Tuesday, May 16, 2017

This Magic Moment


They say a picture is worth a thousand words but this one might leave you speechless.  This, of course, is the moment Alexander True scored the game winning goal in overtime of Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series, earning Seattle their first ever Ed Chynoweth Cup.  A moment in time captured on video that will live forever in Thunderbirds lore.  It's only appropriate the photo was taken from his back side, because this team had each others backs all season long. And in the end, the T-birds were the last team standing in the WHL!

I'll have more to write about later, but for now it's on to the Memorial Cup in Windsor. Enjoy! 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Best of Five Now

After splitting the first two games of the WHL Championship Series in Regina, the action for the Thunderbirds and Pats now shifts to the ShoWare Center for Games 3,4 and 5.  The series is now a best-of-five with the first three schedule on Seattle's ice. 

So far in the 2017 postseason, the T-birds are 6-1 on home ice with the lone loss occurring in Game 2 of the Western Conference Championship Series, a 4-3 overtime loss to Kelowna.  Seattle has outscored their opponents, 31-20 in those seven home playoff games.

Regina is 5-3 on the road in postseason play so far this spring and they have scored 34 road playoff goals in those eight games. Two of those eight road playoffs games have gone to overtime including a three OT affair in Round 2 versus Swift Current.

In the first two games of this series, Seattle has allowed five goals against.  Three of those have been scored by the Pats on the power play. Regina is 3-for-11 with the man advantage.  The two even strength goals were both scored unassisted, after the T-birds committed two cringe worthy turnovers against little pressure, in their own end.  Suffice it to say, Seattle has to be more disciplined going forward in this series and they must do a better job of puck management in the defensive zone. 

Goaltending in the first two games was outstanding.  Neither team should have any complaints about how their 'tenders have played in a pair of games that went overtime.  Carl Stankowski for Seattle and Tyler Brown of Regina have each given their team a chance to win both nights. 

It was terrific, entertaining hockey in the first two games up at the Brandt Center.  Lots of physical play, end-to-end action with edge-of-your-seat moments throughout. I would expect that to continue now that the series has come south of the border.

We all know that Ethan Bear has been playing with an injury to his hand.  It's a heavy burden to play at less then 100 percent at such a crucial time of the season and still try to deliver your best.  But as we've seen in the first two games of this series, Bear has handled that burden well. 

There is another weight Bear carries and it has nothing to do with his injury. It is a weight on his shoulders that he, pardon the pun, gladly bears.   Bear hails from the Ochapowace Cree Reservation two hours outside of Regina.  The youngsters there look up to him as a role model. He's not just a good hockey player and NHL prospect of the Edmonton Oilers, he's also an outstanding citizen and example of what hard work and goal setting can accomplish.  But it's not just the youth in Ochapowace that look up to him.   Other First Nations children from around Western Canada also look at him too.

Seattle stayed four nights at a hotel in downtown Regina.  Also staying at that same hotel was a pee wee team from a Reservation in Alberta, just outside of Edmonton.  Every time I hit the lobby, or even the elevator, wearing my polo shirt with the T-birds logo emblazoned on it, these young players and their family members I encountered would ask me, "Is this the team with Ethan Bear?"  or, "Do you know Ethan?"  And when I would say yes they looked at me, their eyes big and wide in amazement, like I had touched a rock star. 

When we returned to the hotel after Game 1 Friday night, Bear was mobbed by these young kids as he stepped off the bus and entered the lobby. He patiently took the time to greet them all.  Then, before Game 2, as Seattle arrived at the Brandt Center, waiting outside the bus at the players entrance was another small group of older, teenaged First Nations youth.  While his teammates filed off the bus and into the arena, Bear stepped aside and took a few moments to pose for a photo. 

I don't know what it is like to be a minority.  And I only know how to be a role model for my own two kids.  Ethan Bear has to be a role model for hundreds if not thousands.  And he has to do it at the ripe old age of 19!  When I see how he handles it I'm amazed at his maturity.  You can see in his face, with each of these encounters, that he recognizes what he represents to these kids and their parents.  He knows each time he meets these youngsters, he's going to have an impact on them and he's sure to make it a positive one.  He does all this while trying to help the Thunderbirds win a championship.  He does all this while trying to improve himself, to become a better hockey player. He does all this while still striving to reach his own goal of playing in the NHL.

He should be proud of the way he carries himself, but he's probably too humble for that.  His parents should be proud of the way they raised him. He is who he is because of them.  His Ochapowace community should be proud of the way he represents them.  He takes them with him wherever he goes. 

Game 3 Tuesday night.  Gonna be a lot of fun! 




Monday, May 1, 2017

Back-to-Back!

Feeling the Blue!
Photo courtesy of Marissa Baecker

Seattle Thunderbirds, 2017 Western Conference Champions.  Has a nice ring to it doesn't it?  Twice as nice as Seattle Thunderbirds, 2016 Western Conference Champions, right?

