The T-Birds are in Kelowna tonight to kick off the second round of the WHL playoffs (Thunderbirds photo)
By Andrew Eide
The Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets open their second round best-of-seven playoff series this evening at Prospera Place in Kelowna. It's a series that has a lot of people talking about last year's exciting and wildly entertaining seven game masterpiece.
Will it be that good again?
It certainly seems that it will. Last year the Rockets were 50 points ahead of the seventh seeded T-Birds and nobody really expected much from the series. Seattle managed to get the league's attention after taking the first three games, all in overtime.
This year, Seattle is better and Kelowna has managed to improve after an excellent year last year as well. While still the underdog, nobody is going to be surprised by Seattle making this a tough series again.
"I think we're not as big an underdog as last year that's for sure," Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk says of the match up. "Last year we weren't supposed to win a game. I think this year people are expecting it to be a good series. They're still the favorite, they're the first place team in the Western Hockey League and I think number one in the CHL most of the year. They're still going to be the favorite but I think this year people are expecting a good series."
These teams are pretty familiar with each other. The seven games last spring plus the four regular season tilts this year give each a good idea of what the other brings. Looking at the Kelowna roster, it's pretty similar to the strong team that Seattle faced last year.
"It's a similar team," Konowalchuk says. "I mean they're just a year better, you can say the same thing about us, we're a year better. They've added Merkely and we've added Barzal. I think we've probably had a few more changes throughout the year. They're a pretty similar team, real good depth, four lines, six D and two good goalies."
When asked if there was one player that Seattle had to worry about shutting down in this series, Konowalchuk laughed and said "a bunch". Looking at the Rockets its easy to see why that would be his answer. They score a lot of goals and were the second leading scoring team in the WHL during the regular season. They have six players who topped the twenty goal mark and can roll more than one line at you.
During the Everett series the Scott Eansor line was huge for Seattle, shutting down Everett's scoring line. Against Kelowna, Seattle's other three lines will have to step it up as well.
"We're going to make sure we're playing our game," Konowalchuk says. "Every line's got to make sure they're doing their job against the line they're matched up against. We want to make sure we're managing the puck well, playing the cycle game, probably nothing different than the last series."
One line for Seattle to watch is the Mathew Barzal line. Barzal, along with Justin Hickman and Ryan Gropp are not going to play the same way that Eansor, Sam McKechnie, and Jaimen Yakubowski play. Barzal's line will have to fight skill with skill. Something that has worked well for them at times this year, most recently in Game 5 against Everett's Josh Winquist.
"All their lines can score," Konowalchuk says about Kelowna. "So they've (Barzal's line) got to be able to score without being scored on and try to come out a plus line each night. Whether you get matched up against (Tyson) Baillie, (Rourke) Chartier or (Ryan) Olsen, tough match ups."
Kelowna presents a bigger problem than just their group of talented forwards. They have a tough and experienced defense group that all can move the puck and are really the engine to the Rockets offense. Guys like Madison Bowey and Damon Severson are just as good moving the puck as they are in their own end, defending.
"They still move the puck up really well," Konowalchuk says of the Rockets defense. "They lead the rush, they join the rush with their defense to move the puck up to their forwards. Very quick transition team and a good puck possession team."
Seattle's game plan should come as no surprise. As they did against Everett, they will try to get the puck deep and give the Rockets all they can handle from a physical stand point. They had some success against Kelowna in last year's series wearing down the Rockets. They will need to do that again.
"We want to try and make it a seven game series," Konowalchuk says. "We want to try and extend the series as long as we can. If we can be physical right from the start, maybe we can wear them down. That's kind of our mindset and worry about what we do for the first shift of the series might pay dividends on the last shift."
With the playoffs last year -- and the tight four game series during the regular season this year -- we should be in for some exciting hockey. The more times two teams are faced off in big games, the higher the emotions rise.
"I think there's some emotion between the two teams," Konowalchuk says. "I felt that in the regular season games. Playoffs start rivalries, and it seems that we have a bit of a rivalry between these teams. We only played them four times but they were pretty spirited affairs. I don't think it will be any less than that, we want to make sure we are really disciplined and keep our emotions in check."
Seattle will have to keep their emotions in check and avoid taking too many costly penalties. With the fire power that the Rockets can put on the ice for the power play the T-Birds will sink their chances if they spend a great deal of time short handed.
With Kelowna having home ice advantage, Seattle is going to have to win at least one game at Kelowna, something that doesn't happen very often. Seattle's has had some success up there however, winning twice in last year's series and once this year.
"We're going to have to win one there," Konowalchuk says. "It is tough, tough to get one up there but we're going to have to get one at some point if we're going to have a chance at the series."
After dispatching the Everett Silvertips the T-Birds now know they are four wins away from playing for the conference title. They have a huge obstacle in front of them however and they will need to come out playing some of the sharpest hockey they have all season. After winning the first series, they should be ready to go.
"They're looking forward to the games," Konowalchuk says of his guys. "This time of year practice is a little tougher. You don't want to do as much physical stuff, more technical. You want to save your energy and get ready to get going here."
It's game day, it's time to get going.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.