Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ode to the Ward-dog

I remember Evan Wardley's "first game" with the Thunderbirds. It was his only game of the 2010-11 season. I don't think he got one shift in that game. I think he got more air time then ice time that night as I interviewed him before the game for that night's radio broadcast. It was December 31st. The Thunderbirds, as they usually are, were down in Portland for the New Year's Eve matchup at what was then still called the Rose Garden. Seattle dressed seven defensemen that night; Bobbee, Ramsay, Bonsor, Dillon, Sutter and Baecker. The then 16 year Wardley was one of them too, but spent the game parked on the bench. The T-birds won the game when Luke Lockhart broke a 3-3 tie with just three and a half minutes left in the third period. Final score; Seattle 4, Portland 3. After the game Wardley returned to his midget team back in Alberta. It was as if he was never there.

So that was Wardley's inauspicious WHL debut. His name on the scoresheet and a great seat on the bench watching Seattle beat their fiercest rival. And this past weekend, Wardley's WHL and Thunderbirds career came full circle as he was on the bench when the Winterhawks Nic Petan scored late in overtime Tuesday to end the T-birds season in Round One of the playoffs. In between those two games Wardley became a fan favorite at the ShoWare Center in Kent and public enemy number one in many of the other venues the T-birds visited over the course of his four year WHL career.

The Vulcan, Alberta native was a 6th round selection by the T-birds in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, 122nd overall. He was taken one pick after Lethbridge chose Russell Maxwell, the same Maxwell who would spend the second half of the 2014-15 season as Wardley's teammate after Seattle acquired him from the Hurricanes at the trade deadline. He was drafted four spots ahead of Cole Wedman who went to Spokane. Wedman is the older brother of Matthew Wedman, a T-birds prospect who spent a week late this season practicing with Wardley and the T-birds. Hockey...there is always a connection, it seems, to everyone who plays the game.

In his career with the Thunderbirds Wardley earned a reputation for straddling the line with his physical play. Some of it was warranted, most of it was not. And while fans with other teams showed their disdain for his on-the-edge physical game, he is the kind of player you'd want on your team protecting your best assets. You want him on that wall, you need him on that wall.

Let me relate to you a story from early this season. Seattle was on their eastern swing. Wardley had just been suspended for the second time on the year for a checking-from-behind major in a loss in Saskatoon. It was a pretty run-of-the-mill hit but this was a case where Wardley's reputation probably got the better of him. But it meant Seattle would have to make due without their big, rugged defenseman for the rest of the road trip. Without him in the lineup, they went 1-4 the rest of the way.

On an off day, the team stopped in Grenfell, Saskatchewan to practice. There were a lot of onlookers at that practice. A good chunk of the town of Grenfell showed up. So did a good number of player's parents, especially those players from Saskatchewan who were following the team on their journey, among them a great many parents of Seattle's plethora of rookies. I engaged in a conversation with one of the dads and the subject of Wardley and his importance to this young team came up and he told me of an incident earlier that year that reinforced Wardley's role on a team with so many first year forwards.

He said his son was on the ice. It was one of his first shifts in the WHL. The teams were lining up for a face-off. As his son readied for the drop of the puck, an older player on the opposing team sidled up to him. According to his son this older player tried to intimidate him, telling him how hard he was going to hit him and he better prepare to get knocked around by him all night, that he was ready to inflict pain.

Before the puck is dropped though, he hears another voice...a familiar voice. Wardley has skated in behind the young Seattle player and the older opposing player. He's heard the one-sided conversation going on and Wardley feels it necessary to interject himself into the dialogue. "Just remember", Wardley tells this opposing player, "you hit him, I hit you harder".

As the dad is telling me this story I can see the wide eyed look on his son's face and the accompanying big smile. "Dad", he says, "that guy never touched me once the rest of the game!" I know there was a lot of debate about whether to keep Wardley on this team as a 20 year old, what with his penchant for penalties that could lead to suspensions, but that story is the best illustration of why keeping him was the right decision. You want him on that wall. You need him on that wall.

Wardley saved his best for last. His finest season as a T-bird was this last one, finishing with 22 points (6g,16a) and +7. But he also played his best when it mattered the most. In 22 playoff games over three seasons with Seattle, he registered six points (2g, 4a) and was +5. His game winning overtime goal in Game Three of the 2013 first round playoff series against Kelowna is probably the most electrifying moment in the five year history of the ShoWare Center.

Wardley got a long look at camp with the Montreal Canadians this past fall. Let's hope he's still on their radar. We certainly wish him the best going forward in his career. There's always room in this game for players like that who put their team and teammates first. There is always room on that wall for Evan Wardley.



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An End, or Just a Beginning?

I commiserated along with the rest of you over the Thunderbirds Game Six and series loss for about an hour. Then I started to think about the game and the playoff series Scott Eansor just had and realized how fortunate I was to witness that effort. Then I realized I get to see that over the next two seasons. True definition of a gamer as he raised his level of play. Hard not to let that bring a smile to your face. That smile turned to an ear to ear grin when I stepped back and understood just how well this young team played. Not just in this series, but all season. You can't fault the effort or the passion they play with, no matter the final result.

In sports the word chemistry has been thrown around like a used penny so much it has become a bad cliché. Almost every team says they have it. Those that don't say it's over emphasized. Maybe chemistry is the wrong word. All I know is there is a thread that runs thought this team, from player to player, that puts them all on the same page. They're sympatico. The dictionary defines that as getting along and having mutual understanding with another. That's what I've seen all season long with this group and I don't expect it to change any time soon.

I will admit there have been times over the past 15 seasons that coming to the rink was more chore and less passion for me. That was never the case this season; not with this group. I was excited to get to the arena every night and watch this team grow, amazed at how fast so many rookies raised their game to the next level. I could lose three fingers on my right hand in a meat grinder accident and still use the fingers left over to count the number of times this team didn't give 60 minutes of effort.

Is it tough to lose a series you had equal opportunity to win? Sure it is. I'm sure as a player you go back and over-analyze your performance and nitpick at your mistakes or opportunities missed. It's probably much easier to digest if you had been swept in four. The hope is you learn from the experience moving forward.

Seattle overcame a first half without Shea Theodore. they overcame an injury that cost them the services of Matt Barzal for three months. They weathered through as Alexander True was knocked out for two months of the second half of the season with an arm injury. They overcame the loss of their captain, Justin Hickman, to season ending surgery. they made it through all that yet, in the end, I think they suffered one long term injury too many.

How significant was the loss of Keegan Kolesar? Kolesar missed the final month after being knocked out of action with an arm injury back on March 3rd in a game in Victoria. He was, essentially, a 20 goal scorer unavailable in the postseason for a team that didn't have the most prolific offense. But he was more then that. Kolesar is strong at both ends of the ice. He's a physical presence and a key part of the penalty kill. Would he have made that much of a difference in this series? We'll never know. Maybe with him Seattle at the least gets this series to Game Seven. You have to figure he was worth another goal or two for Seattle and maybe a goal or two less for Portland. That might translate to one more T-birds win.

In this series, Seattle, with one NHL draft pick, faced a Portland team with seven. Yet they battled down to the very end. In my opinion, the most talented player on the ice in the series was Theodore. The T-birds defenseman was a first round NHL draft pick for a reason. He logged a ton of ice time. In past years you could count on him for his offensive prowess. This season he raised his defensive game to a new level and became a more complete player. that showed against Portland. I think he's the most talented player to put on a Thunderbirds jersey in the last 15 years. I say that only because I think he has a higher ceiling then former Seattle defenseman Thomas Hickey. Of course over the next two seasons, Matt Barzal could surpass them both.

Just saw the final Central Scouting Service rankings for the 2015 NHL draft. There are four T-birds on the list, led by Barzal. No Alexander True in those rankings so it appears his injury cost him a spot on that list. But if I'm an NHL team, just based on his playoffs, I take a flyer on him. Although, if I'm honest, there are three things I have a hard time believing in as I get older; Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and CSS draft rankings. They are a nice guide for fans but NHL teams and their scouts will have a better idea of players standings then CSS. The teams spend a lot more time watching these players up close and personal.





Monday, March 30, 2015

Looks Like Another Classic Series Unfolding

Last week before this first round playoff series began I wrote about how the last two times these teams met in the postseason, each series went the seven game distance. After Games 1 and 2 this time around it looks to be shaping up to follow a similar path. You never know how a series will twist and turn but it is hard to see this one being over quickly for either team and after the weekend we know there will at least be a Game 5.

So far we've had, essentially, what amounts to two 1-goal games. Seattle grabbed Game 1, 4-3 and Portland responded with a win in Game 2 winning 3-0 with their last two goals into an empty net after Seattle pulled their goalie, trailing 1-0. Before those two empty netters, the two sides had played 118 minutes of playoff hockey and were basically even on the scoreboard at 4-4. As a result we're even in the series at one game apiece.

If Seattle can hang their hat on a couple of things it would be 1). they got the split on the road and wrested home ice advantage away. It has now been reduced to a best-of-five series with three of those five games at the ShoWare Center, including the next two. So all the T-bird have to do is win their home games to advance. Easy, right? Just so you know, that's called sarcasm. If the first two games have shown us anything, it is that nothing in this series will come easy.

2). Without the ability to line match consistently on the road, Seattle has still done a terrific job defensively on Portland's top line. In fact the Winterhawks high scoring line, of Oliver Bjorkstrand, Nic Petan and Paul Bittner, has not scored a goal against Taran Kozun in the series yet while on the ice together. When Petan scored his goal in the first period of Game 2, he was on the ice with Miles Koules and Skyler McKenzie. Bjorkstrand's goal late Sunday was into an empty net as Kozun was on the bench for the extra attacker. It will be interesting to see if the T-birds can continue to hold them at bay at home where they will have last change.

I think we really need to appreciate what that Seattle line of 16 year old rookie Nolan Volcan, 17 year old rookie Donovan Neuls and 18 year old second year player Scott Eansor are doing against that Portland trio; considered the best scoring line in the WHL this season. That Winterhawks line consists of two signed NHL draft picks, including one who led the WHL with 63 goals this season, and a projected first round pick for this spring's NHL Entry Draft. Not sure how many coaches would have the, shall we say cajones, to consistently put such a young line out against such a high scoring threesome.

Certainly the Thunderbirds six defenseman have a key role in this effort as well, but don't overlook the other T-birds forwards who have contributed to this solid defensive effort, particularly Alexander True. Getting the lanky Danish center back from a two month layoff due to injury could be the key to Seattle's playoff success.

There is very little to find fault with in the way Seattle played the first two games. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk asks his team to give effort and that's what they've done. They've played hard for 60-minutes each game. As he says, you can't always control the results, but you can control your effort and that effort has been top notch.

The one thing Seattle will need to do better? Finish scoring chances. That's true of both games by the way. Even in their Game 1 win Seattle missed opportunities to score more then four goals, but especially in Game 2 where they had multiple opportunities to find the tying goal. In the first game I thought it was a lack of actual finish. They put pucks right in the chest of Portland goalie Aiden Hill and also hit a couple of posts. In Game 2 I thought the T-birds overpassed the puck, getting a little cute looking for the perfect shot. It's not a lack of chances for Seattle offensively, it's a lack of finish.

I don't know how it has been in the other first round playoff series but so far in this series I've been impressed with the officiating. Look, no one is perfect and there might be a missed call or two but through two games two separate teams of officials have let these players play. When the officials are nearly invisible on the ice and secondary to the action, that's a good thing. Of course, something could happen in Game 3 and I could be singing a different tune come Wednesday but so far WHL Director of Officiating Kevin Muench has to be pleased.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: The forwards

2nd Star: The defenseman

1st star: The goaltending

It was that kind of weekend. Everyone contributed. Great effort all around. Seven Thunderbirds rookies made their playoff debuts this past weekend. All played major minutes and all looked like seasoned veterans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lucky Number Seven

While it has been nine years, there is some compelling playoff history between the Thunderbirds and Portland Winterhawks from the new millenium. Twice since 2001 the teams have battled in the postseason and each time the series went the full compliment of seven games and each time, the lower seeded team prevailed meaning the Game 7 winner was the road team.

In each situation it was a first round playoff matchup. Back in the spring of 2002, my first season with the team, they met in the postseason. Portland, which had captured the U.S. Division that season with a record of 36-25-5-6, and dominated the regular season series between the two rivals, was the prohibitive favorite. In fact, with only nine teams in the conference at that time, Seattle made the playoffs that year, with a record 19 games below .500 (21-40-6-5), only because the expansion Vancouver Giants were just marginally worse.

This was also back when the first round of the playoffs were similar to this season, and stayed within the division. So despite having the worst record of all playoff qualifiers from the Western Conference, the T-birds didn't face Kamloops,the conference #1 seed in round one, but rather the U.S. Division #1 seed, which happened to be Portland. An interesting tidbit from that season that may have helped Seattle. They were the only U.S. Division team to enter the playoffs off a win. The other three teams, Portland, Spokane and Tri-City lost their final regular season game while the T-birds were riding a modest two game winning streak which started with a 5-4 overtime victory over the 'Hawks.

