Time winding down for T-Birds to solve U.S. Division woes
Expectations were high for the Seattle Thunderbirds prior to this season. Most considered the T-Birds to be the hands down favorite to win the U.S. Division, contend for the Western Conference title and perhaps even factor into the conversation as the best team in the WHL. There were even whispers that this team had an outside shot at Memorial Cup contention as they would feature perhaps the best line in all of junior hockey and an experienced supporting cast.
So far, those expectations haven’t been met – for fans, the coaching staff, or the players. Seattle’s current 29-22-3-0 record isn’t bad, but its fifth-place standing is well below where we, and the team, thought they might be at this point in the season.
In particular, Seattle’s performance against the U.S. Division has been sub-par, and it’s an issue it’s going to need to fix quickly to make any noise in the playoffs. Overall, the Thunderbirds are a pedestrian 10-13-2-0 against their divisional opponents. Outside of the U.S., their 19-9-1-0 record is far more reflective of their level of talent.
The T-Birds’ biggest struggle has come against their nearby rivals, the Everett Silvertips, who they hold a dismal 1-5-0-0 record against. Seattle has been outscored by the Tips 19-7 and only once amassed more than one goal in a game which, not coincidentally, stands as its only victory.
Everett deserves credit as it’s the best team in the WHL defensively and doesn’t allow many goals to any of its opponents, but that doesn’t change the fact that Seattle will need to figure out the neutral zone trap employed by Silvertips head coach Kevin Constantine.
Past Everett, the numbers are a little bit better, but by no means are they indicative of a top team. The Thunderbirds are 2-4-0-0 against a Spokane team that trails them in the standings by just four points. The contests between the two clubs have been back and forth affairs, featuring close games and blowouts by both sides. With two games remaining between Seattle and Spokane this season and every point making a difference in the standings, those are two contests the T-Birds need to win.
Against Portland and Tri-City, Seattle has records of 4-3-0-0 and 3-1-2-0, respectively. A winning record is positive, but hovering right around the .500 mark against teams that are merely fighting to make the playoffs is not where Seattle saw itself at this point.
What does this all mean for the T-Birds?
At the current rate, things aren’t particularly promising for Seattle. With the WHL playoff format encouraging division rivalries continue into the playoffs, it’s almost a sure bet that Seattle will face a division opponent in at least the first round. If Seattle ends up matched up with Everett and can’t figure the Tips out in their remaining four regular season games, the outlook will be bleak.
This isn’t a new issue for Seattle, particularly when it comes to Everett. Constantine has been behind the Everett bench now for three seasons in his second stint as their head coach and he’s run the trap the entire time. It’s been effective across the board, however, as the Tips are first in goals allowed this season, finished second last season, and finished third in the Western Conference in 2013-14. Their defensive style counters Seattle’s style well, clogging the neutral zone and preventing the T-Birds’ offensive dynamos from getting into a groove.
With 18 games still remaining in the regular season, Seattle has more than enough time to figure out their issues against their U.S. Division opponents. However, every point the T-Birds lose along the way weakens their playoff position and puts them in less control of their own destiny.
A huge 6-0 shutout against Kelowna, currently tied for first in the Western Conference, on Tuesday night has the chance to be a difference-making victory for Seattle. It hadn’t had a decisive victory against any of the West’s top three teams – Kelowna, Victoria, and Everett – up until that point. We’ll have a chance to see if that victory has bigger implications when the T-Birds face Portland on Saturday night in their continued quest to become the class of the U.S. Division.