Tuesday, March 26, 2013 @ 9:35pm
The T-Birds celebrate their third straight overtime victory and take a 3-0 lead over Kelowna (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT -- How do you describe the indescribable? The indescribable is precisely what happened Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center as the Seattle Thunderbirds continued their shocking WHL first round playoff series by beating the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets 3-2 in overtime.The win was the third straight overtime game in this series and gives Seattle a commanding 3-0 lead.
Defenseman Evan Wardley was this night's hero as he fired a shot from the point 4:55 into the extra frame to send the 6,021 rowdy fans into a frenzy.
"Tough battles, tough battles out there," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said afterwards. "They (Kelowna) came out in that first period and were really skating, pushing the pace and showed what kind of team they had. It's just tough battles and its sure nice to get those overtimes."
Wardley, not known for his offense, only had two goals during the regular season. Needless to say, this was the biggest goal of his career. The play started with some magical skating by Shea Theodore who spun a Rockets player in circles before getting the puck to Wardley. The big defenseman flung the puck on net, through traffic, and past the screened Jordan Cooke.
"It was a great play by Theo," Wardley said after the game, sporting a retro Seattle Breakers wind-breaker. "We kind of got mixed up there and he dished it to me in the middle and I saw some traffic in front. My first thought was just make sure it hits the net and I was lucky enough to see it go in."
The game had many heroes for Seattle and was very similar to Game 2 which featured tight checking and some physical play.
"It's playoff hockey," Konowalchuk said about the style of play. "You have to work for everything out there, they're not giving us an inch and we really have to dig in and work for everything we get out there. We have to try and do the same for them because its playoff hockey and there's not too much open ice."
Seattle also got a huge night from goalie Brandon Glover who ended the night with 33 big saves, many of the highlight variety.
"It was a great game by us," the Victoria native said. "It's a huge win, its the biggest game of the series so far. It puts them in a tight spot and I thought the best thing was that we didn't give up when we gave up the two goals early there and the crowd stayed in it and gave us energy."
Kelowna, desperate for a win, came out of the gates firing and scored the games first two goals as Zach Franko and Cody Fowlie found the back of the net. They had the T-Birds on their heels a bit and opened the game out shooting Seattle by a lopsided tally of 12-3.
But the T-Birds fought back, like they have all series, to tie it with just under five minutes in the period when Roberts Lipsgergs took two whacks at the puck and got the second one home. It was his second goal of the playoffs and got the crowd back into the game.
"We got a couple of crucial saves when it was 2-0," Konowalchuk said. "We got a good penalty kill, if they get that third goal it's a long way to climb back. We hung around there and chipped away."
The second period featured both teams upping the physical game as big checks were thrown up and down the ice. Wardley in particular used his size to make a statement.
"That's an element of my game that I want to improve on always," the big defenseman said. "For our team we had a slow start in the first ten and we needed to get back on the hitting parade and I think that really created momentum and got the fans into it and got them loud."
Seattle would get even just before the second period would end.
As time was winding down Justin Hickman, Riley Sheen and Andrew Johnson cycled the puck and held it in the Kelowna zone wearing down the Kelowna defenders. The puck went to Jesse Forsberg who took a big slap shot that found paydirt with 24 seconds left.
It was a huge goal and gave Seattle a great deal of momentum. For Forsberg it was his second goal in the series and his fifth point so far as he is playing some of his best hockey at the most crucial part of the season.
"I think I've just been starting to prepare a little more," Forsberg said. "I've been working with our D coach and getting chances to convert and have been converting. So I'm just going to keep on trying to do that."
The T-Birds continued to push and managed sustained pressure on the Rockets but could not score. With time running out in the third period Seattle got the biggest save of the night from Glover. Traffic in front swept him up and out of position, leaving the net wide open. With the puck on the stick of a Rockets player it seemed the game was going to be lost right then and there. Glover desperately jumped back towards his crease and managed to get a skate on the puck and deflect it to safety.
"I was expecting a call on the play because I thought it was their guy that ran into me," Glover said. "I think it was Vido (Connor Sanvido) actually. It was just instinct, coming back to an empty net and he happened to throw it at my feet, I just kicked it out and luckily we hung on."
Late in the period Seattle was called for a penalty giving the Rockets a big chance late in the game. The Rockets have the 4th best power play unit in the WHL but Seattle has been able to neutralize it all series long and continued to do so in this game.
"Huge timely kills today," Konowalchuk said. "Good job on the penalty kill, blocking shots, there were a couple of key blocks on the kill in overtime and it makes a difference for us, gives us a chance to win the game."
Kelowna did not convert and with just under two minutes left Seattle got a chance and also could not convert on the power play as the game went into overtime for the third straight night.
That's when Wardley scored his first career playoff goal to send everyone home happy. With the goal the T-Birds bench emptied and the crowd went berserk as Seattle won it's first playoff game on ShoWare Center ice and now is one game from a most improbable series win imaginable.
The crowd was a story as well as they were loud throughout and the team seemed to respond.
"It was great, great atmosphere," Wardley said. "Everyone was great from the get-go, really loud, really energetic and it's going to be hard for any team to have to play here."
Brandon Glover, who played in front of large playoff crowds in Calgary last season concurred.
"It was louder tonight than the Sadledome was last year," he said of the ShoWare Center atmosphere. "I don't know what it is, whether the building is smaller, or fans are a little crazier in the States here or its $2 beer night, I don't know."
With a chance to close out the series in sweep every player to a man talked about how dangerous the Rockets still are and stressed that the T-Birds still had work to do.
"They have about an hour-and-a-half to enjoy this," Konowalchuk said. "Then we have to get ready for tomorrow. Because we're going to see another level from this team here."
Game 4 will be Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center, face off is at 7 PM
The win Tuesday was the first playoff victory for the T-Birds in the ShoWare Center
While Seattle has won all three games they have only led for 8:29 of the series when they went ahead in period two of Game 1. They have either trailed or been tied the remainder of the play.
In the Eastern Conference the Medicine Hat Tigers, the seventh seed, took a 3-0 series lead on the Saskatoon Blades, bringing the two seventh seeds record to 6-0 in the playoffs.
Kelowna has an uphill battle as they have to win four straight games to survive the series. The last time a WHL team has done so to salvage a series was 1996 as Spokane came back to beat Portland.
Seattle is getting contributions from many players as seven different players have scored goals in this series.
The win was Glover's fourth playoff victory and his impressive playoff stats continue to improve. He now has a playoff record of 4-1-1 with a goals against average of 2.00 and a save percentage of .933. Clearly he thrives on the playoff pressure.
Seattle's 2012 first round Bantam pick, Mathew Barzal, was in attendance Tuesday and I was able to chat with him. We will have that story up on Wednesday
Here are the highlights from Tuesday's big win:
Tuesday, March 26, 2013 @ 4:17am
Jared Hauf is just one of a number of T-Birds who have picked up their intensity in the playoffs. (Kyle Scholzen, Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
It still seems difficult to believe that the seventh-seed Thunderbirds were able to march into Prospera Place this past weekend and grab two victories over the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets, but that's exactly what happened and now Seattle needs to win just two of the series' remaining five games to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Playing in a hostile environment against a very strong Rockets team meant that the Thunderbirds could play loose and enjoy themselves. They did just that, and it showed.
The tide has turned now, as Seattle has most certainly awakened a Kelowna team that may not have been expecting the intensity Seattle showed in games one and two. No longer will the T-Birds possess the element of surprise, something that proved extremely valuable early in the series.
However, in the same vein, the underdog Thunderbirds now enjoy a confidence that they likely haven't felt in a long while, if not all season. They've proven that they can skate with and defeat the Rockets, who also must be shell-shocked after dropping two overtime contests.
It should be noted here how much more important the loss of captain Colton Sissons is to Kelowna. Missing your leader on the ice and bench can't be underestimated, as it's times like these - when facing unfamiliar adversity - that a team is in most dire need of excellent leadership.
Speaking of leadership, the Thunderbirds' 19- and 20-year-olds are stepping up in a big way. Unlike Sissons, Seattle captain Luke Lockhart has been able to play this series and has made a huge impact, not only by scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals in game one, but also on a penalty kill that has been excellent so far.
Giving Lockhart some help on the kill have been fellow overage players Adam Kambeitz and Brandon Glover. Kambeitz plays a similar non-stop game to Lockhart, something that has taken a bit of pressure off of the captain and given Head Coach Steve Konowalchuk another experienced player to help out when the team is down man.
Glover has been excellent in net, making a number of important saves and keeping the T-Birds in both games. When overtime began in game two, Kelowna came out firing and it looked as though it would only be a matter of time before they were able to score the sudden-death goal. However, that wasn't the case as Glover made a few huge saves, giving his teammates the opportunity to regroup and turn things around.
The 20-year-old netminder seems to step his play up in a remarkable way in the postseason, as he did last year for Calgary when he maintained a 1.87 goals against average and a .941 save percentage in four games played.
