By Andrew Eide
When it comes to playing the last place Kamloops Blazers, it appears the third time is the charm for the Thunderbirds.
Seattle had struggled against the struggling Blazers, but Saturday night the T-Birds picked up a gritty 3-2 win in Kamloops at the Interior Savings Center. Seattle got a late third-period goal from forward Justin Hickman, which turned out to be the game winner, and picked up 30 saves from goaltender Taran Kozun in the win. It was the T-Birds' sixth win in a row.
The win was the first of the year for Seattle (28-14-2-3) against the Blazers, and while this one wasn't easy, the T-Birds came out in the first period ready to play.
"First period, guys came out ready to do what it takes to win the game," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "Then Haufy, Wolfsy, and Mitch set the tone emotionally with hits. Everybody came ready to play."
Both teams played physically from the outset, and as Konowalchuk mentioned, defenseman Jared Hauf, defenseman Kevin Wolf and left wing Mitch Elliot were right in the center of it. All three were physical, and all three were challenged by Blazers players to fights, all in the first period.
The T-Birds scored twice in the opening frame to take what seemed like a commanding two-goal lead. Left wing Roberts Lipsbergs opened the scoring on the power play with his team leading 27th goal when he banged home a rebound from in close. Seattle would later extend their lead from a pair of unlikely sources.
Stepping on the ice out of the penalty box Elliot picked up the puck and was behind the Kamloops defense. He slid the puck to Wolf, who fired a shot past Kamloops goalie Bolton Pouliot for his first goal in the WHL. It was his third point of the season and only the fourth of his career.
From there the game bogged down into a grinding, defensive struggle. Seattle struggled to get shots through, which Konowalchuk says was partly because of what Kamloops was doing, and partly because of what his players were not.
"I think it was a good game, a good road game," he said. "Too cute with the puck in their end, give them credit. They did a good job protecting the house and we didn't get shots through but we were way too cute, and that's why we didn't score."
The Blazers did manage to score late in the second after the T-Birds could not get the puck out of their end while short-handed. That allowed Blazers center Joe Kornelsen to bang away at the puck during a scramble and get it past Kozun. It was the first goal that Kozun has allowed in his first three games with Seattle -- a span that lasted 161 minutes of play.
He played another solid game in front of his former fans, friends and teammates.
"He smiles, even at the end he's smiling," Konowalchuk said of his goalie. "I really like that he really seems to handle the game well, doesn't put pressure on himself and he's into the game. That's a good characteristic for a goalie to have for sure."
All throughout the third period, the game seemed like it was balancing on the edge. Clinging to a one-goal lead, Seattle had to withstand the Blazers push as they tried to get the score equal. Seattle was out-shot 19-9 in the third period and was able to extend their lead just after the 14-minute mark.
Hickman hacked at a rebound that bounced off the post, back off Pouliot and slid across the goal line. It was Hickman's 13th of the season and gave Seattle a late two-goal lead. The Blazers made it interesting with under a minute to go, when they were on the power play and had pulled Pouliot for a two man advantage. That made it hard to clear the puck and Kornelsen was able to pick up his second goal of the game.
The T-Birds shut the door after that and skated away with the win.
The two points pulled Seattle to within one point of Victoria for third place in the Western Conference and to within two points of Portland for second. With the standings this tight, games against a team like Kamloops are huge.
"We need to take care of business," Konowalchuk said. "We want to continue to chase down the team's ahead of us and to do that you can't afford to waste a game. You can't waste any games because the team's ahead of you aren't going to let too many slip away. I think the last three games we have taken care of business against teams we expect to."
Seattle will get a chance for two more points Tuesday as they host the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Saturday's game was the first WHL game in Kamloops for left wing Ryan Gropp, who grew up there. He had a strong game, picking up two assists.
While Kozun was facing his former team for the first time, so was defenseman Austin Douglas for the Blazers. He was sent to Kamloops as part of the deal to get Kozun. He didn't figure in the scoring but did get into a scrap with Kevin Wolf.
Defenseman Shea Theodore added another assist on Saturday and now has 11 helpers in his last seven games. He is third in the WHL in assists and continues to lead the league in scoring by a defenseman with 55 points.
Seattle's defense continues to be stingy as they have only given up six goals in their last five games.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide