By Andrew Eide
It would have been understandable if the Seattle Thunderbirds took a night off on Sunday. After playing the two previous nights and missing four of their top players it felt like the odds were stacked against them. Despite all that the T-Birds found a way to beat the Kootenay Ice 4-3 at the Western Financial Place in Cranbrook, B.C. With the win the T-Birds completed a perfect weekend with three big road wins in three nights.
Seattle (6-2-0-0) were without Connor Honey, Branden Troock, Jesse Forsberg and Evan Wardley - all scratched due to injuries. They did not let that stop them however as they leaned on their younger players - who came through to seal the win.
"We've said all along that these young guys want to play, they're good hockey players," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "They stepped right in, they played well. We expected to win, I'm very happy with the effort. There were a couple guys who didn't have their best games but in the third period they buckled down and found a way to get the win."
The T-Birds got scoring from a number of players and defenseman Shea Theodore had a big night setting up three of the team's four goals. Theodore has started strong for the club since returning from the Anaheim Ducks camp. He picked up his second straight three assist night and now has 11 points and is plus-5 on the season.
"He's logging a lot of minutes right now but when you're a player of that caliber you should," Konowalchuk said. "We've talked to him, he has to relish playing top lines. He's done a very good job."
Seattle got on the board first as Roberts Lipsbergs picked up his 6th goal of the year in the first period after some nice work in low by Michal Holub. Theodore then picked up his first assist as he got the puck to Riley Sheen who flung a wrist shot that Mitch Elliot deflected past Kootenay goalie Wyatt Hofflin to give the T-Birds an early 2-0 lead.
It was the first time all year that the ice had been scored on first and Kootenay did not take the two goal lead laying down. Jon Martin scored late in the period to cut the lead and then top NHL prospect Sam Reinhart tied it up with his fifth goal early in the second period.
The line of Justin Hickman, Mathew Barzal and Lipsbergs was strong in this game, stepping up to fill the void left by Honey and Troock being out. With the score tied they struck a few minutes later as Barzal fired a pin point wrist shot that Hofflin could not stop - Seattle had their lead back.
Seattle had a glorious chance to break the game open in the second period when they had a full two minutes of 5-on-3 power play time. They seemed reluctant to shoot and failed to cash in on the big chance. Just after the power play they took a penalty of their own and Kootenay's other big gun made them pay for it. Jaedon Descheneau got the puck on the power play and made a nice play to beat Danny Mumaugh for his seventh goal and to get the Ice back to square.
The third period was a back and forth affair with end to end chances and both goalies making big saves. It looked like Seattle might be headed for their fourth overtime of the season until Justin Hickman got the puck in the slot, spun and fired a shot that surprised Hofflin and gave Seattle the lead. It was the third goal from that line as they have been heating up of late.
"The last two games they've played really well," Konowalchuk said. "That's the line we had at training camp that you expected to be really good but with Hickman being suspended we couldn't get it together. Then it took Hickman a couple of games to get his feet under him but now they're really going, they're playing a complete game. They're playing hard on the puck, they're finishing checks, they're a good line."
Danny Mumaugh has also come up big this season and he saved his best for late in the game. With the Kootenay net empty for the extra skater the Ice got the puck to Reinhart who fired a shot that somehow Mumaugh got his glove on. It was so close that the Kootenay players celebrated, thinking they had scored.
The referee went to the video replay and determined that it was a good save and no goal. Mumaugh hung tough on Friday in Medicine Hat and did so again Sunday, in another tight game.
"Their best player had the puck with time and Mumaugh just found a way to battle and make a big save for us," Konowalchuk said of his young goalie. "I thought he was solid all the way through, he makes a really big one at the end but I thought he was solid all game, strong all game."
Seattle ends what appeared to be a tough weekend with three wins and six points in the standings. It's early, but they now find themselves on top of the Western Conference with 12 points - which is also the most in the entire league. They will now head back to Kent for some rest before heading out for their biggest game of the year so far - a return trip to Kelowna to take on the unbeaten Rockets.
With his three assists on Sunday, Theodore now is tied with Barzal for the team lead in scoring. Both players have three goals and 11 assists while Theodore has picked up his points in two fewer games.
How good has the top line been? Barzal, Hickman and Lipsbergs have combined for 25 points and are plus-20 on the year.
Konowalchuk did not divulge too much information on his injured players and said they would have to evaluate where they were during the coming week. This is pretty common as the club is understandably tight lipped when it comes to injuries.
After only scoring two goals in each of the previous two seasons Mitch Elliot now has two goals in only three games as the 20-year-old is off to a good start for the team.
Mumaugh was the hard luck starter in the 10-4 blowout loss at Portland last week. He did not get a whole lot of help from his mates in that one but has rebounded nicely - winning two games this weekend. He now has his save percentage back up to .904 and has lowered his goals against to 3.47. Seattle seems content with the Mumaugh-Justin Myles combination moving forward.
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