After watching the Brandon Wheat Kings celebrate a WHL title on the ShoWare Center ice last May, on a Friday the 13th no less, the Seattle Thunderbirds had one goal in mind this season, get back to the WHL Final. Get one more crack at the Chynoweth Cup with this core group. 

It wasn't easy.  Over the past seven months T-birds players have missed nearly 300 man games due to injury, illness, the NHL or international tournaments.  Injuries were the biggest adversary, taking some of Seattle's best players out of the lineup for extended periods of time.  But 12 months and 92 games later (six preseason, 72 regular season and 14 playoff games versus the Western Conference) this club has persevered, overcome all those obstacles and here they are back in the WHL Final after disposing of the Kelowna Rockets Sunday evening up at Prospera Place. 

As Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk said prior to Game 6, this was a series of depth players as both teams dealt with key injuries.  In the end Seattle's depth shined just a little brighter. 

A season ago in the league championship series, they faced the Wheat Kings, who were the CHL's 2015-16 number one ranked team preseason. This time around?  They get the current CHL top ranked club, the Regina Pats.  Seattle's response?  You want to be the best, you have to beat the best.  Bring 'em on. 

This recent six game series with Kelowna should serve as a great preparation for the Final.  Despite going one game short of a full best-of-seven, this match up with the Rockets was a battle.  Kelowna, a team with seven current NHL prospects and probably 4 or 5 future NHL draft picks, was physical, they were at times relentless.  At times in the series the Rockets came at Seattle in waves, a team of highly skilled, well coached, smart hockey players.  Kelowna used their speed to challenge Seattle.  They made the T-birds play at their best to win this series.

By the time Game 6 rolled around, that is exactly what Seattle did.  They played their best game of the series in the final game.  That was textbook Steve Konowalchuk T-birds hockey.  The Thunderbirds were unrelenting on the forecheck, they tipped the puck possession game back in their favor and forced Kelowna to play a 200 foot game all night.  Win or lose, ever since Konowalchuk arrived on the scene in 2011 that's how this team has played.  They are a direct reflection of their coach.

Goaltenders rarely steal an entire series for their team.  A game or two yes, but not a series.  But stealing a game can help you win a series.  In a playoff series with two evenly matched teams like this one between the T-birds and Rockets, Carl Stankowski did that for Seattle in Game 3 up in Kelowna.  The T-birds were outplayed that night but Stankowski came up with 34 saves, beaten only by a controversial goal that looked to be knocked in with a high stick.  He gave the T-birds a chance to win that game despite being back on their heels for most of sixty minutes and they did with a very late Keegan Kolesar goal.   If Kelowna gets that win, I'm not sure Seattle is going to the WHL Final for a second straight year.

To pick up the Western Conference Championship trophy or not?  Teams usually leave the conference championship trophy alone because that's not the ultimate piece of hardware they're after.  A year ago Seattle captain Jerret Smith honored that longtime tradition of not touching it, barely looking at it.  Seattle then lost to Brandon in five games in the league final. 

This time around, the T-birds not only touched it, picked it up and raised it over their heads, they took selfies with it.  This team is different.  They've overcome adversity. Just when you think another, bigger obstacle has been laid in their path, they dig deeper and overcome it.   They bucked the trend of going deep in the postseason despite all the pitfalls they encountered.  Superstitions be damned.  They earned that trophy so they celebrated the moment. 

Last season's team was a close knit group. Because of all the things they've gone through the past seven months, this year's team is even closer.  In Game 5 versus Kelowna, they played inspired hockey for their injured teammate Ethan Bear, and won 5-3.  In Game 6, they picked up Keegan Kolesar after he was sent off late in the first period with a five minute major and game misconduct.  When you are the next man up, when you play for the guy to the right of you and the guy to the left of you, there are no weak links. 

Final power play chances from this series:  Rockets 42 T-birds 24.  Final power play goal totals:  Rockets 10 T-birds 8.  Seattle's penalty killers were terrific.  Another big reason why Seattle is moving on.  The turning point in Game 6 certainly had to be the T-birds, already down a goal, killing off that five minute major.  Kelowna didn't get even one shot on goal.  Momentum shifter.  Not long after killing that off Seattle tied the game, then scored twice more to take the lead for good.

When you play an important series such as this and a rookie defenseman logs a lot of ice but you don't notice him too much because he's going about his business the right way, that's a good thing.  Well done Reese Harsch.  In the absence of Bear, Harsch logged some big minutes on the penalty kill against that potent Rockets power play.  His slashing penalty late in the series clinching win may have actually saved a goal. 

Kelowna rolled just four defense most of this series, primarily due to injury so I'm sure fatigue played a factor, but those are four really good d-men featuring a current NHL first rounder in Lucas Johansen, a future first rounder in Cal Foote and a 5th round NHL pick in Devonte Stephens.  Time and again though I saw Seattle's Sami Moilanen win puck battles from them deep in the Rockets end.  Some NHL team is going to get the steal of the draft should they pick Sami this June. 

The last time Seattle and Regina played was six months and 76 games ago, October 30th at the Brandt Centre.  It was the second game on the T-birds six-game eastern road trip.  Seattle lost that night, 6-3, but that final score is misleading.  The game was tied, 3-3, midway through the third period when Regina scored on an Adam Brooks power play goal to take the lead, then added two late empty netters.  It was a special teams game that night.  The T-birds went 3-for-5 on the PP, the Pats 2-for-5.   The shots were even, 29-29.  The T-birds played that game with no Mat Barzal, who was still up in the NHL with the New York Islanders, and no Keegan Kolesar, still out with an injury suffered at NHL training camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Also missing was  19 year old Layne Bensmiller, out with an injury that would eventually cost him the rest of the season. 

Seattle's back end looked considerably different as well.  GM Russ Farwell had not yet made the trades that brought in Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman. 

Six rookies dressed and five played in that game for the T-birds, including 17 year old Mackenzie Wight, who is no longer with the club, having been traded to Swift Current for Tyler Adams a month later. It was one of the few games in the early going where Wight wasn't a healthy scratch but he went into the lineup that night in place of another 17 year old rookie, Ian Briscoe.

The Seattle lineup also featured two defensemen in Bryan Allbee and Brandon Schuldhaus, who are no longer with the team and rookie Dillon Hamaliuk, who after six more games would be re-assigned to the AAA Midget Leduc Oil Kings.  The other rookies were defenseman Anthony Bishop and forwards  Luke Ormsby and Zack Andrusiak along with back up goalie Matt Berlin. A lot has changed, for both teams, in the ensuing six months. 

My T-birds three stars for the Western Conference Championship:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls finished the series with five points (1g, 4a) and a +4 rating.  With the T-birds shorthanded 42 times in the series, he was one of their best penalty killers.  With Kolesar out most of Game 6 he stepped up to the top line as well as the top power play unit and earned a huge assist on the game winning goal.  Averaging well over a point per game in the postseason (1.29) on six goals, including two game winners, and 12 assists with a +8.  With all those penalties assessed to Seattle versus Kelowna, he stayed out of the box and so far hasn't picked up one penalty minute in the postseason.

2nd Star:  C Mat Barzal.  Barzal had a point in every game of the series versus Kelowna and is currently riding a 10-game point streak.  He hadn't scored a goal in the first five games against the Rockets but his goal in Game 6 was huge, giving Seattle a two goal cushion.  Like a season ago against Kelowna in the playoffs, he got better as the series moved along and was the best skater on the ice in Games 5 and 6.  After missing the first round of the postseason against Tri-City now has 17 points (5g, 12a) in 10 playoff games, averaging almost two points per game (1.70). 

First Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  It takes a herculean effort to upstage Barzal but even Mat would probably agree Stanky was the series MVP.  He stole Game 3 in Kelowna with 34 saves.  While facing only 18 shots in Game 6, many of his stops were of the highlight reel variety.  While he gave up 17 goals in the six games, remember that in just four regular season games versus the Rockets, the T-birds other goalies surrendered 20 goals.  this was a Rockets team that led the Western Conference with 283 goals during the regular season and was scoring in bunches in the playoffs (38 in their first 11 postseason games).  When Seattle needed a big save, he delivered time and time again. 




















Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Series We Expected


Putting the Focus on Game Three!
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse

Two games into the Western Conference Final and Seattle and Kelowna are tied at a game a piece in the best of seven series.  These teams are very evenly matched.  They were separated by just one win and a mere three points in the final regular season Western Conference standings. both possess depth among their forward lines, a solid defensive group and are among the best in the league with their special teams.  Add it all up and you have two one goal games, games that in both instances were won in the final seconds.

The chances of running the table in the postseason are pretty slim.  The fact that the T-birds started the postseason 9-0 is remarkable.  In a couple of instances they were the beneficiary of a good bounce going their way.   Sure that loss in Game 2 is disappointing, especially the way it ended, with a Seattle defensive zone turnover leading to the game winner.  But this isn't the NFL where you play one game a week and it's one and done.  In the NFL you have to run the table in the postseason to become champion.  Not so in hockey where you play a best-of-seven series.  This loss stings but the T-birds get a chance to shake it off and bounce back Tuesday in Kelowna.

Oddly, I though Kelowna had the better of play in the series opener, yet Seattle ended up winning, 5-4, on the late Ethan Bear power play goal.  I thought Seattle carried more of the play in Game 2 yet the Rockets pull it out on Reid Gardiner's overtime winner.  Of course it is splitting hairs here because the edge either team may be enjoying has been fairly miniscule.

Seattle did a better job in Game 2 on the penalty kill, limiting the Rockets to just one goal, but they still need to clean things up in the discipline department.  After giving up seven power play chances to Kelowna in Game 1, they allowed six more in Game 2.  Power play chances through two games favor the Rockets, 13-7 but power play goals are just 4-3 in favor of Kelowna.  Seattle needs to stay out of the box.  Elbowing, high sticking and checking from behind are all avoidable infractions. 

You can't have casual moments in the playoffs, especially not in Round Three when the two teams are so evenly matched.  A momentary lapse can be the difference in a tightly contested game.  It certainly was in Game 2.  Seattle took their foot off the gas pedal and coasted back to a loose puck while on the power play late in the first period.   Not so Kelowna.  Shorthanded they came hard after the T-birds and the puck.  Calvin Thurkauf forced a turnover and found Gardiner all by his lonesome in the slot.  Gardiner blasted it past Carl Stankowski with less then a second remaining in the period. Every second, every fraction of a second, counts.

I don't think Seattle's top line has played up to their best yet through the first two games of the series.  It speaks to their talent that the Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar trio have combined for eight points (2g, 8a) but I expect more from them going forward.  Credit the Rockets for keeping them in check.

This conference championship series is a good argument to keep imports as part of the makeup of WHL rosters.  Kelowna's Thurkauf (Switzerland) and the T-birds Sami Moilanen (Finland) have been two of the best players for their respective teams through the first two games.  Meanwhile both Seattle's Alexander True (Denmark) and the Rockets Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic) have cashed in with goals by putting their big bodies around the net.  A few years back the CHL eliminated import goalies from the picture.  I hope that is a far as it goes.   A lot of times these import players become fan favorites because the fans appreciate the sacrifice these young men are making to leave their families and come overseas to North America to follow their hockey dreams.

Speaking of goalies, there have been a combined 16 goals scored in the first two games of this series, eight for each team.  Yet those goal numbers belie how good the goaltending has been between  21 year old Michael Herringer of the Rockets and Seattle's rookie, Stankowski.   The reason for the large amount of goals isn't because of these two.  Instead it is the elite talent level on these teams which is leading to a high number of quality scoring chances at both ends. Herringer and Stankowski are earning their accolades.

Ironically, it was an injury last year to Kelowna's number one goalie, Jackson Whistle, that thrust Herringer into the starting role.  A year later, the shoe...er skate, is on the T-birds foot. 

Thunderbirds management, understanding the level of talent they had on this year's team, knew they had a team that could make another deep playoff run.  With that in mind they traded for veteran goalie Rylan Toth from Red Deer just before the start of the season.  The 20 year old Toth has both WHL playoff and Memorial Cup experience from his time with the Rebels. He led all WHL goalies this season with 36 wins.  Yet a late season injury has put him on the shelf. 

It would appear that injury would put Seattle's deep playoff aspirations in jeopardy, but enter the just-turned-17 year old Stankowski who has been nothing short of brilliant in posting a 9-0-1 playoff record. In seven regular season games he went 3-0-0-1. So in 17 game in his young WHL career, he has still not lost a game in regulation.  The overtime loss in Game 2 was definitely not on the shoulders of the young goalie.  Three Seattle turnovers left him all alone against some pretty top end offensive talent in Gardiner (twice) and Nick Merkley.

Don't forget his big stop in Game 1 on a late Devonte Stephens breakaway.  Without it Bear doesn't get the chance to be the last second hero.  And he added three or four point blank stops late in Game 2 that helped Seattle get that game to overtime.

I know a lot of people out there are asking Carl who?  As though he just popped up on the scene out of nowhere. Again, Stankowski was the first goalie selected in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft.  He participated in the U-17 Challenge for Hockey Canada. He was slated to get 15-18 starts this season for the T-birds but an injury at the U-17s cost him four months of service.  He's not playing over his head, nor is he out of his element on this big playoff stage.  This is exactly why the T-birds drafted him.

Seattle brass knew what they had in the young Calgarian.  The coaching staff has all the confidence in the world in him and he is delivering.  Toth was Plan A, but sometimes fate throws a monkey wrench into the works (this season there have been a lot of monkey wrenches tossed at the T-birds best laid plans).  If Carl Stankowski is the fall back, that is one heck of a Plan B. 

Stankowski's rise reminds me a bit of Carter Hart in Everett, who took over the show for the Silvertips as a 16 year old (from an older, quality starter in Austin Lotz) and never looked back. It's my opinion that if, at some point, Toth gets healthy, I think you go back to him.  Seattle traded a valuable commodity, a third round bantam pick, to acquire him for exactly this purpose, a long playoff run with a more seasoned roster.  Ultimately, if it comes to a decision, the coaches and not me, will have to choose.  I'm just of the  mindset that you don't sit a healthy 20 year old in the postseason. But if that never happens, the T-birds are in good hands with the Stank Eye.

In their last six playoff games, going back to the 2016 Western Conference Final, Seattle and Kelowna have played in five one goal games. The sixth game was decided by two goals with that extra goal being scored in the final 90 seconds.  Two of those five games were decided in overtime.  So essentially, that's nearly six straight playoff games between these two combatants with one goal providing the margin of victory most every night. 

