He played the last two games of the Championship Series while dealing with an upper body injury.  If he was going down, he was going down swinging.  In Seattle's two, game-seven postseason wins he had seven points (2g, 5a) including a game winner in the Western Conference Championship Series. 

It's going to be a very interesting offseason for Seattle.  Lots of talent coming back but some holes on the roster to fill.  Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 30, 2022

On to Round Two

Seattle versus Kelowna in the playoffs is becoming a tradition.  This was the ninth time these two teams have faced each other in the postseason since 2001.  The Thunderbirds have now won five of those series, including three in row. In fact, Seattle has ended the Rockets season in three of the last five WHL postseasons.

The series went just five games but the last two went overtime before being decided and the last three games were tied going into the third period.  This was another typical Seattle-Kelowna postseason matchup. It's the second time in their last three postseason meetings that the series winner was scored in overtime by a Seattle player named Matt: Wedman in 2016 and Rempe in 2022.

Where was this series decided? Well, the T-bird top four-point producers from the regular season (Davidson, Svejkovsky, Roulette and Rybinski) produced 31-points in the five games.  Meanwhile, Kelowna's top four regular season point producers (Dach, Cristall, Novak and Kydd) mustered just eight points total in the five games.  

I'm not sure what the T-birds game plan was for controlling Colton Dach, who led Kelowna during the regular season with 79-points (29g. 50a) in 61-games, but it worked. Seattle held Dach, a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, to zero points. That's right, none. No goals no assists in five games.  Meanwhile, the T-birds leading scorer from the regular season, Jared Davidson had 11 points (3g, 8a).

Seattle's next two best point producers in Round One? A couple of first time draft eligible 17-year-olds in Kevin Korchinski and Jordan Gustafson. Both players had nine points in the series. NHL scouts want to see how these two handle the pressure of postseason play, when the stakes are bigger, and the spotlight shines brighter.  So far, so good for this duo. Gustafson set up the game winning overtime, series clinching goal in Game Five, by stealing the puck from a 20-year-old Rockets defenseman.

Another area that helped decide the series in the T-birds favor?  Goaltending.  Seems strange to say with how well the Rockets Talyn Boyko played in the final two games, but Seattle's Thomas Milic was the more steady, consistent goalie in the series. Just go back to the first two games when Boyko allowed 12 goals against while Milic only surrendered three.  The numbers back it up too. In the series Milic finished with a 1.89 GAA and .923 SVPCT.  Boyko finished with a GAA of 4.68 and his SVPCT was .875.

Playoff hockey in the WHL is built for teams with a strong, deep group of 19-year-old players.  Or at least traditionally it is.  Yet the T-birds have only five 2002 born players on their roster; Ty Bauer, Sam Knazko, Jared Davidson, Matt Rempe and Chase Lacombe. By comparison Seattle's 2017 championship roster featured eight 19-year-olds.  But I believe they are still deep enough to make a deep playoff run. Just know, that as much of a battle Round One against Kelowna was, it only gets tougher from here.  

Of the five teams still remaining in the Western Conference hunt, the rosters for most of them are fairly young. Each team is, of course, carrying the requisite three 20-year-old but as mentioned, Seattle has just five 2002 born players on their roster, Portland has just six, Kamloops has seven. Everett and Vancouver are the older teams. The Silvertips have eight 2002s on their roster. Vancouver is carrying ten, but three of them are goalies.  Kelowna, the team Seattle just eliminated, had just four. So, it looks like talent, more than experience, is going to decide the Western Conference.

For the second time this season, in a game against Kelowna, Seattle challenged a Rockets goal for offside.  They did it in a regular season game in Kelowna back in December and then again in Game Five Friday, issuing a coach's challenge on the Rockets tying goal in the third period. The result each time was the same. The goal was allowed to stand because of inconclusive video evidence. On the challenge in Game Five, it appeared a Rockets player may have entered the offensive zone ahead of the puck.

Because the WHL doesn't deploy as many cameras as the NHL, you are more than likely to get an inconclusive call on review.  Was it a gamble by the T-birds coaching staff? Sure. If they are wrong not only does the goal stand but they are also assessed a bench minor, which would have put the Rockets on the power play.  To be assessed the penalty though, there has to be clear and irrefutable evidence that clearly showed the Rockets were NOT offside.  

Seattle coaches knew the video available probably wasn't enough to overturn the call on the ice, but if it showed anything, it appeared to show a Rockets player entering the zone ahead of the puck. The hope was the video review judge would agree with them.  In the end it was a worthwhile challenge, no harm, no foul.

My T-birds Three Star of Round One.

Third Star: G Thomas Milic. As stated above, he was consistent from the opening faceoff of Game One to the final moments of Game Five.  In the playoffs, that's what you want from your goalie.  His teammates are confident playing in front of him because they know he is reliable.  He didn't face as much rubber as his opposing number, but he still came up with a number of clutch saves.

Second Star: C Matt Rempe. Not only did Rempe score the series clinching overtime goal in Game Five, but he tied for second on the team in goals scored with three, while playing in just four of the five games.  And that's the other story for the New York Rangers prospect. He played much of the series against the Rockets at less than 100-percent.  But it's the playoffs and he gutted it out. Two goals in a series clinching win is stepping up and embracing the moment.

First Star: C/W Jared Davidson.  He led the team in scoring in the regular season and he's leading the team in scoring in the postseason after the opening round.  You want your best players to be your best players in the postseason and Davidson is being just that.  Seattle was pumping a lot of shots on the Rockets net in Game Five, with no results.  They then fell behind.  His tying goal in the second period was a reminder that if you stick to the process, and don't get frustrated, thing will work out.    

Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Calm Before the Storm

Sitting here Saturday morning and it's rather strange to have just one game on the final weekend of the regular season and it's already out of the way.  Of course, these final four games the T-birds played were either make up dates for games postponed earlier in the season, or a game pushed back a week from its original date.

Either way it will be nice to have a little time off before the second season arrives, because once the playoffs are here, those postseason games come at you fast and furious. Had these past four games been playoff games, I think we would have seen everyone dressed and in the lineup. Even Ryan Gottried, who missed the last ten games with an injury to his foot.  To get him the extra rest means he'll be that much closer to 100-percent come Game One of the opening round series against Kelowna.

You know those financial services ads that say past performance is not indicative of future earnings, or something to that affect?  Well, that doesn't hold up when you talk about a Seattle vs. Kelowna playoff series. No matter the round, these two teams always seem to go the distance or close to it. You should just expect the series to go the full seven games. The T-birds four game sweep of the Rockets in the 2016 Western Conference Final was the exception not the rule. The next spring, they went six games in a physical, knock 'em down, drag 'em out Conference Final.

Who can forget the year Seattle won the first three games in overtime, only to see Kelowna come back to win the final four?  Then there was the year Seattle won three times on the road but lost all three at home without scoring a goal on home ice. And what about 2008? The T-birds dropped the first two games at home, then won four of the next five games, including two on the road.  

Crazy things happen when these two teams meet in the postseason, so I'm just saying you should expect that again.  

The teams met four times this past regular season.  The T-birds went 3-1-0-0.  From the Rockets perspective, they were 1-2-0-1.  All four games were decided by a single goal.  Seattle won in a shootout, 2-1 in Kent back on December 7th.  A few nights later in Kelowna, the T-birds came from behind in the third for a 5-4 victory.

The two rivals met for a pair of games at the accesso ShoWare Center in the second half of the season.  The Rockets prevailed, 4-3 February 27th.  Two nights later, Seattle scored two goals in the final minute of play to roar back for a 4-3 win of their own.  

The T-birds used both goalies in the regular season series. Thomas Milic was 2-0, while Scott Ratzlaff was 1-1.  In the four games Seattle outshot Kelowna 154-101, but Seattle consistently outshot most of their opponents all season, even when not a full strength due to injuries.  Of the twelve goals the T-birds allowed to Kelowna, Milic surrendered just four.  Both teams were awarded 16-power plays in the four games. the Rockets scored four times, Seattle three. 

What do I take from their four game regular season series?  Nothing, absolutely nothing.  The slate is wiped clean come Friday.

First and foremost, the WHL is a development league.  The main purpose is to develop and prepare players for a future as a professional hockey player.  Seattle is succeeding in that task. Seven players on the roster are already drafted into the NHL. Three of them have already signed an NHL entry level contract.  Three more players are listed by Central Scouting for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.  

There are more coming.  We've seen Seattle use six APs, or affiliated players, the second half of the season.  Those are players drafted in the last two WHL Prospects Draft but haven't joined the team yet on a fulltime basis. Five of the six have already recorded their first WHL point. Only Hyde Davidson, who played in just one game, the last game of the regular season, did not.  The other five combined for 46 games. They scored six goals added three assists and together finished +9.  They're knocking on the door. They're ready to bust it down.

My T-birds Three Stars for the 2021-22 regular season:

Third Star: D Kevin Korchinski.  He's generating enough buzz now that many draft prognosticators are moving him up their draft lists. In one instance into a top ten position. So, it's not a question of if he'll be drafted, but how high.  Terrific skater who rarely makes the wrong decision with the puck. He has great hockey instincts. 61-assists in 67 games.  Personally, I wish he'd shoot more, but I said the same thing about a guy named Mat Barzal and things seemed to work out okay for him.  And Korchinski is still just 17.  

Second Star: C Henrik Rybinski.  Twice he had his season interrupted by injury. When he's not on the ice it's noticeable. He's your number one center. He's an energy guy, a tone setter. He plays in all situations.  He plays with a near reckless abandon. He also contributes on the stat sheet.  Sixty-five points in just 47-games. His 1.38 points per game average was just off the team pace set by both Lukas Svejkovsky and Jared Davidson at 1.39. had he played the full 68-game schedule he was on pace for 94 points.  

First Star:  C/W Jared Davidson. Davidson is more than just a goal scorer, though he does that very well, leading the team with 42, the most by a T-bird's players in 13-seasons.  His goal total this season is more than double his total from his first three seasons combined (19). But like Rybinski, he is a complete player and plays in all situations. Versatile too, as he can play at center and on the wing. He led the team in goals, points and plus/minus and was second in assists. His game keeps improving, so I would expect even more from him in the future.  He could very well have done enough to put himself in a position to be drafted this summer by an NHL team.  

Monday, April 11, 2022

Two for the Money, Two for the Show

The Seattle Thunderbirds have locked up home ice advantage for their first-round playoff matchup with the Kelowna Rockets. They did it with a 4-1win Sunday over Everett, coupled with a Kelowna loss earlier in the day to the Vancouver Giants. Or maybe they actually locked up home ice earlier in the season?

Quite often head coach Matt O'Dette will talk about the value of two points earned early in the season being just as valuable as two points earned in the final week.  So, let's go back to a couple of games where the T-birds earned a couple of critical wins that now loom large in their securing home ice advantage versus the Rockets.

December 11th, third to last game before the Christmas break, Seattle at Kelowna.  This is the second of back-to-back nights playing up in the British Columbia interior.  The previous night Seattle stunned Kamloops up at the Sandman Centre with a convincing 6-1 victory.  But it was a costly win as the T-birds lost their captain, Tyrel Bauer, to a knee injury in the third period, an injury that would keep him out of the lineup for 33-games.

Seattle is already missing Sawyer Mynio and Leon Okonkwo Prada so are heading into the game in Kelowna with just five defensemen.  To remedy the situation, the T-birds call up affiliated player, 16-year-old, Niko Tsakumis. It will be just his second game in the WHL and first in a month.

The Thunderbirds fall behind, 2-0, after twenty minutes before battling back to take the lead in the second with three goals, including a go-ahead tally from Tsakumis, who scores his first in the WHL. They lead 3-2 after two.

The lead doesn't hold up as the Rockets strike twice in period three to grab a 4-3 advantage with just under seven minutes to play. Down a goal late, missing your captain? Just take the two-game split, get home and heal up your wounded, right?  Except if there is one thing we've learned this season about this T-birds team it's that there's no quit in them.  

Just seventeen seconds after Kelowna took the lead, Kevin Korchinski ties it up and a minute after that Mekai Sanders strikes. Just like that Seattle has comeback to take the lead late. Scott Ratzlaff and the team then shuts down the Rockets over the final five minutes and the T-birds skate away with a 5-4 win and two big road points.  

March 1st, the T-birds are hosting the Rockets at the accesso ShoWare Center. Seattle has dropped three straight games, including 4-3 setback at home to Kelowna two nights earlier.  It's looking like the rematch is going to get Seattle the same result.  Two of the team's leaders, Bauer and Henrik Rybinski are out of the lineup and midway through the third period the Rockets score to break a 2-2 tie. 

As the clock ticks down Kelowna holds their one goal lead.  With under two minutes remaining, O'Dette pulls his goalie for the extra attacker and the strategy pays off when Lukas Svejkovsky scores with 61-seconds left, tying the game at 3-3.

Time to prepare for 3-on-3 hockey. Both teams are ready to take the point and settle this in overtime or a shootout, right?  Not quite.  The T-birds win the ensuing face off and got right back on the attack.  With twelve seconds left in regulation, Sam Knazko pounces on a loose puck in front of the Rockets goal and scores. Not only does Seattle win, 4-3, but by winning in the dying seconds of the third they n get the two points, and they prevent Kelowna from getting even one. 

Those two come-from-behind wins are now the difference in both the season series against Kelowna (The T-birds finished 3-1 in the four games, outpointing the Rockets, 6-3), and in the Western Conference standings.  Had the T-birds not played the full sixty minutes in both those games, they'd be in fifth place staring up at the Rockets and preparing to start the postseason on the road.  If they had just "settled" for a different fate late in those games, they'd be sitting on forty wins, not forty two, 88-points, not 92.  

Points matter, no matter what point in the season you're at.

Notice anything similar in Seattle's three home wins this season against Everett?  Well, the scores are similar. The T-birds won 5-2 back on December 17th, 5-1 January 15th and were 4-1 winners Sunday.  Even in their shootout loss back on October 15th, the T-birds scored five goals.  But the similarity I'm talking about is the Seattle roster.  In those four games, especially in the three wins, Seattle played with a nearly complete and healthy lineup.  

If Seattle is to make a deep playoff run, they'll need that full and healthy lineup and they'll need those kinds of efforts both at home and on the road. 

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: G Thomas Milic.  Milic went 2-0 as he gears up to carry the load in net come playoff time.  In the two games he allowed just three goals, posting a 1.50 GAA and a save percentage of .930.  Seattle's goalies don't face as many shots on average as their opponents, but the T-birds have a penchant for giving up ten bell scoring chances and Milic was their both nights to shut the door. 

Second Star: D Ty Bauer.  Bauer scored his first goal since the night he was injured, back in early December.  It was a big one.  After Spokane crawled back within 3-2 Saturday, the captain unleashed a blast that pushed the T-birds lead back up to 4-2, enroute to a 6-2 win.  Bauer doesn't score a lot but of his five goals, two are game winners and two are insurance goals, like that one against the Chiefs. Then Sunday versus Everett he was the T-birds emotional leader. Did he take a few penalties? Yes, but he didn't back down in a chippy rivalry affair. He helped set a physical tone.

First Star: W Lukas Svejkovsky.  What do you do for an encore after you've just signed your three-year NHL entry level contract? Why you go out and score three goals in two games. Svejkovsky, who signed with the Pittsburgh Penguins earlier in the week, is now on a seven-game point streak, accumulating 15-points in the process (10g, 5a).  He is now 20th in the WHL in scoring with 76 points.  

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Healing Powers

I know we are three months past Christmas, but I'd really like to ask Ol' Saint Nick for one last, belated gift: a healthy Thunderbirds team for the playoffs. This team has demonstrated, that even at much less then 100-precent, they can compete with any team in the Western Conference.  The case in point was Saturday down in Portland. Even down four goals, on the road and with key players out, Seattle showed they can come back and play toe-to-toe, if not outplay one of the top teams. It's not an excuse for the loss. The T-birds started that game way too slow. It is a fact though. Put a healthy Gustafson, Ciona and Gottfried in the lineup and the T-birds are a better, deeper team.

Probably shouldn't play the "what if game" but if the T-birds had been at or close to full strength more the second half of the season, I believe they'd be fighting for the top of the conference.  It is what it is but remember, right before the Christmas break, Seattle was neck and neck with Everett for first place in the U.S. Division.  But how many games the second half have the T-birds dressed less then 18-skaters?  How many times have they had not two or three, but six or seven of their best players sitting up in the stands? 

So, the only wish I have right now is for this team to get healthy for the postseason. I don't think home ice is going to matter. Right now, Seattle has more road wins than home wins. I don't think finishing higher in the standings is going to matter. Give me a mostly complete Seattle roster and I like this team's chances in the playoffs. I'm not saying it guarantees a run to the Cup, but it levels the playing field.  Seattle's advantage is their depth, but depth only means something if all the players are healthy and available.

This past weekend the Thunderbirds played about sixty minutes of really good hockey.  The problem was, there were 120 minutes of hockey played this weekend.  Seattle got away with it Friday in their 6-4 win over Tri-City, building a 5-0 lead before too many players abandoned the game plan and they had to hold on at the end. 

Saturday in Portland the T-birds were full marks for most of the second and third period.  The slow start, the sleepy first period, really was the difference in the game.  Maybe you can get away with a less than sixty-minute effort against the Americans, you can't get away with it against Portland.

Here's a link to the altercation in the third period in Portland that led to the Winterhawks game winning power play goal.  This is why you have to stay disciplined.  I know it's hard. You've just been hit along the boards, a very dangerous hit at that. You want to retaliate. You want to stick up for your teammate. 

But in a close game where you've just roared back from a four-goal deficit to tie it, you just can't do that. There was going to be a boarding penalty on Portland. Maybe the first retaliation is okay but then there's a second and Seattle goes from, about to go on the power play, to having to go on the penalty kill. 


Despite that last penalty on Rybinski, I loved his game Saturday in Portland.  I thought that was the first time in a while we've seen the complete Rybinski. That 200-foot tone setting play, the Energizer Bunny forechecking Rybinski and the crashing the crease with abandon Rybinski. Injuries have impacted his season but when we get that Rybinski on the ice, the rest of the team feeds of it.  

My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend.

Third Star: W Lukas Svejkovsky.  The reigning WHL Play of the Week stretched his point streak to five games with two goals and two assists in the two games.  41-points now in his 31 games with Seattle and has a +19 rating. 

Second Star: W Conner Roulette.  Roulette finished the weekend with four points (1g, 3a).  He sparked Seattle's comeback in Portland with a nice power play goal.  Over his last three games he has seven points (3g, 4a).  that's the Roulette Seattle will need in the playoffs.

First Star: C Henrik Rybinski.  I think he got shorted an assist down in Portland and should, after review, end up with a three-point game (1g, 2a) and that would give him a four-point weekend.  But as stated above, it's his tone-setting 200-foot game that drives the T-birds engine. A healthy Rybinski is imperative for a long playoff run.  


Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Kids are Alright

Because we see their names in the lineup every night, because they played in last spring's 24-game abbreviated season, we forget sometimes that a number of these T-birds regulars are still classified as rookies and quite a few are still in their 16-year-old season. 

