Wednesday, December 17, 2014

No Grinch Before Christmas

It seemed the Seattle Thunderbirds might be in a gift giving mood. They gave up a 3-0 lead by surrendering four straight goals to the Victoria Royals Tuesday in the final game before the holiday break. Or maybe it was the Grinch trying to steal a Merry Christmas from the T-birds. In the end though a couple of Santa's helpers, named Neuls and Gropp, helped turned a potential lump of coal into a nice stocking stuffer, a come-from-behind, 5-4 win to send the players on their merry way.

The final game of the first half was a microcosm of the first half of the T-birds season. Like so many games this year, the T-birds were the better team on the ice for most of the three periods. They were outshooting, outhitting and outchancing their opponent. Near game's end though, they found themselves frustratingly down by one goal. But as they have done much of the season, they battled to the final horn. Only this time it paid off with two late goals to turn what could have been a disastrous loss, into an exhilarating win.

Again Seattle was not short of scoring chances as they peppered the Royals net with 45 shots. Gropp in particular was denied on a couple of occasions early in the game, including an end-to-end rush where it seemed he deked around and through all five Victoria skaters on the ice only to have his backhanded, five hole, attempt nick the pad of the goalie and stay out. Kaden Elder flicked a back hand attempt of his own toward the net that hit the goaltender in the headgear, before ricocheting off the crossbar and fluttering helplessly away.

Seattle could have certainly melted away, like a snowman in a greenhouse full of Christmas poinsettias, after they coughed up their lead midway through the third period. But like a December wind, the T-birds came roaring back to life just in time to pot two late goals and now scatter for the holidays on a positive rather then a negative result.

While Seattle doesn't officially reach the midway point of the season (Game 36) until December 30th when they face Everett at the ShoWare Center, the ten-day holiday break is traditionally thought of as the end of the first half. So, what did we learn about this young team through the first three months?

Shots on goal for and against aren't necessarily the best barometer to measure how a team is playing, but when compared to the last three or four seasons of T-birds hockey, that is the stat that jumps off the page at me. In 33 games Seattle has surrendered just 919 shots on goal, an average of only 27.8 per game. A season ago the T-birds were allowing 48 shots a game. That's an amazing turnaround, especially when you consider that this year's club is so much younger then the team the Thunderbirds iced a season ago.

The fact is, Seattle is routinely outshooting most of their opponents. Just in their last four games alone, Seattle outshot the four teams they played 129-102. Unfortunately, the T-birds went just 2-2 in that stretch. The problem isn't getting chances to score, the problem is finishing those chances. Over those four games Seattle was outscored, 11-10.

I don't want to be too critical of the T-birds offense though. Let's remember they played through most of the first half without two of their most potent offensive weapons in Matt Barzal and Shea Theodore. I'd estimate, conservatively, that pair is worth an extra five or six games in the win column and five or six more wins would put Seattle right at the top of the U.S. Division and among the top two to three teams in the Western Conference.

Of course if its and buts were candy and nuts, we'd all have a Merry Christmas. The fact is Seattle can't get a do over of any of those close games they lost. Instead though they should recognize that they should only get better as the second half unfolds and hopefully, once healthy, they start turning 2-1 defeats into 3-2 wins. The team defense and rock solid goaltending show up every night, giving them a chance to win every game. Now they need the offense to find more consistency.

Heading into the break it might seem Seattle. sitting down their in 8th place in the Western Conference standings, is on the periphery of being a playoff team, closer to the outside then the inside of the playoff picture. But don't let their spot in the standings fool you. Seattle is just four points our of 4th place, just ten from the 2nd spot with 37 games left on the schedule against Western Conference opponents. This is far from over.

See you in the second half.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Weekend Gotaway

Not the weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds were hoping for coming on the heels of winning four of their last six games. After winning four straight against division rivals the T-birds drop two to division foes.

One was a well deserved loss Friday night in Kennewick to the Tri-City Americans. And the setback Saturday at home to Portland? Well, you could argue Seattle deserved a better fate but in the end, you have to take advantage of your own opportunities and the T-birds didn't. So, you could say they got the result they earned in that game as well.

The effort and compete level Saturday was definitely there as opposed to the game against Tri-City the night before. The game in Kennewick Friday was an anomaly when compared to the rest of the season. We are 32 games in to Seattle's season and that is the only game in which the T-birds lacked any semblance of a solid compete level over the course of the sixty minutes. They came out of the gate flat and pretty much stayed that way the rest of the game. Friday against Portland it was good to see that was the exception and not the rule.