My T-birds Three Stars for Games 1 and 2 of Round 3:

Third Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  He did enough both nights to give his team a chance for a win in both games.  Was far too often put on an island by his teammates in Game 2 because of poor puck management in the defensive zone.  Big saves late both nights.   Was really flashing the trapper in the third period of Game 2, making 12 saves.  In order for Seattle to mount their two goal comeback, he couldn't afford to surrender a goal and he didn't. 

Second Star:  W Sami Moilanen.  Kelowna is doing a very good job of containing Seattle's top line.  But Seattle's second line is playing extremely well and Moilanen is a big reason.  He had a huge three point night in Game 1, including an assist on the game winner. He continues to go into battles along the wall against bigger players and win a good number of 50/50 pucks.  In the first period of Game 2, he beat Kelowna's big d-man, Cal Foote, to the front of the net, ready to take a pass from Mat Barzal.   Foote dragged him down to prevent a scoring chance.  Moilanen has that ability to get into tight spaces with speed and agility, and most importantly, no fear.

First Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  What a postseason coming out party for the Grenfell, Saskatchewan native.  The 19 year old has at least one point in all ten Seattle playoff games and has three points (1g, 2a) and is +2 in this series. Assisted on one and scored the other goal as Seattle came from two goals down in the third period to force overtime in Game 2.  Got the puck on net in the dying seconds of the second period of Game 1 to set up Alexander True's goal. 







Saturday, April 15, 2017

Face Forward and Focus


"I'm focused on the next round, are you?"
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse


At some point it will happen, just not now.  Because of the cyclical nature of junior hockey, the constant roster turnover and the reloads and the rebuilds, it will happen, just not now.  Because of the playoff format currently in place in the WHL, where you are more likely to face a division opponent in round one, and if you get there, round two, it will happen, just not now.   At some point it will happen just because the odds say it will, just not now.

At some point Everett will win a playoff series against the T-birds.  Just. Not. Now. 

The T-birds won their third postseason series, third in the last four years, against their division rival with a four game sweep in round two of the 2017 Western Conference playoffs. For the first decade of this rivalry these teams didn't meet once in the second season.  Now, over the past 48 months they've met three times and Seattle is 12-2 against the Silvertips.

It means Seattle moves on to the Western Conference Final for a second straight year.  Once again they will face the Kelowna Rockets, just as they did last spring.  The irony here is that to get to this point two years in a row Seattle had to defeat their current closest geographical rival, Everett,  in order to play their former closest geographic rival, the Rockets.  Kelowna began life in the WHL 26 year ago down in Tacoma. 

It also means what we've suspected most of the season.  That Seattle was and is the best team in the U.S. Division for 2016-17.  They won the season series from Everett, 6-4.  They won six of the last eight head-to-head regular season games and then swept the 'Tips from the postseason.  Seattle ended the regular seasons with two more wins, 46-44.  Just two more points and Seattle would have finished atop the division. 

Mat Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Scott Eansor, Alexander True, Sami Moilanen, Jarret Tyszka, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman combined for 503 points this season (191g, 312a).  They also combined to miss 156 regular season games.  I don't think it would be going out on a limb to say Seattle could have found two more points or one more win during the regular season with any combination of that group available for just three or four more games. 

But missing players is part of the game.  Injuries, illness and other scenarios caused player absences.  So Seattle didn't repeat as U.S. Division Champions and Everett claimed it fair and square.  So, the T-birds settled the argument in the playoffs instead. 4-0. 

And once again we reach that point where it is time for Seattle to put the Everett series behind them.  Less then 24 hours after their series victory, it's time to turn the page and ready for the next chapter.
It's time to put all the focus on this coming Friday night and the first game of a new series against Kelowna.

This should be a battle.  There is plenty of incentive on both sides.  Kelowna looking to avenge last spring's series loss.  Seattle trying to get back to the league final and another crack at the Chynoweth Cup.  These were the two best teams in the Western Conference the second half of the season, especially after the trade deadline, and now they get a chance to decide on the ice who's number one and who will represent the conference in the championship series against the champions of the East.

I love the game that occurs off the scoresheet.  The line of Sami Moilanen, Scott Eansor and Nolan Volcan did not register one point in Game Four versus Everett.  Yet every time the 'Tips started to get a little bit of momentum, T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk sent out his attack dogs, a trio of pitbulls, and they shut it down.  They effectively turned the tide back in Seattle's favor.  The average size of that line?  5' 8.6", 186 lbs.  It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog. 

One other thing I like?  The under-the-radar trade.  Seattle GM Russ Farwell is becoming a master at these.  Back on December 27th He picked up 18 year old defenseman Aaron Hyman from Calgary for a third round bantam pick.  Hyman has been at the top of his game in the postseason.  In eight playoff games he's registered five points (1g, 4a) and is tied with Turner Ottenbreit for the team lead in +/- at +9.  Just as important, Hyman is eligible to play two more seasons with Seattle.  Did you know Calgary drafted Hyman back in 2013 with a pick they got from Seattle in the Brandon Glover deal? 

My T-bird Three Stars for the Second Round:

Third Star:  C/W Donovan Neuls.  Neuls has now recorded a point in all eight playoff games.  He's second in the postseason in goal scoring for Seattle with five.  Against Everett he had the huge, late game winner in Game One.  In Game Four he opened the scoring with the breakaway goal.  He started the postseason on the first line and now is back on the third line but it hasn't changed his approach.  Playing center or playing on the wing, on the power play or the penalty kill, he's playing the best hockey of his T-birds career at the right time.

Second Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  I think it is time we stop being in awe of the young man.  His 24 save effort in Game Four versus the Silvertips was probably his best game to date, rivaling what he did in the playoff opener against Tri-City.  4-0 in the series, 8-0 in the postseason.  Even in Game Three, when he allowed four second period goals, he still made big saves that prevented Everett from extending their lead, giving Seattle the chance for the comeback.  He's not a wide-eyed rookie, he's an outstanding goaltender. 

First Stars:  C Mat Barzal and RW Keegan Kolesar.  The dynamic duo, the combo platter.  Everett had no answer for these two.  In the four game sweep they registered 13 points (7g, 6a).  'Tips goalie Carter Hart will be seeing Kolesar's backside in his sleep for a few days.  The big winger made himself at home in front of the Everett net all series long.  The playmaking Barzal, who had just 10 goals in 41 regular season games, now has four in four playoff games including a Game Three overtime winner.  Meanwhile Kolesar had the game winner in Game Four.   


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Construction Zone; Men at Work

I'm back!!  And I want you at the ShoWare Center Tuesday night! 
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse


Six games into the postseason and Seattle has yet to drop a game.  It's the first time in franchise history Seattle has started the playoffs with six straight wins.  It's a good position to be in but, as every one of Seattle's players will tell you, they are still a work in progress and they are building for something bigger.

The Thunderbirds were in a similar position in round one, up two games to none on Tri-City, but knew it takes four "W's" to win a series.  They weren't celebrating those first two wins but rather focusing on Game 3.  The same is true here in round two.  After winning twice up at Xfinity Arena to open the second round series, the T-Birds are putting those two games behind them and focusing all their energy on Tuesday's Game 3 at ShoWare Center. 

When Seattle gave up two goals midway through the first period in Game 2, it marked the first time in the postseason they had trailed in a game.  Prior to that the T-Birds had played 312:52 seconds of the postseason either tied or in the lead. So of course we were curious to see how they would respond to their first playoff deficit.  What a response as they exploded for three goals in about a five minute span of the second period, to retake the lead. 

Six games into the postseason and 15 of the 19 skaters Seattle has dressed in the playoffs have registered at least one goal.  Two of the bigger goals in the first two games of the Everett series have been scored by a pair of unlikely sources.  Tyler Adams diving backhander in the second period of Game 1 gave Seattle a 2-1 lead and came right after an Everett push to take the lead had been thwarted.

In Game 2 Zack Andrusiak got his first postseason goal to put the T-Birds back into a 2-2 tie.  It also seemed to give the Thunderbirds a boost of energy and they responded quickly with two more goals to build a 4-2 lead enroute to their 4-3 win.  I had written last week that Andrusiak played well in the opening round against Tri-City, giving his coaches confidence to use him in big game situations.  He had shown sporadically through the regular season that he has a terrific shot.  His goal against Carter Hart was no cheapie. 

There were three keys to that Andrusiak goal.  One, defenseman Ethan Bear with a heady play to jump on a loose puck just outside the Seattle blue line and push it up to Luke Ormsby.  Two, the speed of Ormsby and Andrusiak to gain the Everett zone, creating a 2-on-1 rush and, three, a perfect pass from Ormsby to Andrusiak.  Remember, that's Seattle's fourth line creating that goal.  The night before it was Adams and Seattle's third line with the key goal.

Seattle's winning goal Saturday was Bear's power-play goal at 16:34 of the second period. The T-Birds don't get the power play without the aggressive play of Sami Moilanen.  Moilanen fought along the boards at center ice for a loose puck, then muscled his way around Everett defenseman Jake Christansen and was about to break into the Silvertips zone when Christiansen slashed him.  A minute later Bear one timed a Donovan Neuls pass into the back of the Everett net.  Moilanen's name doesn't end up on the scoresheet there, but his effort will get a big assist from the coaches. 

I hope the NHL scouts in the buildings over the last month are taking notice of how big the 5'8" Moilanen plays.  Meanwhile he also has a deft scoring touch as was evident on his go-ahead goal Saturday from in close on Hart.  Forehand-backhand-forehand from within three feet of the goal line while skating left to right.  He showed terrific patience, no panic and an ability to think the game in a key moment. Smart, smart hockey player. 

Over the course of six playoff games, a goaltender is probably going to have an off night or a few moments where he's not at the top of his game.  Saturday in Everett it was evident that young Carl Stankowski was fighting the puck at times.  He had issues with his rebound control which directly led to the Silvertips first goal. But when he needed to make a big save he did.  That's the sign of a goalie who doesn't let anything bother him.  After the 'Tips took the lead midway through the first period, they had at least two or three chances before that period ended to add to their lead. Stankowski held them at bay.  The Stank Eye may have blinked, but in the end he won the stare down.

At least four times throughout the second and third period Saturday I got texts or tweets wondering why they weren't counting all the shots being taken.  Seattle was credited with just one shot in the third period and only five in the second.  Did they really only get one shot at the Everett goal the final 20 minutes?  I don't know how accurate that is but I do know they had the puck deep in the Everett zone for long stretches of the final frame.  Often they had the puck pinned in the corner by virtue of a suffocating forecheck. 

This is another case where a player's hard work doesn't end up on the scoresheet but that was Seattle's third line of Adams-Matthew Wedman and Alexander True at their finest.  Adams in particular seemed to be in Noah Juulsen's hip pocket much of that third period.  Of course Juulsen was probably skating on fumes.  The Montreal Canadians prospect has logged a lot of minutes so far in this postseason. 

Which makes me wonder how the 'Tips could end up with seven third period shots to Seattle's one when the 'Tips could barely get up ice with the puck.  If those shot counts are accurate, I do know this; Seattle scored on 50% of their final six shots. 

We figured special teams would factor into this series and they certainly have.  Seattle is 2-for-5 on the power play while the 'Tips are 0-for-5.  Those two Seattle power-lay goals, one each night, have been the difference on the scoreboard in a pair of one goal games. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for Games 1 and 2:

Third Star: G Carl Stankowski.  Yes, he struggled a bit in Game 2 with his rebound control, but he came up with the big stops at key moments.  He was also rock solid in Game 1.  Both nights he's been at his best late, protecting a one goal lead.  He's been mentally focused as both nights there have been long stretches where all the action is taking place at the other end of the ice.  He now has twice as many playoff wins (6) as he does regular season wins (3).   Tell me a month ago if you knew this would be the scenario (no Rylan Toth and a seldom used rookie in net) that you had Seattle 6-0 in the playoffs.  They're 6-0 BECAUSE of Stankowski, not in spite him.

Second Star:  LW/C Donovan Neuls.  One big game winning goal in Game 1 and one big assist on a game winning goal in Game 2.  Three points so far in the series.  His game winner late in the first game was a thing of beauty. Not only that, it kept the game from going overtime.  It also crushed a potential serious shift in momentum as Everett had just tied the game moments before.  Third on the team in playoff scoring (one point behind Bear and Keegan Kolesar), he's also 7th in the league with 11 points (4g, 7a).  Two of his four goals are game winners.

First Star:  C Mathew Barzal.  Seattle has goals from 15 different players so far in the postseason.  They have points from 18 of the 21 players who have seen postseason ice time. Yet Barzal is still the straw that stirs the drink and that was most evident in his first two games back from illness. After a month of inaction he picked up where he left off.  Three points (1g, 2a), +3 and a lot of puck possession.  His weave through the Everett defense late in Game 1 led to the Neuls game winner. His deke to the front of the net and persistence to bang away at his own rebound, led to the power-play goal in the same game.  His work along the boards in underrated.  And I lost count of how many times he stripped the puck away.  After the long layoff, he's only going to get better the more he plays.









Saturday, April 1, 2017

Sweep Caroline! Four and-Oh-Oh-Oh

The Stank Eye! Carl Stankowski
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse


For the second straight spring, Seattle has swept through their first round playoff opponent.  A year ago it was Prince George vanquished in four games.  This time around it was the Tri-City Americans. 

No one anticipates a series sweep, especially not Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk, who, as cliché as it may sound, really believes in the one game at a time mantra.  He prepares for a hard fought, lengthy playoff battle but never looks beyond the game his team is about to play. There are no tomorrows if you don't focus on today.

What is most surprising about this sweep over the Americans is that Seattle accomplished it playing the series without their best player, WHL Western Conference Player of the Year, Mat Barzal.  He didn't see one minute of ice time.  They got the sweep sans goalie Rylan Toth, who led all WHL goaltenders in the regular season with 36 wins. He never stepped foot on the ice.   They played the last half of the series without their leading goal scorer and top point producer, Ryan Gropp, who was injured late in Game 2.  The first half of the series Seattle scored nine goals.  The second half of the series the T-birds scored 14 goals.

During the regular season, Tri-City finished with the league's fourth ranked power play. They averaged just slightly over one power play goal per game. Even without Michael Rasmussen, they are a dangerous team with the man advantage.  When the dust settled on this series, the T-birds had clamped down on the Ams power play, allowing just one power play goal on 19 chances. 

Meanwhile, the T-birds, minus two-fifths of their top power play unit most of the series, finished 8-for-20 with the man advantage.  Those eight power play goals came from seven different players. 

While Tri-City was getting a few key players back in the lineup from injury late in the series Seattle was, once again, never at full strength. At the end of Game 3 they had two players sitting on the bench in obvious pain, unable to take another shift.  In Game 4 another player missed a couple of shifts after blocking a shot with his arm.  They soldiered on. 

A sweep under those conditions is not supposed to happen.  You know, Seattle is just a one line team and two-thirds of that one line missed most of the series. Sayonora Seattle, right?  Lose a 20 year old, playoff seasoned goalie and replace him with a, just-turned 17 year old, rookie netminder with not one minute of playoff experience and coming off a nearly season long injury?  Hasta la vista, baby! Si?

It was so frustrating watching a Seattle team with no forward depth struggle so mightily to score goals in that first round. Definitely disappointing as we watched a young T-birds goalie incapable of keeping pucks out of his net.  Wait, is my sarcasm font button not on?  Sorry or should I say, April Fool's! 

Only it's not an April Fool's joke because these are things I've heard whispered from the outside about this team.  Yep, Seattle is gonna be in trouble come playoff time because they overuse that top line and they'll just tire them out.  Take away Barzal and Gropp and you take away their chance to win.  Hmmm, four, cough, cough, and oh, cough, cough. 

Yet that no-depth team just got points from 16 of the 20 players who skated in that first round series.  And they did it against a very good, 41 win team.  Sure, they got the unexpected sweep, but that series was by no means a pushover.  Tri-City plays a physical, punishing style.  They have a high powered offense.  Seattle earned every inch of ice and every one of those four "W"s against a team of up and comers. 

If I had told you that after Round 1, the T-birds back up goalie would have more points then their number one center, you'd say that is a recipe for failure.  Instead, Seattle is on to the second round without dropping a game.  Who writes that script? 

After the Game 4 series clinching win, the Thunderbirds pulled away from the Toyota Center in Kennewick Friday night and put the Americans in their rear view mirror, both literally and figuratively.  It's time turn the page.  A new challenge awaits in either the form of the Everett Silvertips or Victoria Royals.  But the real challenge is the Seattle Thunderbirds. It's preparing themselves for the next game, no matter the opponent.  It's getting their focus on playing the right way and paying attention to details.  It's correcting any flaw, no matter how minor, that may have occurred in the first round.  It's about being better today they you were yesterday.

When a team deals with injuries to top end players throughout the season, we often talk about the silver lining.  That the unexpected, extra ice time being picked up by the players at the end of the roster will only help to serve the team well in the future. 

Outside of Stankowski, no one player on the Seattle roster exemplified that more in Round 1 then Zack Andrusiak. Getting regular minutes on Seattle's third line, he played like a seasoned, playoff vet.  Only he had never tasted the WHL postseason before.  He didn't light up the scoresheet, registering just one assist, but he logged valuable minutes and created offensive opportunities off the forecheck. 

As Seattle hopefully gets healthier going forward, Andrusiak's ice time may diminish, but he has shown the coach's he can be a reliable player in big games. 

My T-birds Three Stars for Round 1:

Third Star:  D Ethan Bear.  Almost a quiet nine point (2g, 7a, +4) first round for the Edmonton Oilers draft pick.  Maybe it's because we've just come to expect that from him.  Ever since he arrived in Kent he's been pegged as an offensive minded defenseman, but his game is well-rounded.  The Western Conference Defenseman of the Year plays a complete 200-foot game, providing a quiet but affective brand of leadership as well.  When Seattle got in a little trouble in their own end, you let out a sigh of relief when the puck landed on his stick. 

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  It just seemed, in this series, he was determined to show that he is a top player in this league, and not a complimentary piece, no matter who his linemates are. With no Barzal to center his line in the series, and no Gropp on his line the last two games, it just seemed he got better with each performance.  He ended the series by leading the WHL in playoff points with 11 (3g,8a, +5).  That's 2.75 points per game.   It often looks like Barzal, when he's in the lineup, puts the team on his back at key moments.  There were times in this series where it looked like Kolesar was doing the same. 

First Star.  G Carl Stankowski.  Up until the last week of the regular season and this playoff series, the high point of Stankowski's rookie WHL campaign may have been celebrating his 17th birthday March 9th.  An injury cost him four months and probably 10-12 starts.  Remember this, his low point was his first start after the four month layoff.  He gave up two goals on five shots the first four minutes in a February 24th start in Kennewick against the Americans and was pulled. Well, he was still just 16 back then.  Pressed into the starting role in the first round of the postseason against that same Tri-City team he goes 4-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .932 SVPCT.  He looks more like an altar boy then a top prospect goalie, but on a team stocked with playoff veterans, he stole the show.