Opening Weekend Observations
The T-Birds split their first two games of the season (pic Kyle Scholzen, Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
– Riley Sheen was one of the most impressive players on the ice for both games this weekend. Not much was known of Sheen due to his limited playing time in Medicine Hat, but training camp and the preseason showed that he had solid puck handling skills.
Playing against a very good Portland team, Sheen showed what fans were hoping for and much more. His first goal of the season, a power play goal that put the T-Birds up 3-0, was a beautiful shot from a tough angle at the right circle that he somehow managed to place top shelf behind Winterhawks’ goalie Brendan Burke.
On his second goal Sheen made a great individual play, out muscling a Portland defender to gain control of the puck behind the Portland net. The strong effort continued as he attempted a wrap around that was initially stopped by Burke, but Sheen’s persistence allowed him to jam his own rebound home.
In addition to his two goals, Sheen added two assists over the weekend. For those keeping track at home, that means that the 18-year-old forward has already exceeded his entire WHL career point total prior to this season.
Perhaps the most notable part of his game that I noticed this weekend was Sheen’s willingness to go hard into the corners and the front of the net despite his small frame. On more than one occasion he didn’t back down from Portland stud defenseman Seth Jones, who stands about four inches taller and weighs about 50 pounds more than Sheen.
I’m sure he’ll continue to show his dazzling puck handling skills over the course of the season, but opening weekend showed that the player acquired in exchange for Jacob Doty will be more than just flash. This looks like a great pickup by General Manager Russ Farwell.
– Speaking of Seth Jones, I thought he had a good weekend for Portland, but not great. He had a few great opportunities in both games, but that didn’t translate to goals for the Winterhawks. He showed a lot of offensive skill and I’m sure as the season progresses and he gets used to the speed of the WHL he’ll be the dominant player Portland was hoping for. But for now, he was a -1 with zero points in two games against Seattle this weekend. Obviously defensemen aren’t usually measured by how many points they score, but with the expectations placed on Jones, I was anticipating a bigger opening weekend.
– Goaltender Brandon Glover was the story on opening night, stopping 30 Portland shots in the season’s opening period to give Seattle a chance in the game, which they eventually turned in to an important victory. Overall, he stopped 55 of the 57 shots he faced. He returned to Earth on Saturday, but still made some very impressive saves, despite not putting up the jaw dropping numbers that he did on opening night. Glover looks like he’ll be a solid goaltender and another solid addition by Farwell.
– Related to Glover, the young defense continued to give up far too many shots this weekend. Even if you were to cut the overwhelming first period where Portland had thirty shots in half, they still would have totaled 42 for the first game and 44 for the second. As many are expecting, this defense will go through some growing pains with four 17-year-olds, an 18-year-old, and a 19-year-old. For this team to be successful, that number is going to have to come down to around 35 or fewer on average per game.
High shot totals are something that Calvin Pickard dealt with every season he was in Seattle, and it ultimately doomed the team. It looked as though fatigue set in for Glover in game two, and this team can’t afford to have him sitting out often if it’s hoping to make the playoffs.
– Forward Justin Hickman evidently went through a huge growth spurt this season, jumping from 6-foot-3 to an enormous 6-foot-6 according to the pre-game roster. He played a solid two-way game, delivering a few punishing hits (including a nice welcome to the WHL for Seth Jones) and garnering a few solid scoring opportunities. If he can convert on those chances, he could be a very, very good player for this team. Watch out for Hickman this season and in the future.
– Russian import Alexander Delnov looks like he’s ready to contribute right away. He had three points on the weekend, including a goal and assist in the opening night victory. European imports often shy away from the physical side of the game, but that doesn’t appear to be the case with Delnov. He’s strong on his skates, plays well down low, and even got involved in the scrum that took place in front of the Portland bench in game two that resulted in extended absences for a number of players from both teams.
– Everyone knew that Portland was going to be tough this season, but one question has plagued them through the offseason – how will their goaltending hold up? Cam Lanigan looked better in game two against the ‘Birds than Brendan Burke did in game one, but neither stood out as exceptional and this will be an important story to watch for the remainder of the season.
Portland’s strong defense will likely be able to help keep some pucks out of the net, but it’s tough to win big without a good goaltender. Inconsistency in the crease could end up being this team’s Achilles heal and hurt them when they play against some of the League’s more elite teams. Kelowna hosts the Winterhawks twice this weekend, so keep an eye on those games if you have a chance, as Kelowna looks like they could have a decent squad this season.
– On offense, Portland has reloaded rather than rebuilt. Despite the losses of players such as Sven Bartschi, Brad Ross, Marcel Noebels, and Oliver Gabriel, the team continued to generate a ton of scoring opportunities. If not for the outstanding play of Glover on opening night, the Winterhawks could have easily scored seven or eight goals.
Newly acquired Oliver Bjorkstrand is going to be the real deal. He had five points in three games over the weekend and could have had quite a few more had the T-Birds’ net minder not stoned him cold on a number of different occasions.
Nic Petan had eight points in three games and looks like he is going to make a huge jump this season. Surprisingly, Ty Rattie, who made a similar jump last season, had zero points on the weekend. However, he only played about a game and a half and is suspended indefinitely for a cross check during the second period of game two. Whenever he returns to the lineup, I’m sure he’ll put up some big point totals.
– Elsewhere in the WHL, former T-Bird Colin Jacobs was dominant playing for Prince George versus Everett this weekend. He had five points in the first of two games on two goals and three assists, then added an assist and shoot out goal in Prince George’s come-from-behind 7-6 shootout victory on Sunday evening. While Everett is not looking like a strong team this season, having been dominated 6-0 in their first game against the Cougars and surrendering a three goal lead with 12 minutes left in the second game, a change of scenery may be all that Jacobs needed to capitalize on his loads of talent.
The T-Birds face their ex-teammate twice this weekend and he’ll certainly be someone for the defense to keep an eye on. Without a doubt, he’ll be excited to play against his former buddies and will come out firing on all cylinders.
– The player acquired for Jacobs, defenseman Jesse Forsberg, came as advertised this weekend, although he may have surprised some by scoring a goal on Saturday night. Forsberg played physical, including racking up 16 penalty minutes during the tussle in front of the Portland bench. Forsberg being on the ice will be important for the defense, so he’ll need to avoid extended trips to the penalty box. Doing that, while still playing physically, is a fine line to balance.
– On a similar note, defenseman Evan Wardley is an intimidating player, but he’s going to need to remain composed to ensure the T-Birds don’t have to spend a ton of time shorthanded. He had 25 penalty minutes in two games, giving the dangerous Portland power play a few opportunities. Portland was 0-for-10 on the man advantage over the weekend (possibly a sign of good things to come for Seattle’s special teams unit), but it’s still a bad idea to continue to give them those kinds of opportunities.
Like Forsberg, it will be important for Wardley to toe the fine line that is playing a physical game without going too far. Portland right wing Ty Rattie managed to get in Wardley’s head in game one when he fell down and appeared to hold on to his stick. There was no call on Rattie, but as the old saying goes, the refs always see the retaliation. Wardley, visibly upset, delivered a few blows to the Portland forward’s head and earned himself a trip to the sin bin. While Rattie should have been penalized on the play, the T-Birds’ defenseman will need to ensure he limits taking penalties out of frustration.
Obviously it’s still extremely early in the season and way too early to make any definitive statements, but these are some story lines to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski