Thursday, April 28, 2016

May Oh May!

WHL Hockey in May. Doesn't get any better then that.

Just some random thoughts to pass along after the Thunderbirds wrapped up the Western Conference Championship Wednesday night with a thrilling, come from behind, 5-4 double overtime win.

First, some advice; never take a pretty strong decongestant if you know the game is going an extra 30 minutes. I was fine if this had been wrapped in in regulation, but the time release decongestant I took at noon seemed to kick in right as overtime started. I had dry mouth the rest of the way. My tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth. I was chugging down water like a thirsty man after crawling through the desert. I woke up Thursday morning with no voice. Good to have a week off.

In a game that featured nearly 90 minutes of hockey 16-year old rookie, fourth line center, Matthew Wedman probably logged only about six minutes of total ice time. He needed just about, oh six seconds, to cement his place in T-birds lore though. What a moment. Wedman sat right behind me on all those bus rides this season. He always has a grin, not a smile, but a grin on his face. He always looks like he's just pulled a prank on someone and is waiting for them to figure it out, like, did he just stick a "kick me" sign on my back? How can this kid by so up all the time? Then you realize that's it, he's just a kid; a big, grinning, 16 year old kid. He should be happy and up all the time. And now he's scored one of the biggest goals in Seattle Thunderbirds history.

In a postseason full of his excellent goaltending, Tuesday night Landon Bow probably had his best game of the playoffs, posting 36 saves in a 3-1 Game 3 win. He kept the T-birds in position to win the game in the third period. Wednesday night in Game 4 he probably had his least affective game of the playoffs, fighting the puck all night and surrendering four goals. Tuesday he had his team's back, Wednesday his teammates had his back. That's what it takes to win this time of the season.

Seattle had the WHL's best penalty kill during the regular season. They've kept it going in the postseason. Kelowna went just 2-for-17 on the power play in the Western Conference Finals. With the game on the line, the T-birds killed off four Rockets power plays in overtime.

So impressed by Rodney Southam's actions after the game. With his team spent and utterly dejected and consoling each other while the T-birds celebrated just to their right Southam, the Rockets team captain, pulled Wedman's game winning goal out of the back of the Rockets net. Did he blast it down ice out of frustration? No. Did he chuck it away? No. He picked it up, skated it over to Jerret Smith and handed it to the T-birds captain. Even in season ending defeat he recognized what an important souvenir that piece of vulcanized rubber was to Seattle. Class act.

Rocket's goalie Michael Herringer started the season as a 19 year old back up. He ended it as Kelowna's best player in the post season. 70 saves. Wow.

Ethan Bear with his shot dialed in...dangerous. Best T-bird player on the ice in Game 4.

Seattle's four NHL drafted players in Game 4: 4 goals, 6 assists, 10 points and +6.

The T-birds two overage defensemen so far in the playoffs, Jerret Smith and Jared Hauf, are a combined +27 without scoring a goal but logging a ton of ice time. Stats like goals and assists don't always tell the whole story about a player's importance to his team.

So far in the playoffs not one of Seattle's opponents has found an answer for the T-birds second line of Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan. Buzz saws all.

Wednesday night was the first time in 13 postseason games Seattle allowed more then three goals. That's impressive. In fact, in the first 12 games they had only allowed three goals twice. Despite the four goals, of course, they still won.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Do the Hustle

During his baseball career, Pete Rose got the nickname "Charlie Hustle", because no matter if his team was up in a game or down, whether it was a typical ground out or a hot smash back up the middle, he played the same. He went all out. No play was routine to him. Any play could turn a team's fortune. He played every play as though the game results depended on his giving it 100 percent at that moment.

If I were a professional athlete, that's the reputation I would want. Even if I was the last guy, down on the end of the bench, with no discernable God-given talent (okay, that is who I was and still am), I'd want them so say of me, he gives 100 percent whenever he's on the field, the court, the pitch or the ice. Coach's love those kind of players because they can rely on them to give that consistent effort every time.

Funny how so often that effort is often embodied in the best players though. Players, who along with that "give-it-all-you-got" mentality also have high end skills to go with a high end motor. A player such as Scott Eansor. If Eansor doesn't skate hard on a routine dump in during a Seattle line change late in the third period of Game 2 up in Kelowna Saturday night, we might still be playing that game. It sure appeared as though it was headed to overtime. Was it a bit of a misplay by Kelowna goalie Michael Herringer? Sure, but how often do we see a goalie misplay a "routine" dump-in but because no one is going hard on the forecheck, that goalie is able to recover and the play is quickly forgotten? Every shift, every play, every moment matters.

Lost on that game winning goal by Eansor was the play made by Keegan Kolesar. It was Kolesar who got the puck from Eansor as they skated into the neutral zone. He got the puck across the center red line and, instead of dumping the puck into the corner put the puck on net, then turned to the bench for a line change. No official assist for Kolesar because Herringer played the puck but it could well turn out to be the biggest "unofficial" assist of the series.

We're only two games into this series but it has all the makings of a classic. Two, low scoring one-goal games with plenty of momentum shifts throughout both contests. Credit to Seattle for getting on top both nights on the road. Seattle is now 6-0 on the road in the postseason which is a franchise best. They had never won six road games in a postseason prior to this year. The T-Birds were two games under .500 on the road during the regular season at 16-18-2-0 but at one point were 10-18-1-0 before finishing off with a 6-0-1-0 run away from home. The Thunderbirds are now 12-0-1-0 in their last 13 road games dating back to February 26th.

Don't think Landon Bow has made a difference? During the regular season Seattle lost twice in Kelowna, outscored by the Rockets in the process 12-6. Bow didn't play a single minute of either game. In these two road playoff games the T-Birds have allowed just three goals with Bow in net both nights.

The game within the game. Got to love the head-to-head battle between Seattle's Mathew Barzal and Kelowna's Rourke Chartier. They are probably the two most skilled forwards in this series and are often on the ice at the same time. Both players have two goals through two games and those goals have all been "Top Ten- plays-of-the-Week" material. I might give a slight edge early on to Chartier, only because he has won a higher percentage of face-offs, but don't discount the fact both of Barzal's goals have opened the scoring. Scoring first has been a key for the T-Birds in the postseason. Seattle is 9-0 in the postseason when they score the games first goal.

Teddy Roosevelt was famous for his Big Stick foreign policy based on the "Speak softly and carry a big stick" proverb. That seems like a perfect description for the T-Birds 20-year-old blueliner, Jared Hauf. Hauf doesn't say a lot, but when he does speak, his teammates, especially the younger ones, listen. Mostly he's letting his actions do his talking and he's having a terrific postseason in his last year in the WHL. Through 11 games he has two assists and is +10, including +2 against the Rockets.

It's going to be mentioned. Not by the team, the players or the coaches, but it's going to be brought up. Probably by someone in the media (like, right here!) It's unavoidable. Someone, at some point will ask about it, most likely because it is part of their job to do so. It's part of the history between these two teams. You can't act as though it hasn't happened before, because it has happened not once but twice. So, just acknowledge it and move on because it has absolutely no bearing on this series.

What is it? "It" is the T-Birds leading a best-of-seven playoff series against the Rockets, 2-0, after winning the first two games on the road. It happened in the 2005 postseason and it happened again in the 2013 playoffs. Each time Seattle came home from Prospera Place with that two-game series lead; each win by a single goal. Two of the wins in overtime. Each time Seattle couldn't close out the series. In 2005 they lost the next two games at home, shutout in Games 3 and 4 at KeyArena. They would win Game 5 on the road that year but then lost the next two. They were shutout again at home in Game 6, then lost Game 7, 2-1, in Kelowna.

In 2013 The T-Birds not only won Games 1 and 2 in OT up in Kelowna, but they won Game 3 in overtime as well at the ShoWare Center, behind an Evan Wardley blast. But Kelowna would fight back to win that series in seven games as well, turning the tables with two overtime wins of their own, including the series clincher at Prospera Place.

But as they say, that was then, this is now. No one on the current roster, and no one on the current coaching staff, had anything to do with that series in 2005. Heck, unless you tell them, they most certainly have no idea it even happened. The players on this year's T-Birds team were all under the age of 10 when that series took place.

Well you say, what about the more recent history, the 2013 first round playoff matchup? As tough as it was to go up three games to none in that series then lose, let's remember that in 2013 the Rockets were heavy favorites to win that playoff round. Most prognosticators didn't give the T-Birds a tinker's chance in hades of winning one game let alone winning three and forcing that series into a seventh game. The T-birds lost the regular season series 3-1 and in two regular season games up in Kelowna that season, Seattle was outscored by a combined 12-to-1. I'm guessing the consensus among the prognosticators that spring was Rockets in a 4-game sweep. The 2013 season was Seattle's first foray back into the WHL postseason after a three year absence. In the regular season that year the B.C. Division champion Rockets (52-16-3-1)had more then double the wins the T-Birds produced (24-38-7-3). Kelowna outpointed Seattle that season 108-58. I don't think it surprised anyone that Kelowna came back to win that series.

And while three current T-birds participated in that 2013 playoff matchup with the Rockets, it was a then 17-year-old rookie defenseman Jerret Smith, a 17-year-old second year d-man in Jared Hauf and a 15-year-old Keegan Kolesar, pressed into Game 7 duty because of suspensions to Connor Honey and Justin Hickman. That was then, this is now.

I will only say this; if you need something that happened 11 years ago, or even four years ago, to find motivation, then you're not focused on this series. And I don't think what happened in 2005 or 2013 matters one iota to any player on either team this go 'round. These two clubs are focused on the here and now and the here and now is Game 3 at the ShoWare Center Tuesday night. I've been told often enough in recent years by a certain coach that if you spend too much time peeking into the rearview mirror, you're probably going to run into a head on collision that knocks you off course.

The atmosphere in the building for both games in Kelowna was electric. I've been in attendance for a lot of postseason games at Prospera Place over the past 14 seasons and hands down that was the best atmosphere I've ever encountered there. Great job by the Kelowna faithful but a small part of that was due to a great contingent of traveling T-Bird fans.

So T-Bird fans, the gauntlet has been thrown down. It is now your turn to match or exceed that Prospera Place atmosphere for Games 3 and 4. Are you up to the task? North of San Jose and West of the Rockies, north or south of the border, this is the best hockey going, don't miss it!

My T-Birds Three Stars for the weekend.

Third Star: Goaltender Landon Bow. This is exactly why Seattle GM Russ Farwell made the trade deadline deal to get Bow from Swift Current; a deep playoff run where, in a low scoring series, goaltending can be the difference. While Bow hasn't necessarily had to be spectacular through two games against the Rockets, he has been remarkably consistent and steady. Through 11 postseason games this spring he is 10-1 with two shutouts, a 1.43 GAA and .938 SVPT. The least demonstrative goalie I've encountered in my time with the T-Birds. Every game is business as usual with the St. Albert, Alberta native.

2nd Star: Center Mathew Barzal. I wrote earlier of the importance of scoring first on the road in this series for Seattle and the T-Birds did that both nights thanks to this New York Islanders prospect. He's helped revive what had been a stagnant postseason power play with two perfectly placed shots. To slow him down the Rockets are putting their top line out on the ice against him. He's often double shifted by centering the fourth line as well. Seattle's 2nd line benefits by that attention opposing teams put on closing him down.

First Star: Center Scott Eansor. Scotty Hustle has been the best player through the first two games of this series; not just Seattle's best player but the series' best player. In his first two postseasons with the T-Birds this shutdown, defensive center has led his team in goal scoring. He's doing it against this spring with a team high seven goals through 11 games, including the game winning goals in both Game 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Championship. Eansor is the epitome of a Steve Konowalchuk type player; a rink rat with a non-stop motor and never quit attitude. He wears his love for the game, and his love of competition, on his sleeve.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Eight is not Enough

The Seattle Thunderbirds improved their playoff record to 8-1 and advanced to the Western Conference Championship with a 3-2 win over Everett Saturday night before a raucous crowd at the ShoWare Center. The T-Birds win the second round match up four games to one, winning the last four after dropping Game 1. It was the second time in the past three years that the T-Birds have eliminated their closest geographic rival from postseason play. Seattle also knocked out the Silvertips in the first round of the 2014 postseason, winning that series four games to one as well.

One of the keys for the Thunderbirds in this series was finding ways to get pucks past Everett goalie Carter Hart. During the regular season series against the 'Tips Seattle could only muster 15 goals in 10 games, an average of just 1.5 goals per contest. Hart then blanked the T-Birds, 3-0, in Game 1 of this series. It didn't help that Seattle played the game without their top two goal scorers in Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, as well as their best defenseman in Jerret Smith. Seattle compounded the issue by giving Everett nine power plays. Hard to generate offense when you're shorthanded for one-third of the game.

The answer? Really quite simple. Just put pucks on net and get scoring by committee. Over the final four games of the series Seattle scored 12 times on Hart, or 3.0 goals per game, doubling their season average. Nine different players scored those 12 goals. Each of Seattle's four lines had at least one goal in those final four games. Seattle won the series despite not getting a point from their top line the last three games. And getting Gropp back in the lineup for Games 3 and 4 didn't hurt. Gropp led Seattle in scoring versus Everett in the regular season with 10 points in 10 games. But the big winger missed the first three games of the series with injury. Once back in the lineup, even though he was playing primarily on the 4th line, he picked up where he left off against the 'Tips, scoring two game winning goals and adding an assist.

Everett, which allowed just 172 goals against during the regular season (second best in the WHL to Victoria's 166) is known as a defensive hockey team. They don't score a lot, potting just 182 this season, but they keep the score low, their opponents close, and finish the chances they get. But in hockey the best defense is puck possession and in this series Seattle dominated that category. In their four wins Seattle outshot the Silvertips 143-82 and outshot them 169-111 in the series.

Seattle was at their best at the start and finish of games. The T-Birds outshot Everett 48-24 in the first period through the five games. In their Game 4 win up at Xfinity Arena the T-Birds allowed Everett just one first period shot on goal and that came with 29 seconds left in the period. In the clinching fifth game at home Seattle held the 'Tips to just three first period shots. This allowed Seattle to get the lead both nights; leads they would never relinquish. In the final two games of the series the 'Birds outshot the Silvertips by a whopping 25-4 margin in the first periods.

Start strong, finish strong. Seattle was just as good in the third period putting 55 shots on goal in the final frame in the series while allowing jut 21 shots against. In Games 3 and 4, protecting one goal leads each night, the Thunderbirds limited Everett to four and five third period shots respectively, outshooting them in the third period the final two nights 31-9.

When you dominate the shots-on-goal department like that your own goaltending can get lost in the shuffle. Landon Bow may have only faced an average of 22 shots per game versus Everett but he still was a big factor in Seattle advancing. When most of the play is at the other end of the ice, it can be hard to stay mentally involved in the game. But Bow was focused. In the second period of Game 5 he made an acrobatic save to clear a puck that seemed destined for the back of the net. Had it gone in Everett would have tied the game and had all the momentum on their side. Twice in the postseason he has posted road shutouts in critical Game 3's.

Through nine playoff games 16 of the 21 skaters who have suited up for at least one postseason game have registered a point. You win in the playoffs with everyone contributing. Nowhere is that more evident then when your fourth line rookie center, in this case Matthew Wedman, assists on back-to-back game winning goals including the series clincher.

It's been a remarkable last two months for Seattle, posting a 21-1-1-0 record in their last 23 games to advance to the Western Conference Finals for just the third time in franchise history. Will the third time be the charm? The first time they played in the conference finals, in the spring of 1997, they defeated Prince George in six games and made it to the WHL Finals only to be swept by Lethbridge. The last time they got this far, in the spring of 2003 they lost in the Conference Finals to Kelowna in five games.

My Three Stars for the Second Round:

Third Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Bow may not have been as busy as his Everett counterpart in this series but he did what he's supposed to do; stop pucks and win games. His GAA in the series versus Everett was a paltry 1.40 and he recorded his second shutout of the postseason with a 5-0 road win in Game 3 that restored home ice advantage for the T-Birds.

Second Star: Defenseman Jerett Smith. The captain showed his value to this team. He missed the first game after an emergency appendectomy and the T-Birds lost that game. A few days later, with Smitty back in the lineup, Seattle evened the series at 1-1 with a 3-1 home win and Smith was +2. He finished the series at +4 in the four games he played. Even after the surgery he probably was one of the leaders in ice time for the team.

First Star: Center Scott Eansor. Eansor just has a good habit of ratcheting up his play in the postseason. For the third straight year he has scored at least four playoff goals. His speed, quickness and relentless motor are a big reason why Everett spent much of the series in their own end and why the 'Tips top scoring line was held in check most of the series. His wrap around goal in Game 5 that opened the scoring was a prime example of never giving up on a play as just moments before he had a scoring chance denied.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Deuce

Round Two of the postseason begins Friday night at home for the Thunderbirds. Seattle goes head-to-head in the best-of-seven Western Conference semifinal against, their division as well as closest geographic rival, the Everett Silvertips. This will be just the second time since Everett joined the league back in 2003 that these two teams have met in postseason play, but the second time in the past three years.

This should be an exciting series. One of these two teams occupied the top spot in the U.S. Division just about every day this season. At the very least you are getting the two most consistent, if not the top two teams, in the division in this round of postseason play. These clubs seem to bring out the best in each other's competitive nature.

Two seasons ago the T-birds opened the 2014 playoffs by winning a first round best-of-seven series by beating the 'Tips in five games. Seattle won two of those games by a single goal, including a pivotal Game 3 in overtime. each team also registered a 5-goal win. So, the series was closer then the final outcome might indicate.

Only seven current T-birds who participated in that series remain on the roster of this year's Seattle team. Only six Silvertips on this year's version of Everett were on that team two springs ago. But each of those 13 players who participated in the series in 2014, will have a much bigger role to play this time around then they did back then. Two players who did have an impact on that series could do so again this year. Seattle's Scott Eansor and Everett's Patrick Bajkov both tallied three goals in that five game set. Oddly, both players wear #8.

Like this postseason, Seattle also had home ice advantage when these two teams met in the 2014 playoffs but there were no back-to-back home games for either team as the two organizations agreed on a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format. That won't be the case this time around as they will play a traditional 2-2-1-1-1 series.

Often when playoffs roll around we talk about throwing out the regular season but, I think, in this case both teams can get some confidence from what took place over the ten game, regular season series. Everett won six of the ten games while Seattle won the last three head-to-head.

As far as this series goes? I wouldn't expect anything different in style and effort from what we saw during the regular season. I would expect low scoring, grind-it-out battles typical not just of this rivalry but fairly typical of what you get as you go deeper into the playoffs. Both these teams do a good job of rolling four lines, of maximizing their rosters by getting the most out of every player on the bench. Is their a key to winning for either team? I'd say with scoring chances most likely at a premium, the one that capitalizes on those rare chances will prevail. I know that sounds like the understatement of the year but how often do you see a low scoring battle turn, not on the goals scored, but the chances missed?

Both teams are probably tired of practicing but not playing. Both Seattle and Everett closed out their first round series in four games. The T-birds, of course, took out the Prince George Cougars while Everett was sweeping the Portland Winterhawks. Both haven't played since last Wednesday meaning if will be well over a week between games, for both teams, when they finally set skate blade back on the ice Friday night at the ShoWare Center for Game 1. I would expect though, that both teams are prepared to go the distance with seven games scheduled over the course of 11 days.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Long and the Short of it

The Seattle Thunderbirds just completed a four game sweep of their first round playoff opponent, the Prince George Cougars, with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 4 up at the CN Centre Wednesday. Seattle could not have traveled any further for a first round matchup than the over 1,100 miles they bused back and forth to face PG in Games 3 and 4.

The payoff? Seattle could not ask to travel any less then the 90 miles they'll navigate back and forth in Round Two to face their U.S. Division rivals, the Everett Silvertips. Talk about going from one extreme bus ride to another; as in extremely long to extremely short.

Going into their first round match up with Prince George, on paper, the T-Birds had to be considered the favorites. They had the better regular season record, they were the higher seed and they finished the regular season on a 13-0-1-0 run while the Cougars finished on a five-game losing streak (0-4-0-1). But as you know, the games aren't played on a sheet of paper but rather a sheet of ice. For Seattle to win the series they had to ignore the press clippings and focus on playing their game and that's what they did. Very solid effort from all players for four games. There was a little lapse in Game 4 after grabbing the early two-goal lead, but they got it going again in the third period and overtime to complete the comeback after falling behind, 3-2.

Especially in the first two games, Seattle played a puck possession game. They outshot PG in Games 1 and 2, 94-41. While shot totals don't always give you a complete picture of the game, this disparity certainly indicates Seattle had the puck on their sticks a lot the first half of the series. While the shots weren't as lopsided the final two games up in Prince George, the T-Birds still outshot the Cougars both nights at the CN Centre, particularly in the third periods. This wasn't the result of some newly instituted playoff game plan; it was the same blue print followed during the final month and a half of the regular season.

Despite missing Ryan Gropp, their leading regular season goal scorer, for all four games of the first round, Seattle still found a way to average four goals per game. And the T-Birds spread the wealth around. 12 of the 19 skaters who played in at least one game against PG earned at least one point in the series. Eleven of those twelve picked up at least two points. Their leading point producer in the series, Mathew Barzal, didn't even score a goal instead earning seven assists. Their third line of Cavin Leth, Alexander True and Andreas Schumacher earned as many points (5g, 5a, 10 pts.) as Prince George's first line. Their four game-winning goals came from four different players. Their first goal each night came from four different players.

If you break down each game it was a team effort but a different line or set of players stepped up to provide the big goals each night. Without their two best goal scorers, Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, available for Game 4 it was Nolan Volcan who picked up the slack scoring twice, including the game winning, series clincher in overtime. In Game 3 Nick Holowko sparked the offense early with a goal and an assist. In Game 2 it was a pair of goals from Keegan Kolesar, while in Game 1 third line teammates Leth and True combined for a pair of key goals. The T-Birds found different ways to win each game; overtime, shutout, home or road, scoring first, coming from behind or playing an entire game with the lead. You have to have every weapon in your arsenal ready come playoffs.

Before the series began it was believed by some in the Prince George locker room that they had the edge in depth among the forward lines. When the series was over, Seattle forward line depth proved to be the difference. Seattle's 2nd and 3rd lines combined for 19 points (10g, 9a). And this wasn't at the expense of first line scoring as that line added 14 points of their own (4g, 10a).

There was a thought by some going into that series that the physical element to Prince George's game would wear down the T-Birds, if not in that series then for subsequent rounds in the postseason. Truth be told, the T-Brds were just as physical as the Cougars and Seattle came out relatively unscathed. And with their playoff lives on the line in Game 4, the Cougars seemed to back off the physical play a bit in order to stay out of the penalty box.

The one area Seattle got away with not being at their best was their power play which was just 2 of 16. Prince George's very good, very aggressive penalty kill was responsible for some of that but Seattle knows they can do better. It doesn't help when a key component of the power play, Gropp, is out of the lineup. Despite the lack of success with the man advantage in the series, with Game 4 on the line the T-Birds used a third period power-play goal from Ethan Bear to tie the game and force the game into overtime where Volcan ended it with his early OT heroics. So, when it needed to Seattle's power play rose to the occasion.

Great to see all the fan support from the T-Bird faithful who made the trek up north for the final two games. Nice to see them get rewarded by witnessing that series clinching win in person. Next up? What should be a classic series with the Silvertips with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. More on that next week.

My Three Stars for the First Round:

3rd Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Certainly not tested as much as his Prince George counterpart, Ty Edmonds, but he came up with key saves at key moments in just about every game. He posted the first shutout of his WHL career in Game 3. In Game 4 a couple of timely saves kept Seattle within striking distance, setting up their come-from-behind series clinching win. After going winless in his only other playoff appearance last season with Swift Current, he's 4-0 so far this go 'round.

2nd Star: Center Scott Eansor. He's been Seattle's leading goal scorer in each of their last two playoff runs and he's got two so far this spring plus an assist. He was a pest, a thorn in the side of the Cougars top offensive players all series. His speed and puck handling gave them fits, especially in Game 3. With Kolesar unavailable for Game 4 he moved up to the top line to start the game and promptly scored a goal.

1st Star: Center Mathew Barzal. It sure seemed PG made a concerted effort to shutdown Barzal. They were physical with him to the point it cost them one of their better offensive players for Game 4 when Jesse Gabrielle tried to goad Barzal into a fight but instead drew a one game suspension for himself. You may contain Barzal for a shift or two, but long term he still put his stamp on this series with seven assists. His effort with the puck in overtime of Game 4 set up the Volcan series winner. By concentrating some of their effort on shutting down Barzal, Prince George opened up opportunity for other T-Birds to step up.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Playoffs, We're Talkin' Playoffs

Seattle finished the regular season the right way. With nothing at stake in any of the three games, resting top players and giving younger guys more ice time, the T-Birds still earned five of a possible six points on the weekend. They had their 11-game winning streak snapped, but still earned a point, Friday night with an overtime loss in Kennewick before winning a pair against Portland to close out the 72 game schedule.

Here's what I like about all the statistical minutiae that's come out of the T-Birds tremendous sprint to the finish line of the regular season; most of these numbers are team stats, not individual stats.

Seattle finished with the second best regular season record in franchise history. They led the league in home wins with 29. Seattle finished up at home with a 10-game home ice winning streak. The T-Birds went without a regulation loss in their final 14 games. They earned 35 out of a possible 38 points in their last 19 games. After struggling at times on the road this season, the T-Birds went 6-0-1-0 in their final seven road games. Seattle was 23-14-3 against the U.S. Division and 15-5-0-0 vs. the B.C. Division.

They ended the season tops in the WHL on the penalty kill and number three on the power play. The 44 power-play goals against was second fewest in the league to Victoria's 41. They finished third in the league with 70 power-play goals scored. They were tops in the league with eight shutouts distributed between two goalies. These are all team oriented statistics.

The Thunderbirds only had one player, Matt Barzal at #11, in the top 30 in league scoring yet they still averaged over three goals per game. They finished with two players averaging over a point a game, Barzal and Ryan Gropp, and two who finished just under a point per game in Ethan Bear and Keegan Kolesar. Every player who played in at least one game for them this season earned at least a point except for defenseman Reece Harsch, who had maybe four shifts playing in one game this season.

The old saying though, goes something like this: offense sells the tickets, defense wins the championships. Don't think so? Well look at the Tri-City Americans, the only team from the U.S. Division to miss the playoffs. Tri-City scored more goals then any other U.S. Division team this season with 236. That's eight more then Seattle. Yet the T-Birds goal differential is +42 while the Americans goal differential is -17. That's because Seattle kept the puck out of the back of their net, allowing just 186 goals against. That was the third fewest in the league behind only Victoria and Everett.

Seattle's first round playoff opponent will be the Prince George Cougars. The best-of-seven matchup begins Friday at the ShoWare Center at 7:35. Game 2 is Saturday, also in Kent, at 7:05, before the series shifts north for games 3 and 4 the following Tuesday and Wednesday. During the regular season the two teams split four games with each team winning once at home and once on the road.

The T-Birds beat the Cougars, 4-1, way back on October 3rd at the ShoWare Center in the team's home opener. Seattle played the game without Barzal and Gropp who were still at NHL camps. Scott Eansor led the way with three points (1g, 2a) while Jerret Smith chipped in two goals. Prince George won, 6-2, December 15th at the ShoWare Center. The T-Birds again played that night without Barzal, as well as Eansor and Alexander True, who were away at World Juniors, and Nolan Volcan who was out with a lower body injury.

The teams split a pair of games mid-January up at the CN Centre. On January 12th the Cougars won, 6-2. It was a 2-1 game until PG scored a late second period goal, then added two more, 20 seconds apart, (including one on a penalty shot) early in the third. It was not a good night for Logan Flodell who surrendered five goals on just 22 shots before being pulled after those two third period markers. Prince George scored their last goal into an empty net. It wasn't a good night for Seattle's power play either as they went 0-for-6. The T-Birds bounced back the next night behind Landon Bow and shutout the Cougars, 4-0, as Cavin Leth scored twice. Bow, who finished in net the night before, played 73.23 minutes of hockey against PG this season and stopped all 32 shots he faced.

Flodell played all but 13.23 minutes in three games against the Cougars this season and went 1-2 but he'll be backing up Bow in the postseason. Ty Edmonds was solid playing every minute in the four regular season games against the T-Birds but Seattle still managed to average just over three goals a game against him.

There seems to be a perception that penalties are down in the postseason and there is more five on five hockey and that somehow that would negate Seattle's stellar special teams play. This isn't scientific but I randomly clicked on five playoff games from last season, from different rounds. The average number of combined power play chances per contest in those five games was 7.4. I then randomly clicked on five games from the last weekend of the regular season. Guess what the average number of combined power plays was in those five games? Yep, 7.4. A penalty is still a penalty, whether in the regular season or the postseason. You could probably click on five other random games and you'll end up with different numbers, but funny how those numbers came out in my experiment.

Prince George, like Seattle, has a good penalty kill. They finished third best in that category in the league, but during the 2015-16 regular season, no WHL team accrued more penalty minutes then Prince George with 1292. That's about 18 penalty minutes per game. That was true of the regular season series against Seattle. In the four games Seattle received an average of five power play chances per game and went 4-for-21 overall with the man advantage. Meanwhile Prince George was 0-for-14 against Seattle's league best penalty kill. One aspect of the Cougars penalty kill that is dangerous? They scored 14 shorthanded goals, second best in the league to Brandon's 15. By comparison, Seattle scored seven shorthanded goals.

My T-Birds Three Stars for the final weekend of the regular season:

Third Star: Center Elijah Brown. The T-Birds 2015 first round bantam pick out of Edmonton made his regular season debut in Saturday's 4-3 shootout win over Portland and was solid. I wonder if that shootout had gone on longer if he would have been given the call? The next night, in the regular season finale down in Portland he earned his first point with an assist on Seattle's first goal in the second period; the goal that tied the game at 1-1. Brown, who celebrated his 16th birthday in early January, then capped Seattle's regular season with a late power-play goal, the first of his WHL career.

Second Star: Goalie Logan Flodell. Flodell got two starts this past weekend and went 1-0-1-0. His stellar play early in both road games allowed Seattle to stay close on the scoreboard. In just over 122 minutes he stopped 60 of 63 shots. He finished his first full season in the WHL 22-13-4-0 with three shutouts a 2.68 GAA and a .904 SVPCT. That's good enough to place him in the top ten in the WHL this season.

First Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. Neuls shootout goal won it for Seattle Saturday night, giving the T-Birds their league best 29th win on home ice. He had an assist earlier in the game as the T-Birds came back from a three-goal deficit. He then added a goal and an assist in the road win Sunday. Neuls finished the season with 37 points (13g, 24a), a 13 point improvement from his rookie season. It's the things that don't end up on the scoresheet though, the forechecking and penalty killing, his role on the shutdown line, that make him such a valuable member of the team.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A Banner Season?

The Seattle Thunderbirds have four games remaining in the regular season. Four games, needing one win to earn the U.S. Division banner. It's a nice little payout for a hard fought season. But it's not an end, it is, hopefully, just a beginning. Winning the division is just one step reached on the ladder to higher goals. The move up to the next step will start later this month when the team begins the postseason.

Who will they play in the first round? that remains to be seen. If Seattle finishes first in the U.S. Division, they will face either Kamloops or Prince George. Those two teams have two games left to play and those two games are against each other. If Kamloops earns just one point in either of those two games then the T-birds first round opponent will be PG. If Prince George earns two regulation wins against the Blazers, then Seattle will face Kamloops.

Should the T-birds finish second in the U.S. Division they will face either Portland, Spokane or Tri-City in the first round. All three teams are still fighting for the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference as the final week of the regular season begins.

The T-birds are 16 seconds away from 15 straight games without a loss in regulation. A bad deflection off a stanchion in Everett is all that separates them from having at least 29 points and possibly 30 in their last 15 games. So I guess they have to settle for earning 28 of 30 points over that stretch. Are they skating teams off the ice in that span? No, not really. A few games in there where they pulled away but eight of those games were decided by just one goal.

Actually, it is more like nine because Seattle scored into an empty net late for a two goal win in another. There were three other two-goal wins in that stretch as well. In one of those two goal wins, it was 3-3 midway through the third period. In another Seattle was down, 2-1, with under six minutes to play. In other words Seattle has played a lot of edge-of-your-seat hockey this past month and they've found a way to win them. It's called attention to detail.

Playoff games aren't normally won by five or six goal margins. They are won 3-2 or 4-3. They are won in the last minutes by blocking shots or making a key save. Playoff series aren't won in Game 1. They are won by having the stamina to stick to the details in the fourth game in six nights. They're won with puck possession and they are won by playing every shift as if it was the most important shift of the game or the series. These are all things Seattle has been doing, is doing, to win ten in a row and 14 of 15.

If the Division is clinched Tuesday and with home ice advantage in round one secured, I would expect the T-birds might rest a player or two over the last three games. What I don't expect is for the team's compete level to take a night off. The coach won't allow it. You want to make it easier for him to determine who will be a healthy scratch over these next four games? Don't work hard at practice or don't compete hard during the game. Of course, that's not even a consideration if Seattle doesn't clinch the division top spot before next weekend.

After playing 3-in-3 each of the past two weekends, with a midweek game in between, the T-birds got off light this past weekend (said tongue-in-cheek, of course)with just two games on the schedule. Yep, just two games against their two fiercest rivals. Just two more one goal games. One against the team chasing you in the standings; one against a team trying to clinch a playoff spot.

When Keegan Kolesar went out with an upper body injury back on February 26th, coach Konowalchuk reunited the Seattle shutdown line of Donovan Neuls, Scott Eansor and Nolan Volcan, that had been both affective and effective for him a season ago. Over the past nine games that trio has produced 21 points (7g, 14a). Three of those goals were game winners and they added one shootout winning goal as well.

Speaking of Kolesar, he's not come back from that layoff timid at all. He's been physical both games, especially against Portland. The last two nights he and Jared Hauf have delivered some big hits. Those are plays that will fire up your teammates.

Seattle just can't seem to get through a week without a player getting injured. Saturday it was Jarret Tyszka who left the game in the first period with an apparent upper body injury. We now wait and hope it is not significant. Tyszka already missed two months of the season with a hand injury suffered back in December. He's been very solid upon his return.

My T-birds Three Stars for the two game weekend:

Third Star: Defenseman Jared Hauf. In his final season in Seattle the 20 year old veteran is probably playing the most consistent, if not the best, hockey of his T-bird career. He's been a Steady Eddie on the back end while delivering some huge hits that spark his team. Opposing teams are finding it next to impossible to beat him down the wing. He's really learned how to use his size and physicality and is not just relying on his long reach to dislodge the puck from opponents.

Second Star: Center Scott Eansor. He set up two of the T-birds three goals in the Portland game Saturday, including the game winner, by just being strong on pucks. He's eight inches shorter then his teammate Hauf, but he too has learned to use his size and physicality to his advantage. Non-stop motor that compliments his current linemates, Neuls and Volcan.

First Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Two games, two wins, only two goals allowed in 120 minutes. He now leads the WHL with seven shutouts, five of them with Seattle. Since being acquired by Seattle at the trade deadline in January his Seattle numbers read as follows: 14-6-0-0 record in 21 games. A 1.75 GAA and a SVPCT of .939. Since coming back from a lower body injury that cost him three weeks in February, he is 7-0 with a 1.13 GAA and .961 SVPCT.