T-Birds notebook: Several reasons for sights set on division title
Another weekend is here for the Seattle Thunderbirds with two more important games.
In fact, the T-Birds’ entire remaining regular-season schedule is filled with big games and important points. After a week where it seemed like they had a game every night, the T-Birds have just two games on the ledger this weekend after a well-deserved four days off.
Things kick off Friday night at the ShoWare Center with the last regular-season matchup with the Everett Silvertips. Seattle’s current streak of 13 wins in 14 games has put it two points ahead of Everett in the U.S. Division standings. A regulation win for the T-Birds would give them a four-point lead with five games left.
With the WHL’s playoff format, some may question how important winning the division is.
The U.S. Division winner would most likely play the top wild-card team, which coming into the weekend is the Kamloops Blazers. That means they would be playing a team with a better record than they would in the old format, where they would play the seventh seed in the conference, in this case the Portland Winterhawks.
A first-round matchup with Portland would also be easier on Seattle for travel purposes as the Rose City is a much more manageable three-hour bus ride.
For the T-Birds, however, but winning the division is what matters most, regardless of their first-round opponent.
First off, head coach Steve Konowalchuk has spent his five seasons in Seattle changing the culture from what it was when he arrived. He’s been to the playoffs times – after a painful three-year streak of missing the postseason – and a division title would be the first for Seattle since 2005.
Talking to players over the past week, they’ve all mentioned how much they’d love to hang a banner in the ShoWare Center and winning it would help cement a winning culture.
A bigger factor than a banner, however, is Seattle’s road record.
Winning the division would give them a home-ice advantage for the first two rounds, and the T-Birds have been monsters at home this season. They’ve amassed a dominating 26-5-2-0 home record while averaging over 3.5 goals per game. The 54 points they’ve picked up at the ShoWare Center is tied with Kelowna for the most points at home in the league.
It’s been a different story away from Kent for the T-Birds. On the road they are 14-18-0-0 and have allowed more goals than they have scored. The good news is that they are currently on a four-game road winning streak so perhaps that is turning around a bit.
Because of these reasons, the club is not going to hold back in trying to wrap up the division title.
Here’s what else is knew with the T-Birds:
The versatility of Scott Eansor
There are many ways to evaluate a hockey player’s importance to his team. You can look at goals, points and the old plus-minus number. By just sticking to the old, traditional numbers you might overlook Scott Eansor, but you’d also be greatly underestimating his worth.
Over the past few years the hockey community has developed better metrics to evaluate the impact a skater has for his team. They look at things like puck possession and shots created versus allowed while a player is on the ice. Unfortunately, the WHL doesn’t keep those stats so we only have the traditional numbers to quantify a player’s impact.
Eansor’s nine goals and 35 points this season aren’t the tops on the team, but in many ways, he’s one of the more valuable players on the roster.
There may not be a harder working player in the league and Eansor has shown his versatility this season. As he has been since arriving in Seattle, he continues to be one of the best defensive centers in the WHL and can slow down any of the top players he faces. That kind of defensive prowess earned him a spot on the U.S. World Junior team this winter in which he helped the Americans earn a bronze medal.
He kills penalties, plays on the second power-play unit and this year has been asked to fill in on multiple lines. Over Seattle’s current streak, Konowalchuk has deployed Eansor up and down the lineup. He’s played on the wing on the top scoring line with Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp. He’s centered a line with Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan, which has produced an entertaining mix of speed, grit and puck possession.
In some games he’s started on the top scoring line and finished the game shutting down the opposition with Neuls and Volcan.
“It’s huge to be able to use him in all situations,” Konowalchuk said after Seattle’s 2-1 win over Portland on Saturday. “Offensively, defensively, he’s a guy you can rely on all the time.”
In that win over Portland, Eansor played with Neuls and Volcan and it was Seattle’s best line. They shut down the Winterhawks’ top line and even scored the game-winning goal. They dominated the puck possession, proving that the best way to defend is to not let your opponent get the puck.
Eansor doesn’t miss a beat when he switches from the wing on the scoring line back to center on the so-called shutdown line.
“It’s challenging sometimes,” Eansor says. “It’s hard to be solid in both areas. You just have to play the right way no matter what role you’re put in, scoring or defensive. I just play my way and keep it simple. It’s takes a few more calories to play both ways.”
The positive thing for Seattle is that it has more than one player like this. Eansor’s linemates in Volcan and Neuls are similar players. So is Nick Holowko, and rookie Matthew Wedman appears that he has the potential to be the same type of player.
These guys give the T-Birds a nice balance of skill players along with guys who can do a little bit of everything.
How good is this T-Birds team?
When Seattle beat Tri City on Sunday evening they earned their 40th win of the season. That is the most wins in a season since 2013-14 when it picked up 41 victories. With six games left the T-Birds have a chance to end up with one of the most successful campaigns in franchise history.
If they were to win five more games they would end up with the second-most wins in franchise history. The 1989-90 team won 52 contests and was loaded with explosive goal scores like Glen Goodall, Victor Gervais and Petr Nedved.
The 2002-03 T-Birds won 44 games with a team that featured Brooks Laich, Dustin Johner and Tyler Metcalfe. The 2004-05 squad won 43 games and three others won 42.
Of course, the current team is more worried about the division and how far it can go in the playoffs, but it could end up turning in one of the most successful seasons in the history of Thunderbirds hockey.
Follow Andy Eide on Twitter @andyeide.