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Thunderbirds focused, eager entering playoffs

By Tim Pigulski

Not many players currently on the Thunderbirds' roster have had a taste of postseason success.

Last year, the Thunderbirds fell in dramatic fashion to Kelowna in a thrilling seven-game series. For most Thunderbirds, the matchup against the Rockets offered them their first opportunity at playoff hockey.

Even those individuals who weren't with Seattle last year will be relatively new to the playoffs, including the four players acquired from Lethbridge, none of whom have ever been on a team that made the postseason.

Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman enters this weekend's matchup versus Everett with a bigger chip on his shoulder than most. In Game 6 of the Kelowna series last season, Hickman was assessed a four-game suspension from the WHL for a checking-to-the-head penalty. As a result, he was forced to watch from the stands as his teammates failed to finish off Kelowna in Game 7.

Maxwell
Thunderbirds forward Russell Maxwell knows this will be his only opportunity in the WHL playoffs. (T-Birds photo)
"That was painful," said the 19-year-old Hickman, reflecting on his absence at the end of the series. "You don't get many chances in your life to participate in a Game 7. It was tough not being out there with the team, especially in a game like that. I still think about it. This year I want to get a little redemption. Hopefully we don't have to go as far as Game 7, but just being out there with the boys is going to be a good feeling."

As captain this year, the Kelowna native will have a different role on the team than he did last year. In six playoff games, he had just one assist and 11 penalty minutes. This season, playing on a line with some of the team's top scoring weapons, and being one himself, expectations will certainly be higher.

"I'll be leading by example and making sure the focus is in the right place for the guys," he said. "I take [the captaincy] humbly and try and lead by example both on and off the ice, whether it's in the gym or doing anything that Coach asks. We've got a great group of guys and everyone will be holding themselves and each other accountable."

Hickman will be getting some help in the leadership department from fellow 19-year-old Adam Henry, who was acquired from Lethbridge early in the season and was named an alternate captain by head coach Steve Konowalchuk shortly after his Seattle career began.

"My first few years in the league I didn't make it [to the playoffs] and that was devastating," Henry said of his time with Lethbridge. "Being asked to be a leader is a colossal responsibility. Number one, my defensive partner Ethan Bear is just 16, so I've been a mentor to him all year, showing him the way both on and off the ice. When things aren't going well, it's important to make sure the valleys aren't too low, and when we're doing well to make sure the mountains aren't too high. Us leaders have to make sure we're setting a good example for the younger guys."

Russell Maxwell, a 19-year-old center who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Hurricanes, knows that this will be his first and only opportunity in the WHL playoffs. Despite having one more year of eligibility, Maxwell has already made the decision to forego his final Major Junior season in order to go on a mission for his church.

"I try not to think about it too much," Maxwell said when asked about this being his last run in the WHL. "I suppose I'm definitely going to miss it but it adds some extra incentive to know that this is my last kick at the can. I'm definitely going to leave it all out there."

The undersized center finished last season as the Hurricanes' leading scorer and was poised to be in the race for the honor again this season. Since his arrival in Seattle, Maxwell has just 10 points in 29 games, but has played a vital part in Seattle's sustained success. During his brief stint, he's been asked to move around more than most to accommodate for injuries to others or to provide a spark to linemates who may have been slumping.

"It's pretty exciting, all of these games are exciting to play in," said the 5-foot-8 Maxwell. "The games all mean something and every shift means something. It's the kind of hockey you grow up watching on TV and always dream of playing in."

Both Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie were part of the same Lethbridge teams that failed to qualify for the postseason in each of the years that they were there. While Seattle's numbers during the past few seasons have been almost equally uninspiring, the improvement this season was already evident by the time the two arrived in October.

Also a couple of the Hurricanes' top scorers last year, McKechnie and Yakubowski came in and were asked to play a different role, flanking Scott Eansor on a checking line that was responsible each game for shutting down some of the WHL's most potent lines, including those led by Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic in Portland and Mitch Holmberg in Spokane.

"I'm excited, just like all of the other (Lethbridge) guys that came in," Yakubowski said on the general mood of his former and current teammates. "We're excited to get going and make a push and do as much in the playoffs as we can. The mood is different this year and we know what's at stake. All the guys in that room have what it takes to win. We're just starting to come together and we know how deep this team is and how far we can go."

McKechnie echoed Yakubowski's statements, expressing his excitement at making the playoffs for the first time.

"Right from the start of the year, it's everyone's goal to play in the playoffs. This year feels a lot different. You don't know when the season is going to end, you don't want it to end, so you're playing to stay alive and it's a great feeling."

Branden Troock, one of just two T-Birds to average a point per game this season, is another player who was unable to help his team in the postseason last year, although for different reasons than Hickman. Troock spent the majority of last season on the injured list and is sure to be hungry and healthy entering the postseason this year.

Goaltender Taran Kozun, despite being on Kamloops Blazers teams that made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, didn't face a single shot, as he was the primary backup each year. This season, firmly entrenched as the T-Birds' number one goalie, Kozun will be looking forward to leading his team to victory from between the pipes.

With so many different backgrounds on this year's Thunderbirds roster, the goal remains the same: focus on the game at hand and leave everything on the ice.

Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.

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