Seattle's Danny Mumaugh makes one of his 47 saves during the T-Birds 4-3 shoot out loss (photo Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT -- It seems that the Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets have continued their epic playoff series from last season. Tuesday night the two teams played their sixth overtime affair in their last eight meetings as the Rockets won 4-3 in a shoot out. Tyson Baillie converted on his shoot out attempt to propel the Rockets to their ninth straight victory. Seattle got another outstanding outing by goalie Danny Mumaugh who made 47 saves in the defeat.
"Those shoot outs are fun when you win, they're sure not fun when you have to lose them that way, but the guys battled hard," coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "It was a good hockey game. I thought both teams played hard, they brought their 'A' game and we played a good game as well and its unfortunate that you have to lose in a shoot out."
Kelowna (16-2-0-2) came into the game with one of the league's best records and stingiest defenses. Seattle (12-8-1-3) always seems to play them tough, going back to last year and Tuesday was no different.
"I thought the boys played well," Branden Troock said. "We were in the game the whole time and its tough that we couldn't pull it out in the shoot out but I thought we battled hard."
Tuesday's night game was intense and had a playoff atmosphere to it. For the T-Birds, who have been struggling, they played a high energy game and generated a good deal of scoring chances. If not for a strong game by Kelowna goalie Jackson Whistle, who had to make 43 saves, the outcome could have been different.
"(It's) just getting back to basics," Justin Hickman said. "Trying to not throw pucks away when the plays aren't there. When the shot is there just taking more shots, we had a lot of shots on net which we haven't been getting much lately."
The game was an exciting back-and-forth affair that saw both teams take leads and give those leads up. Kelowna broke a 2-2 tie on the first shift of the third period as Madison Bowey fired home a shot on a scramble play. Seattle didn't let that deter them however and got the game back to even on the power play as Alex Delnov knocked home a rebound. It was Seattle's second power play tally of the night breaking a 0-for-40 drought against the Rockets that dated back to last season.
Mid-way through the period the game took an ugly turn as Kelowna's Mitchell Wheaton was seriously injured on a play behind the Rockets net. On the play Seattle's Roberts Lipsbergs collided with Wheaton sending the Kelowna player head first into the end boards. He lay motionless on the ice for a long stretch of time before being helped off the ice on a stretcher.
On the play Lipsbergs was assessed a five-minute major checking from behind penalty and a game misconduct. It was an unfortunate play but one that didn't seem dirty.
"I hope he (Wheaton) is ok, that's the most important thing," Konowalchuk said. "It looked like he turned back into Lipsbergs there, that's really what it looked like to us and I don't think 'Lippy can stop (there). You know Lipsbergs not that kind of player, he's just playing hard at the time."
It was a pivotal and emotional point in the game. For the next five minutes Seattle managed to hold off the Rockets power play thanks to good saves from Mumaugh and good efforts from Scott Eansor and Jerret Smith -- both of whom stood out.
The T-Birds were forced to kill off another minor penalty almost immediately after the five minute major and went into the home stretch still alive. Neither team could score however and the game went into overtime and eventually a shoot out. Mathew Barzal and Branden Troock scored on Seattle's first two attempts only to see to Justin Kirkland and Damon Severson strike back to tie before Baillie's winner.
Seattle opened the scoring in the first period for the third straight game as Ryan Gropp flung a wrist shot past Whistle off of a face off. He fought off a Kelowna player for the free puck after Eansor had won the draw. The T-Birds continued to push only to see Kelowna tie it up just before the first ended on a power play goal from Severson.
In the second period the Rockets went ahead on a Ryan Olsen power play goal before Seattle tied it back up with a power play goal of their own from Lipsbergs.
The game was as exciting as could be expected, had a bit of everything and as it wore on that playoff feel heated up, as neither team was willing to back down.
"That's how rivalries are really built up, when you get a team in the playoffs and have a good series," Konowalchuk said. "There's still some emotion that carries over. It was a good game."
There were a lot of positives for Seattle on Tuesday night. They put in a top effort against the best team in the WHL and hung with them. They fought back from some severe adversity, especially in the third period when they faced nearly seven straight minutes of penalty kill. A week ago, when they were scuffling they couldn't muster a response in those situations -- Tuesday they did.
"We played well tonight, it sucks that we lost," Hickman said. "We've got two big tests this weekend again and we're going to come hungry and ready for the four points this weekend."
The T-Birds have now picked up four points over their last three games and while two of those games were overtime losses, getting points in a tough Western Conference is key.
Seattle will next travel to Vancouver to take on suddenly tough Giants team before returning home Saturday to host the Portland Winterhawks at the ShoWare Center
The streak is over. Seattle went 40 straight power play chances against the Rockets without scoring. Tuesday night they converted on 2-of-4 to break though against the leagues top penalty killing team. "You're not going to get pretty plays against that (penalty kill team)," Konowalchuk said. "You've got to shoot the puck and you've got to go for rebounds. We did finally get some shots there and went to the net, got some rebounds."
The T-Birds power play has also struggled for the balance of the year but now have picked up three goals in their last two games. Perhaps they are finding their stride?
Gropp scored his second goal and played one of his strongest games to date. Konowalchuk felt that he's starting to get his confidence going and using his speed. He was flying around the ice and displayed a lightning quick release on his shot.]
Lipsbergs scored another goal Tuesday, for the second straight game. Always a streaky player the two game goal scoring streak comes on the heels of six games without a goal -- is he in line for another streak.
Seattle got good performances from two of its younger players Tuesday. Gropp and Eansor both played strong games which is a good sign moving forward.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide