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Thunderbirds reeling after five straight losses

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After just 19 games, 20-year-old forward Erik Benoit was waived by the Thunderbirds. (Seattle Thunderbirds photo)

By Tim Pigulski

This probably isn't what Russ Farwell had in mind when he convinced Ryan Gropp to commit to Seattle and traded for 19-year-old forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie.

The Thunderbirds are currently on a five-game losing streak. During that span, they've been outscored 30-10. Three games were against division rivals – two versus Portland, and a shutout loss at the hands of Everett. They haven't given up fewer than five goals in each of the five games, including surrendering an embarrassing 10 to the Winterhawks on Tuesday night. They also haven't put up more than three goals in a single game during that time.

Prior to the streak, which began with a 5-2 home loss to Portland, the Thunderbirds had put up 64 goals in 16 games, an average of four. The offense wasn't struggling, and the hope was that adding three offensively talented players would only strengthen their arsenal.

They had allowed 53 goals before Nov. 1, when the streak began, an average of 3.3 per game. Evan Wardley has been suspended for four of the five games and Ethan Bear has been injured for two games and part of a third over the past couple weeks. Both are important pieces on defense, but that doesn't explain a jump of 2.7 goals per game.

To top it all off, the team announced a surprising move during its most recent loss to Portland, waiving 20-year-old forward Erik Benoit, who had eight points in 19 games and occupied one of the team's valuable overage spots. When Mitch Elliot returned to the Thunderbirds from the Utica Comets earlier this season, Benoit was kept over defenseman Jesse Forsberg, who was sent to the Moose Jaw Warriors to keep the Thunderbirds at the maximum of three 20-year-olds.

That obviously looks like a mistake now, as the team is struggling defensively and Benoit is no longer even on the roster. The circumstances of his release are still a mystery at this point, but after being a healthy scratch last Friday night against Victoria, one must wonder if there was some trouble brewing in the locker room and if Benoit had asked to be released.

The lines have been juggled every night, as head coach Steve Konowalchuk attempts to find some combinations that will get his team back on track and works around the injuries and suspensions. One of the few consistent groupings featured center Mathew Barzal with left wing Roberts Lipsbergs, but even that group was broken up on Tuesday night.

Are the new additions to blame for the team's struggles? Of course not. All three players should have been given the benefit of an adjustment period, as Gropp was moving up to a more competitive level after just turning 17 years old, while Yakubowski and McKechnie were acquired after playing for an awful Lethbridge team and being sent home. In addition to entering a new system with new teammates and new coaches, they also hadn't skated in some time.

So who or what exactly is at fault? It's tough to pin it on exactly one player, but it was very clear on Tuesday night that people weren't on the same page. They gave their hated rivals in Portland entirely too much respect as they allowed players like Nic Petan, Brendan Leipsic, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Paul Bittner to skate circles around them. If you enter a game expecting to lose, you're going to do just that. It was clear less than a minute into the game that the result was going to be ugly.

By the end of 20 minutes, Seattle was down by five goals and the game was more than over. Starting goalie Justin Myles was pulled less than 15 minutes in for Danny Mumaugh, who, despite allowing six goals of his own, faced more than three times as many shots as the player he replaced.

The Thunderbirds play two games this weekend in Victoria against a team that they outplayed for nearly an entire 60 minutes, but somehow still managed to lose to by a final score of 5-3. After that, they host the red-hot Kelowna Rockets, who are currently on a seven-game winning streak and sit near the top of the Western Conference. If the Thunderbirds turn in performances like they have over the past two weekends, you can count that game as a loss right now.

They'll travel to Vancouver three days later to face a Giants team that could very well be the cure for their troubles. Vancouver is sitting second-to-last in the conference and has been beaten by the Thunderbirds in both matchups this season. If the Thunderbirds somehow drop that game, which looks like a very real possibility at this point, they will then begin a 12-game stretch that includes 10 games against division rivals, including three against both Spokane and Portland, two versus Everett, and two against Tri-City. The other two games against Victoria and Saskatoon won't be cakewalks either, so this five-game losing streak could easily resemble the ugly long-term episodes the team has seen in each of the past few seasons.

Is it time to hit the panic button? Maybe not yet. Five games, while certainly alarming – more so when you consider the performances put forth in those contests – is just a small portion of a long 72-game season. However, should those five games turn into 10 or 15, changes may need to be made.

It is important to remember that despite the streak, Seattle remains above .500 with an 11-8-0-2 record. The Thunderbirds fattened up their point totals on an Eastern Conference road swing against opponents much weaker than they'll usually face, then topped it off with a victory over powerhouse Kelowna. At that point, expectations shot through the roof, and were only increased by the Gropp, McKechnie, and Yakubowski additions. Had Seattle's victories and defeats been spaced out a bit, rather than included significant streaks in both directions, perspectives would be much different.

There is absolutely no reason that this team, with all of the talent and depth that it possesses, should succumb to the month-long slumps that have crippled it in the past. At this point, it's been less than two weeks and has included injuries, suspensions, and roster adjustments. If things remain ugly, questions should certainly be asked and changes will need to be made, but at this point, five games remain but a small blip in the bigger picture.

Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.

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