Five things to watch for in T-Birds’ first-round playoff series with Americans
As with every series this postseason, the first-round matchup between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Tri-City Americans has no shortage of drama or question marks.
Here are five storylines to keep an eye on ahead of tonight’s Game 1 contest at the ShoWare Center:
1. The status of Mathew Barzal. This question has been on the mind not only of T-Birds fans and the local media, but fans and media all around the Western Hockey League, National Hockey League and just about everyone else who may have some attachment to the WHL’s Western Conference Player of the Year and New York Islanders’ top prospect.
When Barzal skated off of the blue line and to the locker room during the national anthem ahead of a crucial game against the Everett Silvertips on March 10, most thought there must be some sort of equipment issue. After all, Barzal looked fine during warm-ups and had played three nights earlier against the Spokane Chiefs and registered two assists. When Barzal didn’t come back for the opening puck draw and then remained unseen for the rest of the evening, it became clear that something more was going on.
Speculation abounded before the team eventually confirmed that Barzal was feeling ill and, with mumps making its way around the league, the team needed to keep him in isolation for testing. Now two weeks later, we have yet to see Barzal and have no confirmation on his status. Fortunately for Seattle, it does not appear any sort of illness has spread to the rest of the team, but Barzal’s status for Game 1 and beyond does remain in question, though reports are that he is at least making progress.
2. Questions in net…on both sides. For Seattle, Rylan Toth missed the regular season’s final three games and two of three periods against Portland on March 11. During the team’s regular season awards ceremony, Toth was present and seemed to be walking fine, indicating that he probably could have played if the stakes were higher and that early rumors that he was out due to illness were misguided. Still, his status hasn’t been confirmed and we aren’t certain he will be in net tonight.
For Tri-City, it appears that Rylan Parenteau has surpassed Evan Sarthou on the depth chart, having played in 44 games to Sarthou’s 25. At one time, Sarthou, a native of Black Diamond, Wash., was Tri-City’s goalie of the future, ready to replace star netminder Eric Comrie upon his graduation. Things haven’t gone quite that way for Sarthou, but he still does get plenty of minutes in the Americans’ net. All signs point to Parenteau starting Game 1 and being the go-to guy, but if he struggles, that could change quickly.
3. Who will Tri-City match against Seattle’s top line? When fully healthy, the T-Birds’ top line is one of the best in junior hockey. Of course, Barzal is a huge part of that and his status remains unclear. Whoever replaces Barzal — it seems likely it will be Alexander True at this point — will still be flanked by two of the WHL’s best wings and provide a major scoring threat.
As of now, it appears that the Americans’ Nolan Yaremko, one of their better defensive forwards, will miss at least the start of the series with a lower body injury. During the season, Yaremko, Maxwell James and Austin Playfair were commonly tasked with shutting down Seattle’s top line. With Yaremko out, his likely replacement appears to be Parker AuCoin, an underrated forward with a high motor who has been a very good penalty killer for the Ams. If AuCoin is forced into more of a defensive role, that means his offensive numbers may take a hit, which would be a big loss for an Americans team that scored a lot of goals this season, but also surrendered the fourth-most in the Western Conference.
4. Aside from Barzal and Toth, is the rest of the T-Birds lineup healthy? Seattle didn’t play a single regular season game with their full lineup intact, partially due to NHL training camps and international tournaments, but mostly due, especially in the second half, to injury.
Heading into the regular season’s final weekend, only Barzal and Toth were scratched with injury as Scott Eansor, Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch all made their long-awaited returns. However, two games isn’t a lot of time to get your feet under you, especially for someone like Eansor who missed two months with a lower-body injury and wasn’t skating for a good portion of that time.
All three made progress over the season’s final weekend, but it remains to be seen if they’re one hundred percent for what they hope to be a long playoff run that will be physical and likely won’t present a lot of time for rest.
5. Can Seattle avoid the penalty box? This should perhaps be Seattle’s biggest focus, as the Americans are one of the top power-play teams in the league, converting nearly once in every four opportunities.
However, there’s no reason to think the T-Birds can’t be disciplined. Seattle was shorthanded 282 times during the regular season, less than four times per game and fifth-least in the WHL. For the most part, they’ve been a responsible team in this regard, but there have been games where they’ve allowed six or seven power plays against and, at times, they’ve paid dearly for it. The T-Birds feature the league’s third-best penalty kill, which should only get better with the return of Eansor.
In eight games versus the Americans this season, Seattle has been shorthanded 36 times, slightly higher than their season average, though their power play has been even better against Tri-City than their season average, surrendering just seven goals.
Even if Seattle is able to kill penalties, many of their top offensive threats are also their penalty killers, including Gropp, True, Kolesar, Donovan Neuls and Ethan Bear. Killing penalties means less time for them to focus on putting the puck in the Tri-City net and creates the potential for the Americans to get Seattle on their heels. The same can happen the other way as well — if Seattle has a strong penalty kill in a big situation, it’s a great way to swing momentum in their favor.