By Andrew Eide
EVERETT -- The Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips continued their tight checking, hard hitting season series Friday night as Seattle skated away with a gritty 2-1 win at the Comcast Center.
Seattle (32-15-2-3) got goals from Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp while relying on another strong performance by goalie Taran Kozun, who made 24 tough saves. The win gives the T-Birds 10 wins in their last 11 games as they continue to push for home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
"Since I've been coaching here I think we've been neck and neck with that team, as far as games, hard checking games," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "I thought the last game in our building was as good a junior game as I've seen as far as both teams executing. I thought today, here again, our guys were ready to play and it was a fun game to be part of."
For Kozun, it was another strong start for the former Kamloops Blazers goalie who was acquired by Seattle at the trade deadline. With the T-Birds he is now 7-0 with a minuscule 1.25 goals against average and .956 save percentage. He is playing with confidence as is the team in front of him.
"It's brings confidence," Konowalchuk said about his goalie's play. "But also knowing that there is going to be some mistakes and he's got your back. So you can loosen up a little bit, not grip the stick so tight and play hockey."
Perhaps the game's biggest moment started on the one mistake that Kozun may have made. With the score tied late in the first period Kozun tried to clear the puck. His clearing attempt rattled around the glass, hit a stanchion and rebounded into the slot, right to the stick of Everett's Ivan Nikolishin. With Kozun out of position, Nikolishin had the entire net to shoot at.
Kozun desperately dove back in front of his net and somehow was able to get in front of the would be goal to preserve the tie game.
"I tried rimming it off the glass, trying to get the puck out," the goalie said. "There weren't too many seconds left on the clock and it hit a stanchion and went right to the guy. I was trying to do something to get back and I ended up sliding into it and making a save on it. I was honestly terrified I was going to give up a goal there."
He didn't give up a goal and the play kept the T-Birds from falling behind and giving the Silvertips some momentum.
In the second period the T-Birds got the only goal as Ryan Gropp scored on a power play with a pretty backhanded roof shot over Silvertips' goalie Daniel Cotton. It was Gropp's 13th goal of the year as he has been playing strong of late. The goal turned out to be the game winner as Kozun and the T-Birds defense clamped down on Everett the remainder of the game.
Seattle held Everett (25-19-7-1) to only four shots in the second period and only 12 in the final 40 minutes. Tight defense is something the T-Birds have been excelling at in their last eight games -- only allowing an average of 1.5 goals per game.
"We're just trying to make teams work for it," Konowalchuk said. "It's a 200-foot game and make them work for everything they have. If they out work us they'll get a chance but we just try to protect the middle. If we have a breakdown, try to get guys in the shot lanes."
The offensive stars of Friday's game were Gropp and Barzal. They played with Justin Hickman, as they have been the past three or four games, and the three were Seattle's best line all night. The Silvertips threw their top line out against the three most of the night but Barzal and company were able to keep the puck away from Everett and spent nearly every shift in the offensive zone.
Barzal played especially well and got the game's opening goal after Evan Wardley made a nice play to keep the puck in the zone. Barzal found himself with the puck on the goal line, at the side of the Silvertips net. He paused for a second and fired the puck at Cotton, who stood in disbelief as the puck hit him and found its way into the net.
It was Barzal's eighth goal of the year and it got Seattle going.
"I needed one of those," Barzal said of the play. "I kind of threw it on net and it went in so maybe I'll start shooting a little more. I heard 'Hicks calling for it, and Groppy, there were three guys calling for it so I kind of panicked a little and it went in."
That line been productive lately and with the young age of Gropp and Barzal, it bodes well for Seattle's future.
"That's a line that's got quite a bit of potential," Konowalchuk said. "I thought Barzal played a really strong hockey game today. He was on the puck,strong on the puck, competed hard. If he brings that game the rest of the way for us, he's going to have quite the finish."
Despite the goal, the Silvertips managed to even the score later in the first. On the power play they worked the puck around the outside until it got to leading scorer Josh Winquist at the point. He fired a shot through a screen that Kozun could not handle. It was Winquist's 32nd goal of the year.
The win brought Seattle even with the Victoria Royals for third place in the Western Conference and allowed them to keep pace with the U.S. Division leading Portland Winterhawks. With 20 games left in the season, the T-Birds know they still have some work to do.
"I know the guys are excited and we're putting ourselves in position," Konowalchuk said. "I mean we definitely want to battle for that home ice in the first round and Portland is not out of our sights. Guys are excited, we have a goal and we believe we can do it."
Seattle now will travel South to play that Portland team in what has become a big game. The Winterhawks are six points ahead of the T-Birds and are just as hot -- both clubs having won 10-out-of-11 coming in.
"We have to put a circle on that game, we can only enjoy this for a little bit," Konowalchuk said of Saturday's game. "They're six up on us so you don't want to get too far behind them so its a big, big game to try and reel them in a bit."
Face off Saturday in Portland is at 7 P.M.
Friday was a tough loss for the Silvertips. They have now lost six games in a row and have sunk to seventh place in the conference with only three points separating them with Tri City for the last playoff spot in the West.
Seattle's penalty kill was strong once again on Friday. They gave up the one goal but killed off four others late in the game while clinging to a one-goal lead. They have climbed to 10th in the WHL overall on the kill which will be key moving forward.
Barzal now has five goals in his last 13 games after only scoring three in his previous 26 games. He has 35 points on the year but seems to be looking to shoot the puck more -- look for his goal totals to continue to climb.
Ethan Bear was kept off the score sheet Friday which ends his five-game point streak.
Saturday's game in Portland will be the first game between the two rivals since Winterhawks forward Brendan Leipsic hit Keegan Kolesar, knocking him out of the game. Leipsic was suspended seven games for the play. While there may be a desire for some pay back, the game is too important for Seattle to worry about exacting a pound of flesh. Winning is the best revenge.
Kozun's seven wins have surpassed the five he picked up while playing for a struggling Kamloops squad. The goalie is all smiles these days and had the night's best quote. When asked how much fun he was having he simply replied, "It's a lot more fun, winning is a blast, you can't complain about that."
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide