By Tim Pigulski
"Just play simple hockey."
That's been the game plan for Seattle's Scott Eansor, who despite being matched up against rival Everett's most formidable offensive line has been able to take his first playoff experience in stride.
Through three playoff games, Josh Winquist – Everett's leading scorer during the regular season – has just two assists in three games while being hounded by Eansor and his linemates. Jujhar Khaira and Ivan Nikolishin, who spent the majority of their regular season playing on a line with Winquist, have just zero and one point, an assist, respectively.
Eansor has made a living this season playing the checking role against the opposition's top line, but Tuesday night he was also rewarded with two goals – just one fewer than he totaled in 59 regular-season games – including the one that tied the game before the Thunderbirds eventually went on to win in overtime, giving them a 3-0 stranglehold on the series.
The young center isn't the only Thunderbirds rookie making an impact so far this postseason.
16-year-old phenom Mathew Barzal actually managed to take home the first star in Tuesday night's game as he appeared to register the game-winning overtime goal. After league review, the goal was credited to Justin Hickman, with Barzal getting the primary assist.
In an impressive display of skill and patience, Barzal gained control of the puck along the boards to the left of Silvertips goalie Austin Lotz. He skated around the net, and rather than force a pass to a well-covered Hickman in front, continued around to Lotz's right and into the slot. After making a move to get past an oncoming Everett defender, he let go of the wrist shot that was deflected by Hickman before finding its way into the back of the net.
The game-winning goal clinched the victory for Seattle and prevented Everett from picking up a win that would have made the series a much more manageable 2-1 deficit for the 'Tips heading back to their familiar home at Comcast Arena on Friday.
When the teams met last Sunday in Everett, Barzal set up Branden Troock with a beauty of a backhanded cross-ice saucer pass that comfortably found its way on to the tape of Troock's stick before eventually being deposited into the back of the net.
Barzal and Troock have become head coach Steve Konowalchuk's top forward line when the game goes to 4 on 4. In the playoffs – where nearly every stoppage involves some sort of post-whistle dustup and therefore a number of penalties for both teams – having two players who excel in open ice the way that Barzal and Troock do is an invaluable asset and one that Everett has a difficult time matching.
Now, with just one more victory, the Thunderbirds have the chance to advance to the second round of the postseason for the first time since the 2007-2008 season.
Fellow rookies Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, and Ryan Gropp have also been instrumental to the T-Birds' postseason success.
Kolesar, who suited up for two games in last year's playoff series versus Kelowna, has continued the strong play he demonstrated to finish the regular season. Now, with the added confidence in both himself and from Konowalchuk, the big forward from Winnipeg has established himself as a regular on the second penalty-kill unit in addition to his usual fourth-line duties.
Bear has been a revelation on the blue line all season as a 16-year-old paired with veteran Adam Henry and has maintained his high level of play in the playoffs' opening series. He has one assist in the low-scoring best-of-seven series and has been a mainstay on the T-Birds' second power-play unit. Considering the difficult adjustment period that most rookie defensemen face, Bear's play has exceeded the expectations placed on him at the beginning of the year.
Gropp, a 17-year-old with a late-1996 birthday, has two important points in the series' three games. In Game 1, he scored what eventually ended up being the game-winning goal. Tuesday night he assisted on the overtime game winner, chipping the puck into the offensive zone before allowing Barzal to work his magic. Gropp's speed has been helpful in neutralizing Everett's trap, which was a key coming into the first-round series.
Kolesar was the only one of the rookies with any playoff experience after his brief appearance in last year's first-round matchup with Kelowna. However, Barzal attended Game 3 of that same series as a spectator, which, oddly enough, was a Thunderbirds overtime victory on a Tuesday night that gave them a 3-0 lead in the series.
As with Game 3 last season, the energy at the ShoWare Center was palpable in their Tuesday night overtime victory. After the historic collapse last year, the Thunderbirds' five rookies are hoping to be a part of something greater in their inaugural campaign.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.