Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stop Interfering with my Hockey!

The Thunderbirds earned three points this past week, going 1-1-1-0 in the three games played around the Thanksgiving Holiday. I guess you could say they were in a "giving" move, but be "thankful" for the three points and move on. Just slightly past the one-third point of the season Seattle is 16-7-2-0, in first place in the U.S. Division and only five points out of the conference lead with a game in hand. I'm not sure there are too many who would have turned that start down back on September 24th just before the season got underway.

The week began Wednesday up in Kelowna with one of the T-birds poorer efforts of the season in a 5-2 loss to the Rockets. At the time of the first period puck drop, this was a battle between the two best winning percentages in the WHL. That's what makes the loss all the more disappointing. It's one thing to lose, it's another to do so without your best effort. Seattle started well enough. They pressured the Rockets with 15 shots in the first period. They left that effort in the dressing room between periods and had a less then stellar second period, being outshot 16-2. Still, they were only down a goal, 2-1 when the period ended. Unfortunately they started the third the same way the second period ended and when Kelowna added a third goal six minutes in to the final frame, it was over. The good news is the T-birds get three more cracks at the Rockets and two of them will be at the ShoWare Center.

The Thunderbirds bounced back with a solid 5-3 win Friday at home against the Vancouver Giants. It was a chippy game but Seattle was the better team most of the night. I thought it was one of Taz Burman's better games in goal for Seattle as he made some timely saves to keep Vancouver from ever really making a game out of it. Meanwhile the T-birds top players were just that; the best players on the ice all night. Matt Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear led the way combining for eight points (2g, 6a) in the win. Vancouver is a hard team to figure out. They have a talented roster with the likes of Tyler Benson and Ty Ronning, are a tough team to play against, yet have just six wins in 26 games. They've done a lot of roster tinkering the first two months of the season and that may be the main reason for their sluggish start but they seem to be in every game.

How many of you had the T-birds going a perfect 36-0 at home this season? Love your optimism but it wasn't going to happen. Seattle finally failed to get the "W" on home ice Saturday in a 3-2 overtime loss to Moose Jaw. Hey, they still got a point out of the game and haven't lost at home in regulation in ten tries (9-0-1-0) but a home loss of any kind was an eventuality. Still, 19 out of a possible 20 points from home games is quite an accomplishment and the T-birds remain the only team in the league without a regulation loss at home.

Saturday's game versus Moose Jaw was a tight-checking, physical affair. 5-on-5 Seattle had some dominate stretches. The problem was they ran in to a terrific young goaltender in Zach Sawchenko and they also ran into penalty trouble. You give the league's 5th ranked power play seven chances you're going to get burned and that's exactly what happened as the Warriors finished 2-for-7 with the man advantage, including the game winner in OT. You might go an entire month of games and not see seven interference penalties called. In Saturday's game, there were seven interference penalties called in 60 minutes. But the officials weren't playing favorites. They called that penalty both ways, three on Moose Jaw and four on Seattle. The T-birds just didn't adjust to the way the game was being called. Still, I thought it was a solid effort. Sometimes you just get beat. Tip your hat to the other team and get ready for the next game.

Something I wrote about earlier in the season still holds true. Seattle is not consistently getting enough traffic in front of opposing goalies and you won't beat the good ones, like Sawchenko or Everett's Carter Hart, without that element in your game. That means they need to get dirty, and pay a physical price to get to second chance opportunities. You can't score the greasy goal if you aren't willing to get a little grease on you.

A post game scoring change following Seattle's Friday night win over Vancouver added one more assist to Barzal's totals. Additionally, upon video review it was determined that Owen Seidel also earned an assist. That was his first WHL point, so congratulations to Owen for getting on the scoresheet.

Barzal had a terrific weekend which, of course, is almost the norm now. After being held off the scoresheet in the loss Wednesday up in Kelowna he bounced back to register six points (1g, 5a) and was +3 in the two home games. On the season he is now tied for third in the league in scoring with 40 points. He is just five points off the league scoring lead. He is also averaging an astounding 1.81 assists per game. He punctuated the weekend with the highlight reel goal of the season thus far. A nearly end-to-end rush up ice in the final minute and a half Saturday to forge a 2-2 tie and send the game to overtime. That goal earned the T-birds a huge point.

After starting the month of November with a four game losing streak, the T-birds finished strong going 7-1-1-0. I call that a solid response to a bit of adversity. A lesser team might have struggled to get out of that funk. The Thunderbirds not only got out of it but did so with a flourish.

