Mathew Barzal, 16, has 10 points in his previous seven contests (Thunderbirds photo)
By Tim Pigulski
With Friday evening's second consecutive 4-0 blanking of the division rival Spokane Chiefs, the Thunderbirds continue their mastery of their I-90 rivals, moving their record to a flawless 7-0-0-0 on the season.
In their most recent contest, the newly formed forward line featuring Mathew Barzal in the middle flanked by Ryan Gropp and Justin Hickman finished with six of the team's 12 points on three goals and three assists, including a goal and two helpers by Barzal and two goals by Gropp.
The chemistry between the three is undeniable, constantly manifesting itself in the form of tape-to-tape saucer passes, open-net setups, and defensive zone coverages.
On Friday night, the 16-year-old Barzal set up Gropp beautifully on two different occasions, the first a cross-ice pass in the offensive zone that led to an easy conversion for the 6-feet-2 left wing. The second was a pass into the slot that Gropp finished with an impressive backhand shot that beat Spokane goalie Eric Williams high.
What may have been even more indicative of the chemistry that this line is currently developing, however, may have been a situation that occurred nine minutes and eight seconds into the second period.
On a tic-tac-toe play in the Spokane zone, Gropp saucered a pass to Barzal, who then dropped it back to an open Hickman in the slot. The Thunderbirds appeared poised to take a 2-0 lead if not for an impressive right pad save by Williams. What followed were the three players surrounding the Spokane goaltender, and the Spokane defense responding as expected.
However, during the ensuing tussle, the 17-year-old Gropp was engaged by Spokane's 19-year-old Reid Gow. Barzal, 16, in a manner we haven't had the opportunity to witness this season, confronted the Spokane captain, a task usually reserved for the much bigger Hickman, which ultimately resulted in the Thunderbirds' young phenom on the ice under three Chiefs players.
"Usually it's Hicks on our line doing it, but I was the first one there tonight," said Barzal about the confrontation. "I thought Groppy got speared a little bit and I had to jump in there."
Head coach Steve Konowalchuk acknowledged the lift that an act such as Barzal's can give both his line and the bench as a whole.
"It's big," said the third-year head coach. "When it's time, if you happen to be at the spot where you need to stand up for somebody, then you have to stand up for somebody. I know the bench gets a lift from it and it's good to see Matty stand up for his teammate and to get some confidence he can stand up for himself."
Over the past seven games, during which the Thunderbirds hold a 6-1-0-0 record, the line has combined for 13 of the team's 23 goals. Highlighted by Hickman's hat trick on Wednesday night versus the same Spokane club, the line is firing on all cylinders and has become the team's most formidable group of scorers.
Overall, Gropp, Hickman, and Barzal have 31 points in just the past seven games, led by Gropp's 11 on four goals and seven assists.
"We're getting better and better each game and getting to know each other out on the ice," said Gropp, whose late birthday means he won't be eligible for the NHL draft until 2015. "It's really clicking right now…our line was working well down low."
With the two elite young offensive talents playing together, it was almost a necessity that Konowalchuk send out a veteran power forward who could provide leadership and stand up for the other guys when things got chippy. Enter Hickman, the 19-year-old captain in his fourth season in the WHL.
"All credit to those guys," said Hickman, a native of Kelowna. "When Barzal's got the puck something happens, so I just have to get open. Gropp's flying by with speed and always in the right places. I've got to get in the corners and muck it up for them. It's a simple gameplan for me and exactly what I'm going for."
While enough can't be said about the trio's offensive heroics, the way they've handled their defensive zone responsibilities gives Konowalchuk the ability to play them in any situation. Though their talents are best put to use scoring goals, Seattle's head coach doesn't have to shy away from letting them take a faceoff in the defensive zone, which they did five times on Friday night, four of which were won by Barzal.
The three are playing loosely and enjoying their time together, which has the potential to lead to great things for the rest of the regular season and beyond. While the spotlight is sure to remain on Barzal and Gropp for the remainder of their hockey careers, pairing them with a teammate like Hickman, who may often find himself as the unsung hero playing alongside the two, is the type of move that makes all three more complete players.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.