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T-Birds notebook: Of penalties and playoff races

Matthew Wedman and the Thunderbirds are fighting for a playoff spot (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

Things got pretty heated this past Saturday night as the Thunderbirds faced the Everett Silvertips.

The Seattle players, and coach Matt O’Dette, were frustrated with the way the game was officiated. This has been a season long frustration for O’Dette and things came to a head Saturday. The main complaint was what appeared to be an obvious slash on Donovan Neuls’ stick that went uncalled.

Missing the call was one thing, but it led directly to the game-tying goal for the Silvertips, who went on to win 2-1.

After the game, O’Dette and captain Turner Ottenbreit were direct in their criticisms and frustrations. For both, it is not just the calls that were made on Seattle – they ended the night having to kill four Everett power plays – but the ones that weren’t called on Everett.

This has been something that O’Dette has commented on all season. He feels that for whatever reason, the Thunderbirds aren’t getting a fair shake and what is a penalty for them, doesn’t seem to be the same for their opponents.

Is he right?

There is no real way to say for sure if Seattle is not getting the same calls as that kind of statistic is not tracked. There is certainly a great deal of recent anecdotal evidence however.

There was the missed slash this past Saturday. A week before, Dillon Hamaliuk received a slash against Everett that caused the big winger’s knees to buckle, and there was no call. After a near line-brawl in the same game, all five Seattle players were taken off the ice but Everett was able to have two key players remain, despite their participation in the scrum. Two weeks prior in Portland, Neuls was clearly slashed and hooked on a breakaway with no call. In that same game, Portland’s Alex Overhardt played a puck with a broken stick, which should be an automatic penalty. It wasn’t called, negating the Thunderbirds a chance at a late power play chance in a game they trailed by one at the time.

The list goes on and on and nobody with the Thunderbirds is saying these plays cost them games or that they would have won if they got the call. The frustration is in what appears to be an unequal standard being applied.

It’s a tough claim to prove. One would have to go back and review every single game and look at every play – and even then, some will be subjective.

There are some numbers to look at however.

Seattle has been shorthanded 255 times this year while only getting 235 power plays of its own. That puts the Thunderbirds 18th in the league in power-play chances which would seem to support O’Dette’s claim that they don’t get as many calls as their opponents.

Generally, teams that control the puck and the pace of play will draw more penalties. According to WHL Stats Pro, Seattle’s possession numbers are higher ranked than its number of power plays drawn. Looking at the Thunderbirds Estimated Fenwick-Close numbers – an imperfect stat that attempts to track puck possession – Seattle is ranked 12th in the league which puts them in the middle of the pack.

That difference would support O’Dette’s claims as well.

Again, these numbers don’t capture missed calls that may occur in a game, which is where Seattle’s main frustration stems from. As the season has progressed, so has the frustration and O’Dette’s comments Saturday were made more to stick up for his players than anything else.

The young Thunderbirds play hard each night and when the coach doesn’t feel that they get a fair shake, he’s going to say something. He’s going to have the backs of his guys.

O’Dette has said numerous times this year that the team is used to the lack of calls and tries to use it as motivation, a kind of ‘us against the world’ approach.

“That’s all we can do,” he said after Saturday’s game. “We use it for motivation when these things happen to us and I think that helped give us some juice in the third.”

Seattle’s best period in Saturday’s loss was the third, after the big no-call slash. Despite not being able to score, they controlled the puck for large portions of that frame and closed the gap on the shot clock.

The Thunderbirds have a busy week ahead of them and will need to play with the energy and fury they displayed in that last period on Saturday.

The race for eight

Despite the Thunderbirds struggles in February they still are holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They have a six-point lead over the Kamloops Blazers which includes three important games in hand.

Kamloops was in Vancouver on Monday night and lost 2-0 to the Giants. Seattle will face that same Giants squad Tuesday night at home with a chance to build an eight-point lead.

The Thunderbirds have 11 games left in the regular season, including Tuesday’s game with Vancouver, and appear to have the tougher schedule. Of the 11, six are at home at the accesso ShoWare Center but all are against U.S. Division teams. All those teams are above Seattle in the standings and in playoff positions.

The Blazers have eight games left, all against their rivals in the B.C. Division, with five of those at home. They still have two games with B.C. leading Kelowna but finish the season with two games against the conference’s last place team, the Prince George Cougars.

Seattle has a magic number of 11 to clinch and will need to find a way to scratch out some points if it wishes to hold off the Blazers and make the post season. The run begins Tuesday night.