Remember that stretch of seven games back in October in which Seattle actually had a complete and healthy roster available to them? Ah, the memories. That was 15 games ago. Don't expect it to improve in December. Nolan Volcan is still out with his lower body injury for another week or two. About the time he gets back in the lineup anticipate Seattle losing a few key players like Barzal, Scott Eansor and Alexander True, to World Junior camps/competition. The departures are perfect timing; just as Seattle gets into the front end of their U.S. Division schedule. Seattle will play 11 games in December and ten are against division opponents. It starts Friday in Spokane with the first of five December games against the Chiefs.

Don't forget next Saturday's home game versus the Tri-City Americans. The T-birds will be celebrating 100 years of hockey in the Seattle area with, among other things, a salute to the 1917 Seattle Metropolitans, the first U.S. based team to win the Stanley Cup. The Thunderbirds will be wearing replica Metropolitans jerseys and the holy grail of hockey itself, the Stanley Cup, will be in attendance as well. The Metropolitans, who were part of the now defunct Pacific Coast Hockey Association at the time, were poised to possibly start a hockey dynasty but that got wiped out by a deadly influenza outbreak. I would suggest to honor the memory of that team we remind everyone eligible to go get their flu shot!

My T-birds Three Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. A solid weekend for the veteran defenseman from Calgary. In the two home games he earned two points (2a) and was +3. He is often tasked with helping shut down the opposing team's top scoring line and along with his partner Jerret Smith, logs tons of ice. He's a big reason why the T-birds, as a team, allow so few shots against and are one of the top defensive clubs, and top penalty killing teams, in the WHL. This weekend T-birds defensemen were assessed five minor penalties in two games. Hauf was not among the guilty. Despite his physical play, he's staying out of the penalty box this season (only 24 PIMs in 25 games).

2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. I thought he was good in all three games this past week, even in the loss in Kelowna. In the two home games he provided four points (2g, 2a)and was +2 and is now tied with Keegan Kolesar for the team lead in goals with 15. He's slowly climbing up the league scoring leader board and could soon join his two linemates, Barzal and Kolesar, in the top twenty. His two goals this past weekend were both through-the-eye-of-the-needle type pinpoint beauties. William Tell could not have placed those shots any better. For the first time I've also noticed him consistently on the back check.

1st Star: Center Matt Barzal. He earns this designation on that last minute goal Saturday against Moose Jaw alone. He was like Moses and it was like watching the Red Sea part as he skated up ice through the Warriors defense and score with Seattle in desparate need of a game tying goal. Officially he's listed as fifth in the league in scoring but that's only because goal scorers get top billing and the three other players with 40 points all have more goals. In reality he has the third most points in the league. Maybe they should list them alphabetically instead? He is tied for the league lead in assists with 33 but has done it in fewer games then Lethbridge's Brayden Burke. Should find out Tuesday if he'll be invited to Team Canada's World Junior Evaluation Camp. I'd be shocked if that doesn't happen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two by Four Weekend

The Seattle Thunderbirds went streaking this weekend. They earned all four points available to them in their two games. In the process they pushed their overall winning streak to six games, their road winning streak to four and their home ice winning streak to eight. All that streaking adds up to a solid 15-6-1-0 record and a seat atop the U.S. Division standings.

Seattle actually started the week last Tuesday with a 5-4 win over the Swift Current Broncos. It was the start of a good week for T-Birds left winger Ryan Gropp who led the Seattle attack with a goal and two assists. He followed that up with a hat trick in Seattle's 4-3 overtime win Friday, as the New York Rangers draft pick almost single-handedly beat his hometown team, the Kamloops Blazers. Gropp's game was more then just scoring though as he's picked up his defensive zone coverage and is becoming a reliable penalty killer.

Don't for one minute think Seattle didn't enjoy that win Friday in Kamloops, blown lead and all. Prior to that win Seattle had just one win in their last 10 visits to that city and had been outscored by a considerable margin. So there were a lot of big smiles postgame. A lot of relief too.

Seattle completed the sweep of the three games this past week with a very convincing 5-2 win Saturday night at home over division rival Portland. While there may have been an anxious moment or two, for the most part, the T-Birds controlled the tempo of that game almost from the get go. A big reason for that was the return of Scott Eansor to the lineup. Eansor had missed nine games with an upper body injury before returning Friday in Kamloops. In his two games back he has registered four assists, including three helpers in the win over the Winterhawks.