The loss Saturday was reminiscent of a number of games played the first month or so of the season in which the T-birds would outchance, outhit, outshoot, outwork and basically outplay their opponent for three periods but end up with no result. And the issue then was the same as it was this weekend for the T-birds. Lack of finish. Seattle struggles to put the puck in the back of the net. Again, it is not for a lack of chances. I would conservatively estimate that Seattle outchanced the Winterhawks in that game 12-4. They just failed to finish those opportunities. This was Seattle's fourth 2-1 loss in their last dozen games and you can certainly make an argument that better finish could have easily turned each of those losses into a win or at least a point earned.

Was last night a glimpse into the future of the Seattle-Portland rivalry? Both teams were missing key components of their rosters because of either injury (Seattle's Matt Barzal) or World Junior competition. But three of four players Seattle was missing (Barzal, Alexander True and Florian Baltram) will all be back with the T-birds next season. Only Shea Theodore is unlikely to return since the Anaheim Duck's first round draft pick has already signed his first pro contract and at age 20 can play in the AHL next season.

For Portland, their two best players, Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstand, are in a similar situation as Theodore and are unlikely to be back with the Winterhawks next year. Both teams will lose a couple of 20 year olds too. So what we saw on the ice last night is essentially what these two rivals will look like a year from now, with a few roster tweaks thrown in. So I would guess next season we're in for more games like last night's, close low scoring affairs. All four meetings this season have been, essentially decided by one goal with Seattle currently leading the season series, 3-1.

This weekend also showed the value of Alexander True, the T-birds Danish import who is away from the team prepping for the World Juniors with Team Denmark. Without the 17 year old rookie center, Seattle struggled in the faceoff circle Friday in Kennewick and missed the energy and strong play along the boards that he brings each night. From some of the chatter I hear from NHL scouts in attendance at T-birds games, True is working himself into the equation for next spring's NHL Entry Draft. A strong showing at World Juniors coupled with a solid second half with Seattle could see him going in the mid rounds of the draft and possibly higher.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star: Nic Holowko. Holowko made the most of the extra ice time he got this weekend in the absence of three of Seattle's top nine forwards. While he didn't register a point in either game. he made his presence felt. He seemed to be the only T-bird playing with any sense of urgency and energy Friday and continued that Saturday against Portland. He's got that non-stop motor a coach loves and plays each shift as if it will be his last. He's one of those young rookies who only stands to benefit from this extra ice time. His work ethic during games will turn him into a top six forward before his WHL career is done. Seattle has it's top eight picks from the 2012 draft on their current roster. Holowko isn't one of them. he went undrafted that year. The T-birds listed him and he has earned his roster spot along side all those drafted players.

Second Star: Evan Wardley. Wardley spent six plus games playing right wing and produced points while he did. He was moved back to his natural defenseman's spot midway through the first period Friday in Tri and spent the whole game back their Saturday against Portland. He showed he's the consummate team player by doing whatever the coaches ask of him to help the team. Unless you're around the team you don't understand the leadership he brings in the lockerroom. The younger players respect him. After the way he has stepped up the last two weeks and showed his versatility, I would not be surprised if, by season's end, he earns a pro contract with an NHL club. He's starting to remind me of the way Brendan Dillon played his final year with the T-birds. Very focused.

First Star: Taran Kozun. Kozun didn't earn a win this weekend but he certainly did what he could to give his team a chance for a "W'. Most weekends when you allow just five goals in two games your team should win with that kind of goaltending. Remember three of the goals he surrendered were power play goals and one of those was 5-on-3. He deserved a better fate. Despite the two losses he still has the league's best GAA at 2.18 while his save percentage of .920 is #3.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sunday MeatLoaf

For the second straight weekend the Seattle Thunderbirds play three games in three nights and come out of it by taking four out of six points. Two out of three ain't bad, right?

In both cases Seattle polished off the weekend with a 4-1 win over division rival Spokane. A week ago it was at the ShoWare Center, a win accomplished without Matt Barzal and Shea Theodore, arguably their two best players. Yesterday they picked up a dominating win with Barzal, captain Justin Hickman and Florian Baltram all absent from the lineup. These last six games have been a testament to the T-birds depth. They may be young but they're talented and play competitive hockey night in and night out.

It's rather cliché to say all this ice time for these young players now will pay dividends later on, but I think we're already seeing the pay off. So many of those rookie players are starting to look very comfortable and confident playing big minutes each game. That was clearly evident Sunday night in Spokane as 16 year old Nolan Volcan had his best game yet with a goal and an assist. I had remarked in the press box after the 5-3 home loss Saturday to Medicine Hat that I felt that combination of Volcan and Donovan Neuls was poised to take a big step forward offensively. They made me seem like I actually know what I'm talking about when they finished Sunday's game with a combined four points (1g, 3a) and were both at +2 for the game.

Is the move to put Evan Wardley up on right wing still just a temporary move? He's played six games as a forward now and in those six games he has earned five points (2g, 3a) and is +2. Wardley missed out on another goal Sunday when he was stopped on a third period breakaway. He said it was his first breakaway chance since his Bantam days but he remembers not scoring back then either. More importantly, whichever combination of players are on a line with him, they are also earning points. Early on he was put on Ryan Gropp's line and Gropp responded with three goals after a seven game goal-less streak. Last night he helped Volcan and Neuls earn multiple points.

It will be interesting to see how he is deployed these next three games before the Christmas break with defenseman Shea Theodore and forwards Florian Baltram and Alexander True away at World Juniors and center Barzal still out with his injury. It might come down to how to better match up with each of the three teams Seattle faces.

Meanwhile, where's the computer that makes out the league schedule? Over it's last 11 games Seattle has played three 3-in-3 weekends. To their credit the shorthanded 'Birds have shown their resiliency, going 5-5-0-1 with three of the losses being by a 2-1 score. Once again, now 30 games into the season, the Thunderbirds have yet to have their full roster available for any game yet are playing .500 hockey.

What's the biggest reason for Seattle winning four of their last six games? Consistency. Even in their two losses they generated plenty of scoring chances, established a solid forecheck and limited shots against. Over the course of the six games Seattle outshot their opponents 173-143, giving up on average just 24 shots a game. The two losses, to two of the oldest teams in the league in Kootenay and Medicine Hat, came down to two or three miscues and older teams will make you pay for those mistakes. Good starts have also helped as the T-birds scored first in five of the six games.

Another key has been Seattle's power play. Over the past two weekends the T-birds have registered seven power play goals and have risen from 20th to 14th in the league in that department. They've accomplished this with out one of their best power play weapons, Barzal, on the ice. How much better will that unit be when he returns and they can put him and Shea Theodore on the ice together when skating 5-on-4.

My T-birds three stars for the just completed weekend:

Third Star: Evan Wardley. moving up from his usual role as a physical presence on the back end to play right wing, he responded with a three point weekend including a game winner Sunday against the Chiefs. More importantly he's made his linemates more affective. His game is also buoyed by his defenseman's instincts as he does a very good job of backchecking. Even better he's understanding he needs to be on the ice and has stayed out of the penalty box.

Second Star(s): Defenseman Ethan Bear, LW Ryan Gropp and RW Keegan Kolesar. When your leading point producer goes down with a long term injury, you are not going to replace his production with just one guy. It must be offense by committee. This T-birds trio stepped up to pick up the slack. This weekend they combined for 11 points (6g, 5a) and were +3. All three are NHL draft eligible for the first time this coming spring. All three are stating their cases before the scouts that they should be selected in the top half of the draft.

First Star: Goalie Taran Kozun. When your goals against average is already a league best 2.25 coming into the weekend, it is hard to improve on that number. But that is exactly what Kozun did, lowering his GAA to a WHL best 2.14 as he allowed just two goals in two starts, both wins. Meanwhile he made 40 saves on 42 shots and now also has the league's best save percentage at .921. He hasn't allowed an even strength goal since the first period of a 3-2 shootout loss to Everett back on November 22nd, a string of nearly 286 minutes. I finally found a flaw though. It's his youth. With his new pencil thin moustache, I commented that he bore a slight resemblance to screen legend Clark Gable (sans the big ears). His response? "I don't know who that is." Frankly my dear, I feel old.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Gobbling up Some Weekend Points

8-7-2-1. That was Seattle's record without Shea Theodore in the lineup to start the season. It also includes ten games with no Evan Wardley.

4-6-0-1. That's the Thunderbirds record since they lost leading scorer Matt Barzal to a knee injury back on November 6th. And don't forget, in four of those 11 games they didn't have Theodore in the lineup either and were absent Wardley for another five of those games as well. Let's not fail to mention in another three they had to use Wardley, normally a top four defenseman, up front because of a shortage of forwards with Lane Pederson unavailable.

Over the course of the 18 games to start the season without Theodore, Seattle scored 45 goals and allowed 45 goals. In the 11 games so far without Barzal, and at times minus Theodore and Wardley as well, Seattle has only been outscored by five goals, 30-25. And if you think it is all due to goalie Tarn Kozun standing on his head between the pipes, think again. Rarely this season has Seattle surrendered 30 or more shots on goal. In fact it is just as rare to see the T-birds outshot.

I find it remarkable that a team missing what has to be considered two of its best weapons for much of the first one-third of the season (in fact Barzal and Theodore have not played in a game together), using a roster inundated with from 10 to 11 rookies who are all getting significant minutes, is playing essentially .500 hockey and, with few exceptions, has been in position to win the vast majority of their games.

Think about this, 27 games into the 72-game schedule Thunderbirds players have combined to miss 68 games due to injury, illness, international tournaments or suspension yet enter play next week just a game below .500 at 11-12-2-2. To me, that's not just surviving, that's thriving. Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk has not had one game this season with a full and healthy roster to put on the ice. It would only stand to reason that when they finally do get everyone healthy at the same time, knock on wood, they'll be an even better team.

This weekend was a prime example of that. They grit out a 3-2 road win Friday up in Everett. In Wardley's first game up on right wing, he's on the ice for all three goals and finishes the night +3. His first weekend as a winger would end with him earning one assist and ending the three-games-in-three-nights at +1. The T-birds stumbled at home the next night against Kootenay with no Barzal and no Theodore, who took ill earlier in the day, in the lineup. Still though, they did have an early two-goal lead and were only down one five minutes into the third period before falling 5-2.

Disappointed in their effort against the Ice the night before, Seattle rebounds nicely Sunday winning a convincing 4-1 decision over Spokane to earn four of a possible six points in the three games. Goals for Seattle this weekend: 9. Goals against: 8. Shots for Seattle in the three games: 76. Shots by the opponents: 69.

The one area where there was a large disparity was power plays as Seattle has hit a stretch where they are taking too many penalties. It's an area they need to clean up because of the eight goals they allowed this weekend, five were power play goals (only two, both by Kootenay were scored even strength and one, also by the Ice was an empty net goal). There was a wide gap in the power play numbers as Seattle was awarded only seven (4 on Sunday) while the opponents had the man advantage 18 times in the three games! I did some cursory examining of the numbers and Seattle is not actually taking that many more penalties then they were earlier in the season. The big difference is fewer penalties are being called against their opponents. In their first 13 games Seattle had 66 power play chances. In the last 14 games only 38.

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

Third Star(s): The trio of young defensemen Scott Allan, Turner Ottenbreit and Sahvan Khaira. All three scored their first T-birds goals. For Allan and Khaira it was the first goal of their WHL careers. Allan's was a game winner Friday in Everett. With Evan Wardley moved up to a forward line those three had to step up their game and for the most part, they did. Once Seattle gets Theodore, Barzal and Pederson back healthy and can put Wardley back on the blue line, these three will be fighting for ice time. Should be a good battle.

Second Star: Evan Wardley. The senior T-bird defenseman was asked to play right wing in the absence of three Seattle forwards and he took up the challenge. His physicality was ever present. On the first goal Friday night in Everett his mere presence forced the Silvertips defensemen to cough up the puck to Donovan Neuls who scored. I thought he was even better Sunday against Spokane as he looked to take on a more offensive role and picked up one assist.

First Star. Taran Kozun. The Seattle goalie may not be facing an onslaught of shots but he is making the saves he should make and when there is a quality scoring chance against him, he's making the highlight save as well. He continues to be superb playing the puck, disrupting the oppositions attempts to dump and chase. Calm, cool and collected he went 2-0 on the weekend, surrendering just three goals (none 5-on-5) on 43 shots.

R.I.P Dick Emmett, longtime T-bird off-ice official who passed away this past weekend. Another member of our T-bird family is gone, but not forgotten.

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 solid 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.