Despite having the night off, the Seattle Thunderbirds lost their tenuous hold on first place in the U.S. Division when they woke up Thursday morning.
With a 2-1 shootout win in Saskatoon Wednesday evening, the Everett Silvertips leap-frogged over Seattle by one point in the standings. Having gone 18-2-0-1 in their last 21 games however, the T-Birds have positioned themselves to be in the race for the division lead, and possibly the top spot in the Western Conference as well.
A lot has been written and spoken about how Seattle’s top line has performed during this hot streak – and rightfully so.
Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar have been as good as could be imagined over this stretch and are carrying the injured Seattle offense. Add in defenseman Ethan Bear, who has established a new career high in goals with 22 and it’s clear that Seattle’s top players have stepped up.
But it hasn’t just been those four players who have made this streak happen.
With key injuries to the likes of Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman, the whole team has had to play at its best.
While the top guys are putting up all the pretty numbers, the contributions that the rest of the squad are making can’t be overlooked. The T-Birds continue to be an outstanding puck possession team, even with the injuries. They have an estimated Fenwick-close – a statistic that measures possession – rate of 55.48 percent, which is the third best in the WHL.
Without a doubt, the top line is a big part of that, so is the play of the rest of the team. Head coach Steve Konowalchuk’s club is getting tough minutes from young players who have to move up the roster and while they may not score, they are generally controlling the puck and winning shifts.
It’s all adding up to wins.
Here’s a look at the contributions the T-Birds are getting from a few of the ‘unsung’ players.
With Eansor’s injury, Neuls has stepped into the second line center position. He has chipped in offensively, with three goals and 12 points over the past 21 games but he has done so much more. Often deployed against the other team’s top line, he has gelled with Sami Moilanen and until a recent injury, Volcan.
Neuls has shown he is more than a capable center in the WHL and is one of the team’s key penalty killers. He plays a ton of minutes and you will be hard pressed to find many guys who play has hard, shift in and shift out as the Grenfel, Sask. Native does.
With the way Neuls has performed at center it will be interesting to see where Konowalchuk uses him when Eansor is back in the lineup. He has played well on the wing, both on the Eansor line and on a line with Alexander True and his versatility continues to be an asset to Seattle’s success.
The big Dane has been a key player for Seattle during and before the injury bug hit the club. He’s set a career high in goals this year with 19 and his next point will be a new high-water mark for him as well. He’s lost his normal wingers in Wedman and Neuls and has centered a line with two rookies, Luke Ormsby and Elijah Brown.
That line again, consistently wins shifts and has held their own against other top lines. They even can contribute to the offence as they did Tuesday night against Red Deer when they combined to score a big insurance marker in the third period. True also is a mainstay on Seattle’s top power-play unit, which has caught fire with 10 goals in the last five games.
“I don’t think enough is said about Truesy,” Konowalchuk said after Tuesday’s win over Red Deer. “When guys go down, he’s a veteran guy playing between two rookies and doing a heck of a job. He goes out there and works hard, he’s a force down low so he can help lug it out. He’s such a good character guy and will do whatever the team asks.”
There are some nights when Toth doesn’t face many shots, as was the case against his former club on Tuesday night, but Seattle’s goalie is making the key saves when needed. He was named WHL Goalie of the Month for January after he backstopped the club to 10 wins. He has set a career high with 30 wins on the season and has worked his goals-against average down to under three at 2.65.
Toth is a battler and the team has confidence in him. A great example of this was during this past Saturday’s wild 8-5 win over Portland. The T-Birds were playing without a full roster and the high-flying Winterhawks were generating chances. While the scoresheet says he gave up five goals that night, Toth made a number of big saves, many in the third period to help keep the Seattle lead in tact.
Tyler Adams and Anthony Bishop
Two players who weren’t with Seattle when the season started have quietly contributed to the recent success. Adams, a big, physical player has moved up to the second line with all the injuries and is playing tough minutes.
“I still feel like I’m playing the same role,” the big winger said last week. “Up on the second line you’ve got to make more plays you see more ice time against better players so but I feel like I still play that third line style.”
Bishop, who is a defenseman by trade, has spent just as much time playing forward for the T-Birds. The injuries have depleted the group up front and the T-Birds have been able to slot Bishop in wherever they need him. He is not a big point getter but he’s given Seattle quality minutes, no matter where he’s positioned.
The blue line
Seattle routinely limits the number of shots against and only two clubs in the WHL have allowed fewer goals than it has this year. Puck possession by the forwards plays a key role in that, but so does the play by the defensemen.
The T-Birds blue line has been solid in getting the puck, and getting it up to the forwards on a consistent basis. The pre trade deadline pick ups of Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman have added experience and some size the group while Bear, Turner Ottenbreit, Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch continue to be solid in their own end.