Updated Oct 4, 2013 - 3:25 pm
Seattle Thunderbirds Blog
Monday, March 24, 2014 @ 9:04pm
The Seattle Thunderbirds are off to a great start in the WHL playoffs (Thunderbirds photo)
By Andrew Eide
After their solid 3-1 victory on Sunday night, the Seattle Thunderbirds find themselves with a 2-0 lead over Everett in their opening round playoff series. The T-Birds haven't had a 2-0 series lead since, well, last year when they won the first three games against Kelowna.
When asked if there was a lesson to be learned from last year, when they could not close out Kelowna, head coach Steve Konowalchuk made it clear that they weren't even thinking about wrapping anything up yet. There is a lot of hockey to play in this series and the T-Birds will have to turn in two more solid performances if they wish to move on.
Here are the odds and ends from the playoffs so far.
New kids on the block
The T-Birds have a number of players who are getting their first on-ice playoff experience. Only two games in and all of them have been a big reason for the Seattle lead. Taran Kozun has been lights out, Russell Maxwell has two big goals, Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie have been vital in Seattle's defensive effort.
One of Seattle's returning players is also getting his first go at playoff action. Branden Troock scored the game winning goal Sunday and has been a force so far in the two games. He is playing at the same level that he was around the holidays, just prior to him getting hurt and missing a handful of games.
"It's definitely exciting, it's a lot of fun," Troock said after Sunday's win. "It's something I haven't been in for five years. This is my first time so I'm enjoying the moment and it's going to be a good ride."
Troock's skill set is unique in that he has good speed and plays a strong physical game. Konowalchuk referred to him as one of the keys for Seattle in this playoff series, and so far he has been. With how strong Everett is in the neutral zone, Troock's skill set is an asset -- the speed in the neutral zone and the strength on the forecheck.
"They're good in the neutral zone," Troock said of the Silvertips. "We've got to use our speed to get pucks deep and get on their D-men. That's the way our team likes to play, get physical on them so we're going to keep doing that."
Special teams are special
Seattle's penalty kill has been a big story in the first two games. They are 10-for-11 on the kill so far, only giving up the one five-on-three tally in Game 1.
The biggest moment for the penalty kill was in Game 1 during the second period. Seattle was short handed four times in the first five minutes of that period and clinging to a two-goal lead. Everett had the 10th best power play during the regular season and while able to cash in on the two-man advantage, they were shut out the rest of the way.
On the other side of the ice the T-Birds power play has been clicking. They have three official power play goals and one unofficial score as Maxwell's goal Sunday came just after the penalty ended. What's working? All four goals have come as a result of quick and decisive puck movement by the T-Birds. When Everett goalie Austin Lotz has made the stops, Seattle has had players, most notably Maxwell, crash the net to pot the rebounds.
It is a far cry from last year's playoff series against Kelowna when the T-Birds couldn't buy a power play goal. In the seven games last year they were a frustrating 0-for-27 and in many ways, that was the reason they lost.
The boring, boring West?
So far the Western Conference playoffs have yet to produce any drama. All four series have 2-0 leads with the higher seed having the edge. With the exception of the Seattle-Everett series, all the series will now move to the lower seeds home rink. Will one of them get back in it this week?
In the East, there has been a little more drama. The Brandon Wheat Kings are in the lead for pulling off the biggest upset as they lead the second seeded Regina Pats 2-0. That series now returns to Brandon, where the Wheat Kings can put away the Pats.
Playoff Three Stars of the week
Two games in and it's time to recognize the three top T-Birds players so far. These awards don't mean anything, but who doesn't like three stars?
Third Star: As mentioned, Branden Troock has been a force so far in the two playoff games. He has a goal and an assist and is playing hard at both ends of the ice. That earns him our coveted third star of the week.
Second Star: Defenseman Shea Theodore has chipped in with three assists on Seattle's five goals. But he earns this star more for the job he is doing in his own end. Konowalchuk has made sure that Theodore and defense partner Jerret Smith are on the ice against the Josh Winquist line. A tall task that Theodore and company have handled, holding that line to no goals and only two assists.
First Star: You have to look no further for the first star then the T-Birds net. Taran Kozun, playing in his first two playoff games, has been spectacular. He has a save percentage of .970 and has stood on his head for several important stretches during the two games. The save he made Sunday night against Jujhar Khaira with the score tied was nothing short of spectacular. How would that game have swung if Khaira scored there? Luckily for Seattle, they'll never have to find out.
Game 3 of the T-Birds opening round WHL Playoff series is Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center. Face off is at 7 P.M.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.
Monday, March 24, 2014 @ 4:46am
Seattle's Branden Troock celebrates his third period goal Sunday against Everett (Christopher Mast photo)
By Andrew Eide
EVERETT -- The Seattle Thunderbirds turned in another gritty playoff effort Sunday night and have put themselves in the drivers seat.
Seattle scored three unanswered goals at the Comcast Arena in Everett to beat the home standing Silvertips 3-1. The win gives the T-Birds a two games to none lead in their best-of-seven opening round playoff series with Everett. Seattle's goals were scored by three different players and they got another outstanding performance by Taran Kozun in net, as he made 38 saves in the win.
This win was anything but easy for Seattle.
"You've got to work for it," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "That's a darned good hockey team over there, you've got to work for every inch of ice and battle and battle and battle."
For the second straight game the T-Birds were out shot by Everett, but for the second straight game they were able to come out on top. They once again got great special teams play, and some great goaltending from Kozun.
"It's been key to both victories," Konowalchuk said. "They're a very stingy team over there, five on five. Probably one of the stingiest teams in the league...when you get a power play you need to bear down and be really good on the penalty kill. They've got a dangerous power play."
Seattle needed both their penalty kill and power play to come up big on Sunday.
The Silvertips got on the board first during a pretty even opening period. Seattle was a little casual with the puck behind their own net as Kozun and his defensemen misfired on an exhange. The puck then was sent to Everett's Carson Stadnyk who had a whole net to shoot at. He buried his shot to give the home team the win.
"They got that first goal there," Konowalchuk said. "I didn't think we let them really come at us. We didn't go at them either, I thought it was a fairly even first period."
In the second period the T-Birds got going.
In a reversal of fortunes from the night before, it was Everett that took some early penalties in the second to give Seattle some momentum. After the second penalty the T-Birds found themselves with 48 seconds of a five-on-three advantage. They used that short time well as Shea Theodore sent the puck to Adam Henry who in turn found Roberts Lipsbergs at the side of the net. Lipsbergs potted a wrist shot over a sprawling Austin Lotz to tie the game up.
The Silvertips pushed back a bit but Kozun stood tall.
He made several good saves and one spectacular save. With 6:24 left in the period, Everett's Jujhar Khaira had the puck and a wide open net. It was a certainty to everyone in the building that the Silvertips were about to take the lead back. As Khaira shot, Kozun dove back in front of the net and somehow found the puck.
"When he's playing hot every night, it's really hard to lose those games," Theodore said about his goalie. "He's getting those key timely saves, I don't even know how he made that one, just diving across."
Kouzn had been bumped by Josh Winquist on the play which caused him to leave the opening. From there, it was just a reaction for him.
"I made it," Kozun said of the play. "I was more mad that Winquist hit me there, before. I was more focused on that than the save. I wasn't really thinking about it."
With their goalie stoning every Silvertips chance, the T-Birds went to work in the third to put the game away.
Playing four-on-four, Mathew Barzal made a pretty lead pass that sprung Branden Troock into the Everett zone. Troock bore in on Lotz alone, made a nice move, and slid a back handed shot into the net. The goal gave Seattle the lead, one they would not relinquish.
"He [Barzal] made a very skilled play," Troock said of the play. "That was a nice saucer pass, he saw me going back door. I saw him going wide and I just drove the net, drove between their d-men. So he made a really nice play through them and I just finished it off."
Troock, playing in his first playoff series, has now played two strong games in as many nights. While he didn't score in Game 1, he was a force. He turned in a similar performance Sunday, getting rewarded with a big goal.
"He's a key to our team," Konowalchuk said of Troock. "He was playing really well the last five to seven games of the season and it's carrying through. I think he's even playing a really good team game, leading the way, as he was before he got hurt."
The T-Birds added to their lead later in the period when Russell Maxwell knocked home a loose puck just as a Seattle power play was ending. That gave them a big two-goal lead and in essence, put the game away.
Coming into the series a big key for Seattle was handling Everett's big scoring line of Khaira, Winquist and Ivan Nikolishin. Responsible for over a third of Everett's goals this season, the T-Birds have held them to just two assists (both in Game 1). Without last change on the road, Konowalchuk could not ensure that his shut down line was on Winquist Sunday night.
He did manage to get the defensive pairing of Theodore and Jerret Smith out against them all game long Sunday. The pair did a great job as Everett's top line was shut out.
"We like them out there," Konowalchuk said. "Theo's been against top lines all year, with Smith. We try to get that, its a little bit tricky on the road. I though Matt [O'Dette] did a good job of getting them out there."
Known for his offensive game, Theodore has shown in this series that he can be effective taking on a top scoring line.
