What makes the Carolina Thunderbirds so good?

Teams in the FHL have either 17 or 20 games left in the regular season, and with one more win, the Carolina Thunderbirds can clinch no worse than second-place in the FHL standings. Again, this is with basically one-third of the season left.

Their regular season championship is basically a formality at this point.

To say that the Carolina Thunderbirds are good is an understatement, and if they keep this level of play up through the remainder of the regular season, and then take home the Commissioner’s Cup, there’s a very real chance we could be talking about them being the best team in FHL history.

But what exactly makes them so good? You know the big numbers, leading the league in goals scored, given up the fewest goals in the league, a 24-game winning streak, and a 36-4-0-1 record through 41 games.

With the FHL having almost every game behind a pay wall, with the exception of home games in Port Huron, I’ll admit haven’t had the chance to watch the Thunderbirds much this season, but yesterday offered up that chance with a Sunday matinée against the Prowlers, and from what I saw and the stats I’ve found, it was a typical Thunderbirds win with a 5-2 final.

The opponent never has the puck

For the first 15 minutes of yesterday’s game, I was reminded of the Detroit Red Wings heyday of when Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and other were in their primes: They just skated rings around everyone and it felt like the puck was in the opponent’s end the whole time.

Guys like Jan Salak, Josh Pietrantonio, Jiri Pargac, and Chase Fallis just seemed to be calm and in control that whole first 15 minutes, especially Salak, who at a listed size of 6-4, 230 pounds is bigger than most FHL defensemen, let alone forwards, and used that size to his advantage all game, netting a hat trick in the 5-2 win.

We reached out to Thunderbirds broadcaster Zak DeBeaussaert for his thoughts on the team’s ability to control the puck.

“Salak clearly studied at the Zetterberg school of puck possession however its easier to do when he’s three to four inches taller than everyone he plays against,” DeBeaussaert said.

And according to Zak, and our stats, that puck possession pays off on the defensive end in a huge way. Take a look at the league-wide stats for shots on goal given up by each team this season, these stats are according to HockeyDB, and do not take into account empty net or shootout goals, only plays where a goalie is in the net to defend a shot:

  • Watertown Wolves: 1,637 saves, 164 GA = 1,791 shots against; 47.1 shots against per game
  • Port Huron Prowlers: 1,577 saves, 165 GA = 1,742 shots against; 42.5 shots against per game
  • Danville Dashers: 1,508 saves, 157 GA = 1,665 shots against; 43.8 shots against per game
  • Elimra Enforcers: 1,253 saves, 103 GA = 1,356 shots against; 35.7 shots against per game
  • Mentor Ice Breakers: 1,122 saves, 179 GA = 1,301 shots against; 34.2 shots against per game
  • Carolina Thunderbirds: 970 saves, 78 GA = 1,048 shots against. 25.5 shots against per game

Carolina has given up 253 fewer shots than the next closest team…and Mentor has played three fewer games than the Thunderbirds, and gives up nine fewer shots per game than any other team. This is a basic lesson in hockey analytics (CORSI, Fenwick, etc.), but if you don’t let the other team have the puck, they can’t shoot and they can’t score.

“The defensive side of things I would attribute to the conditioning of our team. I’ve heard from a few guys that have come here from other teams or similar leagues that (Coach) Andre runs his practices with much more intensity and that gets guys into a higher physical shape,” DeBeaussaert added. “Combine that with how well our offense can control the puck and you get defenders who are fresh and ready to take the body against more weary opponents and prevent opportunities.

The other thing that I noticed yesterday, was it felt like Port Huron almost never had quality chances to score. The shots yesterday 39-35 in favor of Carolina, but by my count, I saw MAYBE six quality scoring chances for Port Huron, and two of those were breakaways maybe 50 seconds apart in the first period, neither of which they scored on. Most of the shots were dribblers that rolled in on the goalie, or were long shots from the point with no traffic in front that every goalie in men’s league can stop.

Shoot, even the goals Port Huron did score yesterday weren’t the result of great passing or setup, but great individual effort and some luck. The first goal from Artur Drindrozhik, who evaded three Thunderbirds while short-handed, made a great stop-and-go move behind the net, and scored on a wrap-around. Hardly a great chance, but a great individual effort to make it a 2-1 game.

And all that shows when you see that Carolina’s goalies this year have a GAA of 1.92 and are stopping around 92.5 percent of all shots that come their way. Yes, Carolina does have great goalies, but the defense in front of them is doing a lot to help them look good as well.

And if them never letting their opponents have the puck or quality looks, and then having to face great goalies weren’t enough…

They’re the deepest offense in the league

All but one player on the current active roster has reached double-digit points, and they only reason Jay Croop hasn’t yet is because he’s only play 17 games, but has nine points in those games.

And 11 of their 16 skaters have 20 or more points, to compare how deep that is, the next closest team with that many 20-plus point scorers on the roster has seven. So Carolina has an almost full line of guys who can contribute almost nightly more than the next closest team.

“We have the most double-digit scorers in the league by a couple of bodies so it becomes a question for other teams which line do you match against,” DeBeaussaert said. “A line of Pietrantonio-Salak-Pargac when the Fallis-Panacek-Croop line has been hot all game?”

And that shows in the league leaders, Carolina has just three of the Top-10 scorers in the league, but when you can get scoring from all three lines, as opposed to just the top line or MAYBE the top two lines like every other team in the league does, the opponent’s defense never gets a rest. And that ties back into our previous part about puck possession.

To only have three of the Top-10 scorers in the league, and Carolina’s leader in Salak is fourth overall, but to still lead the league in goalies scored by 16 goals shows you that there are no anchors on the team, and if you’re suiting up for Carolina, you’re expected to contribute on offense, and not just be some guy who hits and fights.

So you’re facing a team that has the best defense, offense, and goaltending in the league…

How do you beat them?

This is going to sound very cliche and lazy, but to beat Carolina you need to do two things: Get great goaltending, and take advantage of your chances.

The last game Carolina lost, Watertown goalie Jared Rutledge stood on his head, making 45 saves in a 3-2 win in which the Wolves were out-shot 47-31. You have to expect to that Carolina will get the lion’s share of the chances, so you need your goalie to make every save that you would normally expect them to make, and then some. Mentor came close to doing that Saturday night, but couldn’t score enough, and yesterday there were probably at least two goals that Port Huron’s Cody Karpinski would like to have back. If you’re giving a team as good as Carolina two soft goals, you’re probably not winning.

And then there’s the chances, like we noted earlier, Port Huron yesterday had MAYBE a half-dozen quality chances outside of their goals…and didn’t score on them. Two breakaways where they hit the post and were stopped, and then four strong saves from Henry Dill. You’re not going to get a ton of chances, and when you do, you can’t make mistakes.

And that carries over to special teams too, Carolina has the top-ranked penalty kill and power play in the league this year, killing off 90 percent of chances, and scoring 22 percent of the time. You have to find a way to get them in the box, while you stay out of it, because if you thought they were good at five-on-five, it’s borderline unfair watching them control the puck with the man-advantage.

So to conclude, Carolina has probably the best defense in FHL history, and has what might be the deepest offense in FHL history, and it is very, very hard to see any team this year being able to take them down.

 

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