By Andrew Eide
KENT – After a late third-period rally came up just short, the Seattle Thunderbirds find themselves on the brink of elimination.
The Kelowna Rockets built a three-goal lead on the strength of their special teams and held on to beat the T-Birds 5-4 in front of 5,029 fans at the ShoWare Center Tuesday night. The win gives the Rockets a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Rockets' depth was also key again as their five goals came from five different players.
The T-Birds will now have to win on Wednesday night if they want to extend the series.
"It's do or die, right," Justin Hickman said. "Leave it all on the line tomorrow."
The story in Game 3 was much the same as it has been all series – Seattle couldn't cash in on its chances and Kelowna seemingly cashed in on every chance.
"The effort is there," Adam Henry said. "The chances are there, but obviously we didn't get them in the back of the net enough to win the game."
The T-Birds had 10 power-play chances on the night but could only cash in on one of them. By contrast, the Rockets scored on two of their three power-play chances.
"We had some chances, their goalie made some good saves," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said about the power play. "They've got a good penalty kill and then when we did have some chances, we didn't put them in."
Much like in Game 2, the T-Birds came out and were the better team early and were generating chances and drawing penalties. On two different occasions in the first 10 minutes, they found themselves up two men, and still could not score.
They came close on one occasion as Shea Theodore ripped a slap shot that hit the cross bar only to rebound harmlessly out of the net. It's been that kind of series for Seattle.
"We haven't had a lead against these guys yet," Konowalchuk said. "That was a four-on-three there. If we score there, we get the lead and it sure helps the game go in our direction a little bit."
Not much has gone in Seattle's direction during this series.
Late in the period the Rockets got their first power play and capitalized as Ryan Olsen redirected a Damon Severson shot up over Taran Kozun's shoulder. Seattle would surrender a tough goal just a minute later as Tyrell Goulbourne took an innocent looking shot that somehow got past Kozun's blocker.
"That's a tough goal to give up for our team there," Konowalchuk said of Goulbourne's tally. "Faceoff in their end and to come right down and score, we stumble at the red line ... it's a tough goal."
That goal came with less than a minute left in the first period and once again put the T-Birds in a hole – where they have been for the entire series.
"Definitely it's frustrating," Henry said. "I think the last two games of the series we came out with really good first periods and they've got a two-goal lead, it's definitely tough on morale."
The T-Birds were given four more power-play chances in the second period but the league's best penalty-kill unit kept them off the board again. Seattle cut the lead to one when Ethan Bear got a slap shot to trickle through Jordon Cooke, but the Rockets would answer right back with two more quick strikes by Tyson Baillie and Madison Bowey to build a 4-1 lead.
From there the T-Birds were in desperation mode and not just for the game, but for their playoff lives.
In the third period, Henry gave the T-Birds life when his slapper beat Cooke to once again get Seattle to within two. As they have all series, however, the Rockets struck right back with a Justin Kirkland goal.
That has been a constant in this series – Seattle cuts the lead only to have the Rockets take it right back.
"We get a little momentum going and then they make a big play," Konowalchuk said. "Its tough. They've done a good job with that."
The T-Birds made a late flurry as they finally started to play with desperation. Hickman scored on the power play and then with just over a minute left in the game, and the Seattle net empty, Alex Delnov scored his fourth playoff goal to get the T-Birds to within one.
"Obviously in the third we generated chances," Hickman said. "We've got to bring that to the game tomorrow."
Shortly after the Delnov goal, a mad scramble at the Rockets' end left the net empty with Cooke behind the net. The puck floated through the crease and in a fitting fashion, there was no Seattle player there to capitalize on that chance. The game would end a few seconds later.
So now the T-Birds face an enormous uphill battle. They will attempt to do what only two teams have ever done in the WHL Playoffs – come back from a 3-0 deficit to win. The last time it was done, of course, was just last year when Kelowna did it against the T-Birds.
"If you look back to last year, I wasn't here, but Seattle was in the driver's seat," Henry said. "We all know what happened, so its not over until it's over. It's a seven-game series for a reason and we're not going to give up."
The team's captain agreed.
"It's not impossible," Hickman added. "It's a seven-game series, you've got to win four and they've won three. Credit to them, they've taken care of the business so far. We're just focusing on one game at a time.
Wednesday's Game 4 is at the ShoWare Center and starts at 7 p.m..
• Once again the T-Birds struggled on defense and allowed too many easy goals for Kelowna. Most of their scores were open back-door tap-ins. Konowalchuk feels that the team still needs to improve its play away from the puck to keep the Rockets from getting free.
• Delnov has now scored a goal in four straight playoff games.
• Seattle is now a frustrating 1-for-18 on the power play in this series. This is after going 0-for-27 in last year's seven-game series with Kelowna. The Rockets have the league's top penalty kill, but you have to think if Seattle can get anything going with the man advantage this series might be different.
• Ethan Bear scored his first WHL Playoff goal, but he didn't see it. He took a slap shot and then turned to make a change. As the puck trickled in the net he heard the crowd and seemed surprised that he had scored.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.