"Just staying tight to our checks and not getting lost in our D-Zone," Theodore said of the challenge. "They're good smart players and you've just got to try and make reads on where they're going to play, I guess we did a good job tonight."
The T-Birds now will try to put a strangle hold on this series on Tuesday at the ShoWare Center. Despite the lead in the series, they aren't counting the Silvertips out.
"It's nice to get a little bit of momentum," Konowalchuk said. "But, we just go one day at a time here. We know that we're going to get a real desperate team [in Everett].
Seattle's penalty kill has been outstanding so far in this series. They blanked Everett on five attempts Sunday and now have killed off ten out their eleven short handed situations. The Silvertips only power play goal came Friday on a two-mad advantage.
Conversely, Seattle is getting good production out of their power play. They scored two power play goals in Game 1 and unofficially scored two again on Sunday. They only get credit for one power play goal Sunday however as Maxwell's goal was scored just after the power play had ended.
Playing in his first playoff games, Kozun has relished the chance. He has stopped 64 of the 66 shots he's seen and been a calming influence on Seattle's defense. He even attempted to score a goal at the end of the game Sunday. With the Silvertips net empty and the clock winding down, he flung the puck up ice. It didn't get too far however as it hit players a few feet in front of him.
There was a lot of talk from both coaches prior to this series about there being no distinct advantage in the odd playoff format. However, now that Seattle has won the first two games, they get to return home for Game 3. That is not normally a luxury for the team with home ice advantage and feels like it could be big if they can win it.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide
Saturday, March 22, 2014 @ 10:41pm
Seattle goalie Taran Kozun was huge as Seattle took Game 1 against Everett (Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT -- As expected, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips opened their first round playoff series in dramatic fashion Saturday night.
Seattle scored two first period power play goals and relied on 38 saves by goalie Taran Kozun to hold off the Silvertips and take a one-game lead in their best-of-seven tilt. The T-Birds were paced offensively on goals by Russell Maxwell and Shea Theodore.
Everett and Seattle have played close, gritty games against each other all year and Saturday was no exception.
"Game 1, it's very exciting," Justin Hickman said. "We've been waiting all year for that. That was a hell of a game. We knew it was going to be a 60 minute battle, and that's what it was."
The way Seattle started the game it looked like the trend of close games wasn't going to hold in the playoffs. Seattle struck twice in the first 20 minutes to build a big two-goal lead.
It started on the power play when Maxwell scored his first WHL playoff goal, banging home a rebound from the side of the net. Playing for Lethbridge his entire career, Maxwell was excited to finally see some post season action.
"It was pretty fun," Maxwell said. "It's a lot different game, that's for sure...I was really fortunate on my first shift to get a lucky bounce and get a goal."
The T-Birds struck again half way through the period when Theodore blasted a slap shot through traffic that beat Everett goalie Austin Lotz. On the play, Lotz felt he was interfered with and was furious afterwards. He knocked over Ryan Gropp in frustration and shoved the goal off it's moorings -- somehow avoiding a penalty.
"Good start," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "Any time you can get off to a lead like that, capitalize on the power plays against a team that starts really well. Our guys did good, they were ready to play in the first."
In the second period the Silvertips pushed back, aided by a Seattle parade to the penalty box. Seattle found themselves short handed four times in the first five minutes of the second period, and would pay.
Everett cut the lead in half on a two-man advantage when Patrick Bajkov beat Kozun with a one-timer off of a Josh Winquist pass. The Silvertips built momentum off of the multiple power plays, out shooting Seattle 19-4 in the period. Seattle managed to hold onto their lead with some good penalty killing and outstanding goaltending by Kozun.
"They [Everett] generated quite a bit on their power play," Konowalchuk said of the second period. "Kozun was big for us, our penalty kill was big for us to get us through that. That's where they generated a lot of their momentum today, we've got to stay out of the box."
Like Maxwell, Saturday was Kozun's first action in the WHL playoffs. He did not wilt from the pressure.
"It was a blast," the netminder said. "I was kind of nervous going in but a strong first, pretty good second, they got that one on the five-on-three...other than that I thought I had a good game."
There's an old saying that your best penalty killer has to be your goalie and as good as the penalty killers were Saturday, Kozun was better.
"For me, I've just got to be the best penalty killer out there," Kozun said. "Stop all the ones that I need to and make a couple big saves if I have to."
After forty minutes the T-Birds were fortunate to still have a lead, albeit the slimmest of leads.
The third period bogged down into a fast-paced, defensive struggle. With a great deal of end-to-end play without whistles, neither team was able to generate many good scoring chances. Kozun made all the stops he needed to and the T-Birds held on to take the early lead in the series and delight the 4,560 in attendance.
"The crowd was unbelievable," Hickman said. "That's what you work all year for, home ice advantage and it's a big difference. Now we've got to go into their building which is a tough place to play, it will be rocking, and it's another test tomorrow."
Both clubs know that there is still a lot of hockey left in this series, hockey that will be tough as neither allows for much room on the ice. The series now shifts to Everett for Game 2 on Sunday. Seattle knows that they will have their hands full with an Everett team that will not want to fall down by two games.
"It's gonna be a whole different ball game for sure," Maxwell said of playing on the road. "They'll have a big crowd, they'll be excited. It's a big game obviously, we'd like to take a little bit of advantage in the series."
Playoff hockey is often about the adjustments coaches make from game to game. The team that wins usually doesn't have to make too many. With how well these teams know each other, Sunday's game will probably be more of the same.
"We try to focus on our game," Konowalchuk said. "We try to focus on our game and getting on the attack and on the forecheck and not worry about the other team so much. When we worry about our game we seem to have a little more energy and jump."
Sunday's game starts early, at 4 P.M. from the Comcast Center in Everett.
Seattle gave up the one power play goal in the second period, on a five-on-three advantage. Other than that goal they were able to kill off five Everett power plays while going 2-for-4 when they had the man advantage.
There were a lot of good performances by T-Birds players who didn't figure in the scoring. The Gropp,Mathew Barzal,Hickman line was strong all night, generating chances and playing in their own end. The shut down line of Jaimen Yakubowski, Scott Eansor, and Sam McKechnie were able to shut down Everett's top line. Branden Troock and Keegan Kolesar also had strong games as the win was truly a team effort.
There has been a lot of talk about the neutral zone leading into this series. Saturday night Seattle managed the puck pretty well against the Everett trap. There were very few turnovers and hardly any Silvertips odd-man rushes. Seattle will have to keep that up as the series progresses.
An odd, somewhat scary, moment occurred in the third period. After about ten minutes of play without a whistle, Hickman hit an Everett player along the boards. On the play he got his hand stuck between two panes of glass and was momentarily trapped as he needed assistance to free himself. Afterwards he said that was a first for him and that his hand was fine.
Seattle will have some interesting match up options on Sunday. Konowalchuk's shut down line was strong Saturday against the Josh Winquist line for Everett. On the road Seattle will not be able to dictate the match ups and will have to find another line to try and stop Everett's top unit. Look for the Barzal line to get a shot at it. They have had some success in Everett against that line by keeping it away from the Silvertips and forcing Winquist and company to play in their own end.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.
Friday, March 21, 2014 @ 6:16am
Matt Pufahl and the Silvertips are looking to keep their hot streak going into the playoffs (Christopher Mast photo)
By Andrew Eide
Without question, one of the hottest team in the WHL on the eve of the playoffs are the Everett Silvertips. They struggled with injuries after the holidays but as they got healthy they started to win games -- a lot of games. They enter their first round playoff series with the Seattle Thunderbirds winners of nine of their last ten games and have not lost in regulation in 13 games.
Not to mention, a three-game winning streak against Seattle.
For Everett head coach Kevin Constantine, he likes how the team was going and would like to keep the hot play going.
"You hope so but it's a new season," he said of carrying over his team's play. "Everybody starts zero-zero. I don't know how much carry over there would be from the regular season to the playoffs, obviously you hope you keep playing the way you've been."
As has been well documented, these two teams know each other very well. They have met ten times, and Constantine points out that nine of those meetings have been in the second half of the season. They have played hard fought games all year, and all within the last couple of months. That gives the Silvertips players a pretty solid handle on what they will face with the T-Birds.
"It's going to be a real physical one obviously," Everett captain Matt Pufahl says. "Every game that we played with Seattle this year was just like a playoff game, even though it wasn't. They're a physical team, they work hard, they like to get the puck down on our D. That's something that we have to work on and make sure we have pride on our breakouts."
Earlier in the week, Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk commented on how similar the T-Birds and Everett are. They are virtually tied in the standings and split their season series, both winning games in the other's building.
Constantine seems to share those sentiments with his counterpart. He goes on to say that the keys to winning are sticking to the simple things that always win you hockey games.
"You know, getting off to good starts in games," the coach says. "Those kind of things will be important to both teams. It's the playoffs so each goal generally takes a little more significance, special teams take a little more significance in playoffs, so those things will be important."
The Silvertips are well aware of Seattle's size and their desire to play a physical game. The T-Birds game is to get the puck deep and use their big forwards to forecheck aggressively. Pufahl and his fellow defensemen will be key to the Silvertips success as they will bear the brunt of the Seattle checks. He says the key is managing the puck.
"We've just got to make sure that we don't give them the red line, or the blue line," Pufahl said. "We've got to try and play in their end as much as possible. When they do get in our end we've got to go back and grind and communicate with each other, sort it out and get the puck out and to their end as quick as possible."
The neutral zone is always important in hockey, but maybe even more so in this series. Both teams will try to control the neutral zone, take the puck away from their opponent to generate offense. It is something that Everett has excelled at all year.
"I think that's certainly important," Constantine says of the neutral zone. "I think managing the puck, you've got to find the right balance between making plays, which is important. You've got to make plays to have any type of offense, but you've also got to take what's given and manage the puck. That will be an important factor in the series."
Constantine feels that for his team to be successful they have to play a team game.
Josh Winquist was the big scorer for the Silvertips this year but the coach says that every player will have to work hard for Everett to be successful. Jujhar Khaira has been a big boost for Everett as well this year and there is some question about his health. He left the Silvertips last game of the year against Portland and his status is unknown for Saturday's first game.
As for Seattle, Constantine feels that his team needs to focus on their game rather than key on one or two of the T-Birds guys.
"I don't think there's any specific strategy that we have for any specific player on their team," he said. "We just try to play our game. They've got plenty of weapons up front and I think the whole world knows how effective [Shea] Theodore is on the back end for them. So we have a lot of respect for their team, we know they're well coached and we know we're going to have to play well."
With a heated rivalry between teams that are geographically close to each other, big crowds are expected through out the series. This will most likely be a big lift for both squads as there is nothing like a loud, playoff atmosphere to get fans excited.
"It gives your club a huge boost," Pufahl said. "Even when you go down there to Seattle, they always have good crowds too and they're going to be just as big in the playoffs. Its fun playing in that rink too, they're loud and energized, we kind of feed of that too."
There has been a lot of chatter and intrigue in the odd playoff format for this opening round series. Instead of the team with home ice advantage getting the first two games at home, the teams will alternate rinks after each game. Constantine says that he has experienced this format before and that there really is no advantage either way.
"I don't think it changes anything," he said of the format. "The last two years of my life I coached in Switzerland. The top hockey league in Switzerland plays with the same strategy because of the closeness of the teams to each other. So it's a little unusual in North America, but not in Europe.
I didn't find any advantage or disadvantage, any strategy that changed that. It's fun because its unusual but I don't think it changes much."
As we sit one day away from a playoff series that was eleven years in the making there is anticipation on both sides. Fans are excited, players are excited and these two teams should treat us to an entertaining and well fought series. Both teams have had good years and both will want nothing more than to knock the other out of the WHL playoffs for the first time ever.
"I think our players are at a point now where they just want to get playing," Constantine said. "They're tired of practices and meetings, they just want to get going."
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.
Thursday, March 20, 2014 @ 11:30am
By Tim Pigulski
It's been a back-and-forth rivalry between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Silvertips this season. At one point, the T-Birds had won four in a row against their I-5 North rivals, only to finish the season by falling in three straight games against Everett.
The Silvertips come into this series as the hottest team in the WHL, having not lost in regulation in 13 consecutive contests, which ultimately allowed them to jump to fifth place in the Western Conference standings, setting up the first ever playoff matchup between these two teams.
Silvertips starting goalie Austin Lotz left the team's final regular-season game against Portland, a shootout loss that prevented them from gaining home-ice advantage in the first round, and his potential absence could swing the outcome of the series. Everett's backup is 15-year-old Carter Hart, who has just two games of WHL experience under his belt.
With or without Lotz, for the Thunderbirds to slow down the streaking Silvertips, they'll need to do a few things:
Control the neutral zone. This is easier said than done, as it's a factor that the Silvertips' gameplan is contingent upon, and something they've gotten better and better at as the year has worn on. The Silvertips employ the dreadfully tedious neutral-zone trap, which will make it difficult for the Thunderbirds to carry the puck through the center of the ice as opposing defenders do everything they can to slow the opposing advance, cut off passing lanes, and force turnovers.
To beat the trap, Seattle will need to make crisp, quick passes on the breakout to avoid turning the puck over. Once Seattle crosses the red line, the offense will need to shift into dump-and-chase mode, getting the puck deep into the Silvertips' zone and forechecking their defensemen hard. Silvertips defensemen will need to be pressured into getting rid of the puck quickly, which in turn will lead to turnovers and offensive chances for Seattle.
Seattle's big, fast forwards will be important here. Guys like Justin Hickman, Branden Troock, and Jaimen Yakubowski will want to hit the Everett defense hard, ensuring that no breakout is easy or unpressured. The trap won't give the Thunderbirds' skaters the space to stickhandle in the neutral zone as much as they're used to, but if they can force Everett's defense into panicking with the puck, they'll generate scoring chances.
Score the first goal. As pointed out by Andy Eide, the Silvertips have only lost six times in regulation when scoring first. In head-to-head matchups, the T-Birds are 4-0-1-0 when they score first, and 1-4-0-0 when the 'Tips score first.
Related to the first point about controlling the neutral zone, it's incredibly difficult to overcome deficits against teams like the Silvertips, as they're perfectly content with one- or two-goal leads. Once they've gotten ahead, their forecheck slows down even more and they clog center ice, making scoring once – let alone two or three times – a daunting task.
Of late, the T-Birds have struggled to get on the board first, allowing their opponent to score the first goal in nine straight games before their final regular-season contest against Tri-City. It's no coincidence that during that nine-game stretch, their record was 3-6-0-0. The Thunderbirds will need to come out of opening puck drop playing as though their hair is on fire, leading to the next point ...
Play a full 60 minutes. When speaking with T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk, the most common deciding factor between a Seattle victory versus a defeat is the compete level. In losses, it's usually easy to identify a stretch – sometimes as long as an entire period – where it didn't appear as though the T-Birds were fully committed to the task at hand. When they win, the compete level is consistently high throughout the entire lineup.
This season we've seen quite a bit of line juggling, which is often an indicator of Konowalchuk feeling that someone isn't fully committed to playing a 200-foot game. He's not afraid to move his top players down to the fourth line or bench them entirely. With a team featuring a number of younger players, it's common to see some of those guys take a shift or two off. It will be up to the veteran leadership on the team to ensure that everyone is on the same page for the entire series.
Stay out of the penalty box. Of the 16 teams in the WHL playoffs, no team has more penalty minutes than the Thunderbirds' 1,315. They've also been shorthanded 333 times, the most of any team in the Western Conference, compared to Everett's mere 221. This means that, on average, the T-Birds are on the penalty kill 4.625 times per game. With a 13th-ranked penalty kill that is successful 79 percent of the time, Seattle averages .97 goals against per game while shorthanded.
Everett, on the other hand, is shorthanded just over three times per game, allowing .64 power play goals against per contest. The teams are ranked just one spot apart (Everett's penalty kill is 12th overall), but that ultimately translates to a huge difference in goals since Seattle spends so much more time with a man down.
Keep Everett's top line off the scoresheet. Everett's top line of Josh Winquist, Ivan Nikolishin, and Jujhar Khaira combined for over 37 percent of the Silvertips' regular-season goals. Shut these guys down, and you've shut down nearly half of their offense.
Fortunately for the Thunderbirds, they've established a very good checking line made up of Scott Eansor, Sam McKechnie, and Yakubowski. It's a sure bet that Konowalchuk will do his best to get these three matched up against Everett's top scorers.
The T-Birds may have some help in dealing with the Silvertips' first line, as Khaira left Everett's final regular-season game with an undisclosed injury. At this point the big center's status is unknown, but it'd be a huge detriment to Everett's hopes if he were to miss time or play at anything less than 100 percent.
If the Thunderbirds can avoid Everett's trap, get on the board first, give an all-out effort for the entire contest, steer clear of bad penalties, and shut down Everett's big scorers, they should find themselves moving on to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @ 9:00pm
For the first time ever, Seattle and Everett will meet this weekend in a playoff series (Thunderbirds photo)
By Andrew Eide
Eleven years. It took eleven years, but finally we have an Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thundbirds post season match up.
As the two fan bases get ready for what should be a tough and hard fought series, the two teams are preparing to face each other for Game 1 on Saturday evening at the ShoWare Center. Seattle has home ice advantage over Everett, something that was their goal from the start of the season.
As they beat Tri City Sunday night, they had to wait out and see if Portland could dispose of the Silvertips in a shoot out which would give them home ice.
"It was pretty exciting, the guys were all trying to get updates," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "They were all sitting in the locker room when that game was done in Tri City. We heard some pretty good cheers when the game went final and they accomplished their goal. I think now we've moved on to our next goal."
A year ago the T-Birds were preparing for a playoff series against the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets. Seattle only had a couple players that had any playoff experience whatsoever. After a highly entertaining seven-game series, the T-Birds now have a core of players who have been there before.
"The guys that played here, obviously, know what to expect a little bit more," Konowalchuk says of his team's experience. "They know the mental side of the playoff series and can help out the other players. Guys are excited, Its seems like they've had the playoffs on their mind for the last two,three weeks, and I think guys are finally excited to get going."
