First period Seattle Thunderbirds Saturday versus Portland; very good. But like a magic act, they disappeared over the final forty minutes. So, what happened? Simply put, they got away from playing Thunderbirds hockey.
If you look at the season series against the Winterhawks, Seatle's two wins and the third period of their shootout loss, looked very much like the first period Saturday. Seattle spent the majority of the period in the offensive zone, they were strong on the forecheck and were able to cycle the puck. They trapped Portland in their end of the ice, negating their ability to make stretch passes behind the Thunderbirds defense. They held Portland to just four shots because they wouldn't let them get up ice. That style of play went MIA over the last two period.
It's just the opposite in Seattle's losses to Portland this season. Instead of playing to their identity, they get caught up in playing the Winterhawks style, trying to get into a run and gun track meet. It's what led Portland to getting seven power plays back in early November. Look, the Winterhawks practice that style of play all week. It's their system and they're good at it. Conversely, the T-Birds don't practice that all week. They practice their system. It's what they're good at doing.
So, the big question is why did Seattle, after such a good first period Saturday, get away from what they do best? I think because flying up and down the ice, looking for that home run play, is enticing. But you can't play both ways at the same time. Gotta pick one and best to pick the one you know.
Once Portland got the lead, they made it hard for the T-Birds to get back to their style of play. The Winterhawks did a good job of making Seattle play a 200 foot game. They slowed Seattle down in the neutral zone. Portland wasn't necessarily looking for more offense. They were willing to wait for opportunities as Seattle got more desparate.
But the second period was the difference. Had Seattle come out and played to their identity, had they repeated the first period game plan, they would have had a better chance of winning. They need to stick to Thunderbirds hockey.
Seattle also thought they had scored a power play goal early in the third period. At first blush, it looked like the call on the ice of interference with the goalie, was the right call. Watching the replay though, I think that a case can be made that the puck was going in before contact was initiated. The goalie had a chance to make a play on the puck before any contact but didn't. It was sliding on a straight line between his pads and heading to the back of the net, even before the net was dislodged. The contact with the netminder didn't affect that path of the puck, which was basically behind him by that time.
Unfortunately the call on the ice was interference with the goalie and that is not a reviewable play in the WHL. It's a bang-bang play and hard to find fault with the decision of the referee in real time. The overhead camera captured the play clearly. Maybe if it was reviewable, the replay judge still sides with the call on the ice and calls it no goal, but why not use the replay to confirm? As the availability of technology advances in the WHL, maybe that's something the league can change in the near future.
I think the weekend schedule caught up to the Thunderbirds in the third period. Especially because they were down two goals. Situations like this weekend happen often for all teams in the WHL. The T-Birds were in Spokane Friday night. After the game they loaded the bus and headed west, arriving back in Kent at around four in the morning. You unload the bus then head home to your billets. By the time your head hits the pillow, it's 5 a.m or later and you're about four to five hours from hours having to wake up, refuel and be back at the rink for a 6 p.m. start.
Meanwhile your opponent played at home the night before, got home to their beds at a reasonable hour and while you're unpacking that bus, they're resting comfortably. Then a short two hour bus ride up I-5 for the game. Had Seattle not had such a disappointing second period, it might not have mattered. Had they been tied or ahead going into the third, even down just a goal, they might have had an energy boost from the crowd. But down two goals, you could see the affects of the late night bus ride and the Winterhawks did a good job of making Seattle have to use the entire ice, forcing Seattle to use up their fuel reserves.
But that only happens in the regular season. The schedule is what it is. You have to get in 68 games and sometimes there will be disadavantages for one team. Every team will experience it. Both Seattle and Portland went through it on their eastern road trips earlier in the month. The good news is that doesn't occur in the postseason. The travel in a playoff series is the same for both teams.
While Portland's team was completely whole, the Thunderbirds were also down one full line of forwards. Not just any one line either. They were missing three highly drafted NHL prospects; a first rounder (Brad Lambert), a second rounder (Colton Dach) and a third rounder (Jordan Gustafson). That threesome would constitute a top line for most of the 22 teams in the WHL.
Dach has averaged over a point a game in his WHL career.In just two games in the WHL Lambert has two poits (1g,1a) and Gustafson was just under a point a game this season (.92) before he was injured in a game in Saskatoon two weeks ago. That's over three points a game out of the lineup for Seattle. Even with that threesome missing, it was a winnable game for Seattle.
Seattle could basically keep their top three lines from the weekend intact, and insert Dach, Gustafson and Lambert into the game and play them together. They could be the first line, second line or third line. That's scary to think about.
A few breaks didn't go Seattle's way. They hit iron on a few shots. A player losing an edge leads to a breakaway and goal against in the first period, at a time the Thunderbirds are in control of the game. Again, they just gotta stick to their formula!
Seattle did earn the win Friday in Spokane with a league leading 17th road win. And while Portland will host Spokane Sunday, and odds are win that game and build a three point lead over Seattle in standings by the time the T-Birds hit the ice again Tuesday, Seattle will have two games in hand.
My T-Birds Three Stars for the Weekend:
Third Star: D Nolan Allan. Goals in back to back games. His bread and butter is to be a strong, stay-at-hme defenseman, but he has shown the ability to jump up and provide offense as well. He has three goals since returning from the World Juniors.
Second Star: Lucas Ciona. He had a four point night in Spokane with a goal and three assists. No puck luck Saturday versus Portland on two shorthanded breakaways, hitting the iron in the first period and just missing five hole int he second. But it shows he was a very effective penalty killer against the league's #2 power play.
First Star: Gracyn Sawchyn. It seems every game a little bit more of his talent and skillset get revealed. he got hooked to the ice Friday in Spokane but, falling down he was still able to get off a backhand shot for a goal. He then followed up with a goal and an assist Saturday. The weekend effort came after a terrific showing at the Top Prospects Game in Langley. A darkhorse to jump into the first round of the NHL Draft this summer, but don't be surprised if he does it.