Updated Mar 20, 2013 - 8:38 pm
Steve Konowalchuk breaks down Seattle versus Kelowna
The T-Birds are busy prepping for their first round playoff match up with Kelowna (WHL.ca)
By Andrew Eide
The Seattle Thunderbirds have been spending this week preparing for a tough first round playoff match up with the high flying Kelowna Rockets. These practices have to be a welcome change from the last three seasons, without the playoffs, where players would be spending this time headed home and saying goodbye.
For many of the T-Birds players this will be their first taste of Western Hockey League playoff action. For head coach Steve Konowalchuk, a veteran of over 50 NHL playoff games as a player, it will be his first junior hockey playoff experience as a coach. Konowalchuk took some time to chat with 710 ESPN Seattle about the team's return to the playoffs.
"Its exciting," he says of this week. "We have young guys who have never had a chance to play and they want to experience it for the first time. We have a couple of veterans who have played a little bit and are excited to be back but then we have some veterans who haven't played either. There's a lot of fun in that locker room right now."
The T-Birds do have a tough charge in front of them. They are taking on a second seeded Rockets club that scored over 300 goals and is one of the best teams in the WHL. Without a doubt Seattle is the underdog in this series -- something that may not be such a bad thing in the end.
"You know, I enjoy being the underdog," Konowalchuk said. "They definitely have the pressure, they had such a great season it would be disappointing if for some reason they couldn't get by a playoff round or two. For us, we had to play down the stretch just to make sure we made the playoffs, now it's bonus time and we just want to go out and have fun, try our best and enjoy the experience."
Playoff games, and series, are different than their regular season counterparts. The games are usually tighter, more physical and can be taxing. Konowalchuk says that despite that they haven't really changed how they prepare.
"With a week off you know, you go through your own systems stuff again," he said about this weeks preparation. "We've played Kelowna a couple of times not too long ago so we already have a little sense of what they do. We've talked about some of the stuff they do, a little bit, but we've just reinforced how we play and a couple minor adjustments here and there, looked at a couple of their tendencies but you don't want to get too wrapped up in what they do and forget to just go out and compete and play."
One thing that will benefit Seattle is the last two months of the season. They were fighting for one of the last two playoff spots and as the finish line grew closer and closer so did the pressure. Each game felt more and more like a playoff game. Can that help Seattle handle the playoff pressure?
"We know how to play under pressure," Konowalchuk says. "Those game, in some ways, had more pressure than the playoffs. A lot of those games felt like Game 7 for us. They were such big points and in the first couple of games of a playoffs series, it's not Game 7, its not do or die, and in some of those games we approached them as do or die."
From an X's and O's standpoint Kelowna poses some match up troubles. They are very deep and can roll high end scoring lines at you that Seattle will have to match. Down the stretch the T-Birds seemed to find three solid lines they felt comfortable with. It started by moving Luke Lockhart to play with Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs. That left the Adam Kambeitz-Justin Hickman-Riley Sheen line to become the shut down line. Having three solid lines will help in this match up.
"You want guys to be able to do their jobs," Konowalchuk said of this squad. "You can identify some roles, and roles they like to do, I think we were able to do that. Obviously chemistry is important and we do move one line a little bit, Delnov moves around so there are still some moving parts but we still have enough depth so that if someone is not going on one line I can move them around."
Kelowna has a very strong blue line with some top prospects like Damon Severson (drafted by New Jersey) and Madison Bowey (a top prospect this year) patrolling back there. What does Konowalchuk think Seattle has to do to take on the Kelowna defense?
"We want to play a forechecking game," he says. "When we're playing well that's what we do, we put pucks in and we forecheck and try to wear down the other team. Nothing's going to change there but when you play a good defense you have to make sure you're real consistent finishing your checks and making them work. They are solid, very solid on the back end and don't have any weak links, we have to try to grind them down shift after shift."
The Rockets did suffer a blow early this week when they lost captain Colton Sissons to injury for 8-10 weeks. Sissons centered their top line and was fourth on the team in scoring with 28 goals. While that loss hurts, they still have great depth and are still a very dangerous opponent.
"He's a good player but they're so deep," Konowalchuk said. "They're deep with four lines, I don't think it's going to affect them a bit. They've won a lot of games with him out of the lineup this season anyway."
Konowalchuk went on to mention that his club has played well against Kelowna this year and should have some confidence. His message to the team is to go and play hard and not be tentative -- something he has consistently preached all year long. He also went on to say that he hasn't ruled out using prospect Ethan Bear in this series, if he has to. Bear made his WHL debut in Portland last weekend and Konowalchuk, and the club, are really high on their young defenseman.
Make no mistake, the T-Birds are happy to have ended their playoff drought. Konowalchuk felt that was one step forward, now the next step is to win in the playoffs. While aware that they have a tough road in this series the team is not just content to make the playoffs, they plan on bringing their best game while trying to pull off an upset.
"We're going to put our effort out," the coach says. "We know what a good team Kelowna has. We're just going to hold ourselves accountable, you want to believe you can win every game, we believe we can. Kelowna is probably one of the two best teams in the league and we're going to have our hands full, we're just going to make sure that every game, every shift that we just compete for one another. No short cuts, win one-on-one battles, all those little things in hockey playoff series that, if you do them, they can amount up to big things."
Seattle heads to Kelowna this Friday and Saturday for games 1 and 2 before returning to the ShoWare Center Tuesday and Wednesday for games 3 and 4.
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