Despite a tough schedule, the Thunderbirds have flourished in second half of season
After a flurry of New Year’s Day trades, Seattle Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge insisted that he wasn’t throwing in the towel on the season.
Its understandable why someone might have thought that was exactly what La Forge was doing considering he traded away his club’s top goaltender, leading scorer as well as a top-pairing defenseman. Not only that, but the Thunderbirds were in last place of the Western Conference, had lost six straight and had allowed five goals or more in all but one of those losses.
Things looked bleak and didn’t improve as the club headed east for its swing through the Eastern Division, a trip that started with a 7-3 loss to the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Since that game however, the Thunderbirds have turned a corner.
Seattle has gone 15-8-2-2 since and now holds a seven-point lead on the Kamloops Blazers for the last wild card spot in the Western Conference. In those 27 games the Thunderbirds have a goal differential of plus-11 which is a sharp improvement from the minus-28 differential in the 35 games prior.
They’ve done it against one of the toughest schedules in the WHL that featured match ups with the top clubs in their division. The success has built up and this past weekend the Thunderbirds not only beat Kamloops on the road in a must-win game but then finished the weekend by picking up three more points with an overtime loss at Everett and a home win against the Tri-City Americans.
“Just being scrappy, not conceding any games,” Seattle’s head coach Matt O’Dette said after Sunday’s 6-3 win against Tri-City about the team’s success. “Doing what we can to stay in games, keep games close and executing down the stretch to come away with points. We’ve got to keep doing that.”
While the trades moved some top players away from the team, La Forge was able to bring back more depth which has been key in the resurgence. Getting Sean Richards from Everett, Keltie Jeri-Leon from Lethbridge and Henrik Rybinski from the Medicine Hat Tigers have given Seattle three guys who have improved the forward group – which had been relying on younger, green players – a jolt of experience and skill.
Richards has played in the top six, on the power play and has chipped in with five goals and 13 assists in his 26 games with the club, Rybinksi has been a forechecking force while scoring six times and setting up 19 other goals and Jeri-Leon has played up and down the lineup to provide depth.
All three players have contributed on a Thunderbirds power play that has come to life since the trades as well.
In the first half, through the Brandon game, Seattle was near the bottom of the league on the power play with an 18-percent success rate. In the 27 games since, they’re scoring at a 22-percent clip – a rate that would put them in the league’s top ten over the entire season.
The Thunderbirds are also getting increased production out of their top players. Guys like Matthew Wedman (37g-34a-71p), Noah Philp (22g-46a-68p), Andrej Kukuca (25g-28a-53p) and captain Nolan Volcan (21g-30a-51p) have all played some of their best hockey since the trades and been responsible for the bulk of the goal scoring.
Goalie Roddy Ross was not part of the trades.
He had been put on Seattle’s list early in the year and once Liam Hughes was dealt, he signed with the Thunderbirds and has been a revelation since. Ross has 19 starts with Seattle –along with one relief appearance – and posted a .921 save percentage to go along with a 2.77 goals-against average with a stellar 12-4-0-2 record. This past weekend he had back-to-back starts where he kicked out 40-plus shots and earned three critical points for the Thunderbirds. Saturday night in Everett, a game he didn’t get a win in, he was spectacular in making 40 saves and not allowing a goal until the last second of overtime.
Seattle’s last three games against the Silvertips may be the best barometer of how much the Thunderbirds have improved.
The first six meetings this year between the two rivals weren’t pretty from the Seattle viewpoint. Everett won all six contests while outscoring the Thunderbirds 18-6. The last three? Seattle has won two and took the U.S. Division champs to under a second in overtime. There is one more match up with Everett, this coming weekend at the accesso ShoWare Center, and the two teams could end up meeting in the first round of the playoffs.
Three weeks ago that potential series looked like it would be over quickly but now, with the new look Thunderbirds, it looks to be a competitive battle.
With success comes confidence and the Thunderbirds are chock full of it.
“We feel we’re competitive with anyone in the league,” Philp said on Sunday. “I think we’re just going to keep that going.”
Seattle’s lead over Kamloops has grown from one point to seven over the past few weeks but nothing has been clinched yet. The Blazers have a game in hand on Seattle – which they’ll play Wednesday night against the Vancouver Giants – and the Thunderbirds still have a tough schedule over their remaining six games.
The good news is that they have put themselves in a position to control their own destiny. They don’t need to scoreboard watch, just keep winning and picking up points and they will earn their post season berth.
“We’re on a playoff push and the team’s playing well,” Wedman said. “It’s exciting and we’re trying to get ramped up to get in the playoffs.”