The Thunderbirds continued to play the first place Kelowna Rockets tough, beating them 4-1 at the ShoWare Center on Sunday evening (T-Birds photo)
By Tim Pigulski
KENT -- The Seattle Thunderbirds won their ninth game out of their last ten, defeating the first-place Kelowna Rockets by a final score of 4-1.
It was the two teams' third meeting of the season. They split the first two matchups, each grabbing a shootout win.
Since their historic seven-game playoff series last year, the two teams have begun to develop a rivalry which always provides for an entertaining contest.
"There's still energy built up from the playoffs last year," said Konowalchuk when asked why the Thunderbirds seem to play the Rockets so well. "I think our team has more confidence against them than most other teams since we played them in the playoffs and became a bit more familiar with them. They're a team built with depth through their lines and a good back end, and we feel we have good depth that creates a tough matchup."
The first period saw a good amount of back-and-forth action, as each team was able to create a couple of scoring chances. Unlike last night when the T-Birds converted on four of their five power play opportunities, they were held off the score sheet on their first three man advantages by the league's best penalty killing team.
It wasn't until late in the first, after the Rockets' Colton Heffley had been sent to the penalty box for tripping, that the scoreless tie was broken.
After Ryan Gropp had difficulty controlling the puck in the neutral zone, Kelowna forward Tyrell Goulbourne was able to grab the loose puck and skate in on T-Birds goalie Taran Kozun uninhibited before firing a low shot that gave the Rockets a 1-0 lead.
The second frame took a very different tone than the first as the T-Birds outscored their counterparts 2-0 during the period and outshot the Rockets 11-6. They also converted on their lone full power play opportunity during the period.
At 8:42 of the second, with Kelowna's Carter Rigby in the penalty box for goaltender interference, Justin Hickman gained control of the puck at the left point. He made a quick move to his forehand to get around a Rockets player, then fired a shot from top of the left circle. The shot was initially deflected by a Rockets player before bouncing towards the Kelowna net. Roberts Lipsbergs, despite being blanketed by a Rockets defender, managed to get a stick on the puck and put it to Cooke's left, after the Kelowna netminder had been sliding to his right in reaction to Hickman's initial attempt.
Adam Henry got the second assist on Lipsbergs' tying goal, his 30th of the season.
A few short minutes later it looked like momentum may shift back in the Rockets' favor after Seattle forward Jaimen Yakubowski took two penalties - one for checking to the head and one for unsportsmanlike conduct after pushing Goulbourne to the ice following the whistle - which resulted in a four-minute advantage for the Rockets. However, the T-Birds penalty kill held fast and kept Kelowna off the scoreboard, swinging the momentum back in their favor.
Just 27 seconds after the long penalty kill ended, Ryan Gropp forced a turnover in the offensive zone on an impressive forecheck that caused Kelowna's 19-year-old defenseman Damon Severson to lose control of the puck. Gropp, 17, took control and made a couple of moves to protect the puck before floating a saucer pass right onto the tape of a streaking Jerret Smith at the top of the right circle. Smith fired a slap shot that Cooke kicked out with his right pad right to Mitch Elliot, who went high blocker-side for his third goal of the season.
The assist gave Gropp three points in his last two games after he had a goal and a helper last night versus Everett.
"[The penalty kill] was huge," said Konowalchuk about the effort displayed by his team in killing off the four-minute disadvantage. "It was huge last game and it was big this game too."
The T-Birds held the Rockets scoreless on four power plays tonight after allowing one goal in four chances last night against Everett.
"It was a big play," said Gropp of the effort that gave his team the lead. "Barzal got in on the forecheck and hammered Bowey pretty good, then I stripped the puck from Severson and found Smith coming in. It was a big play."
The third period saw the two teams tie in shots with 14 apiece, but only the T-Birds were able to convert as Shea Theodore notched his 16th goal of the season to make it 3-1 before Yakubowski added an empty-netter with just six seconds remaining.
Theodore's goal, a hard slap shot that rang off the crossbar and into the net, came during a 5-on-3 advantage and gave him his fourth point in his past two games, further extending his point lead among WHL defensemen. The 18-year-old defenseman has 61 points in 50 games played.
Kozun has now won his first six starts with the T-Birds, eclipsing the win total he had accumulated in Kamloops. During his time with Seattle, the 19-year-old has a 1.29 goals-against average and a .955 save percentage.
"It's great being here and I love playing with these guys," said Kozun of his success. "We've been waiting for this one all week and I'm happy for all the guys that we were able to get two points."
This type of adversity is something that Kelowna clearly isn't used to, as they accumulated 32 penalty minutes, capped off by a 10-minute misconduct given to Ryan Olsen with 6:17 remaining in the game.
"We don't really like them over there and they don't like us," said Gropp of the developing rivalry between the two teams. "We try to get in their heads a bit and it worked out for us in the end."
The Rockets also took some liberties with Kozun, taking one goaltender interference penalty and getting away with a couple more calls that could have been made.
"I've been getting hit [by the other team] the past few games a little bit but maybe that's just them trying to get me off my game," said Kozun when asked if there's bad blood between the two teams. "I'll take the hits and we'll take the power plays."
The T-Birds head up to Everett Friday night to face the Silvertips and then down south to Portland on Saturday. Their next home game is Tuesday, February 4 when they will host the Silvertips at 7:05 p.m.
Lipsbergs' 30th goal of the season matches his total from last year in 17 fewer games. No other T-Bird scored more than 25 goals last season, and the last player to score 30 before Lipsbergs was Burke Gallimore during the 2010-11 season when he had 34.
T-Birds 16-year-old rookie defenseman Ethan Bear is now on a five-game point streak. During the streak he has one goal and four assists.
The formidable checking line of Scott Eansor, Jaimen Yakubowski, and Sam McKechnie continues to keep opposing scorers quiet. Tonight they were matched up at even strength against Kelowna's line of Myles Bell, Tyson Baillie, and Tyrell Goulbourne. Only Goulbourne's name made the scoresheet, and it came on a shorthanded goal when none of those three were on the ice.
The T-Birds have shifted their power play, having Gropp and Barzal rotate on the point along with Theodore. Depending on what side of the ice the puck is on, one of the two young forwards will play the point on the opposite side. It seems to be working, as the team is 6-for-13 on the power play in their last two games. "We work it off both sides now," said Konowalchuk. "You want to get your talented players on the ice, and when Gropp is back there he makes nice plays."
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