The T-Birds get another shot at the defending champion Portland Winterhawks Friday. (photo whl.ca)
By Andrew Eide
It's time for a big showdown weekend. The Seattle Thunderbirds take on their two I-5 rivals this weekend in the young season's two biggest games to date. While it is way too early to call these two games 'must win' games for the T-Birds, they are still big and should be fun.
Friday's opponents, the Portland Winterhawks, currently lead the U.S. Division by a point over the T-Birds, while Saturday's foes, the Everett Silvertips, are nipping at their heels (two points back). With the division shaping up to be a drag down dog fight all season these games become important, no matter when they are played.
On top of that is the heated rivalries these two teams, franchises and fan bases have created. There is no love lost here on either side (or sides). When asked about the weekend coming up after Tuesday's win against Brandon, Steve Konowalchuk mentioned that the team was only focused on Portland Friday night, choosing not to think about Everett until afterwards.
While it's wise for the coach and players to only focus on the next opponent, we can focus on both. Here is what's on tap for what should be an exciting weekend.
Friday: Portland Winterhawks
Standings: 12-3-0-1 (first, U.S. Division)
T-Birds all-time record against: 165-216-20-6-5
This season: 1-1-0-0 (last meeting Portland 10, Seattle 4)
Scouting report: The T-Birds are catching the Winterhawks when the champs are playing some red-hot hockey. After a mediocre start, Portland has ripped off nine straight wins to climb back on top of the standings. The formula is pretty simple for Portland -- they can out-score anyone. Friday's game will feature the two top goal-scoring teams in the league (Portland 82 goals scored, Seattle 64) so be ready for some up-and-down play.
The Winterhawks are led again this year by a couple of high end scorers. Nic Petan, drafted by the Winnipeg Jets last spring, has picked up where he left off last year and has 32 points. Last year Petan was matched by line mate Brendan Leipsic in scoring. This year Oliver Bjorkstrand, a Columbus Blue Jackets prospect, has burst out of the gates and is tied for the team lead with Petan.
The problem with Portland is that even if you could somehow contain those three guys, they can still throw guys like Chase De Leo, Taylor Leier and offensive-defenseman Derrick Pouliout at you. You have to play disciplined and you have to capitalize on your chances, because the Winterhawks will and have shown that they only need a little sliver of room to make you pay.
Portland's weakness this year has been on the back end. After losing three guys with great pedigrees to the pro ranks last year (Troy Rutkowski, Tyler Witherspoon and Seth Jones) they are still a work in progress. Getting Pouliout back helps (this will be Seattle's first look at him this year) but he is more of an offensive threat than he is a shut-down defenseman. Keep an eye on Vancouver Canucks prospect Anton Sederholm, who is a big, physical guy who has shown signs of being a force for them.
In net they have given the reins to Brendan Burke, who has been steady. He kept Portland in the first meeting between these two clubs on opening night, and has a .904 save percentage this year.
The T-Birds should be fired up for this game. It's for first place against your biggest rival, and they will want to show that the 10-4 rout they suffered last time these two teams met was a fluke.
Saturday: Everett Silvertips
Standings: 10-2-2-0 (third, U.S. Division)
T-Birds all-time record against: 48-41-4-4-6
Last season: 5-3-2-0
Scouting report: Everett was in the market for a new head coach this summer and they went back to their history and hired Kevin Constantine -- so far it's paying off. Constantine is known as a stingy defensive coach, and that is exactly what the Silvertips will give Seattle a dose of. They are a very difficult team to play against as they will sit back, clog the neutral zone and wait for you to make a mistake. When you do get into their zone they will pack up in front of the goal giving you almost no shooting lanes.
Everett has only surrendered 36 goals this season, the fewest in the WHL, and Seattle will have to work hard all night to crack their trap. The big news coming out of Silvertip country is that goalie Austin Lotz is out with a high ankle sprain and will not play on Saturday. The Winnipeg native, who hurt his ankle in Everett's last game against Kamloops, had been off to a stellar start to the season with a goals against of only 2.36.
With Lotz out, enter former T-Birds backup Daniel Cotton. There is a bit of a drop off with Cotton, at least statistics wise, as his save percentage is just under 90 percent, and the T-Birds should try to fire as much rubber at him as they can.
While the Silvertips can stop you from scoring, they continue to struggle somewhat to score consistently. Of course, with the defense they play they only need two goals most nights. So far they are getting a great start out of 20-year-old Joshua Winquist (9g, 13a, 22p) and defenseman Matt Pufahl (6g, 10a, 16p). Another player to watch is Ivan Nikolishin. The Russian import only has two goals so far but is making plays with ten assists, and is a highly regarded prospect. It's only a matter of time before he gets used to the league and starts to find the net.
The Silvertips also picked up Edmonton Oiler prospect Jujhar Khaira at the start of the season, but he has been injured and is still listed as day-to-day -- its unsure if he will play this weekend.
It will be interesting to see how the T-Birds handle Everett a night after playing the high-flying Winterhawks. The two teams could not be more different in styles and Seattle will have to put on their hard hats Saturday night. They will need to play with energy, stay focused and play smart as they try to solve the Constantine trap.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide