Updated Jan 24, 2013 - 9:31 am
Western Conference playoff picture clearing up
By Tim Pigulski
After a decent start and an impressive four-game winning streak, hopes were high and it appeared as though the Thunderbirds were ready to crack the playoffs after missing them for three consecutive seasons.
Injuries and a 15-game losing streak quickly sent the T-Birds back to reality, as they fell back down to eighth place in the conference, below an Everett Silvertips team that has failed to impress so far this season.
As it stands, Seattle holds the eighth and final playoff spot with an 18-27-2-1 record and 39 points. Everett, at 6-4-0-0 in their past 10 games, has 42 points overall and looks like they won't be missing the playoffs for the first time in their existence as many expected. Even after losing all-world defenseman Ryan Murray for the season with an injured shoulder, the 'Tips have come around of late and look like they'll be battling the T-Birds until the season's final games for the seventh seed in the conference.
While the battle for the seventh or eighth seed may seem trivial, it certainly won't be this season as the final team in will almost certainly be tasked with facing Portland in round one of the playoffs -- a fate no club in either conference would find desirable.
Despite a recent three-game losing streak that included the T-Birds' streak-busting victory, the Winterhawks still stand head and shoulders above any other team in the league.
Portland currently ranks first in the entire Western Hockey League with 208 goals scored (Kelowna is in a close second with 205, but there is a significant dropoff after that) and has also allowed the second fewest goals in the league (one more than the Edmonton Oil Kings in two fewer games), demonstrating their all-around strength.
Kelowna currently occupies the second spot in the Western Conference, but Kamloops and Spokane should continue to give them trouble. A 12-game point streak has helped catapult the Rockets up the standings into a place that was long held by the Kamloops Blazers, who opened the season on a 14-game winning streak and looked like they might challenge Portland as the best team in the conference. They've since come back to Earth and are around a .500 team over the past two months.
Spokane, on the other hand, has played in a tough U.S. Division all season long, including four games against Portland, only one of which they've won, and eight games against Tri-City with a record of 4-2-2-0. If Kamloops continues to slide and the Chiefs can split their games against the league's top tier teams and beat those lower on the totem pole, they could very easily end up ahead of Kamloops or Kelowna by season's end.
Most of these potential outcomes and opponents will be meaningless to the T-Birds unless they can surpass Everett in the standings and stay ahead of the lowly Vancouver Giants and Prince George Cougars.
Fortunately for both Seattle and Everett, Vancouver is in rebuilding mode after trading most of their assets, including Edmonton Oilers draftee David Musil and forward Trevor Cheek, and they don't look like they have any shot at the playoffs this season. Prince George will also be in a tough spot for the remainder of the year, as head coach Dean Clark was recently fired and stud center Alex Forsberg doesn't appear to be returning to the team anytime soon.
With eight of 10 Western Conference teams qualifying and the Giants and Cougars on the outside looking in, the Thunderbirds should absolutely make the playoffs. Unlike the past couple of seasons when Seattle's seemingly annual holiday slump has doomed them, it doesn't look like it will knock them out of the race this year, although it will hurt their quest for the sixth or seventh seed.
There's no way that Seattle should be behind the Silvertips in the standings, as the team possesses far more talent than their north I-5 rivals and were well ahead of them point-wise until the ugly 15-game slide. Fortunately for the 'Birds, they're still only three points out of the seventh seed and should be able to catch up. With the teams facing each other three more times this season, the Thunderbirds hold the key to their own destiny.
Getting all the way up to six will be very difficult, as the Victoria Royals are 14 points ahead of Seattle at this point with three games in hand and are on a five-game winning streak. Even further, the Royals have thumped the T-Birds 6-2 in both of their meetings this season.
It's tough to say which potential opponent Seattle matches up best with, as the sample size for Kelowna is only one game, a 4-2 T-Birds victory that kicked off the four-game winning streak where Seattle was playing its best hockey of the year.
They also beat Kamloops during that stretch but have had trouble with them otherwise, including two lopsided losses -- an ugly 7-2 walloping in October and a 6-1 blowout in their first game of 2013.
Spokane hasn't given the T-Birds any easier of a time, recently beating them in three consecutive games from Jan. 5-9. There was also the huge game where Seattle surrendered a four-goal lead in the third period and eventually lost in the shootout -- what many considered a defining loss during the team's big skid.
Facing any of those three would be more desirable than Portland, however, whom many consider the team to beat in the quest for the Memorial Cup. Seattle has delivered Portland two of its seven regular-season losses, but beating them in a best-of-seven playoff series looks like it might be nearly impossible at this point, not just for Seattle, but for any team.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski
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