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A Blaze From the Northern Side

After a subpar week against Tri-City, Seattle looks to bounce back against the B.C. Divisions best and worts teams.

Seattle Thunderbirds v Vancouver Giants Photo by Ben Nelms/Getty Images

Going into last week, the Seattle Thunderbirds had an opportunity steady their position in the U.S. Division with three games against the then last place Tri-City Americans. However, after taking a mere three of a possible six points, Seattle has been leapfrogged by all the teams one behind team, and sit in the basement of the division.

Last week started out fine enough. Captain Nolan Volcan had his biggest game of the season thus far. After Owen William’s opened the scoring, Volcan would score his first goal of the night minutes later on the power play, giving the Thunderbirds a 2-0 lead midway through the first. With the score tied at 4-4 heading into the third (on goals by Andrej Kukuca and Reese Harsch), Volcan would score his second of the night less than two minutes in, a goal which would hold up as the winner, as Seattle took their first Tuesday night home game of the season 5-4. The Thunderbirds also looked fairly sound defensively that night, as they held the (admittedly low event) Americans to under 30 shots, the first time the team has accomplished the feat this season.

The win was not without incident however, and from there, the week took a turn for the worst however. Midway through the first period of Tuesday night’s game, leading scorer Dillion Hamaliuk was caught with a hit up high by Tri-City defenseman Riley Bruce. The play appeared at first glance to be innocent enough, with Hamaliuk skating away seemingly unharmed with no penalty called, but despite finishing his shift, Hamaliuk did not come back out for the second period, and ultimately missed the next two games to close out the week. The hit was later reviewed, and Riley Bruce received a four game suspension Going into the Friday night game without their leading scorer was, at first, not much of a problem for Seattle. On back-to-back goals from Jake Lee and Noah Philp, the Thunderbirds had a 2-0 lead just five minutes into the game in Kennewick. Tri-City would battle back however, tying the game before the end of the first with goals from Connor Bouchard and Kyle Olsen, before a pair of Parker AuCoin goals in the third would end up sealing the 4-2 Tri-City win, and snapping Seattle’s winning streak at four games. Once again, the game resulted in a key offensive player being injured for the Thunderbirds, as Payton Mount took a heavy hit in the second period and did not finish the game, nor complete the weekend home-and-home (both Mount and Hamaliuk have been listed as day-to-day in the WHL Weekly Report).

The Thunderbirds would close out the weekend with a loss on home ice. After falling behind 2-0 early on Saturday, the Thunderbirds managed to tie the game up late. After Andrej Kukuca scored early in the second to cut the American’s lead to one, it was Matthew Wedman how played hero, scoring his third goal of the season with just 3:54 remaining in the third period. Wedman’s late goal secured the point, but it would be the American’s who took the extra as 2019 NHL Draft prospect Sasha Mutala scored under two minutes in to give Tri-City the 3-2 win.

Dillion Hamaliuk’s injury was likely most noticed on the power play, where the Thunderbirds once again found themselves sputtering after a solid return to form in weeks prior. After going 2-for-7 in the win on Tuesday, Seattle was held scoreless in nine attempts on the weekend, going a dismal 2-for-16 on the week. The stretch has caused Seattle to drop from second in the WHL on the power play to sixth, though with a still respectable 25% efficiency.

Up next, the Thunderbirds take on the Kamloops Blazers for the first time this season as the last place team in the B.C. Division roll into Kent Friday night. Like Seattle, Kamloops has played a relatively light schedule relative to their divisional opponents, as both teams will be playing just their eleventh game on Friday. Despite coming of a win against the Swift Current Broncos last Friday, the Blazer had lost their last seven straight prior, and come in to this week’s matchup with a 3-6-0-1 record, including three decisive losses to U.S. Division opponents (5-3 and 7-3 to Portland on the 3rd and 5th respectively, and a 7-2 loss in Everett last week). Kamloops’ 29 goals for is the third lowest in the WHL, but they’re doing a commendable job at keeping the puck out of their own net on most nights, ranking just 11th in goals against with 38. Offensively, the team is led by three players, nineteen-year-olds Zane Franklin and Nolan Kneen (both with 11 points in 10 games) and eighteen-year-old Orrin Centazzo (10 points). Centazzo (along with Montana Onyebuchi) was a center piece in the blockbuster deadline deal which sent Garret Pilon and Ondrej Vala to the Everett Silvertips last season. In goal, the Blazers continue to lean heavily on Dylan Ferguson to fill the void left by Connor Ingram’s departure, but sixteen-year-old Dylan Garland has looked impressive in limited action early on. Despite being winless in his four games (two starts), Garland holds a respectable .906 save% and 2.96 GAA. Despite struggling to find goals for the better part of this season, Kamloops has been holding opponents to a fairly low number of shots, with Kamloops goaltenders facing an average of 34.3 shots per game.

On Saturday, the Thunderbirds will welcome travel up to Langely for their second matchup with the Vancouver Giants this season. The Giants have been just as good as advertised the season. They’ve quickly (along with the Victoria Royals) separated themselves from the rest of the weakened B.C. Division, and currently sit six points clear of the Royals for the top spot in the division (albeit with three more games played). While their goal scoring has been respectable, and places them in eight place in the WHL with 45 goals in their 14 games, it’s the goaltending and defense that’s Vancouver’s calling card this year. David Tendeck was a popular pick for goaltender of the year before the season started, and while he has had a very strong start to the year (7-2-1-0, with a .911 save% and 2.16 GAA), things aren’t any easier for the opposition when he takes a night off, as seventeen-year-old Trent Miner has been equally as solid. Miner is 3-0-1-0 in four starts for the Giants, sporting an impressive .958 save% and 1.24 GAA. Both Giant’s goaltenders have notched a shutout this season as well, so early on, it hasn’t mattered who they put in net, on any given night the Giants are in it. While no Giants skater has eye popping numbers early on, 2019 NHL Draft prospect Bowen Byram has been rewarding those that have ranked him as a top five prospect in June’s draft by not disappointing in the least. Firing at just under a point per game (12 points in 14 games), Byram sits tied 6th in the WHL in defenseman scoring and in a tie for first among first year draft eligible defenseman (with Seattle’s Jake Lee and Kelowna’s Kaeden Korczak).

Weekend Thoughts

-With Reece Harsch returning from injury and Loeden Schaufler being brought in from Kootenay, defenseman Payton McIsaac was released from the Thunderbirds last week. Both Schaufler and McIsaac are 2000 born right shot defenseman, but McIsaac was given chances to show he could be a 7th/8th defenseman, but never seemed to click when he saw playing time. Like, McIsaac, Schaufler isn’t expected to see much playing time on a healthy Seattle blue line, but has seemingly done more to earn Matt O’Dette’s trust in limited showings.

-Liam Hughes first four starts: 143 saves on 151 shots, .947 save%. Liam Hughes last four starts: 117 saves on 133 shots, .879 save%. Blip in the radar, or has the workload caught up to the Seattle goaltender in his first full season as a starter? He’s definitely played well enough to warrant a chance to see if he can bounce back to a run where he sports a more respectable save%, Seattle as a team needs to make sure they continue playing the strong defense they showed against Tri-City to help their goaltenders out.

-Cade McNelly shows no fear. I don’t really have a witty comment to add or a statistical analysis of this, I just wanted to put it out there (Just cut down on the minors a bit, please).

Seattle’s tumble to last in the U.S. Division doesn’t really to be a cause for concern just yet. While, yes, it is statistically accurate to say Seattle has the fewest accumulated points in the division, they’ve also played fewer games than anyone else in the division, and have maintained the highest points percentage of any team in the division (.700). None the less, it’s hard to not feel like an opportunity was missed last week. With three games against the then last place team, two of which home games, getting a mere three points feels like a bit of a disappointment. With Everett turning a corner, Spokane getting Jaret Anderson-Dolan back and Portland…well, being Portland, points against divisional opponents are going to be harder and harder to come by especially as the season wears on. There are many more left to be had, but hopefully a healthy roster, a boost in power play scoring, and a return to form in net will lead to them not being left on the table.