These two teams know each other well.
They played ten times this season, each winning five times, and most of the games were tight affairs that came down to the wire to decide. Konowalchuk says that knowing your opponent that well is ultimately a good thing. Even though they know you and your tendencies, he feels that it's always nice to know what you're going to be facing.
Seattle will need to be mentally tough in this series.
The Silvertips are a tough match up as they clog the neutral zone, daring you to turn the puck over so that they can capitalize. A lot has been made of the Everett trap this season, but Konowalchuk doesn't see the two clubs to be that dissimilar.
"I don't know that they play a whole lot different than us," he says. "I think we try to establish a little bit more of an aggressive forecheck. I don't think the styles are that different to be honest, the neutral zone is similar, the D-zone is pretty similar, I think its just a matter of who can play their game the best."
The neutral zone could be the key to who wins this series. When Seattle has struggled with Everett they did not manage the puck well, leading to turnovers and chances the other way. When they've won, they've been able to get the puck deep and ultimately get goals.
"That's with any game or series that you're playing," Konowalchuk says. "If you're clean through the neutral zone and do a good job that way, you're going to spend more time in the other team's offensive zone."
Getting a lead is also key for this series.
The Silvertips have only lost six times in regulation when they score first and only once when they have the lead after two periods. That one loss of course, was to the Thunderbirds. Konowalchuk says that the key to starting well is in your preparation.
"Be aware that they're going to be mentally ready and try to get the puck deep, go to work, and we're going to try to do the same thing," he said.
If you are able to get the puck deep against Everett you must then get the puck past goalie Austin Lotz. Lotz had another stellar year with a goals against average of 2.53. While he's good, the Everett defense helps him by blocking a ton of shots.
The Silvertips don't give up a lot of shots, something the T-Birds will need to be ready for.
"You have to be ready to shoot right away," Konowalchuk says. "If you hesitate they're going to get in the shot lanes...you're not going to get too many odd man rushes, or breakdowns. You've just got to crash and bang, get ugly goals with a lot of traffic and pucks on the net."
When it comes to offense, the Silvertips are lead by the line made up of Josh Winquist, Ivan Nikolishin and Jujhar Khaira. Winquist set an Everett record this season by potting 47 goals and that line is responsible for 37% of the Silvertips goals this season. Does that mean that we can expect to see Seattle's shut down line of Sam McKechnie, Scott Eansor and Jaimen Yakubowski matched up with Winquist?
"Quite a bit, see what they do," Konowalchuk said. "It depends on what they do a little bit too...but Eansor's line has been good against them so definitely in key situations we want to get them against them. See how they're going to play those lines as well."
With the rivalry between these two teams, and what's at stake now that they are playing in the post season, there should be big and lively crowds in both buildings. Konowalchuk says that his guys remember the big crowds at last year's games against Kelowna.
"It's huge for our guys" he said of the ShoWare Center crowds. "Our guys really feed off that, if they get a couple of big hits here at home and the crowd gets behind them, they get a little bit extra jump from that. Our fans, I believe, are the loudest and the best fans in the league. Our players think that too, they really enjoy playing in front of a big crowd."
This series is unique in the format. Instead of the standard format that sees the higher seeded team get the first two games at home, this series will alternate venues for each game. If the series goes the full seven games than the T-Birds will end up with the extra game at home. Konowalchuk said that the format doesn't change the game plan, and just might end up being fun for everyone.
"Well, you've still got to win four games," he said. "We really thought through the scenario, the pros and cons, and we didn't really feel that there was enough negative that we could come up with, without trying it. It could be a lot of fun for the players, a lot of fun for the fans with the close proximity, good travel.
We just think it will be fun and we're excited to try it."
When Seattle hits the ice Saturday they will be looking to achieve their next goal of the year, to win a playoff series. They will get a chance to do that against one of their rivals, in a unique atmosphere -- it's going to take all hands on deck.
"I think its just going to have to be a collective effort," Konowalchuk says. "Different guys, different nights. Maybe its a big goal, or its Eansor shutting them down for one game. Barzal stepping up, or Troock, or a defenseman like Hauf or Wardley getting a big goal, you never know. That's what's exciting about the playoffs, you never know who's going to step up and be the guy."
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide
Tuesday, March 18, 2014 @ 4:40am
Are we looking at a third straight Portland-Edmonton battle for the Ed Chynoweth Cup? (WHL Photo)
By Tim Pigulski and Andrew Eide
While there is a great deal of excitement locally for the first ever playoff series between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips, the rest of the WHL playoffs should offer just as much excitement. After a play-in game Tuesday between Prince Albert and Red Deer, all the playoff match ups will be set.
