THUNDERBIRDS

Rockets devoting attention to T-Birds’ top line, creating opportunities for others

Apr 25, 2016, 4:50 PM | Updated: Apr 26, 2016, 2:03 pm

We all know the story so far: Seattle has won two one-goal games on the road to grab a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Championship Series with a chance to build on that lead – or clinch – with two games at the ShoWare Center this week.

Much of the praise for Seattle’s recent success has been heaped on Scott Eansor, and rightfully so. The Englewood, Colo., native leads the Thunderbirds in playoff goals with seven, which ties him for sixth in the WHL. More importantly, he potted the game-winning goals in each of Seattle’s victories in Kelowna last weekend.

Eansor scores twice to lead Seattle to a 3-2 win in Game 2

Eansor is exactly the type of player who excels during the playoffs. His motor is constantly running, and that seems to pay off even more when the stakes are as high as they are now.

But as we all know, hockey is a team sport and one player is never solely responsible for a team’s success.

Eansor gets tons of help from his linemates, Nolan Volcan and Donovan Neuls, who play a similar game. All three might be considered undersized if you’re going by the book, averaging a height of just over 5 foot 9 and 182 pounds. But all three are tenacious forecheckers and defenders, making life difficult for whoever they’re matched up against.

This series, a big part of Seattle’s success at both ends of the ice has been Kelowna’s focus on Seattle’s top line, led by Mathew Barzal. Accompanying Barzal have been goal-scoring extraordinaire Ryan Gropp and one of either Andreas Schumacher or Keegan Kolesar.

For Kelowna’s part, they’ve chosen a different method than many by trying to fight fire with fire. The Rockets matched up arguably their top offensive line of Rourke Chartier, Tomas Soustal, and Calvin Thurkauf against Barzal’s line.

Some may argue that the approach has worked, as the line has accumulated a total of two power-play goals – both by Barzal – and just one assist by Kolesar.

The Kelowna line, meanwhile, has likewise scored just two goals – both by Chartier – one of which was on the power play in Game 1’s waning moments.

What this has meant is that a number of the Rockets’ top scorers have had to be more concerned with keeping the puck out of their own net than doing what seemingly comes natural to them. It’s not that any of them are particularly poor defensively, but when you’re as skilled as they are offensively, it’s hard for the opposition to get the puck and create chances of their own.

It’s been different during this series as the Rockets are experiencing firsthand just how talented of a player Barzal is, whether he’s filling up the scoresheet or not. There isn’t a player in the Western Conference who is better at controlling play than Barzal. Try and bottle him up at the blue line and he shows how adept he is at handling the puck in tight spaces. Give him an inch of space and he’ll find the open man with a cross-ice saucer pass onto the tape of one of his linemates. Attack him in the neutral zone and he’ll go around you with ease.

It’s often said that the best defense is a good offense, but the opposite can also be said in hockey. Unlike baseball, basketball, or football, at no point do you ever have to “give” your opponent possession. Theoretically, if you could win every faceoff and somehow hold on to the puck for an entire 60 minutes, it would probably be a safe bet that the other team would have trouble scoring.

When Barzal is on the ice, the puck is usually glued to his stick. Defenders are chasing, pokechecking, and generally doing anything they can to keep the puck off his stick, but they’re rarely successful.

The Coquitlam, British Columbia native also centers the team’s fourth line frequently and his presence has meant more chances for players who usually don’t get many. T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk has done a magnificent job mixing up his lines so that each one poses a threat, but having Barzal on the ice for nearly half the game is clearly wearing on the opposition. After just about every shift, you’ll see Kelowna try and throw Barzal off his game with a stick to the shins or a glove to the face.

For a high-energy line like Eansor’s, that only creates more opportunities. When the defense has expended most of its energy just trying to keep up with Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar, and Schumacher, it creates cracks in the defense that players like Eansor, Neuls, and Volcan are built to exploit, and they’ve done just that. Look no further than Seattle’s third goal in Game 2, where Eansor blatantly out-hustled the Kelowna defense and a casual Michael Herringer after a Kolesar dump-in.

Headed back to Seattle, Rockets head coach Brad Ralph will no longer have the privilege of choosing his matchups. Konowalchuk may choose to keep things as they are and hope Eansor and co. can continue building on the success they’ve had. Or perhaps he’ll try and open things up for Barzal. More than likely, it’ll be a combination of both as Seattle tries to keep Kelowna on its heels and inch closer to a berth in the league finals.

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Rockets devoting attention to T-Birds’ top line, creating opportunities for others