While 17 year olds like Jordan Gustafson, Kevin Korchinski and Nico Myatovic, along with an 18-year-old Reid Schaefer are older "rookies", players like Sam Oremba, Sawyer Mynio and Scott Ratzlaff are those true, "16-year-old season" guys, who've had to grow up in a hurry. That's certainly been the case the second half of the season as they've been called upon to eat up big minutes with so many of the older players on the roster sidelined because of injuries. 

Then, this weekend, Seattle threw three more of those 2005-born players, Coster Dunn, Ethan Mittelsteadt and Niko Tsakumis, into the fray. When the weekend was over, the T-birds had three wins, six points and every one of those players had contributed in some way to the team's success.  

With three of their top six defenseman sidelined for Sunday's game in Kennewick, Seattle played with five d-man who are still considered rookies by WHL standards: Jeremy Hanzel, Kevin Korchinski, Leon Okonkwo Prada, Sawyer Mynio and Tsaksumis. The veteran of the group was 19-year-old Chase Lacombe, Prior to this season Lacombe had just 60 games, less than a full season, of WHL experience under his belt.  Heck throw in Mittelsteadt, who is a defenseman by trade but was playing forward, and the T-birds had six rookie defensemen in the lineup.

Even if you discount Hanzel and Korchinski because they played 23-games last spring, and Okonkwo Prada because he's older, there were still three young d-men in the lineup with a combined 62 games of WHL experience between them and 43 of those games belonged to one player. 

So, let's just concentrate on those six, true, 16-year-old, 2005 born rookies and what they did this weekend, with Seattle once again missing so many veteran regulars.  Combined they contributed five points (2g, 3a), a game winning goal, two first WHL career goals, a plus-6 rating and were 1-0 in net with a 2.00 GAA and .939 save percentage. Shorthanded, trying to stay in the chase for third place in the Western Conference, Seattle needed those six players to be solid, if not good, and they were.  

Getting Tyrel Bauer back for the final two and a half weeks of the regular season is a huge bonus.  Players who normally suffer the type of injury he did are usually given a five-to-six-month timeline for recovery.  Under that scenario, Bauer's season should have been over. That just didn't sit well with the captain.  He was determined to make it back and he did it in three and a half months.  I saw some of the grueling work he put in to make it happen. You have to be laser focused and he was.  For the T-birds it's like getting a big trade deadline acquisition without having to trade away any assets.  

Now Mekai Sanders will have to go through the same thing.  It's too bad, because he was having a great season.  He was a big piece to the team's sucess, and he will be missed in the lineup.  But he has a blueprint laid out by Bauer on what he has to do to get back.

My T-bird Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: D Sam Knazko: He only played in two of the three games, but Knazko's play in the two wins over Vancouver stood out.  He had a goal, two assists and was a plus-2.  He's gets the most out of his physical play.  He knows how to position himself along the boards to win puck battles. At the offensive end he's patient, never reckless. Just a very confident player right now.

Second Star: C/W Jared Davidson. Came off the injury list and promptly scored in every game over the weekend. Four goals, two assists and a plus-2 rating.  To win consistently, Seattle needs to get healthy, and they need their scoring leader scoring.  Davidson just picked up where he left off and that's good news for the T-birds.  

First Star: W Lukas Svejkovsky.  There weren't a lot of deals at the WHL trade deadline this season, but Seattle's acquisition of Svejkovsky was one of the best.  The T-birds acquired him officially on December 27th, but he had a bout with Covid and didn't make his T-birds debut until a few weeks later. In 29-games as a Thunderbirds he has 39-points (17g, 22a). Six of his goals are game winners.  This past weekend he earned eight points (5g, 3a) in three games.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Wounded, Not Dead

I was going to say that I learned something about this T-birds team this weekend, even in defeat.  But in actuality, I just had something about this team confirmed, something I already knew.  This team is deep, and it is talented from top to bottom.  Even with seven of their best players on the shelf, they had enough talent to compete in every game. There are no moral victories but sometimes in losing, your true character is revealed and Seattle revealed their heart.  

They went toe-to-toe with one of the better teams in the league for two nights.  Did they come up short? Yes, but not for lack of trying.  That's the one thing about youthful talent at this level, they're green and haven't physically finished maturing.  So, against older, more experienced players, they might not win every battle, but they'll try. 

As I stated last week, the majority of the T-birds players on the sidelines are their older players and they don't have a lot of those to begin with. For two of the three games they were left with one twenty year old in Lukas Svejkovsky and two 19 year olds in defensemen Sam Knazko and Chase Lacombe. Sunday they got 19 year old Matt Rempe back into the lineup, but only after they had lost another player to injury. Every other player on the lineup sheet was 18 year old or younger, including six 17 year olds, by the time Sunday rolled around.

And yet, here they were right in the thick of it going into the third period Saturday and Sunday. They stuck around despite over 200 points of offense sitting up in the stands watching both games.  Their leading scorer, Jared Davidson? Out.  Their fourth leading scorer and newly signed NHL prospect Henrik Rybinski? Hasn't played since February.  Their captain, and top pairing defenseman Ty Bauer? hasn't seen the ice since early December.  Lucas Ciona? Busted hand. Ryan Gottfried? Busted foot.  No Gabe Ludwig and no Mekai Sanders.  

Portland? They were without Dawson Pasternak who is lost for the season to a lower body injury.  He had 14 points in 34 games before the injury. A loss for them yes, but fourteen points is not 200 points. The trade deadline has come and gone. they will not be adding players to their current group.  The Winterhawks team we saw Saturday and Sunday?  That's their team going forward. That's their playoff roster. It's formidable.  they'll be a tough out in the postseason, especially with Taylor Gauthier in net.

But Seattle?  Knock on wood, but they'll hopefully be plugging back into their lineup those 200-plus points. They'll get back their leading scorer Davidson and their fourth leading scorer Rybinski. They are on track to see Bauer, their captain return. Ciona's hand and Gottfried's foot should heal up. Fingers crossed that Ludwig and Sanders can get back too. 

Last week I wrote about some of the similarities between this T-birds team and the one that won the 2017 WHL Championship.  After Sunday's game down in Portland, T-birds head coach Matt O'Dette talked about the similarities as well. 

"Obviously there are similarities to our championship team. Many different things happened that year, long term injuries and illness just like this year, that when we were in the thick of things in the playoffs, we had experienced it all by then. We'll take these experiences, grow from them and it will help us down the line, just like it did back then,"

My T-birds Three Stars for the last week (four games, 2-2):

Third Stars: Goalies Scott Ratzlaff and Thomas Milic.  Ratzlaff got two starts and earned wins in both, beating Tri-City Tuesday and Friday. he was especially sharp in the first period Friday in Kennewick, turning aside 12 shots, including a number of Grade A scoring chances.  Milic took both losses over the weekend against Portland but he gave his team every chance to get something out of both games.  Seattle just couldn't find the offense to support him. Again, Seattle has one of the youngest goaltending tandems in the league but they don't play like it.

Second Star:  D Sam Knazko.  With Ryan Gottfried unable to go versus Portland Saturday and Sunday, Knazko ate up big minutes on the blue line.  He helped control the game by controlling the puck.  he played physical at both ends. He continues to show why he was a third-round pick by the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets and why the Blue Jackets wasted little time in signing him to his entry level contract. 

First Star: C Jordan Gustafson. A goal and two assists in the four games, but he was so much more than his point totals.  With Seattle playing most of the week with three of their best centers unavailable, he stepped right up.  He was at nearly 50-percent in the faceoff circle (26/58).  He was tenacious all over the ice but especially along the boards.  Now he gets to put his skill on display for the NHL scouts as this week's Top Prospects game in Kitchener, Ontario.