In spite of all of the success of the three aforementioned players, the best Thunderbird so far may be 19-year-old defenseman Jesse Forsberg, who leads the team in scoring with a goal and three assists, also maintaining a plus-two rating and, perhaps most importantly, just two penalty minutes.
Forsberg's Achilles heel all season has been an inability to stay out of the box, but he's done just that this series without losing the intensity between the whistles that he's known for.
It hasn't just been the older players stepping up, however. Everyone is doing their part and playing within themselves to positively contribute to the game.
Jared Hauf had a big goal in game two and has played with an intensity that seemed to come and go during the regular season.
Mitch Elliot came out in game one and made short work of Kelowna tough guy Tyrell Goulbourne, who I named as a relatively unsung player to watch in this series. Since their bout, Goulbourne has been a ghost.
Everyone deserves credit for the Thunderbirds' 2-0 start to the playoffs, and that's exactly how it's going to need to be if they hope to defeat a powerhouse team such as Kelowna.
One aspect the Thunderbirds need to improve upon going forward is keeping out of the box. They've had trouble early in games, tiring themselves out and forcing the penalty killers to log excess minutes. The penalty kill has been great so far, but giving a team like Kelowna so many opportunities is playing with fire. They've got a deep and talented roster and will convert if the Thunderbirds keep giving them chances.
That's not to say the T-Birds need to or should tone down their overall intensity, as that has been a defining factor so far in the series and contributed greatly to their improved play towards the end of the season. Taking advantage of their greater size cleanly and between the whistles is a benefit the Thunderbirds absolutely need to capitalize on.
Things will certainly be different now, as the pressure is on the young and inexperienced Thunderbirds to build on the foundation they've placed. If Kelowna is able to come out of this brief break and play the hockey they're accustomed to playing, how the Thunderbirds respond will define the rest of the series.
This is playoff hockey, and there's absolutely nothing better.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski
Sunday, March 24, 2013 @ 5:26pm
By Andrew Eide
Perhaps the most intriguing story surrounding this year's Thunderbirds squad was whether or not 2012 first round draft pick Matthew Barzal would sign with the club. The topic certainly has been popular among WHL circles and fan pages. It appears, based on comments made by general manager Russ Farwell in a radio interview Saturday night, that the wait may soon be over.
Between periods of Saturday night's 2-1 win in Kelowna, Farwell was a guest of Rockets play by play man Regan Bartel and the two discussed the prospect. There has been a great deal of internet speculation regarding Barzal and Farwell confirmed some things.
Farwell confirmed that Barzal did practice with the T-Birds a couple of weeks ago and indicated that he thought Barzal would be attending the playoff games at the ShoWare Center this week. He also indicated that Barzal has not told the club that he does not want to play for them and finished the interview saying that both sides agreed that a decision should come before the summer's off-season.
Barzal was the number one pick overall in the Bantam draft and recently completed his midget season playing for the Vancouver North East Chiefs of the B.C. Major Midget League. He led the league in scoring with 29 goals, 74 assists for 103 points in only 34 games. Barzal attended training camp with Seattle this past fall and was very impressive and many observers felt he could have scored in the WHL at 15.
If you're into reading tea leaves these comments have to be seen as a positive sign but until Barzal actually signs anything is still possible.
We have reached out to the team for more information, if any, and will update as soon as possible.
Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide
Saturday, March 23, 2013 @ 10:12pm
By Andrew Eide
The T-Birds stunned the Kelowna Rockets 2-1 Saturday night to take a commanding two game lead in their first round Western Conference playoff series. Like Friday night they had to do it by working overtime and won it when Alex Delnov scored his first playoff goal 2:41 into the extra frame.
Unlike last night's up and down game, this one was a gritty, tight-checking affair that Seattle again came from behind to win.
This was supposed to be a mismatch. Kelowna had earned 50 more points during the regular season and had scored nearly 100 more goals. But things do actually reset in the post season and now the heavily favored Rockets have to return to Seattle wondering what has happened to their promising season.
"It was a tough fought hockey game," Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "They (Kelowna) played a really, really smart game and made us earn every inch on the ice."
Both teams made it physically tough to find any space on the ice. The game was a grinder type game that epitomizes playoff hockey -- and Seattle managed to win many of the physical battles. Both teams struggled to find offense in the first period as they each managed three shots a piece, a far cry from the high flying game the night before.
Seattle played tight defense and kept the always dangerous Rockets from getting loose.
"As good as a team as they are we did a good job getting our third man high which stopped any odd man rushes," Konowalchuk said.
Did that kind of game favor the underdog T-Birds? Konowalchuk wasn't sure if it did or not.
"I don't know what kind of game favors us against them," he said. "We just want to have fun. We just want to be in position in the third period to give us a chance to win the game."
Seattle got that chance but only after the Rockets scored the game's first goal in the second period. Seattle defensemen Jesse Forsberg and Jared Hauf teamed up to blast Rockets forward Henrik Nyberg but failed to stop him from scooting the puck to rookie Cole Linaker. With both Seattle defensemen out of the play Linaker walked in on Brandon Glover alone and made a nice move to beat him.
The Rockets had their lead, just like they did in game one on Friday.
In the third period they pushed for a second goal but could not crack Glover, who made 21 saves on the night. After a sprawling save by Glover the T-Birds took the puck down ice and Jared Hauf fired a wrist shot through traffic that beat Jordon Cooke and tied the game. Seattle has consistently fought back from deficits in the last two weeks, showing great resiliency and confidence.
"We just have to have fun," Konowalchuk said, which has been his mantra this series. "We want to continue to work hard, they have such a good team there so we'll take it.
The tight checking continued and the two teams needed extra time for the second straight night. Friday night they needed 19 extra minutes to decide it -- this time only a couple.
Jesse Forsberg made a pin point pass to Delnov who was on the door step and knocked home an easy goal to win it and spark another exuberant celebration on the Prospera Place ice surface.
The T-Birds have done more than just steal home ice advantage away from the Rockets, they have taken command of the series. The series now shifts to the ShoWare Center for two games with Seattle having a chance to wrap up the series.
"We're not even thinking about being able to wrap it up," Konowalchuk said with a chuckle. "We're just going to enjoy this bus ride home, we didn't get that much time to do so last night."
Konowalchuk has his team playing loose and with a ton of confidence. Being the underdog has relieved them of all pressure, a pressure that is now squarely on the shoulders of the Rockets -- who were supposed to walk through Seattle in this series. With two big wins the T-Birds bus's wheels may not touch the road on the way home.
Jared Hauf's third period goal was his first goal of the season. He tallied 11 assists on the year and had two goals last season. He certainly saved his first for the biggest moment.
Delnov's winner was also his first playoff goal.
Seattle struggled in overtime during the regular season, losing a league high seven times. They now have won two straight overtime games in the playoffs? The difference? Confidence is a part of it but it may also be that playoff overtimes are played five-on-five and there is no threat of a shoot out.
WHL seventh seeds are now a combined 4-0 so far in the playoffs.
Jesse Forsberg is quietly having a real good playoff series. He has scored four points and is a plus three in the first two games.
You can catch highlights of the game from Kelowna's web site here.
Friday, March 22, 2013 @ 10:01pm
By Andrew Eide
After battling down the stretch to make the playoffs the Seattle Thunderbirds stormed into Prospera Place in Kelowna Friday night and shocked the heavily favored Rockets with a 5-4 overtime thriller. Captain Luke Lockhart was the hero again as he scored two goals, including the overtime winner to give the T-Birds a surprising one game lead in their Western Conference first round playoff series.
For a team that had very little playoff experience the T-Birds played like seasoned veterans.
Seattle looked adversity in the eye three times Friday night and did not blink. They fought back to tie the game three times before ending it 19:09 into overtime.
"Its exciting," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said of his team. "The guys are excited, to come in here with their (Kelowna) record, their home record, all their talent and to put up a good road win, the guys are pretty happy."
There were many heroes in this game which included a three point night from defenseman Jesse Forsberg (a goal and two assists), Brandon Glover who made 35 big saves and of course Lockhart.
For the last month the captain has put this club on his shoulders and willed them to big wins. Friday night was no different. He killed penalties and scored what may be the two biggest goals of his career in Seattle.
"Another solid game for him," Konowalchuk said of his captain. "What a game. He's picked up offensively down the stretch, he's getting rewarded which is good, but it's a result of everyone chipping in."
Seattle also got a big performance by their penalty killing unit who killed off four first period power plays -- no small feat when you realize Kewlona has the fourth best power play in the league.
"The PK was huge for us," Konowalchuk said. "We gave them too many penalties and I thought that it put us on our heels a bit to start the game."
The Rockets started the scoring in the first when Damon Severson knocked home his own rebound to give the home team an early lead. Seattle, as they have done the last few weeks, fought back as Riley Sheen took a nice feed from Alex Delnov and buried it behind Rockets goalie Jordan Cooke.
Kelowna struck late in the first period with what, at the time, seemed like it could be a potential momentum swing goal. After a defensive break down Dylan McKinlay cashed in on a nice pass from Myles Bell and the Rockets ended the first, up a goal.
