Slow starts proving costly for T-Birds

Oct 16, 2014, 7:14 PM | Updated: Oct 17, 2014, 10:59 am

Now an eighth of the way through the season, we’re beginning to get a better understanding of what this year’s Thunderbirds are capable of. Seattle’s record at 4-4-0-1 places them fourth in the U.S. Division and seventh in the Western Conference.

The biggest question entering the season was who, outside of the team’s top scoring line, was going to be able to put pucks in the net. So far the team has lacked offensively, scoring just 21 goals in nine games, an average of 2.33 scores per game. For comparison, last year’s team averaged nearly a goal more with 3.3 scores per contest over the course of 72 games. This season’s low average comes despite Mathew Barzal having 11 points in 9 contests and his left wing, Ryan Gropp, having 9 points in as many games. The line’s right wing for the first six games of the season, Keegan Kolesar, also has five points in nine games, all five of which came during the first five games.

Offensive efficiency should improve the moment defenseman Shea Theodore returns from injury. The smooth skating blueliner should have no problem scoring against opposing WHL defenses at an even greater rate than last season, when he had 79 points in 70 games. His return will help both on the power play, which currently ranks 11th in the league while converting at a 20 percent clip, and even strength. Theodore’s original diagnosis was a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, expected to keep him out four to six weeks. We’re approaching the earlier end of that diagnosis now, so Theodore’s return should come in the next couple of weeks.

Defensively, things are brighter, as Seattle’s veteran defensive and goaltending group have allowed just 24 goals this season, an average of 2.67 opponent scores per game. Last season teams scored 3.46 goals per game, so the improvements on the blue line are clear. With a group that is currently shorthanded due to injuries and a suspension, the defensemen left in the lineup will have a more difficult time keeping opponents off of the scoreboard, but it’s something they’ve shown they’re more than capable of and they should be able to at least keep the team competitive in every game.

One area where the T-Birds have struggled, especially lately, is during the game’s first period. On a number of occasions, it’s taken 20 minutes and a locker room speech to get the roster on the same page. While Seattle’s record isn’t awful by any means, it’s a dangerous precedent to set. A chaotic first period on Tuesday night led to the team losing a number of players, forcing everyone else to pick up their play to accommodate for those missing. The effects were felt on Wednesday, when the team looked exhausted and was outplayed for 60 minutes by a Spokane team that they should be capable of beating on a consistent basis.

While the circumstances were certainly different, the outcome was ultimately the same — falling behind in the first period led to the team being forced to play catch-up for the rest of the night, which haunted them the next evening. The scoreboard won’t show it, as the team led 1-0 going into intermission after a highlight-reel shorthanded goal by Barzal, but they were outshot 10-4 during the first frame and spent the last two and a half minutes shorthanded on a questionable major penalty to Jared Hauf.

It was a rough first period even without the injuries to Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit and the game misconduct assessed to Hauf. The players who were lost certainly exacerbated the situation for the remainder of the game and the contest on Wednesday night, when Seattle was handily defeated 4-1 and outshot 43-19 by the Chiefs.

So far this season, Seattle has allowed the first goal in seven of their nine contests, but in those seven games, they’ve actually won four of them. Perhaps a more telling statistic is that in games where the Thunderbirds have allowed over 10 shots in the first period, their record is 2-3-0-1. They have the same record when shooting on the opposing goaltender fewer than 10 times.

Both of Seattle’s victories in which they allowed 10 or more first period shots were against Portland and were decided in the shootout. After the first of those contests, they were defeated by Kelowna the next night 6-4, a game in which they entered the third period leading by one before giving up three unanswered goals. Losing a lead in the third period is a hallmark of a team that is exhausted, and it’s easy to expend a great deal of energy when you’re playing catch-up, going to the shootout, or both.

The slow starts have been something T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk has emphasized in post-game interviews, stating on more than one occasion that he hasn’t been happy with the effort put forth by his team to begin games. Seattle’s young roster has usually been able to pick it up after that, but playing below the level you’re capable of for at least 20 minutes per night is not a recipe for consistent success.

Nine games isn’t a significant enough sample size to establish a trend, especially when the team was missing captain Justin Hickman for five of those contests and is also without Theodore, who provides leadership in addition to his on-ice abilities. However, it will be something to pay attention to as the season wears on and the young roster becomes more acclimated to the WHL game, which forces successful teams to play at a high level for at least a full 60 minutes.

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