Sunday, November 23, 2014

If it Weren't For Bad Luck, I'd Have no Luck at All.

Goaltender Interference

69.4 Contact Outside the Goal Crease - If an attacking player initiates any contact with a goalkeeper, other than incidental contact, while the goalkeeper is outside his goal crease, and a goal is scored, the goal will be disallowed.

A goalkeeper is not “fair game” just because he is outside the goal crease. The appropriate penalty should be assessed in every case where an attacking player makes unnecessary contact with the goalkeeper. However, incidental contact will be permitted when the goalkeeper is in the act of playing the puck outside his goal crease provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such unnecessary contact.

When a goalkeeper has played the puck outside of his crease and is then prevented from returning to his crease area due to the deliberate actions of an attacking player, such player may be penalized for goalkeeper interference. Similarly, the goalkeeper may be penalized, if by his actions outside of his crease he deliberately interferes with an attacking player who is attempting to play the puck or an opponent.

Pay particular attention to the bold and italicized section of that rule. Because that is exactly what happened late in the third period Saturday in the T-birds 3-2 shootout loss to Everett. Austin Lotz, the Silvertips goalie, initiated the contact with Seattle's Justin Hickman. Lotz hesitated to play the puck that went behind the Everett goal and when he realized it would be Hickman who would get to the loose puck first, he jumped into Hickman's path. He didn't make any attempt to play the puck. Hickman's action is to get the puck and Lotz interferes with him, not the other way around. Yet Lotz is rewarded for his action, which in my opinion included a whole bunch of embellishment, and Hickman is penalized for his. The result is an Everett power play that allows them to score the tying goal. When a pedestrian jumps into the path of an oncoming train do you blame the engineer in the locomotive for the pedestrian's bad decision?

At the very least, Lotz should have been penalized as well as Hickman. But I don't understand why Hickman gets a penalty for doing what any attacking player would do in that decision; chase down a loose puck with a chance to set up a scoring play. The bad decision made in this instance was made by Lotz. Goaltenders get a lot of protection by the nature of their vulnerable position but they shouldn't be afforded that benefit of the doubt when they put themselves in harms way.

The T-birds were in control of the game late and that play decided the outcome. Too many times this season calls such as that are deciding games. That's an extra point Seattle had in their back pocket, taken away. They can't get it back and meanwhile Everett gets two points I don't think they rightly deserved. The fate of a team's season can be turned on a call such as that.

Meanwhile Seattle's offensive woes continue. Puck luck is not on their side either as once again they rang a shot off the post, just as they did the night before against Spokane. I count 12 posts or crossbars hit by Seattle in their last eight games. Just this past weekend alone in two games the T-birds were credited with 69 shots on goal but lit the lamp just three times. While they were better Saturday at getting traffic in front of the Everett goal, I still don't think they did it enough. They have to be more conscious of that part of their game.

They were better at getting shots to the net as opposed to hesitating or passing up a shot in favor of an extra pass. That was key to their power play goal in the second period as Jerett Smith did a good job of firing a puck into traffic. As a result Keegan Kolesar was able to bang in a rebound.

Evan Wardley was back on the ice after serving his second lengthy suspension of the season. Wardley played a very good game but he did take one silly, after the whistle penalty in the third period. When your team is up by a goal, trying to snap a losing streak, those are plays you must avoid at all costs. The T-birds killed off that penalty but Wardley has to play smarter. He has tremendous value to this team but that values is severely diminished if he's up in the stands watching the game in street clothes because he's been suspended.

Is Seattle feeling the affects of Mathew Barzal's absence from the lineup? You bet they are. Injuries though, are part of the game and Seattle knows Barzal is going to be out for an extended period and they have to step up their game. I still believe that collectively, the T-birds have enough talent to fill much of that void. It won't be one player but four or five of the young guys can step up. We've seen some of that from Calvin Spencer and the aforementioned Kolesar. Alex True's improvement is five fold since the start of the season.

But the one player Seattle needs to get going is Austrian Import Florian Baltram. Let's remember, like True, Baltram is just 17 years old and playing in North America for the first time. Back in Austria Baltram was one of the top scorers in his age group, often playing with older players. One of the problems is Baltram just isn't getting chances to shoot the puck. I think he is making such a concerted effort to take care of the defensive zone first, he's not thinking offense. I'd like to see him start taking the puck to the net and getting some shots on goal. Once he gets that first WHL goal, hopefully it relaxes him.

My T-birds three stars this weekend:

Third Star: Scott Eansor. Eansor is doing terrific work filling in for Barzal by centering Seattle's top line. He'll never do less then play a 200 foot game. He won the vast majority of his faceoffs this weekend, in particular versus Everett. His blue line to blue line rush set up Hickman for the go ahead goal early in the third period Saturday. For the second straight game against Everett he was doing a superb job of making Nikita Sherbak ineffective, until Sherbak left the game with injury.

Second Star: Keegan Kolesar. When Central Scouting finally put Kolesar on the watch list for next spring's NHL Draft, everyone took notice as he went from unrated to a B prospect. Apparently Kolesar took notice too. I get the feeling he thinks that rating is too low and he's out to prove he should be rated higher. He played two sold games. He plays a smart, physically disciplined game and is so strong at just 17 years old he's hard to move off the puck, whether in front of the net or along the boards. Maybe Seattle has to make enough space for him on that mural on the ShoWare Center concourse? Is their room to squeeze his image on there between Gropp, Bear and Barzal?

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun deserves a better fate. He has allowed just two goals against in each of his last four starts yet hasn't earned a win because Seattle's offense isn't supporting him with enough goals at the other end. Despite going 0-3-0-1 over that span he's lowered his GAA to a league best 2.32. That's right, he has the best GAA average in the league after this weekend's two games. Meanwhile, he has the the 4th best save percentage. The way he handles the puck behind the net, he might be one of the top defensemen too!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Let's be Offensive

From the strange-but-true department: On their just completed six game road trip through the Eastern Division the Seattle Thunderbirds scored 18 goals. The 18 goals averages out to three goals per game, which is actually more then they were averaging per game (2.5) before they left for the trip. And they did that with their leading point producer, Matt Barzal, out of the lineup for the entire trip. So why did they finish the trip with just two wins?

Well, the numbers are skewed because the T-birds recorded 12 of their goals in just two games, a 6-2 win in Prince Albert and a 6-4 win over Brandon. In their four losses they mustered up just six goals, a measly 1.6 goals per loss. You won't win too many games averaging under two goals a game, even as good as Seattle was in their own end. Had Seattle actually scored three goals in each game on the trip they would have gone 3-3. So, they still need to kick up the offense.

On the positive side, the T-birds only let in 20 goals in the six games and six of those came in one contest, the 6-2 defeat in Moose Jaw, In the other five games Seattle had a team goals against average of just 2.8 and that includes giving up just four goals to the high flying Brandon offense.

Seattle's scoring task was made harder when they lost the point-a-game offense of Barzal at practice prior to the first game on the journey. But even without Barzal in the lineup they created enough scoring chances to pot more goals in every game they played. The issue isn't creating, it's finishing and the T-birds didn't do that well enough. Just in the Saskatoon game alone, coaches counted 24 scoring opportunities missed, leading Seattle to lose the game, 4-2.

Over the course of the road trip I counted at least ten shots off the post, four in the Saskatoon game alone. So, when I get asked where is the missing offense going to come from, I say it can come from within. The players on the roster, young and old, rookie or veteran, are creating scoring chances and if you keep creating opportunities, eventually those pucks will find their way into the back of the net, right? If they don't, then you may have to explore a trade for a proven, bona fide goal scorer but option A is the easiest and cheapest solution to their offensive woes.

Remember, this is one of the youngest, if not the youngest, teams in the league. Often those young players are battling older, more physically mature players. Despite that though, they are in most games until the final horn with a chance to win or at least tie and force an overtime or shootout. A couple of times during my tenure broadcasting T-birds games Seattle has had young teams. I recall my first season when those youngsters were Nate Thompson, Tyler Metcalfe, Dustin Johner, Steve Goertzen, Greg Black, Mathew Spiller and a few more green players. Still I don't think that team was as young as this season's version. That 2001-02 team won just 21 games but by season's end all the ice time those youngsters got during the course of the year paid off as they upset the division champion Portland Winterhawks in the first round of the playoffs. The following season they more then doubled their win total and won the U.S. Division and made a deep postseason run.

But I also remember that 2001-02 team getting beat routinely by four, five or six goals. That's not happening with this young club that's playing at a nearly .500 clip, not the .368 winning percentage of that young team over a decade ago. So far this year the biggest margin of defeat is four goals and that happened once, just a few games ago up in Moose Jaw in a game that was 4-2 midway through the third period. The only other loss by more then two goals was a 4-1 loss in Spokane when Seattle played with a depleted defensive corps less then 24 hours after beating the Chiefs with just two healthy d-men. More often Seattle is losing games as they lost the last two on the trip out east, each a 2-1 setback.

There are no moral victories of course and the Thunderbirds would prefer to be on the winning side of a few more of those close games, especially the ones they are dominating in shots on goal and puck possession. Seattle is getting top end goaltending and playing sound team defense. As I mentioned earlier, they have a team goals against average so far this season of just 2.8. Keeping your opponent to under three goals a game will keep you in most contests. If they can find a way to average just one more goal a game they would be winning more of those close ones.

Seattle had an extra passenger with them most of the just completed journey through Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Gare Joyce, a writer with rode the bus with the team, trekked along to the morning skates, shared team pre and post game meals, visited the hometown rink of Donovan Neuls, enjoyed the home cooked meal at the Pederson casa in Saskatoon and even was there in Ochapowace with us on the reserve where Ethan Bear grew up. Keep an eye out for his article, chronicling the journey. Joyce has also authored a few books on hockey and other sports and you can find them on

T-birds three stars from the just completed six game road trip:

Third Star: Seattle's 4th line of Calvin Spencer, Florian Baltram and either Nick Holowko or Luke Osterman. That line did a good job of providing an offensive spark. Spencer had Seattle's first goal in the win over Brandon and it was huge, coming just four seconds after the Wheat Kings had opened the scoring. Nick Holowko scored in Moose Jaw, a goal that gave the T-birds a little hope in the third period, pulling them within 4-2 before the Warriors pulled away. Baltram added a couple of assists and Osterman recorded his first WHL goal in Regina. It almost stood up as a game winner before the Pats scored twice in the third period.

Second Star. Ryan Gropp. With Barzal out Gropp seems like the likeliest player to turn to, to pick up some of the missing offense. The Kamloops native averaged just over a point a game on the trip, registering seven points (3g, 4a) and was +1. His ten goals now leads the team in that department.

First Star: While he earned just one win and had his worst outing of the season in the loss to Moose Jaw, goalie Taran Kozun came back strong with two stellar performances in those back-to-back 2-1 losses against Regina and Swift Current to end the trip. I'm starting to take for granted how well he plays the puck behind his own net, but that's no easy skill, he just makes it look that way. He anchors the T-birds team defense and he is playing so well he ranks fifth in the league with a 2.38 GAA. Take out that Moose Jaw game when he was pulled after allowing four goals on 11 shots and he's probably number one. If there is one area on this team you don't need to question, it is their number one netminder.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

New House Needs a Roof

I know it can be frustrating for fans to watch their team play so well, control a game and not get rewarded for the effort such as happened Saturday night for the T-birds against Vancouver and has happened at least three or four other times already this season. Fans don't want to be told to be patient when their team is missing out on valuable points. It's like finding a twenty dollar bill in the parking lot outside the grocery store only to lose it by shoving it in the pant pocket with the hole in it. Then you don't discover that hole in your pocket until you get to the cash register and try to pay for that extra item you want to purchase and that twenty dollar bill is nowhere to be found.

Let's use another analogy, since I'm forced to watch a lot of DIY and HGTV at home. The Thunderbirds are doing a terrific job of laying down a foundation for a successful season. They've even put up some sturdy walls, finished the plumbing and electrical and added a few appliances. The house is just about move in ready, but they have to finish. They need to close that house up by adding a new roof. Without it, their project is getting rained on.

Before that can be done though, there will be a few setbacks, changes to the blueprints or the need for some touch up paint. Afterall, the construction just started a little over a month ago and to be honest, I think they're a little ahead of schedule, considering they're using so many apprentice workers and one of their best carpenters hasn't been on the job site yet. You just have to have faith that when the house is completed, it will be one of the most valuable properties on the block.

Thursday against Edmonton they finished the kitchen. They did a terrific job of taking the game to the Oil Kings. They set the tone with an aggressive, in-your-face style against the defending champs. They pushed the pace for 60 minutes with a relentless forecheck that kept Edmonton on their heels most of the game. It was a high energy effort from start to finish that allowed Seattle to roll four lines consistently and pile up a season high five goals.

Saturday against Vancouver was more of the same as the T-birds once again set the tone and tempo for the game. The problem against the Giants was that some of the nails got bent or missed the studs. There were probably the same, if not more, scoring chances Saturday but the T-birds struggled to finish. Certainly you have to give credit to the Giants goalie, Cody Porter, who was credited with 38 saves in earning the shutout. But I didn't think Seattle made the most of their chances. They left too many scoring chances on the doorstep, flailed away at a few pucks lying around the Vancouver crease in front of an open net, or were beaten to loose pucks by Giants players.

Let's remember, most teams are, on average, 15-17 games into the season and as of Saturday, only four points separate third place from 10th place in the Western Conference. There is still a lot of hockey to be played.

I'm a little concerned about the power play. I still see the T-birds trying to be too perfect, looking for the that one great chance rather then throwing pucks on goal and crashing the net for rebounds. As a result, Seattle is 0-for-11 since scoring twice with the man advantage against Spokane three games ago. One issue is not making a good tape-to-tape pass. that means the shooter has to settle the puck instead of getting off a one-timer and that allows the penalty killers to get in front of the shooter and block the shot.

Also, since coming off his three game absence due to injury, Ethan Bear has been off target with his usually reliable shot. At least four times in the past two games his shot has been high and or wide. It's just a matter of time before he gets that dialed back in. That and the return of Shea Theodore should help improve the power play.

Speaking of Theodore, Anaheim assigned him to their AHL affiliate Norfolk for a two-week conditioning stint. He's played in a couple of games for the Admirals and picked up two assists so it is clear the elbow is healed. But under the rules, he can't stay there. Once his conditioning assignment is over he has to go back up to the NHL or be returned to Seattle. Also, any games he plays for Norfolk count toward his free agency time line. Theodore signed his standard three year NHL entry contract shortly after being drafted. So, he could play seven more games with Norfolk/Anaheim before the clock starts ticking (it kicks in once you've played 10 pro games) and he would need to be sent back to the T-birds.

Finally the Thunderbirds announced that goalie Logan Flodell has been assigned to the Nipawin Hawks of the SJHL. That leaves Seattle with two goalies, Taran Kozun and Danny Mumaugh, and also reduces their roster from 11 down to ten rookies. The 17 year old Flodell appeared in just one game, getting the start and playing well in a 3-1 loss to Prince George. This by no means is a slight on Flodell's abilities. Rather it speaks more to the depth Seattle has in the goalie position.

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

Third Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. While he only faced a combined 44 shots in two games, there were a number of high quality scoring chances against as the T-birds had a penchant for turning the puck over right in front of their own goal. Kozun stood tall, allowing just three goals. The two in the Edmonton game came well after the outcome had been decided and both were scored off deflections. He made the early saves necessary when the game was still scoreless. And you certainly can't fault him for the Vancouver power play goal that won it for the Giants Saturday. Vancouver's Alec Baer was allowed to just skate the puck out of the corner uncontested, right to the front of the T-birds goal. That missed assignment can't be laid at Kozun's feet. Meanwhile Kozun continues to be like a third defenseman out on the ice the way he handles the puck behind his own net.

Second Star: Scott Eansor. I think we can stop using the term "underrated" now when describing Eansor. I think the other teams in the Western Conference are well aware of what he can do. Whatever his offseason workout program is, it should be copied by all his teammates because he's physically ready to go 200 feet for 60 minutes each night. Along with his stamina, he has tremendous power in his legs that make him one of the league's quickest skaters. He plays to the whistle and beyond. His four game point streak was snapped Saturday but certainly not for lack of effort. His biggest asset may be that he makes those he plays with more effective as he and his linemates are all plus players.

First Star: Matt Barzal. If not for the post Saturday night against Vancouver, Barzal would have probably had the Goal of the Week in the WHL. He completely undressed the Giants big Russian defenseman on that shorthanded, backhand chance. Penalty killing is a new role for him this season but he has taken to it like a dog to a bone. He set up his teammates with a couple of real good opportunities in that game as well. You wonder how many points he'd have right now if the T-birds were better finishers. He still had a three point night Thursday and was, without question, the most dynamic player on the ice both nights. I'd still like him to shoot more but he has such great vision he usually finds the open player with the puck. He plays the game so calmly which to me means he processes it faster them most players. He's barely into his second season in the WHL and he's just now scratching the surface of what he can do.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Breaking Out of Their Shells

I know Coach K was upset after the game Saturday night in Everett with some of the officiating and I think that is more of an accumulative affect of what has transpired over the first dozen or so games this year. I know the league admitted to officiating errors in at least two games earlier this season that probably cost Seattle a minimum of two points but more likely four. So, when there are late penalties called in a close game, he just had enough.

But I also see some calculation in what the coach said to the media assembled outside the T-birds dressing room after that game. He was willing to take the wrath of the league office to stand up for his players. Seattle had just played a tremendous game and if not for two high sticking calls late in the game, Everett doesn't sniff the back of the T-birds goal, let alone get the win. Seattle was controlling the play. Did you notice both of those penalties were called with Seattle's forecheck pinning Everett deep in their own end? Yet Everett, under duress from the Thunderbirds pressure, gets bailed out by these two calls.

And Konowalchuk isn't necessarily disputing whether there were high sticks although he leans toward the "they weren't" argument. Maybe they were maybe they weren't. But he's arguing that either way, the Silvertips players were embellishing on those plays (the one player reacted as if he had just been punched in the face by Mike Tyson wearing a cast iron boxing glove). Apparently this summer the league made a point of saying to coaches that more embellishment penalties would be called this season. We're 13 games in and I haven't witnessed one embellishment call yet.

But to me, the contact with the goalie was more concerning. The night before I watched Scott Eansor drive the net on Spokane's Garret Hughson. He took a shot and Hughson made the save but Eansor's momentum carried him into the Chief's netminder. The result, rightfully so, was a goaltender interference minor on Eansor. Last night in Everett I watched as Seattle goalie Taran Kozun covers a puck in the crease. He clearly has possession but the Silvertip's shove into him after the play is over, push him back toward the goal line, then the player actually turned and sat on Kozun. The result? No call. In fact there was contact with Kozun all night long and not one penalty on Everett for goaltender interference. It seems the standard for a penalty changes from game to game.

I've said before these officials are young, both in age and experience and, like the players, they are here in the WHL to develop and get better. Not one of them is out there purposefully trying to screw a team out of a win. They are trying to be the best they can be at what, quite frankly, is a thankless job. There does have to be a certain amount of room for error. But there also has to be signs of growth and I think the coach's tirade basically says, we're not seeing it. You can only keep the steam in the tea kettle so long before you need to vent. So maybe the coach has to get out his checkbook but I think he does so without hesitation.

As for the actual effort from the Thunderbirds this weekend? I was overly impressed with their game both nights. They did after all, earn three of a possible four points, finally got their first home win Friday with the 5-3 victory over Spokane, and picked up their ninth road point in seven away games with the OT loss up in Everett. In fact, Seattle has now earned four of six points in their last three games against teams with a combined record of 23-10-6-1. In fact, every team the T-birds have played this season has a winning record except for Portland.

And Seattle did this with a young, shorthanded roster. Is their another WHL team legitimately waiting for their best player to be returned from the NHL like Seattle is with Shea Theodore? Maybe Kootenay with Sam Reinhart or possibly Prince Albert with Leon Draisaitl. But those two are actually playing in the NHL and could be kept there. Theo is hurt and will be returned to the Thunderbirds once he's cleared to play. So he has still to see ice time in a game.

Is there another WHL team breaking in 11 rookies? Not only is Seattle employing 11 first year players which is half their roster, but they are playing them in heavy doses. Is their another team that has been playing a good portion of the early season without three of its top six defensemen? The T-birds had to make a trade just to have enough defensemen to fill those six spots because of injury and suspension, yet they've been in every game, save one, 'til the final horn and it is their team defense that is a large reason for this.

I was really looking forward to watching Nikita Sherbak, the Montreal Canadians first round draft pick the Silvertips acquired from Saskatoon earlier this season. I left disappointed. He should be one of the league's most dynamic offensive players but either he is disinterested, overrated or Seattle just did a tremendous job of cancelling him out. Let's go with the latter and give the T-birds all the credit. He was like Casper the Friendly Ghost most of that game....constantly disappearing. In fact I thought Everett was better when he wasn't on the ice. I saw that kind of effort in Seattle the last two seasons from Alexander Delnov. It's just one game and he did get the assist on what essentially was a 4-on-3 power play, game winning goal, but I think I could have made that pass with my eyes closed with so much open ice. The Silvertips paid a hefty price to obtain him. He should be better then that. For the league's sake, as one of the WHL's marquee players, he has to be better then that.

The T-birds are playing .500 hockey (5-5-2-1) without their full roster, without their best player, with the youngest team in the league and with the offense still trying to find its way. It is a team trending upward with a big arrow. Early season lessons learned should turn into Grade A exam scores at the end of the season. These young Thunderbirds are growing up.

When Seattle does get both Theodore and Wardley back in the lineup, how do you keep Turner Ottenbreit out? I don't think you do. I think he's earned top six minutes. Tremendously confident young player. But what about Scott Allan who was thrown to the wolves after the trade from Medicine Hat? he has performed admirably and deserves ice time too. Then there is 16 year old Sahvan Khaira, who's already showing signs he'll be a top two d-man before his WHL career is over and may have played his best game to date Saturday in Everett. What a conundrum for the Seattle coaches to have. Three young defenseman will be fighting for one spot in the lineup each night.

My Thunderbirds three stars for the weekend are:

Third Star: Captain Justin Hickman. Hickman finished the weekend with four points (2g,2a) and is finally getting close to being 100 percent healthy. He's not there yet but 95 percent of Hickman still makes him one of the best 20 year olds in the league. More importantly, as he has always done, he stands up for his teammates and with no Evan Wardley on the ice the past week, he has had to be that guy.

Second star: Matt Barzal. Barzal had a three point night Friday against Spokane (1g, 2a) and despite not scoring Saturday in Everett, was still the most dangerous player on the ice. If not already there, he is becoming a complete two-way player, getting ice time in all situations. Really, really good right now, by the end of the season he'll be one of the best players in the league. He's certainly not damaging his NHL draft stock. And to think he's just 17.

First Star: It's a tie! I gotta give props to both Scott Eansor and Jerret Smith. As for Eansor, call him the Tazmanian Devil or the Engerizer Bunny, he has the non-stop motor coaches love. He's just so relentless and with the help of his new linemates, rookies Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan, he's finally being rewarded with a three game goal scoring streak. As a result, he has already equaled his goal total from last year's regular season. hands down one of the best penalty killers in the WHL. At age 18 he reminds me of what former Thunderbird Luke Lockhart did at age 20.

Smith meanwhile, continues to be the bedrock of Seattle's defensive corps. With Theodore unavailable he's also been capably manning the point on the power play, even scoring a power play goal Friday versus Spokane. He may have already logged more ice time this season then he did all of last year. Okay, that's a stretch, but you get the point. He's been a terrific anchor of the back end.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Frustration Nation

The "Word of the Week" in Thunderbird Nation is "frustration". In large chunks there was much good that happened for the T-birds this past week, but none of that good ended up in the win column as the T-birds went 0-2-1-1. They were four winnable games for Seattle but all they got out of it was two of a possible eight points. Over the course of the four games Seattle probably generated 20-24 good scoring chances but could muster only eight goals and most came after they had fallen behind.

In a nutshell, Seattle's misfortune this past week started with an unfortunate and incorrectly called penalty on T-birds defenseman Jared Hauf late in the first period of Tuesday's home game versus Spokane. Hauf was assessed a five-minute major (and the automatic game misconduct that comes with it) for a clean hit on the Chiefs Liam Stewart. To me, this was a case of a referee erring too far on the side of caution, to the point he overreacted to a hit by a big player on a smaller player. It completely changed the complexion of the game.

Bad hits that lead to penalties are learning moments for players. This should be a learning moment for the official. They have a tough job and we ask perfection from them. We have to leave room for them to make and learn from mistakes.

Less then 24 hours later the WHL rescinded the penalty but it was too little too late. Hauf missed the rest of the Spokane game. Evan Wardley was already out of the lineup serving the first game of his suspension, and when Seattle lost two more d-men in that first period to injury, they were in dire straits. To their credit the depleted Seattle roster played valiantly, getting the game to the end of regulation tied at 2-2 before losing in the shootout.

All that ice time logged by what healthy defensemen Seattle had left had them skating on fumes in the rematch over in Spokane less then 24 hours later. Still absent three of their top six defensemen, they had no legs and it looked like they were skating in mud. They hung around as long as they could before falling, 4-1.

With only a day off Seattle returned home for a pair of games this weekend. Both nights, Friday against Prince George and Saturday against Kamloops, the T-birds came out with dominating first periods. So it may seem odd when I say despite the effort, I believe Seattle lost both games in the first period. The reason? They didn't reward their terrific first period play either night as they couldn't finish some excellent scoring chances. As a result they let their opponents hang around, gain confidence and get on the scoreboard first.

Saturday the Thunderbirds once again showed their resiliency as they battled back twice in the second period from a two-goal deficit and then again from a goal down in the third period. I really liked the fore check both nights and for good portions of each game they had strong puck possession. I was surprised though that each night this weekend their play fell off in the third period because through much of the early part of the season, the third period has been one of their best periods of hockey.

Fatigue may have been a factor, maybe frustration with seeing so many scoring chances go by the board. Whatever the case is, it is something they'll need to correct going forward. But, let's remember this is not yet a complete team. It's not just the fact they are missing Shea Theodore, Evan Wardley and now Ethan Bear or that Justin Hickman is not yet playing at 100 percent coming off the long layoff due to injury to start the season.

It's also the fact that Seattle is indoctrinating 11 rookies into the WHL. And they've all played. Outside of back-up goalie Logan Flodell, who has one start, not one of the rookies on the roster has played in fewer then four of the first 11 games. Luke Osterman, in his first season, has played both right wing and, out of necessity, defense and while there have been a few blemishes, he has held his own.

And yet the T-birds have had a chance to win all but maybe one of those 11 games. Saturday many of those young players may have turned a corner as Lane Pederson had an assist for his first WHL point, Nolan Volcan scored his first WHL goal and Donovan Neuls had his first multiple point night with a goal and an assist. I'm still appreciating the play of young defenseman Turner Ottenbreit who, in the absence of Theodore, Bear and Wardley, is getting top four minutes and power play time as well.

My T-birds three stars for the week:

Third Star: Ryan Gropp. Gropp had his seven game point streak snapped in the overtime loss Saturday against the Blazers but for most of the week, he was Seattle's offense. He has great hands and a quick release that will garner him 30-plus goals.

Second Star: Keegan Kolesar. A season ago in 60 games, the Winnipeg native tallied eight points (2g, 6a). Already this season he has four goals and three assists in the first 11 games and his shorthanded goal Saturday earned the T-birds a point. And while meaningless as far as the final result is concerned his last second goal Friday avoided the shutout against Prince George. When Bear and Theodore return his presence in front of the net should make the T-birds power play deadly. Far from a finished product, Kolesar is only scratching the surface of his ability.

First Star: Jerret Smith. No one stepped up more this week, after Seattle's D-corps got hit with suspension, ill-called penalties and injuries, then Smith. He logged major minutes back on the blue line this past week and earned a couple of assists in the process. And with so many defensemen down, you need those you still have to be available and on the ice. Smith has yet to be penalized this season, doing a terrific job of staying out of the box.

Saturday against Kamloops he took two bad hits along the boards, drawing penalties against the Blazers in the process. Yet he popped right back up each time showing he's one tough hombre. I've heard some say he has benefitted in the past from being paired with Shea Theodore, but that goes both ways. Having the steady Smith as a defensive partner allows Theodore to take chances up ice and to be more of an offensive player. Can't wait until those two get back together.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Road Warriors

The Seattle Thunderbirds have only played seven games so far this new season but the majority, five, have been on the road. Seattle's record in those games? 4-1-0-0. That includes back-to-back road wins this weekend after the T-birds came from behind to beat Spokane Friday night 2-1 in overtime and followed that with a 3-2 shootout win Saturday in Portland. Until they start awarding style points, you can't do better on a two-game road trip then earning four points and Seattle grabbed all four.

Young teams can either be intimidated on the road or they can just go out and play hockey and not worry about the surroundings, the road atmosphere or the opponent. The Thunderbirds take on the characteristics of the latter; they just play their game.

It helps to have a Taran Kozun in goal. While the rest of the team has had slow road starts, Kozun seems the one player who is on his game from the opening face-off. His stellar play, in particular in the first period of away games, keeps the team in those games while they get the bugs worked out. The T-birds have surrendered the first goal in each of their first five road games yet have come back to win four of them. They have gotten better as the game moves along but if not for Kozun's strong work between the pipes, they'd be chasing two or three goals deficits rather than the 1-0 holes they are climbing out from.

Friday night in Spokane was shaping up to be a frustrating loss as Seattle dominated play territorially for all but a 7 to 8 minute stretch in the second period. Despite most of the puck possession, they couldn't find the back of the net then fell behind late in that second period. But they persevered and eventually tied the game late in the third on the power play and won it in overtime.

Saturday they faced a Portland team at the Moda Center desparate for a win, especially on home ice. Sure enough the Winterhawks came out with early pressure, outshooting Seattle 11-2 over the first ten minutes and grabbing an early lead. But the T-birds weathered the storm and for most of the final two periods were the better team. They grabbed a 2-1 advantage before a late, flukish goal by Portland tied things up, then Matt Barzal and Kozun combined to win it for Seattle in the shootout. Again, like Spokane the night before, Portland's time on the puck was limited once Seattle found it's rhythm.

The keys for Seattle? Good defensive zone coverage, the ability to move the puck up ice by limiting neutral zone turnovers and a strong forecheck.

Seattle played just over two periods of the game in Portland with only five defensemen. They lost Evan Wardley to a five minute major and game misconduct for his hit on Nic Petan late in the first period. It was initially announced as a charging major but the scoresheet after the game listed it as a checking to the head penalty. It definitely wasn't a charge. I thought Wardley did everything right on the play until the last second when it appeared he lunged upward, making contact high with Petan's head. It should also be noted that Petan's natural instinct appears to be to duck and spin away from the hit. As a result the side of his head contacts Wardley's hands as Wardley was preparing to deliver the check to Petan's mid-section and that sends Petan sprawling to the ice. There is no shoulder to head contact. The league will now review the play for possible suspension.

I certainly also hope the league reviews Oliver Bjorkstrand's hit on Ethan Bear that occurred after time ran out at the end of overtime. I'm not sure how you can argue that was anything but intent to injure. The puck was dumped to the corner from center ice with just a couple of seconds left. By the time Bear got to the puck, time expired and the horn sounded but Bjorkstrand never let up. He continued at full speed and delivered a high hit on Bear.

Can I change my assessment of the Adam Henry-to-Saskatoon trade from a steal to highway robbery? Again, I keep being overly impressed with defenseman Turner Ottenbreit, the player the T-birds got back in return. With Wardley unavailable the last two periods Saturday night, Seattle leaned on it's two rookie defensemen, Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira, to pick up the slack, and Ottenbreit in particular made the team's necessary transition from a six man to a five man defensive group seamless.

There were lots of heroes for Seattle over the weekend. Scott Eansor and Florian Baltram were monsters in overtime both nights. Jared Hauf had the big game winning OT goal against the Chiefs. Justin Hickman's return to the lineup has solidified Seattle's four lines. But here are my three T-birds stars for the just concluded weekend road sweep:

Third Star: Defenseman Jerret Smith. Smitty has quietly gone about his business and is having a strong start to his season. He has been very good in the defensive zone but he has also been quite adept at moving the puck up ice. He's logging major minutes and is one of the team's best penalty killers early on, not to mention his work on the power play. Remember, he's doing all this with his usual defensive partner, Shea Theodore still on the shelf with injury.

Second Star: Center Matt Barzal. Barzal ended the weekend on a four game point streak and a three game goal scoring streak. His goal in Spokane late in the third period tied the game and gave Seattle a chance to win it in overtime. In Portland he scored another power play goal to give Seattle the lead. The goal almost stood up as the game winner, but when it didn't, he calmly potted the game winning shootout marker. For sure, he's a dangerous offensive player, but he's becoming a complete package as more then once on the back check he's created a turnover that negated an opposition's scoring chance.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. While the rest of the team seems to come out of the gates slowly, Kozun has been the one T-bird ready to go from the moment his skates hit the ice. He faced 54 shots this weekend and stopped 51, plus three more big saves in the shootout versus Portland. His play I'm sure has inspired the team in front of him. He's covering for some of their mistakes with his stellar play and he's a prime reason the T-birds have had a chance to win each of his six starts. And the way he handles the puck, it's like having a third defenseman out on the ice. With three on the roster, he has clearly established himself as the team's number one netminder.

Seattle just finished a game against Spokane Friday night in exciting fashion with that overtime road win. So you think they've put the Chiefs in their rear view mirror? Think again. Three of their next five games will be versus Spokane including a mid-week home and home. It starts Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center with the first Director's Mortgage Two-for-Tuesday of the season.

The big question is, who will be Seattle's sixth defenseman? With Wardley most likely suspended Seattle has only five d-man on the roster. One solution is to put Luke Osterman back on the blue line until Wardley's return. Osterman was drafted out of Stillwater, Minnesota a few years back as a defenseman but the team has spent the last year converting him to a forward. His first two training camps with the Thunderbirds he was still a defenseman, and a good one at that, and I think the team would feel comfortable putting him back their again. We'll wait and see.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Young, Fun, Win Some, Lose Some

It is disappointing to take a game down to its final minutes before falling as the Thunderbirds did Saturday night in that 6-4 loss to Kelowna. It is usually in those close, last minute defeats that you have a much more critical eye when reassessing every aspect of the game and possibly over magnifying the mistakes made or chances missed.

But you know what? I'm gonna leave that, fine-tooth comb critiquing, to the coaches. After all, that's there job. Yes, the loss was disappointing but putting that aside for the moment, I'm really enjoying watching this young team compete. We are five games in to a long 72-game season and Seattle is routinely putting nine rookies, and five second year players, out on the ice each game and they are competing to the point they have had a legitimate chance to win each of those five games. That's essentially 70 percent of your roster each night with well under two years of experience at the WHL level but they just don't seem intimidated by the situation.

The T-birds are playing good, competitive hockey and two of their better players, Justin Hickman and Shea Theodore, have yet to see a second of ice time. Seattle already has the youngest roster in the league and with those two WHL veterans unavailable because of injury, their game night roster is even younger. But it hasn't mattered because these young players all seem to have the same high compete level. Are they making mistakes? Sure, but early in their Major Junior careers they are doing more right then wrong out on the ice.

There is still a lot of hockey to play but if I was handicapping the race I would say the Western Conference is the Kelowna Rockets to lose. There's a lot of very good talent on that roster, a roster that includes a lot of players who have experienced back-to-back 50 plus win seasons and deep playoff runs the past two years. And yet Seattle hung right with them, basically until the final minute of the game.

If you are wondering, the referee did not miss the high stick that caught Seattle's Lane Pederson right before Kelowna's game winning goal. He just ruled it was on the follow though of a shot/play of the puck. If that was the case then, by rule, that is not a penalty. In real time, it didn't appear that way to me but it happened so quick it's very possible. I think after the game I was more frustrated with the charging call levied against Evan Wardley early in the third period that led to the Rockets game-tying 4th goal. I just think Wardley's reputation as a big hitter drew that penalty more then the actual play.

Two games into his T-birds career and I think Seattle got an absolute steal in Turner Ottenbreit in that deal with Saskatoon for Adam Henry. I really love the way he attacks the game. Meanwhile, watching him in his first two training camps with Seattle in 2013 and 2014, Donovan Neuls was just another face in the crowd, an 8th round bantam pick who really didn't stand apart from other prospects I was watching. But somewhere over the past 12 months, he has elevated his game to where you have to take notice of him out on the ice every shift.

The T-birds stay at home was a brief one. They're back on the road for two games next weekend beginning Friday in Spokane before another trip down to Portland Saturday.