Seth Swenson is hooked as he breaks in on goal, he would score on the ensuing penalty shot (photo Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT – The Thunderbirds continued their dominance over Eastern Conference opponents Tuesday night as they dispatched of the Brandon Wheat Kings 4-2 at the ShoWare Center. In what was a pretty solid game for Seattle as it was led by the goal and two assists of Seth Swenson and backstopped by 30 saves from Danny Mumuagh. The win gave the Thunderbirds an impressive 6-0-0-1 home record and put them back in first place in the Western Conference.
"The second and third period was a lot of enthusiastic hockey, a lot of passion," coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "We were playing the right way, we had some good chances I thought their goalie made some good saves to keep it close there."
Seattle (11-3-0-2) opened the scoring in the first period when newly acquired Sam McKechnie drove the net and banged home a rebound past Wheat Kings goalie Jordan Papirny. It was McKechnie's first game with Seattle and he managed to score early on.
"It felt really good to get the first one out of the way," the former Lethbridge Hurricane said. "My line mates were really clicking and helped me out for sure."
McKechnie was inserted at center with Swenson and Eric Benoit and they were Seattle's best line of the night. Tasked with shutting down Brandon's top line, they also scored three of Seattle's four goals. They played with a lot of energy, were strong on the forecheck and seemed to click right away.
"We go out there with the mindset to shut down certain lines," Swenson said of his line. "We just hate getting scored on. We take that mentality and the way you do that is to work hard in their zone ... Sam McKechnie stepped in today for us and he did great. Looking forward to keep that going."
That line is not only a solid shut-down line but on Tuesday it provided all the offense Seattle would need. Up a goal in the second period, Benoit feathered a nice lead pass to Swenson that put him behind the Brandon defense. As Swenson moved in on goal, he was hooked from behind and was awarded a penalty shot.
He converted to give Seattle a 2-0 lead.
Brandon (7-8-0-0) fought back and scored 2 minutes later when Ryley Lindgren fired a wrist shot from the circle past Mumaugh to cut the lead to one.
The T-Birds, and the Benoit line, went back at it shortly after that. After an Evan Wardley point shot the rebound bounced around and Benoit picked it up in the slot with time and space. He picked his spot and deposited the puck over Papirny's shoulder for his third goal of the year.
"Our line was starting to click right away," Benoit said about his mates. "Sam came in and just provided that extra spark that we needed and we did things right tonight, I thought we played an all-around good game."
For Konowalchuk, having a shut-down line that can score further adds to the club's depth and makes it that much tougher to beat. Seattle's top line (Mathew Barzal, Justin Hickman and Roberts Lipsbergs) played well Tuesday as well, generating a lot of chances, but was held off the scoreboard. That is going to happen on some nights and a good hockey team needs other lines to step up.
The T-Birds got that Tuesday. Seattle now has a third line that can score as well as play defensive hockey.
"They (Swenson's line) have grasped that role," Konowalchuk said. "They've taken pride on the PK there. McKechnie was a nice addition there as well. I think he's a more natural center. At times we had Swenson there at times we had to have Benoit, but they're more wingers. I think McKechnie there did a real nice job on the faceoffs and made that line better as well – it was a big night for us from that line."
With a 3-1 lead, the T-Birds' defense began to go to work and shut down Brandon's offense. The Wheat Kings struggled to generate any sustained pressure in the Seattle zone and did not have many good scoring chances. They did manage to knock home a goal late in the third after a scramble in front of the Seattle net but even then the game did not feel like it was in jeopardy.
Shea Theodore made sure of that with an empty-net goal with less than a minute left.
The Thunderbirds are now back in first place in the division and conference as they head into a big weekend with games against Portland and Everett. Konowalchuk was happy with the effort and confidence his club displayed Tuesday night and has the team focused on the big early-season game against the Winterhawks.
This T-Birds club is showing signs of being a contender this year, something Benoit knows all about. He has already played on two different teams that have made it to the Memorial Cup and he likes what he sees with his new team.
"It's still pretty early in the season," he said. "But I am pretty sure I've seen a few qualities here, that our team possesses, from when I was with Kootenay and Saskatoon so I'm really looking forward to the rest of the year."
The two teams only combined for six power plays on the night and neither team was able to score. The Thunderbirds played with much more discipline as they cut down on many of the avoidable penalties that had hampered them over the past weekend. There was a lot of spice to the game, however, as there were several scraps and the clubs combined for 121 penalty minutes.
Swenson has three goals now in his last four games. Along with that he has broken three sticks. Is this a sign of hard work? "I don't know if it's hard work," he said with a smile. "It probably needs to stop. The equipment man's going to get mad at me, but it's working out right now."
Tuesday was the return of former T-Birds defenseman Taylor Green. Green had a rough night as he ended up in two fights with his former teammates. He dropped the gloves with Hickman and Jared Hauf.
Shea Theodore's empty-net goal was a thing of beauty. He had the puck deep in his own zone and appeared to just be trying to clear it out when he banged it off the glass. The puck hit the glass and bounded down the ice, turning slowly towards the goal and eventually in. It was the defenseman's seventh goal of the year as he continues his strong season.
The Swenson line combined for three goals, three assists and was plus-8 on the night. Not bad for your shut-down line.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.