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 Mick 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.






Sunday, March 26, 2017

And so it Begins

Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse

It takes 16 "W's" to win the WHL's Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Sixteen teams are participating in the league's playoffs all with the goal of raising that Cup.  Within two weeks that number of postseason participants will be down to eight teams.  By early May, only one team will be left standing. 

Seattle started out the postseason this weekend trying to make sure they are one of those eight teams advancing to the second round.  The T-Birds played two solid home games and as a result won the first two games of the postseason, defeating the Tri-City Americans 4-2 and 5-2.  The series will now shift to Kennewick's Toyota Center for Games 3 and 4 this coming week. 

The hope was Seattle would have both first line center Mathew Barzal, dealing with an illness, and number one goalie Rylan Toth, working through a lower body injury, back in the lineup for the start of the playoffs.  But why break with precedence?  Seattle has dealt with injuries to key players all season long, so why should the playoffs be any different?

Fortunately for Seattle, it would seem these injuries have not affected their ability to win games.  They finished the season with 46 wins, most in the Western Conference, and without Barzal and Toth the last five games of the regular season, they went 4-1.  Make that now 6-1 after these two wins to open the postseason with Barzal and Toth both still unavailable. 

Through the first two games against the Americans, depth was the key.  Seattle scored a combined nine goals in the two wins and those goals came from eight different players.  A third pairing defenseman, Austin Strand, scored the game winner opening night and third line winger Matthew Wedman broke the 2-2 tie Saturday.  If you had Seattle winning Game 2 without a goal from their top line or top D pairing, pat yourself on the back 'cause that's what happened.

The Thunderbirds still need to be more disciplined going forward.  They've given the Ams 12 power plays in the first two games and while Tri-City converted on just one, it's a recipe for disaster if Seattle keeps up that pace.  The good news for Seattle is their own power play, even without Barzal, is clicking at 40 percent so far in this series (4 of 10). 

So far in this series against Tri-City depth has been the difference.  I don' t think there are two teams in the Western Conference, heck the WHL, affected more by key injuries this season then Seattle and Tri-City.  The difference has been Seattle's ability to consistently overcome those injuries.  Seattle has four players who can center their top line if needed in Barzal, Alexander True, Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls.  That helps keep Seattle playing at an optimal level.  Tri-City, probably because of a younger roster, was streakier when those injuries hit.  So far it's clear that the loss of Michael Rasmussen and Nolan Yaremko is affecting the Americans. 

Another factor early in the series is probably playoff experience.  Seattle's roster features a large number of players who were with the team on their long playoff run to the league final last spring.  Many of them have been to the postseason four years in a row.  The loss to Brandon in the final series a year ago is motivating them to get back to the final again.  Tri-City missed the 2016 postseason and very few player on their roster have been in the WHL playoffs before.

That experience may have paid off for Seattle in Game 2.  After Tri-City erased the T-Birds two-goal lead early in the third period, they didn't panic.  They just kept coming.  Seattle ended the third period with 22 shots on goal and scored three times in the last five minutes to pull out the win. 

Now Seattle has to use that veteran playoff experience to realize they've won nothing yet.  It takes four wins to advance, not two.  Tri-City will be desperate to win and will look to use their home ice to their advantage.  Playoff experience or not, the Americans will be in desperation mode to get back in this series.  The T-Birds will need to match, if not exceed, the desperation level Tri-City will play with. 

Both Barzal and Toth were in the lockerroom post Game 2.  Not sure if that means they'll be available for the upcoming games in this series but it is a sign they are closer to a return to the lineup. 

Until last Sunday, on the final day of the regular season, Carl Stankowski had not played in a game at the ShoWare Center since an October 14th 3-2 shootout loss to Prince George.  That was over six months ago.  He's now won three straight on home ice in a week's time, including his first two playoff starts.  Stankowski, who turned 17 years old back on March 9th, has played 271 minutes of hockey at the ShoWare Center and has surrendered just nine goals on 120 shots.  That's a 2.43 GAA and .908 SVPCT on home ice with those numbers improving with each game played.

Remember, Stankowski was the first goalie taken in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft and has represented Canada on the world stage at the U-17 Hockey Challenge. The bright lights of the WHL Playoffs shouldn't phase him.  

Which brings me to, my T-Birds Three Stars for the opening weekend of the 2017 postseason:

Third Star:  D Austin Strand.  Before coming over to Seattle in a late December trade with Red Deer, Strand had potted just one goal in 38 games.   In 36 regular season games with the T-Birds he registered eight goals.   He's now added one game winning playoff goal to that number.  He is currently tied for second in team playoff scoring with three points (1g, 2a).  A Wally Cleaver, aw shucks attitude off the ice, he doesn't mind being a little nasty on it.

Second Star:  RW Keegan Kolesar.  Whether scoring or not, through the first two postseason games Kolesar has been putting his stamp on this series. He's really brought his game to an even higher level in the absence of Barzal.  Very physical effort the last two weeks.  He's the team's early playoff scoring leader with four points (2g, 2a). 

First Star:  G Carl Stankowski.  Out most of the season with an injury, there was a time back in November and December when Seattle didn't know whether they would have to shut down their prized future netminder and wait until next season.  Stankowski put in the rehab to get back sooner than later.  Pressed into the starting role at the beginning of the postseason, he is 2-0 with 2.00 GAA and SVPCT of .938.  His stopping of three breakaways and a penalty shot in a span of four minutes of the third period in Game 1, with Seattle clinging to a 3-2  lead, is the stuff that will have fans in three years saying "I was there when it all started for him".  It was the night the Stank Eye was born, when Stan the Man first flashed on the scene. 




Monday, March 20, 2017

And Now For Something Completely Different

With Sunday's 6-1 win over Vancouver the 2016-17 regular season comes to an end and it's on to the playoffs.  How competitive was the regular season in the Western Conference?  Well, Seattle didn't know who their first round playoff opponent would be until AFTER their final game concluded.  Tri-City overcame a late two goal deficit and roared back to tie Everett, then win in overtime.  That win , coupled with Portland's loss to Spokane Sunday, means Seattle will face the Americans in the opening round.

Amazingly, seven of the eight Western Conference playoff teams finished the regular season with 40 or more wins, led by Seattle with 46.  Only Victoria, with 37, failed to reach the 40 win plateau and late injuries and illness helped cripple their chance at those 40 wins.  It should make for a very competitive first round out West.

Seattle, of course, fell just short of their goal of winning their second straight U.S. Division banner and the conference's top seed, falling just a couple points short.  Everett earned that top seed, but what an amazing second half by the T-birds to come roaring up from the back of the pack.  At one point Seattle sat in last place in the U.S. Division and well back in the conference standings too. 

The season both went as many predicted but also the script kept getting re-written as the T-birds made their push toward the top of the standings.  Most felt that with top players away with NHL teams to start the season, Seattle would use the first half to bring along a lot of young players and tread water while waiting the return of their stars.  While they unexpectedly had Ryan Gropp returned to them by the New York Rangers, an injury delayed the return of Keegan Kolesar and Mat Barzal remained with the New York Islanders for two months. 

The T-birds hovered around .500 while playing competitive hockey night in and night out until those players came back.  No sooner were Kolesar and Barzal back with the team, Seattle promptly lost Barzal and Alexander True to World Juniors.  Despite that, Seattle went into the Christmas break with a record four games above .500.

The expectation was Seattle would begin to soar up the standings the second half with their full compliment of players back by early January.  While that climb up the ladder did indeed happen, it wasn't accomplished so easily. As soon as Barzal and True returned, the injury bug hit. 

In no particular order, Seattle lost key players to long term injury.  Scott Easnor, who was leading the team in scoring when the season reached mid-January, would miss two months.  Other key players soon followed him to sick bay including Matthew Wedman who missed almost as much time as Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Jarret Tyszka.    Ethan Bear was out for a week.  Keegan Kolesar was absent for a few more games.  Tyszka got healthy and then was hurt again and unavailable until the final weekend.  Fellow defenseman Reese Harsh was sidelined for much of March and of course their best player, Barzal, missed the final five games, just as Seattle was battling for the top of the conference.  Did I mention Seattle played the final week without their number one goalie, Rylan Toth?

In all Seattle players missed well over 200 man games this season.  Most of those were missed the second half.  How did the team respond to the adversity?  Twelve times in the final 35 games, or one third of those games, Seattle dressed either one or two players under the limit.  They went 11-1 in those games.  Three or four times the 18th dressed skater was a 15 year old call up who only saw two or three shifts.  They used three different goalies the final five games and went 4-1. 

Seattle played 39 games after Christmas.  In 11 of those games they had no Barzal. I've heard many outsiders opine that without Barzal, Seattle would be in trouble.  In those 11 Barzal-less second half games, the T-birds posted an 8-2-1-0 mark.  Seattle also posted a winning record with no Eansor for much of the second half, a winning record in games without Volcan, and a winning record in games without Wedman.  For most of the second half they had four or five players on the shelf and over 100 points out of the lineup.  When one player went down, another stepped up. 

39 post Christmas games under less then ideal conditions, starting back in the pack in the Western Conference standings and the T-birds went 29-6-3-1.  They earned points in 33 of those 39 games.  In the end that remarkable feat brought them within an eyelash of the division banner and the conference top seed. 

He probably won't even be in the conversation but how can you not consider Steve Konowalchuk for WHL Coach of the Year?  Because he had players such as Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar, Easnor and Bear on his roster I'm guessing he'll be overlooked. 

It's easy to dismiss the thought of choosing him for the award when you're said to have some of the best players. Pretty easy to stand behind a bench with top talent sitting in front of you, right?   But those players alone missed a combined 92 games. And yet Seattle still won more games then any team in the Western Conference and the third most in the league.  Why?  Because the coach taught those players at the end of the bench to believe in themselves, to believe in each other and to believe in him. 

This isn't about coaching a team to victories when they are expected to win, it is about coaching a team to victory when they're expected to lose.  The T-birds could have easily fallen off the pace and blamed injuries to top personnel.  Instead they made no excuses and buckled down and worked with the players they had available and didn't worry about those players who were up in the stands.  That's a direct reflection of the coach. 

You can play the what-if game.  What if Eansor and his point per game average hadn't missed so many key games?   What if Barzal and his over a point per game average was available Saturday night at home against Portland?  What if Kolesar hadn't gotten hurt at training camp with the Columbus Blue Jackets back in September?  What if the referee hadn't lost sight of the puck and was too quick to stop play back on January 20th up in Everett, negating an easy Luke Ormsby tap in goal that would have tied the game late in the third period and probably earned Seattle one more point, if not two, in the standings? 

It's all water under the bridge now.  Celebrate the accomplishment and don't dwell on what might have been.  Time to move on to the postseason.  To get ready for Tri-City and their potent attack. If the motto for the season was "Climb the Ladder", then the goal for the playoffs is to "Finish the Mission."  As great as the run through the playoffs was last spring, the loss in the league final was a bitter pill to swallow.  The majority of the players from that team are back for another crack at it and their focus is on raising the Chynoweth Cup.  Let the journey begin.

My T-birds Three Stars for the 2016-17 regular season:

Third Star:  LW Ryan Gropp.  Gropp was expecting to play his 20 year old season with the New York Rangers AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. Instead, to the surprise of most, the Rangers sent their 2015, signed second round draft pick back to Seattle for one final year of seasoning in the WHL.  Gropp could have pouted and sulked but instead he embraced the opportunity to come back to the T-birds, work on his 200 foot game, become one of the team's top penalty killers and still post another 30-plus goal season. 

Second Star:  D Ethan Bear.  Bear rode the high expectations of producing another big offensive season from the back end into his final campaign with Seattle and didn't disappoint.  The Edmonton Oilers prospect registered 28 goals, 70 points and a +34.  Like Gropp, his offensive game overshadows the improvements he's made in his 200 foot game.  He's constantly on the ice against the opposing team's top scorers.  He is now the T-birds all-time leading goal scorer among defensemen in franchise history. 

First Star:  C Mat Barzal.  Seattle made the Coquitlam, B.C. native the first overall pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, a position that comes with lofty expectations and a lot of weight on the shoulders of a teenager.  He didn't disappoint and has completely lived up to the billing over the course of his four year T-birds career.  Talent is only part of the equation with the New York Islanders 2016 first round draft pick.  His makeup is talent plus dedication plus desire. He works at improving his game both on and off the ice.   In just 41 games this season he registered 79 points.  He spent two months this season in the NHL and another month representing Canada at World Juniors.  Despite not playing a full season with the T-birds he should be under consideration for the WHL player of the year honors.  The conversation for best player in Thunderbirds history also  cannot be held without his name in the debate. 






Sunday, March 12, 2017

Three to Get Ready

After a successful two win weekend, Seattle is down to their final three regular seasons games as they begin to take aim at the playoffs.  We don't know who their first round playoff opponent will be, or whether Seattle goes into the postseason as division champs for a second straight year, but we do know they will open the postseason at home on March 24th and 25th. 

Seattle will begin the assault on the final week of the regular season Wednesday in Spokane, holding a one point lead on Everett for the top spot in the U.S. Division.  Everett has a game in hand.  Again, as long as the opportunity exists, the T-Birds goal is to win the U.S. Division and grab the Western Conference's top seed.  We know they can't achieve that without help from other teams but, in all likelihood, the only way to help themselves is to win out the final three games.  The question right now is, does another division banner matter at this point?   Seattle is winning while at less then full strength.  Personally I'd put the team getting healthy as a higher priority then winning the division.  Ideally, they do both. 

Seattle just swept a weekend series against their two biggest rivals without their best player in the lineup.  They won both games playing most of those 120 minutes with just 16 skaters.  They skated both nights with just five defensemen.  As a precaution, they pulled their number one goalie from a scoreless game and still won.  Not only did they not have Mat Barzal but let's remember they've played essentially the entire second half of the season without their number two center as well, Scott Eansor.  They've played a good chunk of the second half without one of their top four defensemen, Jarret Tyszka.   Both Friday at home and Saturday on the road, they had 151 points missing from the lineup.  Yet both nights, they were clearly the better team on the ice against two playoff teams who have combined for 82 wins. 

Winning the division is A goal.  Being the top seed in the conference is A goal.  Neither is THE goal. Right now, it is clear to see this team is focused, focused on THE goal of winning what they fell short of winning last spring,  the Ed Chynoweth Cup.  Focus is one of those intangibles you can't always describe but you know it when you see it.  Right now, I see that focus in the players on this team.  It's in the way Keegan Kolesar played this weekend.  In two games where he didn't register a point, he was one of the best players on the ice, driven to pick up for his sick linemate, Barzal. 

Focus as in the way Alexander True stepped up to the plate in Barzal's absence.  He picked up the mantel, moving from third line center to the top line and playing two of the best games of his T-Birds career.  That focus is 20 players with a singular mindset to follow the recipe for success by sacrificing everything for sixty minutes every game.  It's blocking shots with you legs or your face as Turner Ottenbreit did both nights.  It's jumping into a bigger role then you've ever had before as the games take on more importance as Anthony Bishop has done the past week.  It's coming off the bench cold in a scoreless game and backstopping your team to a 6-3 win so your number one goalie can rest a lower body tweak, as Matt Berlin did Saturday for Rylan Toth. 

Many will say the story of the weekend was Seattle winning two important games without Barzal available. I would argue the story of the weekend was every other player available pushing their game to the next level to earn two wins.  The story was a player like Sami Moilanen and his Rocky Balboa approach to the game.  It's not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.  Take a hit, give a hit, get knocked down, get right back up, get pushed into the boards, push right back.  Give up a goal, score a goal.  Be the last man standing.

Twelve games with less then a full line up the last two months, 11-1 record in those games.  Remarkable. 

So when it comes to the playoffs, sure you'd like home-ice advantage as much as possible, especially when your home venue is the ShoWare Cente where Seattle fans have made it one of the most intimidating places for opposing teams to play. But in the end it's not about where you play but how you play.  And under less then ideal conditions over the past two months, Seattle has been playing the right way most nights. 

Over the last three games the T-Birds have scored 14 goals in compiling three wins.  Seattle's so-called  "one line team" has gotten goals from 10 different players.  Apparently Seattle has a 10 player first line. 

My T-Birds Three Stars for the past week.  So many players stepped up I just put all their names on a dart board, put on a blindfold and tossed three darts. 

Third Star:  D Anthony Bishop.  With just five healthy defensemen, it was important not just to have Ethan Bear,  Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman at their best, which they were and then some, but also for Bishop to embrace his role in that top five.  He had to play with confidence and not be intimidated by the moment.  He did exactly that.  Even added a goal in Tuesday's win over Spokane. 

Second Star:  D Turner Ottenbreit. This is saying a lot when you have an Ethan Bear on the team who played exceptionally well in his return to the lineup after a three game absence, but I thought Ottenbreit was the best two-way d-man on the ice every night this past week.   He blocked shots, scored goals, delivered hits and chipped in with a few assists while providing leadership in the absence of the captain. 

First Star:  C Alexander True.  No one was affected as much by the absence of Barzal this weekend then True who moved up from the third line to center the top line between Kolesar and Ryan Gropp.  True scored a goal in each of the three wins including a pair of shorties on the weekend.  He and Gropp are two of Seattle's best penalty killers and the T-Birds were 11 of 12 on the PK.  Ended the week with four points (3g, 1a).  Most importantly, his strong play diminished the affects of Barzal's absence.