Jared Hauf is just one of a number of T-Birds who have picked up their intensity in the playoffs. (Kyle Scholzen, Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
It still seems difficult to believe that the seventh-seed Thunderbirds were able to march into Prospera Place this past weekend and grab two victories over the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets, but that's exactly what happened and now Seattle needs to win just two of the series' remaining five games to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Playing in a hostile environment against a very strong Rockets team meant that the Thunderbirds could play loose and enjoy themselves. They did just that, and it showed.
The tide has turned now, as Seattle has most certainly awakened a Kelowna team that may not have been expecting the intensity Seattle showed in games one and two. No longer will the T-Birds possess the element of surprise, something that proved extremely valuable early in the series.
However, in the same vein, the underdog Thunderbirds now enjoy a confidence that they likely haven't felt in a long while, if not all season. They've proven that they can skate with and defeat the Rockets, who also must be shell-shocked after dropping two overtime contests.
It should be noted here how much more important the loss of captain Colton Sissons is to Kelowna. Missing your leader on the ice and bench can't be underestimated, as it's times like these - when facing unfamiliar adversity - that a team is in most dire need of excellent leadership.
Speaking of leadership, the Thunderbirds' 19- and 20-year-olds are stepping up in a big way. Unlike Sissons, Seattle captain Luke Lockhart has been able to play this series and has made a huge impact, not only by scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals in game one, but also on a penalty kill that has been excellent so far.
Giving Lockhart some help on the kill have been fellow overage players Adam Kambeitz and Brandon Glover. Kambeitz plays a similar non-stop game to Lockhart, something that has taken a bit of pressure off of the captain and given Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk another experienced player to help out when the team is down man.
Glover has been excellent in net, making a number of important saves and keeping the T-Birds in both games. When overtime began in game two, Kelowna came out firing and it looked as though it would only be a matter of time before they were able to score the sudden-death goal. However, that wasn't the case as Glover made a few huge saves, giving his teammates the opportunity to regroup and turn things around.
The 20-year-old netminder seems to step his play up in a remarkable way in the postseason, as he did last year for Calgary when he maintained a 1.87 goals against average and a .941 save percentage in four games played.
In spite of all of the success of the three aforementioned players, the best Thunderbird so far may be 19-year-old defenseman Jesse Forsberg, who leads the team in scoring with a goal and three assists, also maintaining a plus-two rating and, perhaps most importantly, just two penalty minutes.
Forsberg's Achilles heel all season has been an inability to stay out of the box, but he's done just that this series without losing the intensity between the whistles that he's known for.
It hasn't just been the older players stepping up, however. Everyone is doing their part and playing within themselves to positively contribute to the game.
Jared Hauf had a big goal in game two and has played with an intensity that seemed to come and go during the regular season.
Mitch Elliot came out in game one and made short work of Kelowna tough guy Tyrell Goulbourne, who I named as a relatively unsung player to watch in this series. Since their bout, Goulbourne has been a ghost.
Everyone deserves credit for the Thunderbirds' 2-0 start to the playoffs, and that's exactly how it's going to need to be if they hope to defeat a powerhouse team such as Kelowna.
One aspect the Thunderbirds need to improve upon going forward is keeping out of the box. They've had trouble early in games, tiring themselves out and forcing the penalty killers to log excess minutes. The penalty kill has been great so far, but giving a team like Kelowna so many opportunities is playing with fire. They've got a deep and talented roster and will convert if the Thunderbirds keep giving them chances.
That's not to say the T-Birds need to or should tone down their overall intensity, as that has been a defining factor so far in the series and contributed greatly to their improved play towards the end of the season. Taking advantage of their greater size cleanly and between the whistles is a benefit the Thunderbirds absolutely need to capitalize on.
Things will certainly be different now, as the pressure is on the young and inexperienced Thunderbirds to build on the foundation they've placed. If Kelowna is able to come out of this brief break and play the hockey they're accustomed to playing, how the Thunderbirds respond will define the rest of the series.
This is playoff hockey, and there's absolutely nothing better.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski