By Andrew Eide
KENT – The Thunderbirds wrapped up the season's first half with a commanding 5-2 win against the Tri City Americans at the ShoWare Center on Tuesday night. Dealing with numerous injuries, the team now gets a much needed week-and-a-half break to heal up before beginning the second-half run.
The story Tuesday was much the same as it's been the last few weeks as Seattle (21-10-1-3) picked up two more goals from Branden Troock and 30 saves from Danny Mumaugh in the win.
Playing with only 10 forwards for the third straight game, the T-Birds were in command Tuesday, buiding a lead and never looking back.
"You know what, it was a good effort," head coach Steve Konowlachuk said. "I thought Tri City came out really hard like I thought they would. They were in a spot where they were going to be pushing hard, they came out and pushed hard. We stuck to the game plan, I thought the game got better as it went along, we got physically involved and started wearing them down."
With so many missing players, Konowalchuk had to juggle lines and double-shift players. He did have one of his regular top lines intact, and it delivered big time on Tuesday. Troock and his linemantes, Alex Delnov and Ryan Gropp, combined for four goals, four assists and combined to go plus-12 on the night.
They were dangerous each time they hit the ice, controlled the puck and put a lot of pressure on Americans goalie Evan Sarthou.
"We were missing a few key guys but other guys were stepping up and playing really well," Troock said. "Our line just wanted to keep the chemistry going as we have the past 10-to-15 games. We're going to keep playing the same way no matter who's in or who's out."
After a bit of a slow start, Delnov got the T-Birds going after the 5-minute mark when he won a faceoff to himself and flung a wrist shot that Sarthou could not handle.
Later in the first, that line got going again when a Delnov shot from the point appeared to be deflected in by Troock. Instead, the puck hit the post and lay in the crease, where Gropp sailed in to clean it up and give the T-Birds a two-goal lead.
Tri City (17-16-1-2) got on the board late in the first when a Brandon Carlo point shot deflected off Seattle defenseman Jared Hauf's skate and over Mumaugh's shoulder. Despite cutting the lead to one, the T-Birds never seemed rattled.
They got their two-goal lead back in the second on a pretty Shea Theodore shot that was pin-point accurate as the high-scoring defenseman potted his 13th goal of the year. In the third period, Troock tallied twice to put the game out of reach and to allow the T-Birds to cruise to a win before the holiday break.
"That was huge for the boys going into the break," captain Justin Hickman said. "We knew it was going to be big, we can get up in the standings ... huge bounce-back after Saturday night. Any game like Saturday, when the emotions were really high, it's tough to get mentally ready to come back from that but we were able to be even-keel and got the two points."
Troock's play of late has been outstanding – a trend that continued Tuesday night.
"(He's) working hard at practice, carrying it into games," Konowalchuk said of his big winger. "He's playing simple hockey, he's taking what's there and he's using his speed wide and making the pass that's there. He's becoming a complete hockey player."
Troock is now tied with Theodore for the team lead in scoring with 40 points and in his last seven games he has racked up eight goals and 15 points. When he's on the ice he looks like he can score at any moment.
Of course, his line mate Delnov is also playing really well of late. His four point night Tuesday gives him 10 points over the last seven and 17 points in his last 10 contests. Ever since appearing in the Subway Super Series and perhaps getting snubbed by the Russian World Junior team, his play has improved.
"Delnov's had a chip on his shoulder the last three weeks and wants to prove a few people wrong that maybe didn't give him a chance where he wanted a chance and he's been working really hard the last month," Konowalchuk said.
Seattle now hits the holiday break winning nine out of its last 10 games and playing well. The T-Birds do have a number of players hurt, so the break will be a welcome site. Konowalchuk was quick to point out that the team survived this rough patch thanks to the depth on the roster.
"We have guys hurt and you'd like to have everyone in the lineup but we still have some good hockey players," he said. "Delly, Troock and Gropp, they're all good hockey players, and Theo on the back end. We believe we have a lot of good hockey players, a veteran lineup and as long as they play hard we'll be OK."
The post-break stretch has been rough for the T-Birds in the past few years. They have struggled to come out of the gates and last year saw them go on a prolonged losing streak. This year's team feels like a different one, but it is something the players are determined to keep in mind and not repeat.
"When we're home it's a mental break but we try not to put our legs up for too long," Hickman said. "We still need to get to the gym and find some ice if we can, come back and be ready to go."
Seattle will next be in action at Everett on Dec. 27.
• With so many players injured, the T-Birds called up forward Lane Pederson. Pederson was the last player cut during training camp and played limited minutes in his WHL debut. Konowalchuk liked what he saw out of him and thinks he has a bright future.
• Along with injuries, the T-Birds will see several key players head off to tournaments after the break. Mathew Barzal, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear are all slated to play in the U-17 tournament next week. All three of those players are injured at the moment so it will be interesting to see if they are able to play.
• Tuesday's game was a homecoming for Tri City goalie Evan Sarthau as he hails from Black Diamond, Wash. It was his first start in front of friends and family at the ShoWare Center.
• The fallout from Saturday's controversial game against Portland got some closure Tuesday. While Keegan Kolesar was not in the lineup Tuesday, Portland's Brendan Leipsic was suspended by the league for seven games in response to his hit to Seattle's rookie winger. It is Leipsic's second suspension of the season.
• If you're are looking for junior hockey to watch during the break you will get your fill as the World Junior Championships will kick off next week from Sweden. The host country is considered the favorite this year but the Canadian team is always strong and its roster is littered with players from WHL rosters.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.