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Dealing with adversity, young Thunderbirds drop pair of games in Portland

Thunderbirds forward Reid Schaefer fights for position Sunday in Portland. (Megan Connelly/Winterhawk)

There are different types of adversity that can befall us all in life and hockey teams are not immune. The Seattle Thunderbirds are dealing with a heavy dose of adversity 16 games into their season and that played a role in dropping a weekend series to the Winterhawks in Portland.

Fighting through it has been tough as the two losses extended their losing streak to four games while they drop to 3-7 in the last ten games.

The adversity is obvious.

Already icing a young roster, the injury bug has struck, and Seattle is playing short-handed. The injuries have been to veteran players like Payton Mount and Matthew Rempe. The latter is out for the season while Mount is listed as week-to-week. On top of that, the team’s top offensive player, Conner Roulette, and number one goalie Thomas Milic are at the U18 World Championships in Texas and won’t be returning.

Sunday night in Portland the Thunderbirds only had 11 forwards available and the result was a 4-1 loss to the Winterhawks.

“We are competing, our guys are trying extremely hard, they want to win so bad,” head coach Matt O’Dette said after Sunday’s game. “Some adversity right now but we’re competitive people and it still stings when we come out on the wrong end.”

The weekend brought with it some on-ice adversity as well.

In both Saturday and Sunday’s losses, close, tight games were pried open by Portland thanks to a string of second-period power plays.

Portland scored twice on the power play in Saturday’s second period, both goals coming from Carolina Hurricanes prospect Seth Jarvis, to change a 4-3 game to a 6-3 contest. Sunday, Seattle’s Keltie Jeri-Leon had staked the Thunderbirds to an early 1-0 lead but four straight penalties in the second took them out of the game as Portland would score twice to take a lead and never look back.

Some of the calls against Seattle were obvious, others borderline, and a few were phantom calls. Portland had an 11-6 edge on power play attempts on the weekend. In both games, the Thunderbirds didn’t get a call until late in the second period however, after the game had been opened up and after Portland had already enjoyed four straight power-play chances.

“The game’s not lop-sided where one team should get four or five power plays to start the game,” O’Dette said. “They give us a couple make-up calls late in the game to make it look better but the game is already manipulated at that point, it took us totally out of our game. There are calls on the table for both teams and they decide to call us.”

Calls aren’t always going to go your way in hockey and dealing with that is another form of adversity that the young Thunderbirds have to learn to manage. Being able to overcome is something that veteran teams learn along the way.

It affected both games over the weekend and left Seattle trailing in the third period without much gas left in the tank to try and push back as the Thunderbirds were running uphill. Seattle ended Sunday’s game being outshot 30-18, only mustering five in the final period.

“It’s very taxing,” O’Dette added. “It takes a lot of work to kill penalties, it shortens your bench a little bit, and by the time the third period comes, and we need to make a push we’re more taxed than we normally would be.”

Both losses were frustrating for Seattle and another in a line of lessons for what is an even younger lineup than when the season started.

Losing four in a row and seven out of ten could easily sink a young players’ morale. These players were successful at lower levels and this may be the first time they’ve dealt with real adversity at the rink.

In times like these, O’Dette and his coaches have to keep the spirits up.

“It’s perspective and we’ve got to look at the big picture,” O’Dette said. “I don’t think there’s been a game where we said after that we really got outmatched or outworked. We’ve been competitive in every game and worked extremely hard. Right now, we’re missing several key guys, and it’s an opportunity for other guys up and down the lineup.

“We’re competitive and we want to win but at the same time we’re nurturing with our guys and keeping things positive.”

Helping through the process are the Thunderbirds’ older players, what few are left in the lineup.

Henrik Rybinski continues to log big minutes in all situations and play his best hockey. He’s a tremendous leader who leads by example and never isn’t going at full speed. His linemate, Jeri-Leon, is having a strong 20-year-old season and it’s looked up to by the young players.

On the back end, captain Tyrel Bauer is grinding every game and playing as a team captain should. He too is playing a lot of hard, tough minutes.

“They’ve been great, played extremely hard, and are very competitive guys,” O’Dette said of his veterans.  “They’ve shown the right example and a lot has been put on their shoulders. Nothing but positive things to be said about our leadership and older players.”

Despite the current scuffling from the Thunderbirds, these tough times may end up paying off in the long run.

The core of the team is young – Seattle only had 10 players Sunday with more than 25 games of WHL experience and of those, nine had played less than 20 – and they are getting a crash course in WHL hockey.  What they’re fighting through now will come in handy later on, when the team is on the upswing.

Things won’t get easier for Seattle this week as the Thunderbirds will travel to Everett Wednesday to face a tough, veteran-laden Silvertips squad.

“It’s all part of the process and every time we’re out there it’s a learning experience,” O’Dette said. “We’re playing on the road in an empty building and it’s weird but we’re playing against high NHL draft picks which is a great experience for young guys. Just like our championship from years ago, it’s a process. The (Mathew) Barzals and (Ethan) Bears had 16-year-old seasons where there was adversity.

“It all kind of battle tests you for what’s to come. These guys will be in playoff runs and important games later on in their careers and they’ll learn from these experiences.”