Seattle would not be swayed by the goal however. Roberts Lipsbergs and Forsberg scored back to back goals to give Seattle a 3-2 lead, and maybe more importantly, hope. That hope seemed to be dashed though as the Rockets answered with two goals of their own. Seattle was short-handed when Jared Hauf was called for a pretty questionable tripping call giving the Rockets a two man power play.
Kelowna took advantage and tied it up 11 seconds later. As bad as that seemed, the Rockets came out in the third period and got an early goal from Bell to take the lead back and it started to look like the favored Rockets had maintained order in the game.
Seattle kept grinding though and after getting some big saves from Glover managed to tie the game just over six minutes left. Forsberg took a shot from the point that Cooke stopped. Lockhart was on the doorstep and managed to get the puck and sweep it past Cooke as he was falling to the ice. It was Lockhart's first playoff goal and it gave Seattle a third life.
The T-Birds showed tremendous poise in coming back all night.
"We're just going to have fun," Konowalchuk said about his team's outlook. "It doesn't matter if they score, we score, we're just going to have fun and battle."
The game went into overtime and unlike the regular season, where Seattle struggled in the extra frame, Seattle held their own. After trading chances through most of the overtime period Seattle got the game winner when Lockhart scored his second career playoff goal. Connor Honey had a golden chance to win it but Cooke stopped him only to have the rebound land on Lockhart's stick and he buried the game winner.
Game 2 is Saturday night and both teams will have to come back after an extended game with only one night's rest. Konowalchuk is not worried about his team's energy going into Saturday night.
"Both teams had a long game," he said. "We kept most of the guys in it, some guys got used more, but it should be even and we have to expect a big effort from them tomorrow."
Friday's game was Seattle's first post-season overtime affair since a second round tilt with Tri City in 2008.
Let's hear it for the underdogs. Seattle's Eastern Conference counterparts, the seventh seeded Medicine Hat Tigers, took a two game lead on Saskatoon Friday night. Add that to Everett's surprise win in Portland and the old saying 'that's why you play the games' has never rung more true.
The last time Seattle and Kelowna faced off in the playoffs was 2008 and the road team won the first four games. Will the same hold true this time?
Seattle threw 50 pucks at Jordan Cooke, who was making his first WHL playoff appearance.
The win was Brandon Glover's 7th playoff appearance and second career win. He previously had seen action with Moose Jaw and last year with Calgary. He may save his best hockey for the playoffs as he now has a career post-season goals against of 2.23 and a stellar save percentage of .928.
With the win Seattle has stolen home ice advantage from Kelowna and will host games three and four in Kent on March 26th and 27th.
Highlights of the big win can be found here.
Thursday, March 21, 2013 @ 8:32pm
Teammates swarm Luke Lockhart in his final WHL regular season game (Kyle Scholzen, Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
When the Thunderbirds last made the playoffs following the 2008-09 regular season, Greg Scott was the team's leading scorer. Defenseman Thomas Hickey, at 19 years old, wore the "C" on his sweater in his final Major Junior season. Calvin Pickard was just a rookie.
Things have changed a little bit since then, both on and off the ice.
The ShoWare Center opened midway through that playoff season, as the team moved from the KeyArena in Seattle to the ShoWare Center in Kent.
Rob Sumner, who coached the team from 2004-05 through the 2010-11 season, was replaced by Steve Konowalchuk, who left an assistant coaching position with the Colorado Avalanche to lead the Thunderbirds.
Despite the ups and downs, consistencies and inconsistencies, hope and despair, there has been at least one stable presence on the Thunderbirds' bench: do-it-all center and captain Luke Lockhart.
A seventh-round draft choice by Seattle in 2007, Lockhart is the only player from that draft class who remains with the team.
During his rookie season in 2008-09, the fresh-faced 16-year-old notched 15 points on five goals and 10 assists in limited playing time. He had one assist in five playoff games as the Thunderbirds were trounced by the Spokane Chiefs four games to one, despite being just one seed lower.
It was a disappointing series for Lockhart, but it probably would have been even more upsetting if he would have known at the time that it would be over three years before he had another chance.
Since that inaugural campaign, Lockhart has entrenched himself in the hearts of his teammates and the fans that have supported him.
Never afraid to put his teeth in front of a slap shot, the now 20-year-old leader has done all of the little things that might not appear on a score sheet, but are certainly acknowledged in the form of stick taps from teammates and invigorating "LUUUUUUUUUUUUKE!" chants from an earnest crowd of adoring supporters.
To understand how respected the Burnaby, British Columbia native is, look no further than the honors bestowed on him over the past few years.
As an 18-year-old, Lockhart rotated with 20-year-old defenseman Brenden Dillon as team captain. During his penultimate WHL campaign, the "C" was permanently stitched on to his jersey, where it remains to this day.
Last weekend, he was voted Most Dedicated Player by his teammates and named the Most Valuable Player on the team, even though he only finished tied for fourth in scoring.
It isn't just those in his own locker room that hold "Locks" in high esteem, however. Prior to the regular season's final game, Kent Mayor Suzette Cooke declared May 16, 2013 "Luke Lockhart Day", which was met with cheers not only from the raucous home crowd, but also from the Winterhawks on the opposing bench, who could be seen pounding the boards and in admiration of their rivals' respected career.
"You play hard against them for five years, and as much as you can hate each other on the ice, it's nice to know that you've earned their respect," says Lockhart, who received the praise from his Portland opponents despite having scrapped with one of them 24 hours prior.
As the 5-foot-11 center prepares for the series against an elite Kelowna Rockets team, the goals remain the same as they did for Lockhart when he was a rookie, although where he fits in the team's plans are quite a bit different.
"My first year I didn't get as much ice time and wasn't looked upon as much as I will be this season," recalls Lockhart, who hopes to improve on the single point he registered during that series.
"I've come a long way since then," continues the hard-working forward, whose first order of business in talking about his own improvement was acknowledging everyone else who contributed to that process.
"I've learned from some really great players. My first year Thomas Hickey was the captain and I also got to play with Brenden Dillon for a long time. There have been all kinds of guys who have gone pro in the NHL or other places that I try to take pointers from."
Hickey and Dillon, now playing in the NHL for the New York Islanders and Dallas Stars respectively, were also counted on to play significant leadership roles during their stints with the Thunderbirds.
"I try and lead by example - I'm not always the most vocal guy," says the usually soft-spoken captain. "I'm not the only one though. We've got a good core group of guys that show leadership and help out in the locker room all the time."
In their last 10 games, Seattle is 3-5-0-2 and looked better over the season's final few weekends as players returned from injury and some chemistry was developed between the lines.
"We're coming in strong with a bit of momentum," says Lockhart when asked why other teams should be afraid of facing the seventh-seeded T-Birds. "We've been playing hard the last month or so and if we play together, we can give ourselves a chance here. Being a bigger, faster team we can use our size and our speed to wear other teams down."
So far this season, the Thunderbirds have fared decently against the Rockets, especially when one considers the strength of a Kelowna team that is second in the league in goals scored and third in goals against.
Seattle won the first meeting between the two teams 4-2, but followed it up with an ugly 8-0 loss a month and a half later. Following the blowout, the two teams faced off again the next night in a game that the Thunderbirds controlled for the majority but eventually lost in overtime. In the season's final matchup, the Rockets controlled the pace for most of the contest and came away with a 4-1 victory.
"[Kelowna is] a very good team and it's shown all year in the standings," says Lockhart of his first round opponent. "We want to focus on the things we've done successfully against them and not necessarily on the ups-and-downs," something there are sure to be a number of in any best-of-seven series.
Across the faceoff dot, the Rockets will be without captain and fourth-leading scorer Colton Sissons, a strong two-way center who will miss the series with an upper-body injury. The 19-year-old's absence is something that his counterpart in the captaincy doesn't feel will change the way the Thunderbirds prepare for the series, mainly because of the outstanding depth the Rockets possess.
"It doesn't change anything for us. He's obviously a very good player, but they're deep and they'll be fine without him. Whether he's in or out of the lineup, we won't change the way we play."
As the clock ticks down on Lockhart's WHL career, he'll be remembered as a player who, despite not holding the most skill of those on the ice, was a constant thorn in his opponents' side due to his hard work and grittiness between the whistles.
According to some around the league, the tenacious center is, surprisingly, one of the lesser-liked players on the Thunderbirds, although he is undoubtedly one of the most respected.
Being disliked by your opponents is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means you've impacted them in some way. Considering Lockhart has never been much of a fighter, nor someone known for talking much or laying big or dirty hits, one must believe that animosity is due to his abilities to frustrate his adversaries, especially when they're on the power play.
"It might be a good thing when other team's don't like you as much," laughed Lockhart when told of the distaste others around the league had for his hard-nosed playing style. "I play a hard between-the-whistles game and I guess it can be frustrating sometimes for the other guys when they're not having success against me."
It's that same tenacious work ethic that exasperates his enemies that has endeared the Thunderbirds' elder statesmen to the fans that fill the ShoWare Center on game nights.
