Monday, April 15, 2013 @ 9:46am
By Tim Pigulski
Most Valuable Player: Connor Honey
Honey finished second on the team in total scoring with 54 points in 57 games, which gave him the highest per-game average on the team with 0.95 points per game. Honey's importance became even more evident in the playoffs when he was given a questionable three-game suspension for checking from behind. Without Honey at the point, the power play was completely dead, and it ultimately was the reason the Thunderbirds lost the series.
Off the ice, Honey is a very mature player, and he assumed a leadership role in the locker room as the season progressed. It was tough to pick against do-it-all center Luke Lockhart for this award, who certainly deserves recognition for his contributions, but Honey was a bigger offensive contributor, and his line carried the offense at times during the season.
As a 19-year-old next season, Honey should find himself in the running to don the coveted "C" on his jersey now that Lockhart will be moving on.
Top Newcomer: Roberts Lipsbergs
Lipsbergs didn't score a goal in his first 10 games for the Thunderbirds, but he ended up leading the team in scoring after big months of November and December. The young Latvian is a tenacious competitor and, despite his smaller stature, doesn't seem to have any problems going into the corners with much bigger defenders.
As a 19-year-old next season, Lipsbergs should be a player who averages a point per game and is a force on the Thunderbirds' top line. This offseason, he will likely find himself drafted by an NHL club in one of the middle rounds after being passed over last year, the first year he was eligible to be picked.
Alex Delnov, Riley Sheen and Brandon Glover all deserve credit as well, as the team wouldn't have gotten as far as it did without them, but Lipsbergs' production earned him this award.
Top Rookie: Roberts Lipsbergs
The only competition Lipsbergs really had for this award was Delnov, who looked like the obvious choice through the season's first couple of months. However, Lipsbergs caught fire and Delnov slowed down to the point that he was even benched for a period by Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk when the team was struggling.
After an early adjustment period, Lipsbergs established himself not only as the top rookie on his own team, but also as one of the best in the entire league. He finished second only to Portland's Oliver Bjorkstrand in rookie scoring despite being surrounded by a less productive supporting cast.
Player Who Will Be Most Missed: Brandon Glover
It was also tough to choose against Lockhart here, as his impact on the team over the past four years is indescribable. However, with the departure of Glover, the team is left without a reliable option in net. Danny Mumaugh looked decent in limited action, but counting on him as a 17-year-old next season to carry the workload of a starting goaltender could be a recipe for disaster.
Glover was great in the playoffs, and he is the main reason the Thunderbirds were able to keep pace with Kelowna through seven games. Finding a goaltender to replace him this offseason seems as though it would be one of General Manager Russ Farwell's top priorities.
Top Forward: Connor Honey
Honey was the team's best offensive player while also being no slouch in the defensive zone, either. He and the team's top defenseman, Shea Theodore, formed a formidable blue-line tandem on the power play.
If Honey can improve this offseason in the same way he did last year, he has the chance to become a very good player in the WHL. Honey, who was also passed over in his first draft-eligible season, should draw interest from the some NHL teams in the 2013 draft.
Top Defenseman: Shea Theodore
Theodore was by far the team's best offensive defenseman, and he started to show vast improvement in his own end toward the end of the season. With 51 points in 70 games, Theodore was a more efficient scorer than most of the team's forwards. Although he didn't score as much during the playoffs, he no longer looked like a liability in his own end which was sometimes the case earlier in the season.
Like Delnov, a benching during the regular season seemed to serve as a wake-up call for the young defenseman. His 19 goals were 15 more than he scored last season, and he looks like he could be a similar player to former-Thunderbird Thomas Hickey.
He is an incredibly smooth skater who is able to take over games at times, gaining control of the puck in his own end and taking it all the way up the ice to score. He displays outstanding vision and hands, and he should be one of, if not the best offensive defenseman in the league next season.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski
Thursday, April 11, 2013 @ 9:11pm
By Andrew Eide
It's been a week since the Seattle Thunderbirds were knocked out of the WHL playoffs in that exciting Game 7 in Kelowna. That game ended a season that at times seemed bleak, and at other times was spectacular.
Seattle had a young team, which very well may explain some of the up-and-down play they experienced. In the end they managed to right the ship, end their playoff drought and play an opening round series for the ages. While Kelowna may have won, the T-Birds took their pound of flesh as the Rockets went on to get swept in the second round by Kamloops.
For second-year head coach Steve Konowalchuk, he managed to overcome the low points of the season and get his guys fired up to play down the stretch. The coach took some time to reflect back on the season that we just saw.
"If you think about the whole year, it was definitely a roller-coaster, that's for sure," he said. "I really liked our first half -- sure looked like there were some good signs of taking the next step. Then we hit a wall there at Christmas, and some games we played good and couldn't win and some games we played bad and didn't win. We kind of got back to a little of a loser's mentality where you're used to losing and started accepting (it) a little bit."
Despite the second half rough patches, Konowalchuk felt that overall things turned out pretty well.
"We had to get out of that culture and change it back to the culture we had the first part of the year" he said. "Guys picked it up the last month and a half of the season, played good hockey and carried it on to the playoffs there. It was an exciting playoffs. It was disappointing not to win that series, but it was a real good hockey team we faced. We gave them everything they could handle."
At the beginning of the season, Konowalchuk said that making the playoffs was of course a goal, but he wanted more. He wanted to have a winning record and to compete with the top dogs in the WHL. The team fell short of getting the winning record but did manage some big wins along the way. Did Konowalchuk feel the season was a success?
"I do now," the coach said. "The way the playoffs went, when we really competed with a team that's one of the top teams in the league. We competed at a pretty high level. (But not finishing with a) winning record was disappointing to me and it was frustrating a lot of the year because I felt that we were a better team than what our record showed."
Those that followed the team agreed that they seemed to have more talent than their play on the ice reflected, something that their performance against Kelowna may have proven to be true. Konowalchuk talked about why he felt they were better than the record.
"There were a lot of losses where we needed a timely goal and didn't connect," he said. "Or we had one defensive breakdown and would lose by one goal. It seemed like there was one small reason in a lot of hockey games that put us on the losing end. It wasn't the case like two years ago where we weren't in a whole lot of hockey games. This year we felt like no matter who we played we had a chance to win. That was a big change, and I think that showed in the playoffs."
Seattle was optimistic coming out of training camp. They felt they had four solid lines up front that could help turn the corner. It didn't take long for that to fall apart after a couple of tough injuries, though. The first was the loss of Tyler Alos, a gritty player who could play up and down the ice and was off to a great start. Alos had to retire from hockey due to the risk of further concussions.
"Huge loss," Konowalchuk said about losing the Spokane native. "Alos was a guy that could play in any situation. He was starting to really take off offensively. He was going to play a lot of minutes. He's a hard player to play against but he was really starting to show he could contribute in other areas. It would have been fun to see where he ended up."
Seattle also played the majority of the season without one of their top offensive players in Branden Troock, who battled a shoulder injury that limited him to playing just 19 games.
"Troock is a talent," the coach said. "You can see what he can do by himself, the frustrating thing is that we haven't been able to get him in the lineup enough to build chemistry. Any line he's on he's a threat to score at any time. Team's have to respect that. Physically he is the most talented player on the team."
Those two losses caused Seattle to scramble their lines early and often. Konowalchuk said that "health is a big part of it, especially key guys, they're harder to replace."
Seattle hit the skids just before the holiday break, when their long losing streak began. One of the key games in the losing streak was a Dec. 14 loss to the Spokane Chiefs, in which Seattle built a 6-2 third period lead only to have Spokane roar back to win 7-6 in a shootout. As tough as that loss was, Konowalchuk pointed to a pair of games a week later as being a bigger turning point.
"Spokane was a big loss," Konowalchuk said. "I think the bigger game for me was the losses when we got back after Christmas. We played Everett two games -- we played them well but we lost the games. We outplayed them,(Austin) Lotz played really well, and we lost both of those games. That to me is when our mentality started to fall back to last year. The losing streak started to wear on us."
Ah the losing streak.
15 long games that were tough on the players, coaches and fans. There were many nights when it seemed like they were going to snap it, only to lose at the end. How tough was that stretch on the players?
"It was tough on the guys, some guys more than others," Konowalchuk says.
Despite it being tough, the coach felt that in the end it may have brought the team together.
"I think the losing streak, coming out of it and having success at the end made us a better team," he said. "Because during that losing streak you find out a lot about character and the price to pay to win consistently. Our team really experienced two extremes this season. The losing was miserable and no fun, and then the high of the playoffs, big games and the high of that. They started to play because they wanted to win. They started to play for each other."
That doesn't mean that it was hard on the head coach though.
"It was very frustrating because I knew we were a better team than that," Konowalchuk said. "For me I just had to make sure that I stuck with what I believed in. During those streaks some guys go in different directions. I had to make sure I stuck with it, hold guys accountable, give guys the ice time who were still committed to doing it and guys who weren't as committed I started taking their ice time away."
Just as the games against Everett after the holiday break set the tone for the losing streak, it may have been another game with the Silvertips that helped propel the team. Seattle lost a frustrating late season game to their I-5 rivals on March 9th by one goal. It was game that saw Seattle take out its frustrations late by taking some penalties -- including a now-infamous goalie fight between Brandon Glover and Austin Lotz.
"That Everett game we showed some emotion from everybody," Konowalchuk said. "It wasn't something you wanted to happen. You don't want guys to take penalties. It's not a good thing at the time, but it showed the emotion we were playing with and that carried forward to Tri-City, where we played the best game of the regular season, and that carried forward into the playoffs."
Seattle entered the season with a pretty green defensive group. They took their lumps early but by the end they were playing well and a huge reason the team had success against Kelowna.
"I'm very happy," Konowalchuk said about the defenses progression. "You look at their plus/minus during three quarters of the season, the guys were minus players and then all of a sudden they became close to equal. Haufy (Jared Hauf) was plus the last twenty games, Theo (Shae Theodore) played better the second half on defense. If you look at the playoffs during five-on-five against a very good offensive team, I think our guys were all plus players. That shows signs of them growing up."
Now that the dust has settled on the season it's time to look forward to next year. Seattle returns several of its top players, and Konowalchuk says that he is excited about what is coming back. With that comes higher expectations, as Seattle should score and will have no more reason to worry about their back-end with its defensemen are now in their prime.
It's been a while since Seattle has had this much talent returning, and in many ways is a reward for the lumps they took this year learning how to improve -- something they did as the year drug on. That growth was evident the most as they nearly pulled off the biggest upset in league history.
Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide
Wednesday, April 3, 2013 @ 9:48pm
There is nothing in sports like a Game 7. It brings out the best in every guy on the roster and has a way of creating heroes. The Seattle Thunderbirds lost a deciding Game 7 at Prospera Place in a 3-2 overtime thriller that was not without many heroes. Kelowna got the win as Tyson Baillie completed a hat trick with his game-winning goal 5:10 into overtime.
As Baillie and his teammates celebrated Seattle goalie Brandon Glover lay face down on the ice in disbelief, as his team's season and his junior career came to a sudden end. Glover was great again for Seattle and the captain, Luke Lockhart, gave the team hope as he tied it up at two with seven seconds left in regulation.
The T-Birds fought hard all series long – a series that nobody gave them much a chance to win one game, let alone three.
"Oh man, it was a battle," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said afterward. "Both teams left every bit of energy they had on the ice. We had our chances there in overtime again and we just didn't (score), that's the difference."
Seattle and Kelowna turned in one of the best hockey games, and series, you're going to see at any level and in many ways it's a shame one team had to lose. With the win the Rockets advance after becoming only the second team in WHL history to fight back from a three-games-to-none hole.
The T-Birds made sure that it didn't come easy for them. The Thunderbirds hung in all night, despite getting out shot, despite having two of their top six forwards out with questionable suspensions and despite being giant underdogs.
"I'm proud of the guys," Konowalchuk said. "All series we just asked every guy to leave it on the ice for the whole series, play for each other and for the most part everybody did that. I'm proud of the guys."
Seattle got on the board first on Wednesday, the first time all series they've done so, when Evan Wardley fired a rocket shot that beat Jordan Cooke cleanly to give the T-Birds the lead. That lead did not last long as the Rockets came right back 13 seconds later when Baillie got his first of the night on a fluky shot from a bad angle that some how squeaked in the net.
From there the two teams battled back and forth. Each had chances, each played physically and each got some fantastic saves by their guys in net. As the game move to under eight minutes to play it seemed like overtime was looming again.
The Rockets did not want to leave that to chance, though, and Baillie struck again with just under seven to go when he banged home the go-ahead tally after a mad scramble in front of Glover.
As the clock was ticking down it seemed like the T-Birds had come to the end of their run. With two full minutes left Konowalchuk pulled Glover for the extra attacker but Seattle was unable to convert. That is until seven ticks on the clock remained and Seth Swenson, from his belly, somehow managed to get the puck to Lockhart in the slot. The captain, with a quick backhand to forehand move, flicked a wrist shot the found the top corner of the Rockets goal.
Seattle had managed to fight back again and the game headed to overtime for the fifth time in the series. Lockhart has been outstanding the last two months of the season and in this series, and it came as no surprise that he did not give up in this one – a game that turned out to be his last in a Seattle sweater.
"He was the MVP the last month and a half," Konowalchuk said about Lockhart. "He's been clutch for us, he was for us again tonight and he almost scored in overtime again, too. I think, personally, he can leave on a good note for his junior career from and individual note, he was playing at the top of his game."
Lockhart came close to winning it overtime as he took the puck off the boards and fired a tricky shot across his body that Cooke just managed to stop. It was probably Seattle's best chance to win it before the Rockets scored at the other end.
It was also the last game for Glover. He stopped 32 shots Wednesday and the team would not have been in the position they were without his stellar play.
"He had a heck of a series for us," Konowalchuk said of Glover. "The last two games were probably his best, it's just too bad we couldn't win it for him in overtime."
Glover had no chance on the game-winning goal as Madison Bowey found Baillie wide open on the door step for an easy tap in goal.
"It happened quick," Konowalchuk said of the game-winner. "It looked like somehow the puck came up into the slot, they threw it back door for a tap in."
In the end the Thunderbirds have no reason to hang their heads on this one. They played a great series that was wildly entertaining and may be a glimpse of things to come. The team is young and is returning several of their top players from this year. The experience they garnered by playing in a pressure-filled playoff series like this can be valuable. Something Konowalchuk addressed with them after the game.
"I told them I was proud of them," Konowalchuk said. "Remember how this feels, it doesn't feel good and just to continue to get better. I'm just proud of the guys, they played hard."
How soon until training camp starts?
Seattle was again without Connor Honey in Game 7 as he was still serving his suspension from Game 4. He was joined by Justin Hickman, who has been suspended for his check to the head penalty on Tuesday night.
Baillie was a T-Birds killer in this series. He got the big hat trick on Wednesday night and ended the series with seven goals and 12 points.
When the T-Birds look back as to how they lost this series they need to look no further than their power play. They finished the seven games going 0-for-24 after an 0-for-2 effort Wednesday night. That included a four-minute double major picked up by Baillie late in the second period.
Evan Wardley found his offensive game in this series. The big defenseman, who only scored five points during the season, picked up two goals and two assists in the series.
It was the last junior game for Lockhart, Glover and Adam Kambeitz as the 20-year-olds will now move on. It will be interesting to see if any of them get any offers from the AHL or other leagues. All three have skills that could make them attractive to a pro team.
Check back to the blog in the coming days as we will spend some time breaking down the season that was. But before that I personally want to thank all of our readers for checking us out all season, making comments and interacting with us on Twitter. It's been a blast.
Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide
Tuesday, April 2, 2013 @ 9:42pm
Seattle's Luke Lockhart chases the puck during Game 6 against Kelowna (Seattle Thunderbidrs)
By Andrew Eide
KENT -- Sometimes hockey is a game of inches. Seattle's captain, Luke Lockhart, took a shot off the face off in overtime Tuesday night, a shot that trickled through the goaltender and glanced off the post and out. A few minutes later Myles Bell beat Brandon Glover with a wicked wrist shot to win the game for the Kelowna Rockets, 4-3.
The win knots up the series and sets up a deciding Game 7 back in Kelowna Wednesday night.
"Our guys fought hard," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "I thought early on we could have been a little stronger but they fought hard, they battled hard and I thought as the game went on we got a little bit better, we had our chances in overtime but it just didn't go our way today."
Seattle won the first three games by playing loose and with emotion. They were missing that in the prior two games but seemed to be able to recapture it again on Tuesday night.
"I thought we were having fun," Konowalchuk said. "We were playing and competing for the most part, just didn't get the win."
Glover deserved a better fate in this one as he stopped 55 of the 59 shots that he faced. He could not make the final one, however, and will now be asked to beat the Rockets in what could be his last game in junior hockey.
"I don't really know what to think," Glover said. "We just have to put that game behind us now and look forward to tomorrow. Before the series if you would have said we just had to steal a Game 7 in their barn I think it would have shocked a lot of people and we would have taken that."
Glover made great save after great save on shots that looked like they were destined to find the back of the net. It may have been one of his best performances of the year, despite the tough loss.
"He played a great game, a great game," Konowalchuk said of his 20-year-old goalie. "Early on we really needed him, he played a great game."
Seattle had their chances in this one. After falling behind 22 seconds into the game on a Cody Fowlie goal the T-Birds fought back to take a 3-1 lead halfway through the first period.
They tied the game on a Connor Sanvido goal after a Rockets turnover a few minutes after the Fowlie goal. Despite being out shot 9-1 at the time they had managed to get even.
They took the lead moments later on an Adam Kambeitz goal as he banged home a rebound for his first goal of the playoffs. A minute later Seattle extended its lead after an incredible sequence by Roberts Lipsbergs, who threw his body around and dislodged the puck from a Kelowna defender. He then found Luke Lockhart in the slot. He beat Jordan Cooke and the T-Birds were rolling.
Kelowna pushed back though and managed to tie the game on goals by Tyrell Gouldbourne and Cody Fowlie.
In the second period the Rockets poured it on and Glover stood tall, keeping the T-Birds alive. Seattle was outshot 43-21 in the first 40 minutes of the game but Glover would not bend. A crucial moment came late in the second when Justin Hickman was given a five-minute major for check to the head, along with a game misconduct.
It was the first penalty of the game, a game that the officials seemed to let everything go in. Seattle managed to kill off all five minutes, which overlapped into the third.
Halfway through the third Madison Bell ran Jared Hauf into the boards on a play that shook up the big defenseman. It was a similar play to the one that Connor Honey was given a four-minute penalty and a three-game suspension for Game 4 of the series. Bell was only given two minutes and Seattle was unable to cash in on the power play.
"It's just frustrating," Konowalchuk said. "They let everything go, that's fine, and then the frustrating thing is the two-minute call on Hauf, the exact same kind of hit that Honey got suspended three games for, shoulder to shoulder, but the guy was in a vulnerable position, they got a two here, we got a four and a suspension and it's the exact same explanation the ref gave me today that our guy got suspended for, so that's hard."
In the overtime period Seattle had the better of the play and had several close chances to end it. There was the Lockhart post along with Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov getting chances that just missed. Seattle had the better of the play and Bell's goal was scored against the balance of the action.
"It was just a pretty good shot," Glover said of the overtime winner. "It looked like he was going to toe-drag around the d-man, he got a good shot off with a quick release and put it over my glove, it caught me of guard a little bit."
After the game the Seattle players tried to put a positive spin on the events. They get to play a seventh game in a series that nobody gave them a chance to win going in. Anything can and has happened in games like that and the T-Birds will get to fight for one more day.
"If you would have told us we would be in the position at the start of the series we probably would have taken it," Adam Kambeitz said. "One game to decide it and it's been a hard fought series and their a good team. We have to forget this one quick and get excited to play that game."
Game 7s can be exciting. They present the moments that every kid reenacts on the playground, scoring the dramatic game-winning goal in a Game 7. The T-Birds will get their chance to live that fantasy out in real life Wednesday night in Kelowna.
"You play hockey for situations like this," Kambeitz said. "There's a chance for guys to be heroes and they're intense games and this is why we play."
This is the third straight Kelowna-Seattle playoff game that will reach seven games. The two teams went the distance in 2005 and in 2008 with both teams picking up a win. Kelowna is trying to become the first team since 1996 to erase a three-game deficit in the WHL playoffs.
With Connor Honey serving the second game of his three-game suspension, 2012 draft pick Keegan Kolesar saw his second WHL game. He played on the third line and acquitted himself quite well. He was strong along the boards and didn't shrink from the pressure of the game. He clearly has his coach's confidence as he got regular shifts all night long. "He's a good, young player," Konowalchuk said. "He's going to have a lot of upside here in this league, he's a strong kid, has good offensive instincts, made a couple nice little plays out there. I thought he did fine."
Seattle's power play went 0-for-2 on the night and is now a terrible 0-for-24 on the series. If Seattle looses the series they can look at the power play as a big reason why.
There was another big crowd at the ShoWare Center for the game and the players were appreciative of the support. "It's an awesome atmosphere," Kambeitz said of the crowd. "I was really taking it in, being 20 years old, just looking around and the fans are screaming, this is probably the loudest building I've played in during my career. The atmosphere is incredible and it's a great experience."
Saturday, March 30, 2013 @ 8:57pm
By Andrew Eide
The Kelowna Rockets stayed alive for another night with a 4-3 Game 5 win at Prospera Place Saturday night. For Seattle they now have dropped two straight after taking a three games to none lead in the series. Kelowna got goals from Tyson Baillie and Myles Bell and held off a late Seattle flurry for the win.
Much like Game 4 the Rockets took control of the game early. After a Seattle penalty behind the play the Rockets struck on the power play as Baillie scored. They had three power play goals in the last game and made Seattle pay again on Saturday.
"They were better than us tonight," Steve Konowalchuk said. "We have got to get our emotion going again. We didn't respond enough, they scored on the power play and took it to us there."
The Rockets were not done though as Colton Heffley tipped a pass past Brandon Glover less than a minute later. The goal not only gave the Rockets a two goal lead but serious momentum as they had the T-Birds on their heals for the rest of the period.
Glover kept Seattle in the game with some solid saves and the T-Birds skated off the ice lucky to be only down two.
Seattle played better in the second period and claimed much of the territorial play. They could not master Jordan Cooke though and continued to struggle on the power play, failing to cash in on two second period chances. They have still not scored a power play goal in this series and while they seemed to move the puck well at times, could not score.
"We did a better job setting up but we didn't execute," Konowalchuk said about his power play. "We didn't get shots through, these power plays could have changed the game."
After struggling with the Rockets power play earlier the T-Birds then found themselves down two men at a critical part of the game as Kelowna had a chance to blow the game open. Seattle hung tough and killed off the two man advantage and stayed within striking distance.
Despite the big kill the Rockets managed to score again later in the period to extend their lead as Dylan McKinlay squeezed a goal past Glover. Down three goals it began to look a litte bleak for the T-Birds.
Before the period ended however Riley Sheen made a nice pass to spring Alex Delnov free and he beat Cooke with a nice move to put some life back in the T-Birds. In some ways it was a frustrating period as they played better but were still down two goals.
The Third period was more of the same. More stingy Kelowna defense and Cooke shutting the door. Kelowna scored what appeared to be the killer goal when Myles Bell scored with just over five minutes left.
The T-Birds kept pushing and scored two late goals as Seth Swenson and Roberts Lipsbergs scored goals ten seconds apart with under a minute left. Seattle pulled Glover and just missed when a Shea Theodore blast was deflected over the net.
"It was good for us to score a couple of goals on that guy," Konowalchuk said of the late goals. "It was good for our goal scorers to show that they could beat him (Cooke)."
Kelowna hung on to force a Game 6 on Tuesday and has some of the momentum back. The game on Tuesday looms large for Seattle as they don't want to have to go back to Kelowna for a deciding seventh game.
"We have to worry about getting our game back," Konowalchuk said. "Our process is not good enough right now, we have to get back to playing sixty minutes again or we will be back here."
By going 0-for-4 on the Power play Seattle is now 0-22 on the power play in this series. That has to improve if Seattle wants to advance.
Delnov's goal in the second period broke a string of seven straight Rockets goals over the last two games.
Kelowna is two games away from becoming the first team since the 1996 Spokane Chiefs to erase a three games to none deficit in the WHL.
After picking up three big power play goals in Game 5 the Rockets were held to a one-for-five night as Seattle got a much better penalty kill tonight.
Connor Honey was not in the lineup for Saturday's game as he was serving a one game suspension for a check from behind in Game 4 on Wednesday.
Tuesday's game will be a Two for Tuesday affair as tickets will be two for one and there will be $2 beer and hotdogs. The T-Birds had a big crowd last Tuesday and it inspired the players, will there be a big crowd again for this game?
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide
Saturday, March 30, 2013 @ 11:59am
Seattle's power play hasn't been able to solve a tough Kelowna penalty kill (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
After coming out victorious in the first three games of their first round playoff series against the Kelowna Rockets, Seattle was shut out 4-0 in game four, providing their opponent with a glimmer of hope as the series returns to hostile territory tonight.
That small bit of optimism is exactly what the T-Birds hoped to avoid in their unsuccessful attempt to complete the sweep at home. Now, they must return to Prospera Place to face a team that lost only four times at home the entire season. Of course, Seattle has beaten Kelowna twice there already in this series, but at least a small part of those victories can be attributed to playing with nothing to lose against a team that seemingly expected an easy victory.
The Thunderbirds' lack of an effective power play would likely be a bigger story had it come back to bite them in games one through three as it did in game four. Overall, Seattle is 0-for-18 on the power play in the series, including missing out on all eight of their chances on Wednesday night.
Not only has Seattle been unable to convert, but they haven't been able to generate very many real opportunities, stymied by a Kelowna penalty kill that finished fifth in the league during the regular season.
If the T-Birds were just able to convert at their regular season clip of 18.7%, they'd have scored approximately three and a half more goals this series. Those three and a half extra points would have made a big difference in a series where the games have been, for the most part, extremely close.
A successful penalty kill likely also helped to mask the dysfunction of the power play, but a large number of penalties finally caught up to Seattle in game four, as we knew they would. After converting only two of their first 14 chances in the series' first three games, Kelowna went 3-for-7 in game four and their special teams play ended up being the difference maker.
It shouldn't be forgotten that Seattle is still leading this series by a comfortable margin and need to notch only one more victory, compared to Kelowna's three, to advance. Seattle has played well in crunch time and the penalty kill, with the exception of game four, has been good as well.
However, Kelowna, with a newfound level of confidence after a big road win, has likely regained their confidence and found some chips in Seattle's armor. How the teams respond and how the Thunderbirds are able to overcome their deficiencies on the power play will define the rest of the series.
We've been waiting to see what might result if the Rockets were able to score a big victory. For a little while it seemed like that may not happen, but it has and it's up to a young Seattle team, who has shown that they can play with some of the league's best, to focus on what has gone right in the series and not what caused them to fail in game four.
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Thursday, March 28, 2013 @ 7:19pm
Much of the focus in T-Birds circles has been around super prospect Mathew Barzal, but Seattle's other first-round pick, Keegan Kolesar, certainly has the potential to be an impact player in his own right.
We got a brief look at his skill when the 15-year-old forward was called up for one game earlier this season. In limited ice time Kolesar impressed, especially on one play where he bulled through two Portland defenders and nearly scored but was robbed by Winterhawks goalie Mac Carruth.
I checked in with Kolesar shortly after his brief call-up, which was at the midpoint of his midget season, and was able to chat with him again during the first intermission of Seattle's 4-0 game four loss to Kelowna.
Tim Pigulski: Talk about how your team has done since we last checked in at mid-season.
Keegan Kolesar: We gelled more as a team as the season went on but didn't end up in first place. We had a lot of players injured and never really had a full roster until the end of the season, but we still only finished one point out of first place behind the Winnipeg Wild.
Tim: Have you had a chance to follow the series between Seattle and Kelowna? What are your thoughts so far?
Keegan: My family is close with Evan Wardley's and we've been keeping in touch. I've been checking all of the box scores and following on Twitter, too. [Tuesday] night's game I was able to watch online and was very excited with the outcome. Seeing Wardley get the game-winning goal was great.
Tim: Being physical and aggressive has worked well for the T-Birds in this series. Talk about your style of play and how it fits in with what you've seen.
Keegan: It's a simple physical style of play – getting pucks in deep, finishing your checks, and getting the puck on net. It's the type of game I try to play, too. They aren't getting too fancy and are just trying to get their job done.
Tim: You signed pretty quickly in the offseason. Was it nice to get that off of your back and just be able to focus on hockey?
Keegan: Yeah, I felt that it was much easier to just get signed and get it over with. I was pretty confident that the WHL is the route that I wanted to take.
Tim: What do you have planned training-wise this offseason to help you prepare for the speed and style of the WHL game?
Keegan: I've taken into consideration what Coach Konowalchuk and Russ Farwell have said and I've been working with a personal trainer, Jeff Fisher, who is one of the most sought after trainers in Winnipeg. I'm also working with a former NHL player, Dave Cameron, who played in the WHL for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. He's been helping me a lot with on-ice, one-on-one type situations.
Tim: How much do you wish you could be out there playing right now?
Keegan: I'm hoping I get my chance out there. Watching the game and the emotion involved, I've been talking to [current T-Bird] Michal Holub about it and he's been getting my tires pumped. It's good to be here and get the experience. I'm fine with not playing but I hope my time comes.
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Wednesday, March 27, 2013 @ 9:05pm
Seattle's Jared Hauf attempts to block a shot during the T-Birds 4-0 loss to Kelowna (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT -- What a difference a night makes. The Thunderbirds had a chance to wrap up their first round WHL playoff series with the Kelowna Rockets only to stumble and lose 4-0. The Rockets scored three first period power play goals, two of them by Tyson Baillie, and never looked back to keep their playoff hopes alive.
"We didn't compete enough," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "We didn't have enough guys competing so that's when we have to regroup and look in the mirror. We don't focus on the results, we focus on our compete level and it wasn't good enough today."
A night after Seattle won an exciting and emotional overtime game, they came out flat from the start. Playing in front of a smaller crowd there just wasn't enough intensity from the opening face off and throughout the game.
"I tell you what, it looked and felt like we were a little emotionally drained today," Konowalchuk said. "We have to play with emotion, that team's too good for us to go out and just go through the motions. We have to have emotions, we have to have in check though, we can't cross the line and we need a lot of enthusiasm. We didn't have that and they did."
The lackluster energy led to some undisciplined play and costly penalties. They gave the Rockets five first period power play chances, including an extended two-man advantage and Kelowna's highly ranked power play finally made them pay.
"We were undisciplined," Konowalchuk said. "We were undisciplined and they capitalized. We weren't as aggressive, partly because we took so many penalties, it's hard to be aggressive. They executed well, when you take that many penalties it's hard to play on your toes."
Baillie got the first goal, the second and Myles Bell picked up the third, all in a span of three minutes and all on the power play. Unlike the past three games the T-Birds were not able to recover and fight back. Staked to a lead Kelowna clamped down on Seattle and gave them no room for the next two periods.
The Rockets held a 31-11 advantage in shots after 40 minutes and the game was essentially over.
The T-Birds got a better push in the third and had some good solid chances to score on Kelowna goalie Jordan Cooke but he was up the task -- picking up his first career playoff win and shutout. The T-Birds slim comeback hopes were dashed when Zach Franko beat Brandon Glover with just under five minutes left in the third.
"Coming into the third we knew that we had to keep playing if we were going to come back in the game," Luke Lockhart said. "Even if it didn't work out there's another game, Game 5, so we really wanted to set the tone for that."
Despite the shutout the T-Birds had their chances to claw back in the game. They were awarded the last five power plays of the game but as the case has been all series, couldn't cash in.
"We have to start moving the puck quick," Lockhart said of the T-Birds power play. "Just getting pucks to the net, everyone going in there set to play and start banging in a greasy one."
Seattle has yet to score a power play goal in the series and had ample opportunities to do so on Wednesday as they went 0-for-8 on the night -- something they will need to improve on as they have not looked sharp at all. They are now 0-for-18 on the power play for the series.
"One, we have to win more battles," Konowalchuk said about the struggling power play. "Two, we have to shoot the puck. When you get teams that pressure, if you win the initial one-on-one battle you can really put them in trouble. We're not doing that enough. At other times it's just get it back to the point and shoot it with traffic. We're not doing that, we're looking for better plays. They're too good of a penalty kill for that, we have to shoot the puck."
The T-Birds may have been emotionally wiped out from the big win the night before and will have two days to recharge the batteries and get back to playing loose and desperate hockey -- the kind of game that built their three game lead.
In the end the T-Birds lost this game in the first period when they came out without a lot of emotion. They have two days to regroup and rekindle the fire they showed in the first three games of the series. They are still in command and the pressure should still be squarely on the Rockets shoulders, as they have no room for error.
Game 5 will be in Kelowna on Saturday night at 7:05.
After being heavily out shot in the first 40 minutes Seattle out shot Kelowna 14-6 in the third. Can that carry over into Game 5?
Seattle wasn't horrible when playing five-on-five Wednesday. Kelowna again didn't give them enough room but they had their chances to get back in the game. The early penalties really put them on their heels and disrupted their lines, keeping key offensive players off the ice for long stretches of time. It's hard to get in a rhythm when that happens.
A night after drawing over 6,000 fans the attendance dipped to 2,559 and the atmosphere in the building was flat. Konowalchuk mentioned that the team needs to generate their own energy on nights like that but they weren't able to do that. He was hopeful that the fans would come out for their next home games.
If Kelowna extends the series on Saturday Game 6 would be back at the ShoWare Center on Tuesday, April 2nd.
Seattle's second first round pick from last year, Keegan Kolesar, was in the building to take in the game. Tim Pigulski chatted with him so check back for that story.
Former T-Birds center Brendan Rouse has been at both games this week to watch his former mates play.