photo courtesy Brian Liesse/Seattle Thunderbirds
The WHL’s U.S. Division has a new leader. The Seattle Thunderbirds after winning 18 of their last 20 games have come from 16 points back to take a one-point lead on the Everett Silvertips for the division lead. What makes this run even more impressive is the fact that they have done it while suffering through a rash of injuries. Team captain and fifth-leading scorer (37 points) Scott Eansor has been out since January 14th with a lower body injury. Second line left-winger Nolan Volcan (36 points) has missed the last two games with a lower-body injury. Depth forward Matthew Wedman (17 points) has been out since January 15th with a knee injury. Defensemen Jarret Tyszka and Turner Ottenbreit have also missed time with ailments.
Seattle’s head coach Steve Konowalchuk believes every player in the lineup has played a role in the run they’ve been on.
“Guys are knowing their role. Certain guys are out there getting it done on the power play while other guys are doing it on the penalty kill.”
Even though every player has stepped up, it’s obvious what unit he has been leaning on the most.
“Guys are playing hard. Sometimes you are short forwards and all that means is Barzy (Mathew Barzal)’s line is on the ice more. They like to be out there as much as possible. The other guys are stepping up as well.”
More ice time has led to an impressive amount of production from Barzal and linemates Keegan Kolesar and Ryan Gropp. Barzal has points in all but two of his last 18 games and 38 overall. This last week alone, he had 14 assists in 4 games. Ryan Gropp has scored a goal in his last six games straight, has a 13-game point streak and has a total of 34 points over his last 19 games. Keegan Kolesar has chipped in with 28 points over his last 17 games. Konowalchuk has been most impressed by their work ethic though.
“They’re a good line. They are three good hockey players. They’re jumping into holes and moving quick. They’re working hard and when that happens there’s goals to go with it.”
Seattle has also been helped by their production when on the man advantage.
“On the power play you put (Ethan) Bear. He’s a big offensive guy and (Alexander) True’s a big guy in front. A lot of areas on the power play seem to be gelling good.”
Bear has seven power play goals during this run and True has chipped in two.
What may have gotten lost in the mix on this run is that it started with the acquisition of defenseman Austin Strand from the Red Deer Rebels. While the offence has almost completely returned and added potent Finnish play maker Sami Moilanen, the defense was struggling to start the year. Along with Strand, Seattle general manager Russ Farwell brought in Aaron Hyman from the Calgary Hitmen in an effort to replace the key d-men that were lost from last season. Strand and Hyman have done just that. While the latter has provided them with a shutdown blue-liner, the former has played well in both ends. In 20 games, Strand has five goals and five assists for 10 points. On a team that was relying upon Ethan Bear to provide all of the offensive production, this has been a big key.
Overreaction of the week: Seattle will chase down Prince George for top seed in the Western Conference.
-While going 18-1-0-1 in their last 20 games may be enough for you to think they can climb the Western Conference mountain, playing their top line as much as they have has got to be a concern. The T-birds play Monday afternoon in Kelowna then have to head back to Kent, Washington to play Red Deer on Tuesday night. That will have meant they played four games in just five days. Over most of that span they have had just 11 healthy forwards which has meant playing Barzal’s line a whole lot of the time. At one point in Friday’s win over Tri-City, Barzal stayed out for 5:25 straight of game play. There was a timeout and media break in there but that is an extremely long time to be out regardless.
With the run that this team is on and the inconsistent play by Prince George there is reason to believe they can cut into the three-point lead in no time (they also have two games in hand on the Cougars). However, any injury to the top line or Ethan Bear and this team’s postseason hopes will be severely damaged.
If they can keep more bodies from sitting in the press box, they seem to have the stuff to seal up the top overall seed in the west.
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