By Tim Pigulski
For the first time since the 2008 playoffs, the Seattle Thunderbirds are moving on.
In finishing off the Everett Silvertips in convincing fashion by shutting them out 5-0 on Saturday night, the Thunderbirds proved they were the better team, winning their first-round series four games to one.
For players like Taran Kozun, Branden Troock and Roberts Lipsbergs, accolades and recognition were rightfully heaped on.
The series served as a coming-out party for some players, especially Scott Eansor, who had three goals in five games while admirably performing his primary role of frustrating the Silvertips' top scorers.
But for alternate captain Mitch Elliot, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his five-year WHL career held an extra special meaning.
"It's awesome," said the 20-year-old, still inflated with pride immediately following the series-clinching Game 5. "My first three years here we didn't make the playoffs and were going home in the middle of March. Now we have a chance to extend our season even more. It was a pretty incredible experience going through the first round last year, but getting to round two this year is just going to be that much more special."
In last season's postseason matchup against Kelowna, Elliot was held pointless in seven games, so when he registered a goal and an assist on Saturday night, his coaches and teammates were elated to finally see him rewarded.
"It's good to see," said head coach Steve Konowalchuk. "He chips away, grinds away, battles. He does a lot of the things you don't get rewarded for and it's good to see him get a goal."
Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman echoed his coach's sentiments, happy to see his teammate of four years finally receive the recognition that he deserves.
"Mitch has battled hard for five years. Tonight he battled hard and got a goal and an assist and I know he's happy about that and we're all happy for him," Hickman said. "It's an exciting time in the room for everybody."
Elliot wasn't shy in expressing his own happiness about finally getting his name on the score sheet.
"(The goal) felt awesome. I work hard and you always hope for points and goals," said the Prince George native. "But with my role I don't necessarily get as many points and goals as other people, so it feels great to get rewarded like that."
When the Thunderbirds entered the playoffs, they were scuffling with a 4-6-0-0 record in their final 10 regular-season contests. Their opponent, on the other hand, was the hottest team in the entire league, winning nine of its last 10. The contrasting finish to the season left many with the belief that Seattle was destined for another early postseason exit.
Instead, the T-Birds won four of five games in close but convincing fashion. The fact that they beat one of their biggest rivals was just the cherry on top of an exciting opening-round series.
"We play those guys 10 times a year and they're always tight games," Elliot said of the satisfaction in eliminating a rival. "We always have to grind it out. They're a good team and they battled hard in the series. They didn't give us any easy games and it's great that we were able to beat them the way that we did."
Now the T-Birds move on to face the same Kelowna team that sent them home in record-breaking fashion last spring. The Rockets are an even better team than they were last year, establishing themselves as a powerhouse by taking the Western Conference's top seed.
"Kelowna was a good team last year and they're an even better team this year," Elliot said. "But we've gotten better as well. It's going to be a hell of a series and both teams are going to come out firing. Both teams did well in the first round. It will be a tough series and hopefully we can keep our success going."
One of the things that has stood out most about Kelowna this season is its outstanding depth. The Rockets had 11 players with at least 30 points, led by 20-year-old wing Myles Bell, who had 77 points in 69 games.
Against Everett, the Thunderbirds knew that they only needed to worry about one major scoring line. That won't be the case against Kelowna, which means players like Elliot are going to be vital if Seattle is to move on.
"They're a high-powered offensive team, so we've got to worry about our defensive game first," said the 6-foot-6 wing on his team's game plan heading into round two. "We have to be constantly focused and ready to go every night.
"I'm going to have to get in hard on the forecheck. Try and be physical, try and be a presence down low, and try and create space for myself and everyone else."
When Seattle fell in a big way in Game 4 to the Silvertips, it caused some to wonder if the Thunderbirds were poised for another historic collapse. Instead, the game served as a wake-up call, as the T-Birds put together what may have been their best 60-minute performance in the past month.
It's exactly that mindset and mentality that the T-Birds brought into Game 5 against Everett – one of urgency and desperation – that they will need to bring into the Kelowna series this year.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.