Forget all the warm fuzzies. The e-mails coach Rob Sumner is sending each of his Seattle Thunderbirds players over the holiday break are more instructive than congratulatory. "We've played quite well...
Forget all the warm fuzzies. The e-mails coach Rob Sumner is sending each of his Seattle Thunderbirds players over the holiday break are more instructive than congratulatory.
“We’ve played quite well so far, but this is a team we think can get even better,” Sumner said. “I’m sending off e-mails to every player just so we’re all on the same page about what we want to do in the second half.”
Sumner doesn’t like to skip too far ahead, but the next chapter would be a U.S. Division title followed by a long run through the playoffs and ownership of the Memorial Cup.
It might seem like fantasy because Seattle didn’t even earn an invitation to last season’s postseason party, but Seattle’s start has been a runaway bestseller.
The T-birds are 23-8-0-1, first in the U.S. Division, and have the best winning percentage (.734) in the Western Hockey League.
Seattle is first in this week’s poll of WHL writers and is ranked second by pro scouts in the 56-team Canadian Hockey League.
The T-birds, who punctuated their longest trip of the season with three consecutive wins, will play 23 of their final 40 games at KeyArena.
During its 4-1-0-1 trip, Seattle outshot the opposition 215 to 105 and outscored them 22-12.
“We’re feeling pretty good, we played smart and we played hard on the road trip, but we know there are things to work on,” Sumner said. “We need to get our power play going.”
The T-birds will reassemble for practice in Kirkland on Sunday and meet Lethbridge at KeyArena on Monday in a battle between the two top-ranked teams in the league.
Despite all of its success in the standings, Seattle scores on the power play only 13.5 percent of the time, 18th out of the 20 teams in the WHL.
“We’ve had some games where it was clicking, where we had good puck movement and it was producing,” Sumner said. “It’s something you’re always working on. It’s tough to put a number on it, but we’d like to get it up to about 18 percent.”
Defense has been the calling card for the T-birds all season.
Goaltender Bryan Bridges has a franchise-record seven shutouts this season, leads the WHL with a 1.49 goals-against average and has a record of 19-5.
The T-birds have allowed only 53 goals this season, 14 fewer than any other team in the league.
The Seattle intangibles, especially leadership under captain Tyler Metcalfe, have been a strength all season. Metcalfe scored seven goals and had a point in all six road games.
“Tyler is scoring some goals and that’s great, but his entire game was excellent over the whole trip,” Sumner said. “He was good at penalty killing, at five-on-five, at four-on-four. He set the example by playing smart, simple, low-risk hockey with lots of intensity, and it carried over to the rest of the team.”
The league trading deadline is Jan. 10, but Sumner isn’t asking general manager Russ Farwell to make any changes.
“If he sees something out there that makes sense, then he’ll do it,” Sumner said. “We’re certainly not in the panic mode and think we can get better with the players we have.”
The season ahead
After playing Lethbridge, Seattle hosts Everett on Wednesday. Seattle and Everett have nine more games against each other this season, games that may decide the division title.
The T-birds also play their annual New Year’s Eve game in Portland and play in Everett on New Year’s Day.
Seattle will be without forwards Mitch Fadden and Bud Holloway, who will be at the U-17 World tournament, and Lladislav Scurko, who is playing for Slovakia at the World Junior Championships.
Everett will be even more depleted, missing seven players. Ivan Baranka (Slovakia) and Karel Hromas (Czech Republic) are at the World Juniors, and Leland Irving, Brady Calla, Zach Hamill, Brennan Zasitko and Jonathan Harty are at the U-17 tournament.