The playoff series started out as though it would follow the the proper script, with the heavily favored Winterhawks taking the first game down at the Rose Garden, 4-3. The series took an unexpected turn though in Game 2 when Seattle's Brooks Laich scored an unassisted power play goal late in the 2nd period to break a 2-2 tie. The T-birds would add three more in the third, including two from Greg Black, to earn a 6-2 win and even the series at 1-1.

Seattle carried the momentum from that win into Game 3 at KeyArena. Once again Laich provided the game winner, scoring with just three and a half minutes left in the game to secure a 3-2 T-birds victory and forge a 2-1 series lead. But the T-birds couldn't hold onto home ice advantage as Portland came back to the Key two nights later and earned their own 3-2 win when Josh Olson scored midway through the final frame to break another 2-2 tie.

The series shifted back to Portland for Game 5. Seattle got an early goal from Jake Riddle but Portland peppered the Seattle net with 45 shots. T-birds goalie Nick Pannoni stood tall though and earned the shutout in the 1-0 win, putting Seattle one win from a big playoff upset, and knowing Game 6 would be back on home ice the next night. Instead of celebrating a series win back home though, the T-birds could muster little in the way of offense, creating only 20 shots on goal. Winterhawks netminder Lanny Ramage stopped them all and, led by two more Josh Hanson goals, Portland forced a decisive 7th game back down in the Rose City with a 4-0 victory to even the series at 3-3.

Game 7 was, like the series, a back and forth affair. The Winterhawks struck first, a John Togiai goal at 13:13 of the first. Seattle scored twice in the second, courtesy of Laich and Tyler Metcalfe, and headed into the second intermission up by a goal. The lead held up until 14:29 of the third period when Portland tied it on a Craig Vallette goal. 17-seconds after the Vallette goal though, Winterhawk Brad Priestlay took a slashing minor that put Seattle on the power play. One minute into the power play the T-birds scored to regain the lead on a Trevor Johnson blast.

That Johnson goal turned out to be the game winner but the final few minutes of the contest were not without their drama as Seattle's Eric Benke was assessed a holding minor at 17:29. So Seattle spent a good chunk of the last two minutes of the game shorthanded. Once again Pannoni was one of the heroes for the T-birds making 48 saves as Seattle was outshot on the night 50-31.

So Seattle pulled off the big upset but it would be their last hurrah that season. They were swept in the second round by the eventual WHL Champion Kootenay Ice (yes Kootenay was in the Western Conference back then). The Thunderbirds did use it as a springboard into the next season though, going 44-22-3-3, capturing the U.S. Division title and made it to the Western Conference Finals where they fell to Kelowna.

The two rivals would not meet again in the postseason until the spring of 2006. This time around Seattle had home ice advantage after finishing four points ahead of the Winterhawks in the U.S. Division. Seattle finished second to Everett that year but their 35-31-1-5 record was just marginally better then Portland which finished with a 32-32-3-5 mark. the series started off at KeyArena with fireworks as Seattle beat Portland in Game 1, 8-5. The T-birds actually trailed 5-3 midway through the second period before potting the game's last five goals. Chris Durand had a hat trick and Bud Holloway added two of his own in the win.

Game 2 at the Key the following night was the complete opposite. Durand took a high sticking penalty 52-seconds into the game, Kyle Bailey scored a power play goal for Portland twenty seconds later and that was it in a 1-0 Portland win. The Winterhawks left Seattle with a split of the first two game thanks to Kurtis Mucha's 18 save shutout.

The T-birds were able to return the favor down in Portland. After dropping Game 3, 2-1, to the Winterhawks on a pair of Brian Woolger third period goals, Seattle came back to win Game 4, 6-3, thanks to two goals each from Durand and Tyler Johnson. The series shifted back to KeyArena for Game 5 but a Brandon Dubinsky hat trick earned Portland the 3-2 win and a chance to close out the series at home in Game 6 at the Rose Garden. Once again though, the road team prevailed. Aaron Gagnon scored the game winner midway through the second period, Ryan Gibbons chipped in with two assist and Bryan Bridges turned aside 36 shot in a 5-2 T-birds win that sent the series back to Seattle for a deciding Game 7.

That 7th and deciding game started out like it would be a runaway win for Seattle and smooth sailing into the second round. The T-birds got off to a three goal lead thanks to Gagnon, who scored thrice, completing the natural hat trick with a shorthanded goal at 14:48 of the first period. The complexion of the game changed though, early in the second period. No-touch icing had not yet made its way to the WHL and on a race for a puck the Winterhawks Bailey, flying down the ice at full speed, slammed his skate blade into the bottom of the end boards where it got caught resulting in a horrific leg injury. It also created a long delay while medical staff tended to Bailey and took all necessary precautions to stretcher him off the ice.

The boisterous crowd at KeyArena fell silent and when play resumed the T-birds were flat. They couldn't recapture the momentum they had through the first 25 minutes of the game. Seattle wasted two second period power play chances. Then they took three penalties of their own. The Winterhawks took advantage, scoring twice with the man advantage with Dubinsky scoring one and assisting on the other. The second of those two was scored with just 22 seconds left in the second period to cut the 'Birds lead to 3-2. Once again in the third period Seattle's power play failed them and shortly after they couldn't convert on the man advantage Portland's Jannik Hanson would pot the tying goal at the 14 minute mark.

The game ended up going to overtime and halfway through the first extra period, on the only shot of overtime, Jonathan Bubnick ended it giving the 'Hawks the win and the series. Like Seattle back in 2002, that would be Portland's last hurrah. Vancouver, who would go on to win the league title, eliminated them in the second round, winning that series in five games. In fact it would be another four years before Portland would taste the playoffs again.

So two playoff series between these two longtime rivals over the past 14 seasons and each went seven games with the underdog winning both times. What does 2015 have in store? More of the same?


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Playoffs! We're Talkin' Playoffs!

While it is certainly no indicator of how things will unfold in the playoffs, Seattle enters the postseason playing some of their best hockey. The T-birds, playing four games in five nights the final week with a long road trek in the middle, won all four and completed the month of March portion of the regular season schedule with a record of 7-2-0-1.

What I particularly like about the final week was the players mind set did not change after they had wrapped up their final position in the standings. For the past two weeks the T-birds have essentially been locked into third place in the U.S. Division. There was no chance to climb up or fall down from that spot. They could have just gone through the motions the final week, since essentially there was nothing at stake other then finishing fourth overall in the Western Conference standings. Instead they played the right way, treating each contest as if it mattered.

And truthfully, in three of those four games there was something on the line for the opponent. Tuesday they faced a Tri-City team trying to cling on to the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Wednesday up in Kelowna the Rockets were still in a race with Brandon for the Scotty Munro trophy and last night the Winterhawks needed a win, or at least a point, if they were to catch Everett for first place in the U.S. Division. Seattle wasn't going to roll over and give those teams what they needed. They played their best. Only versus Spokane Friday night was there nothing on the line and yet it may have been the T-birds best effort of the four wins.

Anyone else notice that with Alexander True back in the lineup Seattle went 4-0? The big, lanky Danish center gives them another option on the penalty kill, another player who can win face offs, someone willing to go to the net and foremost, his return just increases the team's depth. It's just too bad the team won't get Keegan Kolesar back anytime soon from his arm injury. This means the Thunderbirds played their entire 72 game regular season and will go into the postseason without ever having a completely, 100 percent, healthy roster.

And while the focus is on the here and now the Thunderbirds used back up goalie, and future number one netminder, Logan Flodell in goal versus their two toughest opponents this week (Kelowna and Portland) and all he did was go 2-0 with a goals against average just slightly under 2.50 while stopping 55 of 60 shots in 123 minutes of work. As a result Flodell finished the regular season with a 3-2-0-1 record a 2.75 GAA and a .907 save percentage.

Maybe the most encouraging sign from the last week of the regular season was the offensive production. Prior to this past week, Seattle had scored 195 goals in 68 games, a 2.87 average per game. In the four wins this past week they scored 23 times. or 5.75 goals per game. And while a good chunk of that goal production came from their top line, they got solid offensive contributions up and down the lineup. Just harken back to Tuesday's 7-3 win over Tri-City when Scott Eansor had his hat trick. Let's not forget 16 year old rookie Nolan Volcan who chipped in this past week with a goal and four assists. That increase in goal production didn't come at the expense of team defense either. The T-birds still limited their opponents to just 10 goals in the four games.

So, now it is on to the playoffs and a first round match up with long time rival Portland. It's been awhile since these two teams met in the postseason. To bring home that point, the last playoff game between these two sides was played at KeyArena nine years ago. When they have gotten together in postseason play, they've been intense series. In fact the last two times they met in the playoffs the series went the full seven games with the lower seed winning each time.

The T-bird fared well this season against the Winterhawks going 7-4-1-0. Of course that means nothing now. Everyone starts the playoffs 0-0. The Thunderbirds have to play each playoff game the way they played the last week of the regular season. They need to make every shift count. They have to eliminate the casual moments and they have to get contributions from all 20 players dressed each night. Let the second season begin!

Every year after the final horn of the final home game the players gather on the ice for the end of season awards presentation. There were no real surprises with Taran Kozun getting top honors as the team's 2014-15 MVP and record setter Shea Theodore as the team's Defenseman of the Year. Evan Wardley was recognized for his work in the local community, especially the anti-bullying campaign at local elementary schools, with the Humanitarian of the Year award. The toughest call might have been Rookie of the Year on a team with 10 first year players but it's hard to quarrel with the selection of Donovan Neuls, who I'm sure just edged out Nolan Volcan for that honor. Neuls took home two honors as his teammates voted him the Most Dedicated Player this season.

One honor the team doesn't hand out but one I will, is Most Unsung Player. I just want some way to recognize the play of defenseman Jerret Smith. First of all, Snith was an iron man; just one of two players to suit up and play in all 72 games (Scott Eansor was the other). When Theodore was absent from the lineup most of the first half of the season, Smith was the one constant, steady rock back on the Seattle blue line. He logged a mountain of ice time yet was only assessed 25 minutes in penalties. He shattered his previous high in points by producing 11 goals and 27 assists and finishing the season at +11. With so many scouts at Seattle games this season I would not be surprised to see him get an invite to an NHL camp next fall with a chance to earn a professional contract. If he is back next season, I could definitely see a "C" on his jersey.


Three Stars for this past week:

Honarable Mentions: The line of Eansor-Volcan-Spencer. They've been quite the revelation this past week. A shutdown line that can also produce plenty of offense.

Third Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Not only did he win his two starts, besting the Western Conference's #1 and #3 seeds in the process, but more importantly saved a little wear and tear on Taran Kozun going into the playoffs as Kozun got a couple of nights off.

Second Star: Matt Barzal. The second year center from Coquitlam, B.C. may still not be 100 percent from that knee injury but 95 percent of Barzal is better then 100 percent of a lot of players in this league. He's hitting his stride at the right time of the season, just as the playoffs arrive. After missing half the season due to that injury still almost came back to win the team's scoring title. On pace for a 93 point season had he never been hurt, although I think he would have easily topped 100.

First Star: Ryan Gropp. The biggest beneficiary of Barzal's play this week was Gropp. Like Barzal, the Kamloops, B.C. native is playing his best hockey at the right time. He finishes the regular season as the team's top point producer (58) and goal scorer (30). It didn't seem possible he would reach the 30 goal plateau but he notched six in the final two games to reach that milestone. He showed his good hands with a few of those goals too.

Monday, March 16, 2015

No Sprint to the Finish

The Thunderbirds have played 35 games over the past 80 days. That's a lot of hockey the second half of the season and they're not done. Seattle will finish the regular season with a flurry, playing four games in five nights beginning Tuesday when they host Tri-City at the ShoWare Center.

And the T-birds aren't just playing out the string either. All four games could have ramifications for the upcoming playoffs. Tri-City for instance is in a dogfight with Kamloops and Prince George for the Western Conference's final playoff spot, the second wild card, and a date with Kelowna in the postseason's first round. The Americans have been an injury laden team the second half but have gotten their starting goaltending tandem back and that and their defense are the strength of their team.

Speaking of Kelowna, that's where the Thunderbirds will be Wednesday night to face a Rockets team that is embroiled in a battle with Brandon for the Scotty Munro Trophy and the best regular season record in the WHL. Currently Kelowna is two points back of the Wheat Kings and both teams have three games remaining. At stake is home ice advantage throughout the entire postseason.

Friday the T-birds find themselves in Spokane to take on the Chiefs. Seattle currently is five points up on Spokane for third place in the U.S. Division. The 'Birds enter the week in the driver's seat but Friday's game could very well decide which team faces Everett and which one will face Portland in the first round.

Finally, Seattle returns home Saturday to close out the regular season with a final regular season battle with Portland. The Winterhawks are neck-and-neck with Everett for first place in the U.S. Division and may need to beat the T-birds to grab the top spot. Everett, meanwhile, will finish the season Sunday in Spokane, so it could be until Sunday night before the T-birds know their first round playoff opponent. Seattle knows they're going to go up against either Everett or Portland in round one. If the Thunderbirds hold on to third place in the division race, they'll face the second place finisher. Should Seattle falter and drop to fourth place, they'd take on the U.S. Division winner in round one. No matter the opponent, the 'Birds will begin the playoffs on the road, either the following Friday in Everett (March 27th) or Saturday (March 28th) in Portland.

Seattle is coming off a weekend in which they split a pair with the Silvertips, with the home team winning each night. As a result, the two division rivals split the ten game series with each winning five games. Seattle pretty much got the result they deserved in each of those games. The Thunderbirds put out a more complete effort Friday at home in earning the 3-2 shootout win. Saturday up in Everett they didn't match the intensity of their opponent, ran into too much penalty trouble and failed to capitalize on the few scoring chances they had in a 3-1 loss.

The one thing that frustrated me about the loss Saturday night was wasting one of your goaltender's best efforts of the season. Taran Kozun was terrific, especially in making 19 saves in the first period as he did his best to give his team every chance to stay in that game. Of course I'm biased but I don't see any other goalie in the league who has been as impactful on his team's success as Kozun has been for the T-birds. No team that has qualified for the playoffs in the WHL has scored fewer goals so far this season then Seattle's 195. No team in the WHL currently with a winning record has scored less then 200 goals. The T-birds goal differential right now is just +4 yet they are nine games over .500. The Thunderbirds knew coming into the season they were going to have one of the youngest forward groups in the league which meant scoring would be at a premium. Seattle is a playoff team because of their defense and Kozun is out in front in that regard, leading the way. With so little offensive support, keeping the puck out the net was imperative for this team and with Kozun between the pipes most nights, Seattle has allowed the third fewest goals in the league.


My T-birds Three Stars for the Weekend:

Third Star: Roberts Lipsbergs. Two goals plus a shootout goal in the Friday night win.

Second Star: Scott Eansor: Once again key to shutting down the top scorers on the other team. Nikita Sherbak, Everett's top scorer and an NHL first round pick collected just one point, a secondary assist, in the two games.

First Star: Taran Kozun. In a U.S. Division and Western Conference rife with excellent goaltending, no one is doing it better then the Nipiwan, Saskatchewan native. When so many of Seattle's wins are decided by a single goal, he's been the difference between winning and losing.





Sunday, March 8, 2015

A March Toward the Playoffs

I'm not going to spend a great deal on the debacle that was the game down in Portland Friday night, but I was having flashbacks to 2012. That was without debate, Seattle's worst performance of the season. To see such a complete lack of compete was utterly out of the norm for this season's team. If you play hard and leave it all out on the ice and still lose, the result is at least palatable because you put in the effort. A good example of that was Monday's shootout loss in Victoria. Seattle played a solid 60-minutes that night and you could argue they deserved a better fate. Friday down at the Moda Center, the 7-1 loss was made doubly hard to watch because the effort was sorely lacking. So many casual moments both on and off the puck and there was no question the defeat was well-earned.

I will say it is kinda cool to be around as a little bit of history is being made. At first watching Oliver Bjorkstrand go off for four goals is a bit gut wrenching because he's doing it at the expense of your team, but it's not often you're going to witness a player, at this level or any other level of hockey, pot 50 goals in 50 games. That's a remarkable feat.

That made the Thunderbirds response Saturday at home against Kamloops all the more important. We're a week into the month of March, the playoffs are looming with just two weeks left in the regular season. The last thing you want is to take a nose dive down the stretch. So to see the team bounce back with a 3-1 win against a Blazers team that has given them trouble this season, was a good sign this team will keep its nose to the grind stone.

By no means was it a perfect win for the T-birds. They got put on their heels the second half of the second period and were probably fortunate to get to the second intermission tied at 1-1. I don't know if it was the T-birds relaxing their effort after scoring the game's first goal or if it was Kamloops using the momentum of the game's first power play to tilt the ice in their direction. Whatever the reason, Seattle spent most of the final half of that period caught in their own end. Fortunately they had Taran Kozun in goal to bail them out as he made 21 saves in the period, mostly over the period's final 13 minutes.

Outside of that stretch Seattle played a strong hockey game. They had a solid, if not spectacular first period. They started the second period well, leading to the game's first goal. And I thought they were the better team in the third, forcing the action that led to the game winning goal.

That goal by the way, for the moment at least, is credited to defenseman Jared Hauf. It was his third goal of the season and he seems to make the most of them. Two of his goals are game winners, the other was the Teddy Bear Toss goal. I'm guessing though, that there will be a review because it certainly looked like the puck hit someone in all the traffic in front of the Blazer net before going into the back of the net. Now, it could have been off a Kamloops player but from his reaction it may have been deflected in by Matt Barzal. Either way, it was a heads up play by Hauf to get the shot off with the goalie screened by a sea of players. Getting consistent traffic in front of the opposing goal has been an issue for Seattle this season but on the two most important goals Saturday, that's exactly what they did it's why they scored.

Here's a rarity. Seattle actually gets a few days off before resuming action with two games this coming weekend. The Thunderbirds just completed their third stretch the second half of the season in which they have played six games in nine nights. Throw in another string in which they played seven games in ten days and this has been a busy team since Christmas. Don't worry though, they get back to the "norm" when they finish the regular season with four games in five nights the last week.

This weekend's two games will go along way in determining Seattle's first round playoff opponent. The T-birds are going to finish no lower then seventh in the Western Conference, or the first wild card slot. If they drop to that spot they're going to play the winner of the U.S. Division, either Everett or Portland. If Seattle holds steady in third place in the U.S. Division, their first round playoff opponent will be the team that finishes second in the U.S., either Portland or Everett. So, in other words, Seattle will play either Everett or Portland in the first round.

Currently Seattle's magic number for clinching third place in the U.S. Division is seven points. That's any combination of points they earn or Spokane fails to earn over the final two weeks of the season, equaling seven points and third place is theirs. While not mathematically eliminated from climbing higher in the standings, chasing down either Portland or Everett at this point is unrealistic. But Seattle does play the Silvertips twice this coming weekend. Everett currently is in first place in the division but their hold on the top spot is a tenuous one because Portland is only four points back with two games in hand. So, how the T-birds fare against Everett could determine who they play in the first round.

My T-birds Three Stars for this past weekend. And let's be honest, this is really based on just one game, the win over Kamloops because no one stood out enough in the loss Friday in Portland to deserve consideration for a star.

Third Star: I'm gonna give it to Sahvan Khaira. The rookie defenseman hasn't seen much of the ice lately and he played in just the one game this weekend, the win over the Blazers. While he didn't earn a point, the Surrey, B.C. native stepped into an unfamiliar role, centering the T-birds fourth line and had a mostly positive affect on the game. He actually won some key faceoffs. At 6'3" 213lbs, he's a big body for a team that is now without two of it's best power forwards (Justin Hickman, Keegan Kolesar) due to injury. I'm not sure how many more times down the stretch he'll get the chance to center that fourth line but he didn't look out of place or uncomfortable in that role Saturday.

Second Star. Center Matt Barzal. He either had two assists or a game winning goal and an assist versus Kamloops. Either way it was a two point night, and the Portland game aside, continues to affect games, especially in the third period, when the outcome is still in question. He looked like an Olympic slalom skier weaving through the Blazers defense Saturday night to set up Nick Holowko's empty net goal that sealed the win.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. Nice bounce back for him after being pulled the night before against the Winterhawks. He was at his best in the second period vs. the Blazers, stonewalling his former team with 21 saves as Kamloops was pushing hard for the lead. He's been a workhorse for the T-birds, starting 56 of their 66 games and there are still lots more minutes to be played.

Side note: Proof that you don't need to pull off a blockbuster trade to get back players who will have a big impact on your team. Seattle dealt two fourth round picks, goalie Justin Myles (since retired) and seldom used defenseman Austin Douglas (he is no longer in the league) at the 2014 trade deadline for Kozun. In 80 regular season games with the Thunderbirds Kozun is 44-27-4-5 with eight shutouts, a 2.40 GAA and a save percentage of .920.

Then at this year's trade deadline, the T-birds trade a 6th round bantam draft pick to Prince Albert for Corey Millette. In 26 games with Seattle Millette has 25 points (13g, 12a) and is +10, currently riding a three game goal scoring streak. It's like that show, Storage Wars, where you spend a few bucks to buy the contents of an abandoned storage locker and among all the contents you find inside, you uncover something worth thousands of dollars.