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T-Birds notebook: Hughes hot, career seasons, and the penalty kill

Liam Hughes has taken over Seattle's number one goalie spot (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

It’s hard to say what Seattle goalie Liam Hughes’ best moment during Saturday’s 39-save performance against Spokane was.

It might have been the breakaway save he made against Los Angeles Kings prospect, Jaret Anderson-Dolan. That came in the second period with the Thunderbirds holding on to a slim one-goal lead. That save was huge, but Hughes might have been at his best finding the puck in traffic during several scramble plays that occurred throughout the game.

He would stay calm and manage a way to find the puck through a sea of bodies and sticks.

“You just try to find the puck and stay square so that you don’t create too many holes there,” Hughes said after the game, making it sound easier than it is.

Hughes is a humble and quiet 18-year-old but his play of late has been speaking loudly.

He suffered an injury in mid-November and the original prognosis was that he would be out four to eight weeks. He came back in three and just in time to backstop Seattle after Matt Berlin went down with an injury. Showing no signs of rust from a month off, he has started four games in a row for the Thunderbirds and won them all.

“He’s playing great,” head coach Matt O’Dette said of his goaltender. “He’s making the big saves when we need him to. It gives our guys a lot of confidence when he’s back there.”

Hughes says that coming back from injury wasn’t hard for him since he had to deal with a similar injury last season while playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings. With the way he has been playing, the club felt confident enough to trade Berlin to Kootenay on Monday afternoon. .

With Berlin gone and the status of Carl Stankowski still up in the air, the Seattle crease is going to belong to Hughes for the foreseeable future. Dorrin Luding will be the back up but expect Hughes to get the bulk of the starts, including Tuesday’s home match up with the Portland Winterhawks.

“Never done this, in my career, so far,” he said of being the number one goalie. “It’s been exciting and I feel like I’m getting better each game out.”

Here’s the latest news surrounding the T-Birds:

Penalty Kill continues to get job done

The Thunderbirds ended last year with the league’s third most efficient penalty kill. They lost some key members of that unit, including Scott Eansor and Alexander True. Certainly there would be a step back in production.

Not only has Seattle not suffered on the penalty kill, but is ranked a slot higher. Coming into Tuesday’s game with Portland, the Thunderbirds have the league’s second best penalty kill unit, killing off over 82-percent of their chances.

Under Steve Konowalchuk, managing the penalty kill was O’Dette’s responsibility. Now that he’s the head coach, O’Dette has tasked new assistant Kyle Hagel with the task. Hagel’s been up to it and despite some key players gone, killing penalties is right up the T-Birds alley.

“They’re well prepared and Kyle does a great job,” O’Dette said. “The PK kind of fits our style. Not a lot of lime light there and we have guys who take pride in it.”

One of those guys is Donovan Neuls, who is one of the first penalty killers over the boards. He was part of a unit that killed off 12-of-13 chances in the two wins last weekend.

“Hagel gives us a good scouting report before every game and we just implement it out there as best we can,” Neuls said. “It’s been working for us.”

Career years

The quality of the players that Seattle lost to the pro ranks after last season’s championship run has been well documented. With that turnover, players on this year’s team have been put into elevated roles which has resulted in a number of T-Birds setting new career point marks.

Seattle has played eight rookies on a regular basis and obviously those players set new career marks with each point. But of the veterans, eight guys have hit new highs for points. That doesn’t include Nolan Volcan, who is two points away from tying his career best of 44 points. It also doesn’t include Neuls, who tied his career best point total on Saturday night and will set a new mark with his next goal or assist.

Sami Moilanen is 16 points off his totals from last season but he is picking up points at a .90-per-game pace which is much higher than last year. He should set a new career high before too long.

Zack Andrusiak has demolished his previous best. Andrusiak, who was stuck playing behind a number of good players, had a previous high of 11 points that he picked up between Seattle and Prince Albert last year. This year he’s scored 18 goals and 38 points, and still counting.

US Division loads up

With the WHL Trade Deadline coming up on Wednesday, a couple of Seattle’s rivals stocked up. On Saturday, the Tri-City Americans picked up Carolina Hurricane’s first-round pick Jake Bean from the Calgary Hitmen. The next day, Everett posted a block-buster trade and picked up Garret Pilon and Ondrej Vala – two players from the Kamloops Blazers that are NHL prospects.

Heading into Tuesday’s games, the division is jam packed. Everett has the top spot but only lead fifth place Seattle by five points. Every team trailing the Silvertips has multiple games in hand so needless to say, the race is wide open.

Will the other teams respond to these trades? They have just over one day to do so.