Takeaways from the Thunderbirds weekend split

Mar 22, 2021, 10:05 AM | Updated: 10:13 am

Thunderbirds rookie Thomas Milic is off to a strong start in net. (Brian Liesse-T-Birds)...

Thunderbirds rookie Thomas Milic is off to a strong start in net. (Brian Liesse-T-Birds)

(Brian Liesse-T-Birds)

It has been said over and over that the Western Hockey League’s season is going to be like none other. It’s redundant yet unavoidable. Shortened schedule, Covid protocols, and empty arenas are all an adjustment that the league’s member clubs are dealing with.

Training camp was shortened and while winning is important, player development is the underlying key to the season.

It’s in that atmosphere that the Thunderbirds opened the season with a Friday night win over the Spokane Chiefs before dropping a 4-1 contest with the Portland Winterhawks. Both opponents were among the best teams in the WHL last year so a split for the young Thunderbirds felt like a positive of sorts.

“I think overall, results aside, we’re pleased with the way we played,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said after Saturday’s loss. “We’ve got a very young team that’s learning on the fly. We’re playing these young guys in high-leverage situations and they’re getting experience. But we just want to see progress from game to game, from week to week from our team, and make sure we’re getting better every time we’re out there.”

Saturday’s loss to the Winterhawks was a winnable game. The Thunderbirds dominated the first period and blitzed the Portland net. The line of Payton Mount, Matthew Rempe, and Lucas Ciona were especially good as they had their way with the Winterhawks young defense.

If not for the heroics of goalie Dante Giannuzzi, Seattle could of, and probably should have, opened a lead.

Seattle outshot Portland 16-4 in the first only to lose the momentum as the Winterhawks held a 26-15 shot advantage over the final 40 minutes.

“As the game went on, we started to get away from our efficiency,” O’Dette said. “Some longer shifts, we started to get tired, started to not move the puck as well. We lost the momentum there as the game wore on. I think at this stage of the season conditioning is a factor and we did start to get tired.”

With an upcoming three-in-three weekend, here’s what to take away from the past weekend.

Thunderbirds have a goalie in Thomas Milic

Statistics can be deceiving. Looking at 17-year-old goalie Thomas Milic’s numbers from the weekend you’ll see that he gave up three goals in each game.

But if you watched the games you saw him make save after save against some of the top players in the league, as well as suffer some bad luck. He allowed three goals on 26 shots Saturday but two of those were tipped in by his own players.

He turned Carolina Hurricane’s first-round draft pick, Seth Jarvis, away on six attempts, including a couple of high-danger chances from in close. Friday night he was beaten once by the league’s top scorer, Adam Beckman, but would stone him nine times after that, including a game-saving pad stop in overtime.

The rookie is off to a strong start.

“Milly’s been great,” defenseman Tyrel Bauer said. “He’s made some unbelievable saves, timely saves. We want to play for him, we want to play in front of him well. We have full confidence in Milly, and we expect him to do great things. We just need to play better in front of him.”

Power Play knocking the rust off

The Thunderbirds power play was a struggle last year but through the first two games, they’ve scored twice with the man advantage. Seattle’s ahead of last season’s pace however as they didn’t get a second power-play goal until game five.

Despite the better start, the power play did let Seattle down a bit Saturday night. Early in the first period, Seattle’s Mekai Sanders was cut on a hit to the head and the Thunderbirds were given a four-minute double minor shot on the power play.

They struggled to get set up and barely tested Giannuzzi in the process.

“We’ve worked on it a lot,” O’Dette said. “It’s just a matter of execution. Especially early in games if you get those early power plays you’ve got to be ready to go. We had a rough one there, the four-minutes. You have to outwork the penalty killers and we didn’t quite do that. We didn’t execute the passing as well as we could have.”

Through two games the Thunderbirds are 2-for-6 but it’s been a mixed bag. Friday night they had a couple of power-play chances that were messy, with missed passing plays and a struggle to set up in the Chiefs zone. But then they scored quickly on the power play in the third period when Lucas Ciona made a great pass to Keltie Jeri-Leon.

Saturday night they gained some momentum in the third period when Matthew Rempe tipped a Jordan Gustafson point shot in to cut the Winterhawks lead to 3-1.

“I just think that it is more executing, for us,” Rempe said. “We have worked on it quite a bit. I think it’s going to be a lot better… reading the game better and not trying to skate through too many people. We know what we need to do.”

Despite the up and downs, overall, the start on the power play is positive.

Creating energy in an empty arena

It was strange watching hockey in the accesso ShoWare Center over the weekend. The Thunderbirds normally enjoy a loud and raucous home-ice advantage but the arena is quiet now.

The players feed off the crowd and this year will have to find a way to create the needed energy on their own.

“Our fans are awesome,” Bauer said after Saturday night’s game. “Not having them there is a little bit of a challenge but we have a great group on the bench. We’re trying to bring energy in our own ways, it’s not like it was last year but we’re finding different ways to bring it. That’s something that could have been a little bit better tonight.”

Friday night against Spokane it was the rookies who helped spark the Thunderbirds. Down a pair of goals, rookies Gabe Ludwig and Jeremy Hanzel teamed up for a big goal that brought with it an electric shock of energy.

Saturday night, it was the opponent who helped motivate.

“We hate those guys, so we didn’t need anything to get us going,” Rempe said about Portland. “After the game, we were saying that we just got to get the conditioning up. I think that will come more and more and we can bring it to those guys. We hate those guys.”

Rempe also wins the early award for best physical representation that the hockey season has started.

In a Zoom post-game press conference Rempe’s face was appropriately marked. The New York Rangers prospect managed a smile as he took media on a tour of his cut-up face.

One bruise he said came from teammate Cade McNelly during the team’s Blue-White scrimmage. The most notable gash is over his right eye, a cut that required seven stiches to fix. Finally, he lowered his mask a bit to show a small cut under his left eye that he acquired during the game with Portland when a stick tagged him on a faceoff.

Rempe is the biggest guy on the ice each night. He throws hits, takes hits, and is not afraid to fight for space in front of the net. That’s a trade that is often a rough ride.

“The eyes are pretty swollen,” he said with what we assume was a grin behind his mask.



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