Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Now the Waiting Begins

A flurry of activity, from player signings, schedule announcements and national team invites, to NHL drafts and a CHL Import draft selection, put an end to the Thunderbirds busy month of June.

The last scheduled event on the calendar until training camp was Tuesday's annual two round CHL Import Draft. With center Alexander True, whom the T-birds chose in last summer's draft, already on the roster, Seattle spent just one of it's allotted two choices. Picking 44th in round one, they chose hulking Swedish center Gustav Olhaver. The native of Angleholm, Sweden is listed at 6'6", 213lbs. Just this past weekend Olhaver was selected in the 7th round of the NHL Draft by the Colorado Avalanche. Olhaver, who celebrates his 18th birthday at the end of the week, adds another 1997 born player (18 year old) to the Thunderbirds roster. With this addition Seattle now has 11 such players on the team.

I can't tell you much about Olhaver. Like you, I can read his stats over at Eliteprospects.com and it appears he put up decent numbers. Here's a link to a scouting report on the big Swede: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1smso5k.

At the end of this past T-birds season it was a prevailing thought among many who follow the club that Seattle would look to the import draft to find an elite offensive-minded defenseman to fill some of the void created by the departure of Shea Theodore to the pro ranks. But when Seattle announced the signing of '98 born defenseman Brandon Schuldhaus on Monday, it seemed clear to me that there wasn't room for another d-man on the roster.

Not that there is much room on the roster for another forward. As of today there are 13 forwards on the Seattle roster returning from last season. Toss in Olhaver, who tweeted minutes after the draft that he is coming, and you have 14 forwards on the club before you get to any possible 16 year old rookie forwards such as Matthew Wedman or Wyatt Bear. But late Monday night I thought Seattle would possibly look for a forward in the Import Draft, of they type who could fill the void left by Roberts Lipsbergs, someone who could come in and immediately give the team a 30 goal season.

Is Olhaver that guy? He could be, you never know. Upon further reflection though, this choice makes sense because you already have so many returning forwards who should increase their goal totals from last year to pick up the Lipsbergs void. What the team lacks is a little more grit and physicality up front. What were Seattle GM Russ Farwell's first comments regarding the drafting of Olhaver? "We are excited to add a NHL drafted player with his size where we were picking."

Matt Barzal had 12 goals in an injury shortened season. The recent New York Islanders first round draft pick should be able to conservatively double that number. Meanwhile players like Keegan Kolesar (another player selected in the NHL draft this past weekend), Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan, Donovan Neuls and Lane Pederson should be able to increase their 2014-15 goal totals. Meanwhile, Olhaver is a big body who can create space for those players and that will help them increase those numbers. Olhaver himself told the T-birds, "I'm a tall forward that can get to the net and be hard to move. I can play a physical game and am smart with the puck." If the Thunderbirds other import player, True, has been able to add weight and muscle to his 6'4" frame this offseason, the team will, along with Kolesar, have three big-bodied players who play a similar, physical game.

As I mentioned earlier, the T-birds announced Monday they had signed 2013 5th round Bantam draft pick Brandon Schuldhaus to a standard WHL player agreement. Many observers at Seattle's training camp a year ago thought he played well enough to earn a roster spot as a 16 year old. Indeed, he was one of the last cuts in camp because there just wasn't going to be enough opportunity for him to get significant playing time. Instead he returned to the prestigious Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minnesota. Schuldhaus already had good size but this year he should be more physically mature. What I remember most about his time in camp last season was he played a responsible defensive game but had a knack of when to jump up and join the attack. The T-birds now have eight signed defenseman who will be competing for the seven roster spots for the 2015-16 season.

On paper, this is a very talented team as we head into the dog days of summer, slowly counting the days until training camp arrives. Players are deep into their offseason workout programs. There could always be a trade or two between now and then but if this roster stays intact, there is going to be some fierce competition for playing time once the season rolls around and how the players train in the summer could be the difference in who is on the ice this winter.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Junesin' for Some Hockey

Summer officially started this past weekend but we certainly have a lot of hockey news this week affecting the Thunderbirds. First off, Seattle announced it's six game exhibition schedule which begins with three games at the traditional preseason tournament up in Everett the weekend of September 4th. The T-birds are in the Tri-Cities the following weekend for a pair of contests, before they host Victoria in their only preseason home game Friday, September 18th. Earlier Seattle announced their regular season home opener, which will be Saturday, October 3rd at the ShoWare Center versus Prince George. We can surmise by this that the team will begin the regular season on the road the previous weekend. The full regular season schedule will be unveiled Wednesday and that's when we'll find out where and who the T-birds open the regular season against.

Meanwhile the T-birds have signed Elijah Brown to a standard WHL Player Agreement. Brown was Seattle's first round selection in the May WHL Bantam Draft. The Edmonton, Alberta native was selected 15th overall.

This is the earliest the Thunderbirds have inked their first round bantam selection since 2010, when they drafted defenseman Jared Hauf fourth overall, meaning there will be none of the wait associated with the last four top Seattle selections. In 2011 the T-birds picked Ryan Gropp in round one, eighth overall, but Gropp waited until October of 2013 before deciding on Seattle.

Matt Barzal was Seattle's first round pick, and first overall, in the spring of 2012 but he didn't announce he was joining Seattle until the following spring. Of course 2013's first round pick, defenseman Dante Fabbro, remains unsigned while another defenseman, Jarret Tyszka, the top choice of the T-birds in the spring of 2014, was just recently brought into the fold when he signed his player agreement with the club in April, 11 months after Seattle picked him 16th overall.

We have to remember that these players have options, such as NCAA hockey or staying and playing closer to home. Additionally these aren't just player decisions but family decisions. The parents are also weighing the options of what is best for their son going forward. let's not forget that Seattle had two other first round picks in that time span, they just weren't their first overall selections. But both Keegan Kolesar (2012) and Kaden Elder (2013) signed shortly after they were drafted in the first round of their respective drafts.

What should get you excited if you are a Thunderbirds fan is that Seattle will have a minimum of six first round WHL Bantam picks on their roster this coming season with Hauf, Gropp, Barzal, Kolesar, Elder and Tyszka and room for a seventh should Fabbro opt to join the club at some point.

Nolan Volcan wasn't a first round selection. Instead, Seattle chose him high in round two back in the spring of 2013. He was the fifth pick of the second round, 27th overall. Volcan played like a young first rounder this past season though and Hockey Canada rewarded him by inviting him to Canada's U-18 team summer camp. The word came down Tuesday, the same day Barzal was extended his expected invite to Canada's U-20 (World Juniors) summer camp. That means three T-birds are heading to national team summer camps this year. Earlier this month USA Hockey released the list of their World Junior summer camp invitees and it included Seattle's Scott Eansor.

The week is not over though as the NHL Draft takes center stage this weekend down in Sunrise, Florida. The first round begins Friday night and expect Barzal to hear his name called within the first 15 picks. I can't see him lasting past the 10th pick, but if he does,in my opinion, someone would be getting a steal. Three other Seattle players should be locks to hear their names called; Gropp, Kolesar and defenseman Ethan Bear. A few others have an outside chance of being drafted such as Alexander True and Turner Ottenbreit. My darkhorse though, is Eansor. I would not be surprised to see some team take a flyer on him in the final round.

And, lest we forget, next Tuesday is the CHL Import draft. Seattle currently only has one import player on the roster, True, so they will be making a selection with their first round pick. Whoever the T-birds pick, they will be looking for a dynamic player who can jump right in and contribute from day one, because unlike the signing of Brown, this first round pick will have to have an immediate impact. The prevailing thought is they will look for a defenseman who can take up the slack for the departed Shea Theodore. In other words someone with a good offensive game who can be affective on the power play but defensively responsible.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Circle of Life WHL Style

An eventful last two days for the Seattle Thunderbirds. All highs, no lows! It started with some terrific recognition for a couple of T-birds leaving the organization and ended with Seattle welcoming nine new prospects into the nest.

Wednesday up in Calgary the WHL held it's annual awards banquet and two Thunderbirds walked away with some valuable hardware. I was certainly not surprised that Taran Kozun and Shea Theodore won their respective awards. Kozun took home the Del Wilson Trophy as the 2014-15 WHL Goaltender of the Year, besting Eastern Conference representative Tristan Jarry of Edmonton. Kozun's numbers speak for themselves, a 33-19-4-4 record along with a 2.41 GAA and save percentage of .915.

This is a pretty nice "feel good" story too. Kozun, who was not selected in his WHL Bantam Draft year, had a remarkable season and a half career as a Thunderbird after coming over from Kamloops at the 2014 January trade deadline. At the time it seemed Seattle was just looking for a healthy goalie to help in net with Danny Mumaugh after Justin Myles got hurt. In his previous two seasons in Kamloops Kozun was either the back up or shared duty in goal there too. His numbers were decent with the Blazers but he never really had to carry the load. That all changed once he became a Thunderbird. I still think, initially, he was going to split the goaltending job in Seattle as well, but in his very first start for the T-birds he shutout the Spokane Chiefs. He grabbed a hold of the number one goaltending job and never let go. In 84 regular season games in net for the T-birds he went 47-28-4-5 and recorded eight shutouts. Seattle went from being a team without a #1 goalie to having the #1 goalie in the league.

Meanwhile, Theodore culminated his terrific junior career by accepting the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as the WHL's Defenseman of the Year for 2014-15, winning out over Ivan Provorov of the Brandon Wheat Kings. Theodore was honored by the league even though he missed a good chunk of the first half of the season because of an elbow injury suffered at training camp with the NHL's Anaheim Ducks and being away from the T-birds to play for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships. Despite playing in only 43 of Seattle's 72 games, he still earned 48 points. In the process he became the franchise's all time leading goal scorer and point producer among defensemen. His stellar play with the Thunderbirds led to him being drafted in the first round of the NHL draft two years ago by the Ducks.

Theodore reached these heights after being selected in the third round of the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft. In fact, he was the third defenseman Seattle selected in that draft (after Jared Hauf and Taylor Green)and their fourth pick overall. And Theo may never have been a Thunderbird if not for something that happened a year before Seattle selected him. When training camp rolled around prior to the 2009-10 season, T-birds center Jeremy Boyer opted not to report for his 19-year old season, instead staying home back in Saskatchewan and requesting a trade. Seattle GM Russ Farwell eventually honored his request and shipped Boyer to the Saskatoon Blades in exchange for prospect Stefan Burzan and a third round draft pick. While Burzan never made it out of training camp and onto the Seattle roster, the T-birds used that third rounder in the spring of 2010, the 64th pick overall, to draft Theodore.

Earlier in that round with the 48th pick, Seattle had chosen James Neil, a right winger out of Surrey. So, we'll never know if the T-birds would have been able to draft Theodore had Boyer never requested a trade and instead reported to camp. The T-birds didn't have a 4th round pick that year meaning their next selection was in the 5th round, #92 overall and Theodore would have probably been long gone by then. I guess we owe Jeremy Boyer a big "thank you!"

This all segues nicely into what happened Thursday, the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft in which Seattle made nine selections. It started in round one when, with the 15th overall pick, Seattle chose Elijah Brown a playmaking center out of Edmonton. Brown is described as "having speed that creates opportunities all over the ice". In round two the T-birds grabbed Carl Stankowksi, a goalie from Calgary. It's the highest Seattle has drafted a netminder since choosing Calvin Pickard in the second round back in 2007. Want a little more intrigue? Pickard was the 38th player selected that spring, Stankowski was the 37th player chosen Thursday.

And this pick makes sense as well. Seattle has a couple of goalies they're very high on, 18 year old Logan Flodell and 17 year old Ryan Gilchrist, to tend goal for the next few years. When those two are ready to move on, Stankowski should be ready to take over between the pipes.

Outside of Brown and Stankowski, the two T-birds picks that intrigued me the most were 5th rounder Sabir Gill, a defenseman out of Vancouver's North Shore Winter Club, and forward Chase Sakic, selected in the 8th round out of Englewood, Colorado. Gill has a champion's pedigree, having been a part of a Western Canada Bantam championship team. He registered 70 points (20g, 50a) and quarterbacked his team's power play. We often hear coach's say that winning is a learned habit. Well, Gill comes with that habit already learned.

Sakic, is the son of Joe Sakic, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Colorado Avalanche, and a certain Hall of Famer who enjoyed a stellar 20 year NHL career, so he obviously comes with good bloodlines. Chase didn't last until the 8th round because he was on the fence about the WHL. He made it clear before the draft he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps and play in the Dub.

He most likely lasted that long because of his size. He's listed at just 5'4" and 130 lbs. I don't have any idea how much bigger he's going to get but size was also a knock on his dad when he played in the WHL for Swift Current back in the 1980s. While he may not have the size yet, the one thing that Chase Sakic probably does have as a result of growing up around an NHL locker room, and some of the best hockey players in the world, is that innate hockey IQ that you just can't teach. He's seen first hand from his dad and the players around his dad in the NHL what it takes to play at the highest level, the day-to-day commitment to being the best. Of the nine players Seattle drafted Thursday, he was the first to tweet out how excited he was for the chance to be a T-bird and play in the WHL. He is ready to get his career going.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Ode to the Ward-dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An End, or Just a Beginning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

Looks Like Another Classic Series Unfolding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My T-birds Three Stars for the weekend:

3rd Star: The forwards

2nd Star: The defenseman

1st star: The goaltending

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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lucky Number Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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