By Andrew Eide
There is just something about a Kelowna Rockets and Seattle Thunderbirds match up that generates classic hockey games. The T-Birds were back in Prospera Place in Kelowna Friday night for the first time since their playoff loss and skated away with a memorable 4-3 shoot out win.
Seattle trailed 3-1 entering the third period but got goals by Eric Benoit and Jared Huaf four and half minutes into the third to tie it. From there they rode the shoulders of goalie Justin Myles and got the shoot out win as Shea Theodore was the only player to convert.
"We found a way to win," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "I thought we were fine in the first period, just the penalties there. We dodged a bullet taking seven minor penalties, our PK was good and we found a way to get it done."
The penalties in the first period killed early momentum that Seattle (7-2-0-0) had to start. The T-Birds were sent to the penalty box four times in the first period and found themselves on their heels.
Even though Kelowna (5-1-0-2) did not score on any of the power plays in the first it changed the momentum of the game. The Rockets took advantage of that swing and struck first near the end of the period when Tyson Baillie deflected a point shot past Justin Myles.
In the second period the T-Birds managed to stay out of the penalty box at first and re-charged their game. They started to tilt the ice as their possession game picked up and they started putting the pressure on. After a close call in their own end Eric Benoit got the puck to Keegan Kolesar along the boards in the Rockets zone. Kolesar back-handed the puck to a streaking Alex Delnov who beat Cooke for his seventh goal of the season.
With the score even Seattle kept pushing and was on the brink of taking the game over. Then things got weird.
Brandon Troock was called for a head-scratching roughing call as he lugged the puck through two defenders. It's not clear how he could have been called for roughing when he had possession of the puck. On the resulting power play Damon Severson found the back of the Seattle net with a point shot that a screened Myles could not see.
Seattle finally got a power play of their own and again had a break bounce away from them. A shot on goal was stopped by Cooke and the puck fell to the ice in front of the goal where Roberts Lipsbergs had a wide open net. He was stopped from tying the game back up by a quick whistle from the referee who had lost sight of it.
A few minutes later Madison Bowey took a point shot that deflected off of Jared Hauf's skate and past a surprised Myles. It was turning into one of those nights and suddenly Seattle found themselves down two goals with only twenty minutes left to play.
Despite trailing Konowalchuk let the team know that there was still time.
"I just told them I believe in our team and that we could score some goals if we tighten up the defense," Konowalchuk said about his message between periods. "If we worked hard in our own end we could get some chances and capitalize on them."
Capitalize is exactly what Seattle did.
Early in the third Brandon Troock stole a puck and got it to Benoit who roofed a shot over Cooke to bring Seattle back to within one. With the momentum shifting the T-Birds wasted no time striking again. Jared Hauf got some redemption for the earlier goal as his point shot went off Severson in front of Cooke and into the net to tie the game.
Seattle had fought back, just as they did all during their playoff series against the Rockets last spring.
There was still plenty of time left in the game and in the last fifteen minutes of play Myles took the game over. He made big save after big save as Seattle killed off two more penalties to preserve the tie game. Myles made 40 saves on the night and once again the T-Birds got strong goal tending.
"He's calming in there," Konowalchuk said of Myles. "He's done a great job, both those guys (Myles and Danny Mumaugh) have done a great job for us."
Myles was steady in the overtime period and calmly set aside the three Rockets shooters in the shoot out to pick up his fourth win of the season.
Seattle won this game with a couple players missing and Kelowna working hard to shut down the Mathew Barzal line -- the depth for the T-Birds rose to the occasion with contributions up and down the line up.
"The Barzal line had a lot of attention on them here on the road," Konowalchuk said. "They had to work for everything and they didn't get the offense they like to get but that's when you need other lines to step up. Troock and Delnov didn't start together but they ended up being big for us. We had a lot of guys play well for us."
The win was a big early victory for the team and one that had to taste a little sweet after the way the playoffs ended last year.
"The guys are enjoying themselves right now," Konowalchuk said. "It was a fun win and guys were excited all day, they had a pretty good effort so its good to see them get that reward."
Seattle now returns home to take on the Tri City Americans Saturday night at the ShoWare Center, face off is at 7 P.M.
Seattle and Kelowna can't seem to resolve their differences in 60 minutes of hockey. Friday's game was the seventh overtime affair in the last 12 games between the two teams.
Justin Myles simply has ice in his veins. The win was his fourth of the season and the third shoot out win he has picked up. He has now bested the high-octane Portland Winterhawks, all world goalie Eric Comrie of Tri City and the top team in the WHL in shoot outs this season. Let's hope his next outing is less stressful, he's earned it.
Adam Henry made his T-Birds debut and looked strong on Seattle's blue line. Konowalchuk liked what he saw and thought it was what he expected to see out of the former Lethbridge Hurricanes player picked up this week.
Overtime was the flavor of the night in the WHL Friday night as five of the nine games went into the bonus period - three of them going all the way to the shoot out.
The win was Seattle's fourth straight victory (all on the road) and put them back into sole possession of first place in the U.S. Division and they have the most points in the WHL.
Seattle saw Troock return after being listed 'Week-to-week' but still was without Connor Honey and Evan Wardley.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide