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Thunderbirds flying high into winter break

troock
With 40 points on 17 goals and 23 assists, Branden Troock has set career highs in all three categories. (T-Birds photo)

By Tim Pigulski

With a win on Tuesday night over division rival Tri-City that improved their record to 21-10-1-3, the Thunderbirds capped off their best first half of the season since 2004-05, when they were 23-8-0-1 heading into the WHL's annual winter break.

That season, when ties were still a part of hockey, the team finished 43-24-2-3 under the direction of head coach Rob Sumner. They were led in scoring by 18-year-old Aaron Gagnon, who has since gone on to appear in 38 NHL contests. In net, they were led by Bryan Bridges, who set Thunderbirds records with 13 shutouts and 1.79 goals-against-average in 58 games played.

This year's squad looks a bit different than the one from almost a decade ago. While Seattle's win percentage is slightly lower (.629 this season compared to .719 at the break in 2004-05), the squad is more offensively potent, featuring three players (Shea Theodore, Branden Troock, and Alex Delnov) who are averaging a point per game or more, and one (Mathew Barzal) who has 31 points in 32 games. While some of that may be a product of changes to the rulebook to encourage higher scoring, there's no doubt that the 2013-14 version of the Thunderbirds are a team that hopes to advance at least as far as their 2004-05 counterparts, who were eliminated in the second round in seven games by Kelowna.

It can't be denied that Troock, Theodore, and Delnov have been a huge part of the team's overall success, especially the past 10 games as Seattle has gone 9-1-0-0, a run bested in the Western Conference only by Kelowna, which is on an eye-popping 12-game winning streak.

During the month of December, when seven of those games have occurred, Troock has been one of the hottest players in the entire league, scoring 15 points on eight goals and seven assists. During that time, he's looked faster and stronger than any of the defensemen who have opposed him. Add in his soft hands and what head coach Steve Konowalchuk has described as a greater willingness to use his teammates and rely less on himself and you have the recipe for a career-best season. He's more than earned himself consideration for the WHL's Player of the Month for the final month of 2013, although he curiously has yet to win a Player of the Week award.

Theodore and Delnov have 11 and 10 points, respectively, and have shown much more consistency in their game relative to past years. Theodore has consistently been one of the best – if not the best – offensive defenseman in the league this year but is also much improved in his own zone. Delnov, who has been benched in the past for coasting through shifts, is a much improved backchecker, a hallmark of a solid all-around player.

Playing in the competitive Western Conference, no game will be an easy victory for the Thunderbirds, who play a schedule highlighted by nine more matchups with Everett, five with Portland, and two against Kelowna. Two of the nine games against the rival Silvertips – who the T-Birds struggled against in the two teams' only meeting of the season so far – come on back-to-back nights immediately following the break.

Getting off to a good start coming back from the break will be critical in helping the T-Birds avoid the late December-into-January struggles that they have faced in the past.

Last year they went into the break on a five-game losing streak, which extended through mid-January, reaching 15 games total. The season before, they were 2-11-1-0 during the year's introductory month. In 2010-11, the T-Birds came out of the break slow en route to a 3-13-1-1 record in their first 18 games back. It was an even longer slide the season before as they went on an ugly 17-game losing streak during which Seattle added only five points in the standings.

With a roster loaded with veterans this year, the team should be able to avoid the extended snide that has crippled them in the past. Both Konowalchuk and captain and veteran leader Justin Hickman don't believe that it will be an issue for a much-improved team this year.

"I think first of all, it's a completely different team we have this year," said Hickman, who has four points and 22 penalty minutes during the month of December. "I have all the confidence that there's no way we'll have a slide like that."

Konowalchuk agreed with the sentiments of his appointed leader, claiming that despite the team's recent successes, the break may actually prove to have a positive impact.

"We'll take the break right now," he said. "We have some guys banged up and we have a few guys that are under the weather as well that are playing a lot of minutes. The break is coming at a good time for us and we'll come back and get back to work and the details of the system as quick as we can."

The list of injuries that Konowalchuk refers to is long and names a number of everyday players, including Barzal, Ethan Bear, Connor Honey, Jaimen Yakubowski, and Keegan Kolesar, as well as Austin Douglas, who played in five games in the first half. For the past two games, the Thunderbirds have not had the manpower to ice a full roster, dressing only 16 of an allotted 18 skaters in those contests. Even while skating shorthanded, they still managed to win handily in Tri-City and compete with Portland into the final minutes.

No member of the current roster has experienced the type of success at this level that this team is enjoying. Morale is through the roof and the attitude in the locker room is positive more often than not. The confidence that they've displayed, especially over the past few weeks, is present in every member of the roster from the net out. Their resilience is evident in that, after a rough patch during which they lost six straight games, they came back and won 11 of their next 13, picking up 23 points in the standings during that period.

Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.

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