At both the high and low points, followers remain united in the opinion that Lockhart gives everything he has night in and night out, whether the team is up by five goals or down by eight.
"It's nice to be able to give back to the fans this year with some playoff hockey. Hopefully we can get some wins and give them some more chances to come to the rink."
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 @ 7:38pm
The T-Birds are busy prepping for their first round playoff match up with Kelowna (WHL.ca)
By Andrew Eide
The Seattle Thunderbirds have been spending this week preparing for a tough first round playoff match up with the high flying Kelowna Rockets. These practices have to be a welcome change from the last three seasons, without the playoffs, where players would be spending this time headed home and saying goodbye.
For many of the T-Birds players this will be their first taste of Western Hockey League playoff action. For head coach Steve Konowalchuk, a veteran of over 50 NHL playoff games as a player, it will be his first junior hockey playoff experience as a coach. Konowalchuk took some time to chat with 710 ESPN Seattle about the team's return to the playoffs.
"Its exciting," he says of this week. "We have young guys who have never had a chance to play and they want to experience it for the first time. We have a couple of veterans who have played a little bit and are excited to be back but then we have some veterans who haven't played either. There's a lot of fun in that locker room right now."
The T-Birds do have a tough charge in front of them. They are taking on a second seeded Rockets club that scored over 300 goals and is one of the best teams in the WHL. Without a doubt Seattle is the underdog in this series -- something that may not be such a bad thing in the end.
"You know, I enjoy being the underdog," Konowalchuk said. "They definitely have the pressure, they had such a great season it would be disappointing if for some reason they couldn't get by a playoff round or two. For us, we had to play down the stretch just to make sure we made the playoffs, now it's bonus time and we just want to go out and have fun, try our best and enjoy the experience."
Playoff games, and series, are different than their regular season counterparts. The games are usually tighter, more physical and can be taxing. Konowalchuk says that despite that they haven't really changed how they prepare.
"With a week off you know, you go through your own systems stuff again," he said about this weeks preparation. "We've played Kelowna a couple of times not too long ago so we already have a little sense of what they do. We've talked about some of the stuff they do, a little bit, but we've just reinforced how we play and a couple minor adjustments here and there, looked at a couple of their tendencies but you don't want to get too wrapped up in what they do and forget to just go out and compete and play."
One thing that will benefit Seattle is the last two months of the season. They were fighting for one of the last two playoff spots and as the finish line grew closer and closer so did the pressure. Each game felt more and more like a playoff game. Can that help Seattle handle the playoff pressure?
"We know how to play under pressure," Konowalchuk says. "Those game, in some ways, had more pressure than the playoffs. A lot of those games felt like Game 7 for us. They were such big points and in the first couple of games of a playoffs series, it's not Game 7, its not do or die, and in some of those games we approached them as do or die."
From an X's and O's standpoint Kelowna poses some match up troubles. They are very deep and can roll high end scoring lines at you that Seattle will have to match. Down the stretch the T-Birds seemed to find three solid lines they felt comfortable with. It started by moving Luke Lockhart to play with Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs. That left the Adam Kambeitz-Justin Hickman-Riley Sheen line to become the shut down line. Having three solid lines will help in this match up.
"You want guys to be able to do their jobs," Konowalchuk said of this squad. "You can identify some roles, and roles they like to do, I think we were able to do that. Obviously chemistry is important and we do move one line a little bit, Delnov moves around so there are still some moving parts but we still have enough depth so that if someone is not going on one line I can move them around."
Kelowna has a very strong blue line with some top prospects like Damon Severson (drafted by New Jersey) and Madison Bowey (a top prospect this year) patrolling back there. What does Konowalchuk think Seattle has to do to take on the Kelowna defense?
"We want to play a forechecking game," he says. "When we're playing well that's what we do, we put pucks in and we forecheck and try to wear down the other team. Nothing's going to change there but when you play a good defense you have to make sure you're real consistent finishing your checks and making them work. They are solid, very solid on the back end and don't have any weak links, we have to try to grind them down shift after shift."
The Rockets did suffer a blow early this week when they lost captain Colton Sissons to injury for 8-10 weeks. Sissons centered their top line and was fourth on the team in scoring with 28 goals. While that loss hurts, they still have great depth and are still a very dangerous opponent.
"He's a good player but they're so deep," Konowalchuk said. "They're deep with four lines, I don't think it's going to affect them a bit. They've won a lot of games with him out of the lineup this season anyway."
Konowalchuk went on to mention that his club has played well against Kelowna this year and should have some confidence. His message to the team is to go and play hard and not be tentative -- something he has consistently preached all year long. He also went on to say that he hasn't ruled out using prospect Ethan Bear in this series, if he has to. Bear made his WHL debut in Portland last weekend and Konowalchuk, and the club, are really high on their young defenseman.
Make no mistake, the T-Birds are happy to have ended their playoff drought. Konowalchuk felt that was one step forward, now the next step is to win in the playoffs. While aware that they have a tough road in this series the team is not just content to make the playoffs, they plan on bringing their best game while trying to pull off an upset.
"We're going to put our effort out," the coach says. "We know what a good team Kelowna has. We're just going to hold ourselves accountable, you want to believe you can win every game, we believe we can. Kelowna is probably one of the two best teams in the league and we're going to have our hands full, we're just going to make sure that every game, every shift that we just compete for one another. No short cuts, win one-on-one battles, all those little things in hockey playoff series that, if you do them, they can amount up to big things."
Seattle heads to Kelowna this Friday and Saturday for games 1 and 2 before returning to the ShoWare Center Tuesday and Wednesday for games 3 and 4.
Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide
Tuesday, March 19, 2013 @ 9:11pm
Seattle was 1-2-1-0 versus Kelowna during the regular season (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Tim Pigulski
If one pays attention only to the numbers, it doesn't appear as though the Thunderbirds stand much of a chance in their first round playoff series against the Kelowna Rockets.
The Rockets, with a regular season record of 52-16-3-1 and 108 points, finished second only to the Portland Winterhawks (117 points) in the Western Conference and tied the Edmonton Oil Kings for the second most points in the entire league.
Seattle, on the other hand, fought until the season's second to last night to earn the seventh seed and the opportunity to face the Rockets. With 58 points, they would have finished second to last in the WHL's Eastern Conference and been well out of the playoff picture.
In four matchups this season, Kelowna has won three meetings against Seattle, one of which was an overtime victory, and outscored the T-Birds by a score of 18-8, including an 8-0 blowout back at the end of January.
If that ugly game is discounted, this has actually been a relatively close series. Seattle handily won the first game of the season between the two teams and led for much of the third meeting before allowing the Rockets to tie the game in the third and win it in overtime.
Offensively, Kelowna boasts some impressive numbers. They rank second in the league in goals scored with 309, and fourth in power play efficiency, converting at a 22.2% rate.
The T-Birds rank near the middle of the league in goals scored with 210, placing them thirteenth of 22 teams in the league. Their power play is in a similar range, as they have scored on 18.7% of their opportunities with the man advantage, fourteenth in the league.
The Rockets are no less intimidating defensively, as their 178 goals against puts them third in the WHL. Their penalty kill ranks fifth, holding opponents scoreless 83.9% of the time.
Seattle has allowed fewer goals than only one team, the Vancouver Giants, allowing opponents to score 286 times this season. They've been average with the man down, killing 79.3% of their penalties.
Both teams do a good job of spreading their scoring around. Aside from Myles Bell, who scored 93 points in 69 regular season games, no one on the Rockets put up very jaw-dropping individual numbers. Captain Colton Sissons, who scored 67 points in 61 games, including 28 goals, will miss this series with an upper body injury. Sissons was recently named the team's Most Valuable Player and Top Defensive Forward, so his loss will hurt, but probably not as much as one might think. Earlier in the season Sissons missed 11 games due to injury and the Rockets only lost one game during that span.
The Rockets feature 11 players who scored over 30 points in the regular season, and that number would certainly be higher if not for forwards JT Barnett and Carter Rigby missing significant time.
Nine players on the Thunderbirds put up 30 or more points during the regular season, led by Latvian rookie Roberts Lipsbergs, who finished tops on the team in goals with 30 and points with 58. In the final game of the regular season, Lipsbergs tallied four goals against the Portland Winterhawks.
Over the course of the past couple of weeks, Seattle has played a much more physical game, using their forecheck to set up better scoring opportunities and as a result have looked much better overall.
The Thunderbirds will need to use that size and aggressiveness to control the tempo of the game, but will need to ensure that it's controlled as they most certainly can't afford to take any bad penalties if they want to have a chance in this series.
Kelowna can't compare in size to Seattle, but they do feature some grit, especially in the form of 19-year-old center Tyrell Goulbourne, who had 135 penalty minutes this year and isn't afraid to drop the gloves. The feisty forward made short work of Portland tough guy Joe Mahon, who has had his share of bouts with T-Birds enforcer Mitch Elliot, and will be a player to watch during this series. His aggressiveness and physicality could be a key in this series.
It will undoubtedly be an uphill battle for the T-Birds, as the numbers show that the Rockets would be a tough matchup for any team in the league.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski