By Andrew Eide
PORTLAND, Ore. – The Seattle Thunderbirds saw their eight-game win streak snapped Saturday night as they dropped a tough 5-3 decision to the Portland Winterhawks in front of 10,108 fans at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Playing short-handed, the T-Birds could not hold onto an early two-goal lead as Portland stormed back behind a hat trick from Paul Bittner.
Due to injuries, the T-Birds saw their forwards lines depleted and only dressed 10 instead of the usual 12. That meant that players would have to double shift and test their endurance. Despite the card dealt to them, the T-Birds (20-10-1-3) played hard all night, but in the end it wasn't enough.
"We could have played better," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "Our execution wasn't there, our power play wasn't sharp. I thought we came out in the first period strong and were trying to get it going again in the third but we just weren't sharp. We had chances but we didn't bury them and that's being sharp."
Seattle did come out strong in the first period and had Portland (23-7-2-2) on its heels.
The T-Birds opened the scoring on the power play when Adam Henry chipped in and got a pass from Alex Delnov that he converted into a goal. Near the end of the period, Scott Eansor, who played hard all night, stole an outlet pass in the Portland zone. With the turnover, the T-Birds had a two-on-one situation and Eansor fed the puck to Branden Troock, who sent it right back to Eansor, who connected for his first WHL goal.
A two-goal lead is anything but safe in hockey and Portland came on in the second to prove why.
Keoni Texeira busted through the Seattle defense and beat goalie Justin Myles for his first WHL goal 4 minutes into the period. That goal brought down waves of teddy bears from the sold-out crowd as it was Portland's teddy-bear night. It took nearly 20 minutes to clean the ice and to resume play.
The T-Birds held on to their lead but missed some golden chances to add to it. Seth Swenson hit the post on a short-handed chance and later Eansor was robbed of his second career goal when Brendan Burke made an impressive pad save.
Things started to unravel for the T-Birds in the third period.
The Winterhawks started the third with just over 20 seconds left on a power play that carried over from the second period. They wasted no time as Bittner picked up his first goal of the night 14 seconds into the period.
Tied at two, the game turned emotional after Portland's Branden Leipsic hit Keegan Kolesar on a play that can only be described as dirty. He lined up the 16-year-old rookie and charged into him, hitting him in the head. Kolesar lay motionless on the ice for several minutes before being helped off the ice. He did not return.
The play gave Seattle a 5-minute power play and a golden chance to score at will and take the lead.
A minute into the power play, Troock was called for slashing behind the play, Eansor got called for a tripping call and Shea Theodore was nabbed for holding. The three penalties were frustrating and sapped the T-Birds of energy.
"Obviously there was frustration with the dirty hit," Konowalchuk said. "Then the penalty on Troock, I don't even see it. It looked to me like they felt bad for calling a penalty on a totally clear dirty penalty. I didn't see it in the game and even on tape I don't see a penalty there."
To make matters worse, the penalties gave Portland a power play. Instead of cashing in, the T-Birds found themselves down a goal when Bittner potted his second of the night.
Despite being down the T-Birds managed to generate some chances, but as was the case all night, they could not convert them into goals.
"A couple just missed by an inch," Konowalchuk said. "Those are bad breaks but we had some other chances that we just need to find a way to bury them."
Keegan Iverson then scored to give Portland a two-goal lead and command of the game. Seattle got closer when Henry scored for the second time but the T-Birds couldn't get the equalizer and finally Bittner put them out of their misery with an empty-net tally with just over a minute left.
So ends one of the best streaks of T-Birds hockey in some time. After two blowout losses in Portland this year, Saturday night represented a much better effort out of Seattle. Playing with only 10 forwards – and then nine when Kolesar went out – is a tough mission for any team.
Even though the end result was disappointing, the T-Birds have to shake it off and finish off the first half of the season Tuesday night when they host the Tri City Americans.
"Guys played, but you'd like to have more, definitely play with more detail," Konowalchuk said. "I thought our detail slipped a little bit, we've just got to be better, be sharper. We've got to get back and get a quick breather and get back."
• The T-Birds had several chances on the power play in this game. They ended the night 1-for-9 with the man advantage and Konowalchuk felt that was big factor and that the team was not very sharp. With the injuries, they were using much different power-play units, which could have been a factor.
• There was no prognosis on Kolesar's injury or status immediately after the game.
• Portland's Brendan Leipsic will most certainly face a suspension for his hit on Kolesar in the third period. It will be interesting to see how long it is as this is not the first time he will have been disciplined for a hit.
• Seattle was without Mathew Barzal, Ethan Bear, Jaimen Yakubowski, Austin Douglas and Connor Honey – all due to injury. The T-Birds were also again without leading goal scorer Roberts Lipsbergs, who is competing with the Latvian World Junior team. Konowalchuk could not say if any of the injured players would be ready to return on Tuesday.
• The game was very chippy and emotions ran high. There was a lot of chatter on the ice near the end of the game, including some taunts by members of the Winterhawks. Needless to say, the rivalry between these two teams is alive and well.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.