The T-Birds learned an important lesson last season that helped them this weekend. Last year the T-Birds got a big win in Kelowna on a Friday night and the players were jazzed up on the bus ride down for a Saturday game in Everett. They were so pumped by that win over the Rockets they didn't get enough shut eye on the bus ride back and fell flat in a 4-0 loss to the Silvertips. Fast forward to Friday night in Kamloops, and a big overtime win against the Blazers. Once the players got on the bus, they went right to sleep and were ready to go Saturday against Portland. Of course it didn't hurt to have a full house at the ShoWare Center to get their adrenaline pumping.

Not that my opinion holds much sway, but I put my stamp of approval on the way the T-Birds attacked all three opponents they faced. Knowing they were going to face three quality goalies in Landon Bow with Swift Current, Connor Ingram in Kamloops and Portland's Adin Hill, they approached all three games with the same mindset; get shots to the net. They weren't trying to be too cute or searching for the perfect shot. Lots of shots and lots of traffic was the order of the day each game. As a result the Thunderbirds averaged nearly 41 shots per game in the three game sweep, scoring 14 times.

The phrase, "The Thunderbirds have a 3-1 lead" shouldn't have negative connotations but it does seem to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up a bit doesn't it? That particular score seems to give Seattle a little trouble. They led in each of the past three games by that score. Tuesday against Swift Current they lost that lead then rallied from behind to win. Up in Kamloops Friday night that lead evaporated on them early in the third period before they won it in OT, thanks to Keegan Kolesar. Saturday they were up 3-1 entering the third period then Portland tallied on the power play in the opening minute to close within one. Seattle had a quick answer though, scoring twice to pull away.

They say a two goal lead is the hardest lead in hockey to protect. Every team is going to have a desperation push back that could turn the momentum. The reality is, Seattle is 10-2 win leading after two periods, usually by that 3-1 score. So whether they hold that lead or not, the T-Birds are showing their resiliency. They're not panicking and they don't get down on themselves when they give up a goal or a lead. Hockey is still a 60 minute game. Lots of things will happen over the course of those 60 minutes and as long as you play to the final whistle you give yourself a chance.

Good teams win in all phases of the game and that especially includes special teams play. During their current six-game winning streak Seattle has scored at least one power-play goal in each game. A couple of times that has been the difference on the scoreboard. Over the last six games the T-Birds power play has outscored the opponent's power play, 7-3. A special teams goal differential of plus four over six games is going to get you a lot of wins. As a result the T-Birds are top five in the league in both the PP (4th) and PK (5th).

The game Saturday versus Portland was just the fifth time this season, and first time since October 24th, that Seattle has played a U.S. Division foe. They are 3-1-1-0 in those games. They still haven't faced Spokane, a situation that will be remedied in early December when they face the Chiefs three times in eight days. In fact the T-Birds will meet Spokane five times next month. But the vast majority of Seattle's U.S. Division games will be the second half of the season when 25 of their last 36 games will be against divisional opponents, including all 10 games in March.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the week.

Third Star: Center Mathew Barzal. It was almost a quiet week for Barzal, if there is such a thing for a team's leading scorer. Just went about his business as usual though and earned five points (1g, 4a) and was +3. He has climbed the league scoring ladder and is now sixth overall and leads the league with 28 assists. Enjoy him because you might not see much of him next month with World Juniors approaching. He's got a good chance to make Team Canada.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor. Welcome back! After missing nine games (really ten because he was hurt in the first period back on October 27th against Brandon) all he does is pickup four assists in two games. An Energizer Bunny-type player, his motor is always in gear, never idling. A different kind of player, but like Barzal, a tone setter. After his effort this weekend, he's a point-a-game player with 13 points (4g, 9a) in 13 games. Like Barzal, he could be a participant at World Juniors next month with Team USA.

First Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Totalled six points (4g, 2a)and that was without him getting on the scoresheet Saturday. T-Birds don't win without his hat trick Friday in Kamloops. He also got the T-Birds going Tuesday with a big first period versus Swift Current (1g, 2a). If he continues to produce offense like this, he'll join his linemates Barzal and Kolesar among the league's top scorers.

Quick note; because of the Thanksgiving holiday, this week's edition of the Seattle Thunderbirds Weekly Coach's Show will air Tuesday night at 6 pm, rather then the usual Thursday night. Join me, and head coach Steve Konowalchuk, along with guest Donovan Neuls on 1090 The Fan. Among the topics will be a preview of the Wednesday night showdown from Kelowna between the T-Birds and defending WHL champion Rockets.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Twice as Nice Weekend

The Seattle Thunderbirds left Victoria Sunday morning and were both very glad, because they won twice against the Victoria Royals this past weekend, but maybe a little sad as well. You see, the two-game set was Seattle's only regular season appearance on Vancouver Island but over their past four games in Victoria, dating back to last season, the T-Birds have enjoyed some royal hospitality. The Thunderbirds have now won three in a row at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre and have points in six straight in that building, compiling a 4-0-1-1 record. In fact, since the franchise moved from Chilliwack to Victoria five seasons ago, the T-Birds have earned at least a point in seven of the 10 games they've played there (5-3-1-1).

Were there big differences in the way the team played this past weekend versus Victoria in two wins, as opposed to some of their games in Alberta the previous week when they suffered a four game losing streak? No, the differences were subtle. Primarily, Seattle got back to being consistently, very aggressive on the forecheck for 60 minutes. No one was taking shifts off. Victoria is a smallish team and the T-Birds were able to be physical with them. The T-Birds did a better job of puck possession, especially inside their own zone. They limited the number of defensive zone turnovers and were quicker getting the puck up ice. As a result, they didn't get hung up much in the neutral zone.

Victoria has surrendered only nine power-play goals to the opposition in their 22 games. Seattle has 33 percent of them. Special teams were another key to the two wins this past weekend as the T-Birds scored a power-play goal each night while killing off 10 of 11 power play chances for the Royals. The only power-play goal Seattle surrendered was a 5-on-3 goal Saturday night. It was Victoria's only goal of the game.

The T-Birds had to come from behind both nights for the win. That's something we've seen them do on more then a few occasions this season. Seattle trailed 2-0 after two periods Friday but put together a four goal rally in the third period to post the 4-2 comeback win. Saturday Victoria scored early in the first before the T-Birds answered with the last three goals in the 3-1 victory. The ability to come back shows a level of maturity as the team doesn't panic when behind on the scoreboard.

So Seattle ends their longest stretch of consecutive road games on the calendar this season, eight straight away from the ShoWare Center, by going 4-4. You can lament the two blown 3-1 third period leads in Calgary and Red Deer, but there is nothing you can do about that now. Learn the lessons from those games and move forward. By finishing that eight game stretch with a three-game winning streak, I think it is safe to say the T-Birds did just that. For all the consternation there may have been among the T-Bird faithful over that four game skid, remember this; Seattle entered the losing streak in first place in the U.S. Division and were still in first place when it ended.

And one other thing of which to take note. The T-Birds have built their 12-6-1-0 record while playing the most road games in the league (13, tied with three other teams) and the fewest home games (6). The old, winning season, formula goes something like this; win your home games and be at least .500 on the road. So far the T-birds are 6-0 at home and 6-6-1 on the road but riding a three game, road winning streak.

Two games is a small sample size but I think T-Bird fans are going to like newcomer Owen Seidel (pronounced SIGH-dull). It's certainly easy to see why Seattle got him as part of the return for Kaden Elder in the trade last week with Swift Current. He plays a good two-way game. He hasn't earned his first WHL point yet but it does appear he has good hands and a nose for the net. The coaches trusted him enough that when Nolan Volcan couldn't go Saturday night, they moved Seidel up to the third line. Remember it was just his second game with his new teammates and he had only had two practices with the team.

After eight straight on the road the T-Birds get four of their next six games at home. First up a Tuesday matchup with the aforementioned Swift Current Broncos. Seattle will get a stiff test on the weekend as they have to travel up to Kamloops for a game with the Blazers Friday and then a quick turnaround to get back home for a Saturday night tilt with longtime rival Portland.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. In two starts against Victoria he went 2-0 saving 39 of 42 shots faced, a .928 save percentage, and compiling a 1.50 GAA over 120 minutes. I think sometimes we don't give a goaltender credit when he's not facing a plethora of shots but Flodell made key saves both nights. As a result he lowered his overall GAA to 2.17 while upping his season SVPCT to .913. That puts him top five among WHL goaltenders.

2nd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. Seattle fell behind both nights against the Royals. Each night a Keegan Kolesar goal sparked the comeback. He finished the weekend with three points (2g, 1a) and was +3. He has four goals in his last three games. He now sits 10th in the league in scoring with 27 points (14g, 13a) and is just five goals off his total from last season when he potted 19 in 64 games.

1st Star: Center Mathew Barzal. Call him the Barzal Bowl because he likes to dish the assists. After picking up three more this weekend he now has 24 apples in just 16 games. That's 1.5 assists per game. He chipped in a game winning goal on Saturday too. He's now 9th overall in the league scoring race with 29 points (5g, 24a). After picking up four points on the weekend (1g, 3a) he is now averaging 1.8 points per game and is Seattle's leading point producer and is on pace for a 124 point season.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Elder Speeds Off to Swift Current

On Tuesday the Seattle Thunderbirds traded center Kaden Elder to the Swift Current Broncos in exchange for right winger Owen Seidel and a 5th round 2016 Bantam Draft pick. With the deal the T-Birds gain a little more size (Seidel is listed at 6'0", 189lbs. Elder is 5'9", 172 lbs) and fill a hole in their 2016 draft which was void of some middle round picks.

On paper this appears to be a trade to get a couple of '98 born players a change of scenery and a chance at more ice time. While listed as a center, when in the lineup Elder had been playing more on the wing this season in Seattle. That's because there were five players ahead of him on the depth chart at the center position; Matt Barzal, Scott Eansor, Alexander True, Donovan Neuls (although he too was playing more on the wing) and, more significantly, 16-year-old rookie Matthew Wedman.

I'm sure Elder wanted more ice time. He has been a healthy scratch in three of 17 games and when Seattle shortened the bench in the third period his in-game minutes were lessened. One reason has been the emergence of Wedman. The rookie has shown an ability to win faceoffs, kill penalties and play physically. With Eansor out with injury, it's been Wedman getting those minutes centering either the third or fourth line, not Elder. In essence, Elder got caught in a numbers game. The T-Birds have plenty of depth among the forward lines and a younger player developing at a faster rate. Because of that depth, he could never get off that fourth line with the T-Birds.

A solid citizen, there is nothing wrong with Elder the player. He should have a solid WHL career. But this season, on this team, he wasn't going to be taking minutes away from any of the players ahead of him on the depth chart. The Thunderbirds also have other prospects, including a signed Elijah Brown, on their list who can fill the Elder void next season.

I don't know what Seattle is getting in Seidel. He has played in only seven games thus far with the Broncos in what is his rookie campaign. So far he has not registered a point or been assessed any penalties. The Richmond, B.C. native was a 7th round selection of Swift Current in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. He put up good offensive numbers last season in Midget hockey with the Greater Vancouver Canadians of the BCMML (38 games 17g 50a 67 pts.). With the T-birds he'll join Luke Osterman and Wyatt Bear in a battle for ice time.

Of course as is so often the case, both players get a chance to shine against their former team almost immediately. The T-Birds host the Broncos at the ShoWare Center next Tuesday in their first home game after eight straight on the road.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

T-Birds Toe the Thin Line

The margin between winning and losing in the WHL is often whisper thin. Unfortunately, Seattle found that out to their detriment far too often on their just completed six game venture to the Eastern Conference and the Central Division. What could have easily been a 5-1, or 4-2, swing out east instead ended with the T-Birds going just 2-4, bookending their wins around a four game losing streak.

Woulda, shoulda coulda. Seattle lost two of those games after taking 3-1 leads into the final period. In another game, their potent power play couldn't muster up just one more power-play goal despite six more opportunities. Then they gave up the empty-net goal as they desperately looked for the equalizer. It's difficult to absorb losses when you are the better team for two of three periods but that happened three times on the trip. Again, the recipe for success calls for 60 minutes of hockey. A couple of times the T-Birds took the cake out of the oven too soon.

Seattle had started the trip so strong, beating Kootenay in Cranbrook, 5-2 then controlling the tempo and the scoreboard for the first two periods against Calgary the following day. But the tenor of the trip turned that fateful third period against the Hitmen up at the Saddledome. Too many T-Birds went into casual mode. They stopped being aggressive. They found out once you turn off the switch, it's not so easy to flip it back on. They made too many defensive zone mistakes...both figuratively, and in one case literally, putting the puck in their own goal as a result.

Still, Seattle had a chance to erase that sour finish in Calgary two nights later in Red Deer. After a fairly even first period, Seattle dominated the Rebels in the second. It may have been their best period of hockey on the road trip. By controlling the puck they were able to outshoot Red Deer 14-5 in the period and outscored them, 2-0. For the second straight game they took a 3-1 lead into the final period. For the second straight game they failed to hold it. It may have been different reasons that led to the lead evaporating, but the result was the same, a 4-3 loss.

I think physically they were fine, but maybe, just maybe, mentally they had lost a bit of confidence. Maybe doubt crept in. Possibly they began to squeeze the sticks a little harder. That's what made their win in Medicine Hat so important going forward with this season. Another 3-1 lead after 40 minutes, another goal given up early in the third to slice their lead to one. Time to toughen up mentally, fight through the adversity of losing Matt Barzal for the second half of the game. They had to climb over the hill back to the winning side before the hill became a mountain.

And that is what they did. They finally got some timely and key saves from their goaltending as Logan Flodell stopped 10 of 11 shots the first half of that third period at the Canalta Centre. As the period wore on, they got back to being aggressive and pushing the pace. It led to a Medicine Hat penalty, then another and finally a Seattle power-play goal that provided a cushion on the scoreboard. Seattle would finish the trip they way they started it, with a 5-2 win.

He who hesitates is lost and to me it looked like the officials were a bit lost trying to decide if Matt Barzal deserved a two minute minor or a five minute major for his checking from behind infraction midway through the second period Saturday against the Tigers. Hey, I'm biased and thought it was a fairly run-of-the-mill minor penalty. It took the four guys in stripes nearly two minutes of debate to reach their conclusion (five and a game). How many times during that discussion did they change their minds? Hem and haw? Can't take that long. It made them look like not one of them was in charge. Be decisive. If they had called the five minute major right away, I may have disagreed but I would have had more respect for the decision. By waiting so long it looked like they were waiting for someone else to magically appear and make the call for them. If they were waiting for the reaction of the player on the ice (would he stay in the game, would he leave the game)before making the call, then they got it wrong. Intent, not random result should determine the severity of the penalty.

I'm not sure what it is when this team goes on that extended trip out east that always seems to have them dealing with adversity. Usually it is injuries to key players. last fall it was Barzal getting hurt just before the first of six straight against the Eastern Division. This time around they lose Scott Eansor and Jamal Watson before the trip even started, then Jarret Smith missed most of the game in Edmonton to an upper body injury. Two years ago they had so many injuries by the time the trip was ending they barely had enough players to ice a team. Injuries happen but they all seem to happen all at once with Seattle.

In a perverse sort of way that injury to Barzal and others on the trip last season made the T-Birds a better team the second half of the 2014-15 campaign. Younger players got lots of ice time and other players took on bigger roles. It's very possible that could be the case again this season too. Young players like Matthew Wedman, Jarret Tyszka, Kaden Elder and Sahvan Khaira got extra ice time and were starting to thrive with it by the final game of the trip. Then there is rookie d-man Brandon Schuldhaus. Sometimes you don't even realize he's on the ice but he's now tied for the team lead in plus/minus at +7. What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger.

When all is said and done Seattle is still in first place in the U.S. Division. They've reached 10 wins in 17 games and they seemed to have survived the injuries. Onward and upward.

My Three T-Birds Stars for the past week:

3rd Star: C Matt Barzal. He followed up his ten point WHL/CHL Player of the Week performance by piling up five more assists in four games. He's taken over the scoring lead on the team with 25 points (4g, 21a) in just 14 games. On pace for a 124 point season. Still had a two point game in Medicine Hat despite playing only half the game.

2nd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Finished the week with four points (3g, 1a) and was +1. Was instrumental in three of the T-Birds goals in their win in Medicine Hat that broke the losing streak. Once again when Seattle lost Barzal for the second half of the game, he stepped up. He didn't get an assist on that flukey game winner against the Tigers but the goal doesn't happen without his strong rush to get the puck to the front of the net.

1st Star: C Alexander True. Five points over his last four games (3g, 2a) and was +2. Even when he's not scoring he's affecting the game with his physical play and his ability to win faceoffs. Seattle wasted his breakaway, shorthanded goal in Lethbridge. He was good enough in that game that, even though Seattle was outplayed in a 5-2 loss, he impressed the Lethbridge media enough to earn the third star. He's already set a new high in goals with 8 in just 17 games. He compiled just 6 a year ago in 38 games. Has also surpassed his rookie season point total. He had 12 points a season ago and now has 13 this season.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Whiling Away in Alberta

It wouldn't be a trip to Alberta without a little of the white stuff and the Seattle Thunderbirds woke up Monday morning to falling snow in Calgary. Wet snow that doesn't look like it will stick around but apparently the snow gods saw the calendar turn from October to November and decided it was time to let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

The T-Birds have played 13 games thus far this season. That equals 39 periods-plus of hockey. Of those 39 periods I think it is safe to say they've played only two subpar periods. Back in early October they surrendered four goals in Kennewick to Tri-City before rebounding to tie the game before dropping a 6-5 OT decision to the Americans.

Sunday afternoon in Calgary they surrendered three goals in the third period to the Hitmen, and with it a 3-1 lead, and lost at the Saddledome, 4-3. Two bad periods out of 39. I still like the success rate and would bet on the T-Birds continuing to play at that level. While it might not be sustainable, despite the setback the team is still on pace for a 54 win season. I can accept that.

The Thunderbirds have played the last eight periods without Scott Eansor and Jamal Watson who are nursing injuries. These are two players who, when healthy, log a lot of minutes. Despite their absence from the lineup Seattle still outscored the opposition 14-8. That stat would have been even more in Seattle's favor if not for the uncharacteristic third period collapse against Calgary but all told, in their last three games, Seattle is averaging five goals per contest while allowing just 2.6. That goal disparity in their favor will get you a lot of wins.

Eansor and Watson are also key components to the team's penalty kill, yet with them out of the lineup, Seattle has killed off 11 of 14 penalties. Remember, two of the power-play goals they surrendered were in their 5-2 win Saturday against the Ice, in essence, no harm no foul.

Watson is already riding the bike and should start skating again this week, so hopefully both players are back in the lineup soon, possibly before the road trip to Alberta ends.

What went wrong in the third period Sunday in Calgary? Basically everything that has gone well for the team in the third period in most of their previous games was missing Sunday. They weren't aggressive, didn't get pucks deep and were sloppy on the puck in their own zone. Not to take credit away from the Hitmen because they came out and played desperate hockey over the final 20 minutes to secure the come-from-behind win, but the reality is Seattle lost that game more then the Hitmen won it. If the T-Birds had played the third the way they played the first and second periods, we're talking about a win instead of a fustrating loss. The T-Birds have been playing so well over the last month I do wonder though, if a bit of overconfidence crept into their game in that third period, staked to that 3-1 lead. Bottom line though is that 40 minutes does not equal 60 minutes.

Brandon Schuldhaus has played in eight of the team's first 13 games, rotating in and out of the lineup with Sahvan Khaira on the third defensive pairing with fellow rookie Jarret Tyszka. But the first year defenseman has made the most of his playing time and was rewarded Sunday with his first WHL goal. In limited play, the Calgary native now has two points (1g, 1a) and is +6.

Prospect alert!!! Team Alberta won the 2015 Western Canada U16 Challenge Cup this past weekend. As a result two T-Birds prospects, Elijah Brown and Carl Stankowski took home gold medals. Stankowski was in goal for the championship game, turning aside 27 shots to register the shutout over Team Manitoba in the 3-0 win. For his efforts he was named player of the game. Stankowski went 2-0 in the tournament with a 1.50 GAA. Brown, meanwhile, finished the 5-game tournament with five assists, including one in the final.

I feel sorry for goalie Taz Burman. It seems in just about every one of his starts, his defense lets him down. I didn't like the first goal he allowed Sunday in Calgary but he had no chance on the last three which were the results of two ugly give-aways and an own goal. It's all part of the game but he deserves better support. He played well in both his starts this past week, including the win at home against Brandon.

In their first five road games this season, Seattle had not scored a first period road goal. They have one in each of the first two games of this trip.

My 3 T-Bird stars for the past week:

3rd Star: LW Ryan Gropp. Keyed Seattle's win Saturday in Cranbrook over the Kootenay Ice with a three-point game (2g, 1a). Was very good on the PK as well. Finished the three games with five points (3g, 2a) while playing with two new linemates following the injuries to Eansor and Watson.

2nd Star: RW Keegan Kolesar: Seven points (4g, 3a)in the three games just completed including the season's first hat trick last Tuesday versus Brandon, which was also the first of his WHL career. 21 points on the season in 13 games (10g, 11a) and is now 14th in the league in scoring.

1st Star: C Mathew Barzal. Nine points on a goal and eight assists in the last three games. Thrust into a bigger role on the penalty kill in the absence of Eansor and Watson and was solid, especially in the two road games in Cranbrook and Calgary. Becoming harder for the opposition to get him off the puck. Showed a physical side, fighting off a Hitmen player in the neutral zone, to create a 2-on-1 that led to Seattle's first goal Sunday in Calgary. For his effort Barzal was named the WHL Player of the Week.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

No Lucky Number Seven

The Thunderbirds had their six game winning streak snapped Saturday night in Everett, after being shutout by Carter Hart, 2-0. They say you are only as good as your last game but if this team is going to win six out of every seven games and seven of every ten, I'm not going to quibble. At that pace you're looking at what could be a 48-50 win campaign.

It wasn't lack of effort that cost them a seventh straight win. For large stretches of that game's first two periods, Seattle controlled the puck and tempo with their bread and butter; a suffocating forecheck. No, it was a couple of turnovers and a hot goaltender that did them in. As we've said before, goalies can steal a few wins for their team over the course of a season and Hart definitely did that Saturday night. Seattle put 15 shots on goal in that fateful second period, many were quality chances. When the period was over though, there were down 2-0.

If I'm going to be nitpicky the one area I would have liked to see more consistency from Seattle in that game was a bigger presence in front of the Everett goal. Especially after falling behind. When they did get to the front of the net is when they were the most dangerous. Alexander True was one who did that well. He didn't get rewarded on a terrific redirect on a T-Birds power play. The Volcan-Eansor-Watson line was willing to go to the dirty areas looking for greasy goals too. Not all the forwards were willing to do that every shift though.

Everett must have been guilty of icing the puck at least a dozen times, if not more. This meant a lot of attacking zone faceoffs for Seattle. The T-Birds were winning most of those faceoffs too. I mean I don't think 16-year-old Matthew Wedman lost a draw all night. When you win an offensive zone draw and get the puck back to the point, someone has got to go immediately to the front of the net. When Seattle did that, they created a scoring chance, when they didn't they struggled to get the puck off the perimeter. Sometimes to get into the "house" (the area below the hashmarks and above the crease, right in front of the goal) you have to break a window or knock down a door. Seemed to me, at times, the T-Birds were ringing the doorbell and waiting for an invite in.

For the second straight road game Seattle was going hard from the opening faceoff. They controlled much of the first period in Vancouver Friday night and did so again Saturday in Everett. They just didn't reward themselves for that effort. The T-Birds are five road games into the season and have yet to score a first period road goal. But, they have also limited the opposition to just one first period goal in their last three road games and that came back on October 11th down in Portland.

The T-Birds effort in the loss to Everett wasn't much different then their effort in the two wins this past week over Tri-City and Vancouver. Only the result was different. Did we really think Seattle was going to go through the remainder of the season unbeaten? I don't think I need a record book to know no team has gone 70-1-1-0. One major difference against Everett, as opposed to what they did against Tri-City and Vancouver? Seattle never played with the lead against the 'Tips and Everett was able to dictate the play in the third period. The night before against the Giants, with the lead, Seattle dominated the final 20 minutes. Wednesday at home against the Americans, once Seattle got the lead they held on to it with a solid finish.

One area Seattle was able to clean up on the weekend was in the discipline department. After surrendering 15 power play chances in their previous three games, the T-birds were only shorthanded three times combined against the Giants and Silvertips. That was important because those two teams started the weekend ranked #1 and #2 in the league on the power play. Combined they finished 0-for-3. If you didn't know better, on Everett's lone power play chance Saturday night you would have thought Seattle was the team skating with the extra attacker. That's how affective the T-Birds lone penalty kill was. As a result, Seattle now sits third in the league on the penalty kill at 85.4%.

Let's look at the big picture. The T-Birds just won six in a row. They took two of three this past week and two of those three games were on the road. They've allowed two or fewer goals in their last seven games and in their last eight games have only once allowed their opponent to put more then 25 shots on goal. When was the last time an opponent had 30 or more shots on goal against Seattle? Last season. There are a lot of things to complain about in this world but the T-Birds losing once in two weeks isn't one of them.

My T-Birds three stars of the week:

3rd Star (Tie). Goaltender Taz Burman. Had his best game to date as a T-Bird in Friday's 3-1 win over Vancouver. Came a big toe's length away from a shutout as he stopped 21 of 22 shots. 3-0 in his last three starts with a 1.62 GAA and .924 SAV%. Toss out that first period back on October 4th in Kennewick and he's been stellar.
Defenseman Ethan Bear. Got his first two goals of the season in Seattle's 3-2 win Wednesday versus Tri-City, including the game winner. Added an assist Friday in Vancouver. Now at +5 on the season, second best on the team.

2nd Star: Center Alexander True. Keyed the T-Birds win Friday against the Giants with a heady play behind the Vancouver goal that led to him scoring the games first goal. He's becoming a big net front presence for the T-Birds, particularly on the power play and continues to win in the faceoff circle. His offseason commitment to getting stronger is paying off early in the season. A year ago, in injury shortened season, he had 12 points in 38 games (6g, 6a). Already this season in just 10 games has seven points (5g, 2a).

1st Star: Center Scott Eansor. Was probably the T-Birds best, if not the most consistent, player in the loss Saturday. Had one goal this week but affects the game even when he's not getting his name on the scoresheet with a non-stop motor that allows him to disrupt the oppositions break outs. You get the feeling that he and his linemates, Nolan Volcan and Jamal Watson, are on the verge of an offensive explosion. They had a couple such chances versus Everett that just came up short.