Who's going to win? Who's the team to beat? Who might be prime to pull off a big upset? Who are some players to watch?
We have all those answers for you here with our guide to the WHL Playoffs. We will take a look at each conference and give you all the information you need to enjoy the 2013-2014 playoffs.
Eastern Conference team to beat
After an up and down year the Edmonton Oil Kings fought off their rivals in Calgary to win the Eastern Conference via tie-breaker. Edmonton is loaded. They feature top players, all NHL draft picks, in guys like Henrik Samuelsson, Curtis Lazar, Mitch Moroz and Griffen Reinhart.
The Oil Kings are experienced, have the goaltending and are looking to make it three finals appearances in a row. Until someone unseats the Oil Kings, they are the team to beat again this year.
Western Conference team to beat
The Western Conference appears to be a two-horse race at this point, and it's hard to believe that anyone other than the Kelowna Rockets or Portland Winterhawks will emerge as the West's representative in the WHL Finals.
Out of the two teams, the nod goes to Kelowna, who have been near perfect this season en route to a 57-11-0-4 record. Portland trails slightly at 54-13-2-3, but Kelowna has won all four head-to-head matchups between the two teams, and by no small margin. They've outscored the class of the U.S. Division by a substantial 28-10 difference, including 9-3 and 7-2 victories in their two most recent meetings. Kelowna's longest losing streak this season is a mere two games, demonstrating how difficult it will be to top them in a four-game series.
Eastern Conference dark horse
The Calgary Hitmen will be in the mix but considering they tied Edmonton in points this year, it's hard for them to qualify as a dark horse. The team that could surprise people are the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The Tigers have been flying under the radar somewhat, especially after they lost Hunter Shinkaruk to injury early in the year. The Tigers haven't missed Shinkaruk and have one of the best offenses in the East as Curtis Valk, Trevor Cox, and Cole Sanford have picked up the slack. They can play defense and can score with the big boys, keep an eye on them.
Western Conference dark horse
The dark horse in the Western Conference will likely emerge from the victor of the Seattle vs. Everett series. As the fourth and fifth seeds respectively, neither team will be expected to top the two powerhouses, but there is a chance, albeit a small one.
Everett features a stingy "trap" defense, frustrating opponents and making it difficult for them to score goals. As they allowed only 206 opponent scores during the regular season, an average of 2.86 per game, they should be able to remain competitive every night. They're also one of the hottest teams in the WHL entering the postseason, having a 9-0-0-1 record in their past 10 games.
Seattle, on the other hand, has proven that when they're on their game and everyone on the roster is playing focused hockey, they are able to skate with the league's best. The Thunderbirds feature depth that not many teams can match, skating four lines that are more than capable of doing the jobs assigned to them.
Eastern Conference first-round upset alert
While we don't know who will face Edmonton as the eight seed it won't matter, Edmonton will move on. But there are some potential upsets waiting in the weeds in the first round.
The Regina Pats are sitting in the two slot out East by virtue of winning their division. They are matched up against the Brandon Wheat Kings, a team that only finished eight points behind the Pats and goes into the playoffs winning three in a row and six in their last ten. Regina went 3-3-2-0 against the Wheat Kings this year so this series is up for grabs. Look for Brandon to pull off the upset of the first round in the East.
Western Conference first-round upset alert
The most likely upset in the first round will be in the Spokane vs. Victoria series. Spokane, the sixth seed, has a 3-1-0-0 record against the third seed Royals. In those four matchups, the Chiefs have outscored their opponent by an 18-10 margin.
With the WHL's leading scorer in Mitch Holmberg donning Spokane colors and capable of going off on the scoresheet on any given night, a capable goaltender in Eric Williams, and depth that saw nine players score 10 or more goals, the Chiefs have the tools necessary to defeat their first round opponent.
Eastern Conference player to watch
The player who will be the most important for his team is Edmonton's Tristan Jarry. The Oil King net-minder has had an excellent year, going 44-14-2-1 this year with a goals against of 2.24 and a save percentage of .914. He was a big part in the Oil Kings giving up the fewest goals in the WHL this season.
The big question is, can he do it in the post season? Edmonton has a talented team, with tons of playoff experience under their belt -- except Jarry. The goalie spent his first two years in the WHL playing behind all-everything goalie Laurent Brossoit. In Edmonton's two WHL finals runs Jarry has appeared in one game, playing 27 minutes and making three saves. If he can hold up and be as good in the playoffs as he was in the regular season, Edmonton will be in good shape.
Western Conference player to watch
Portland's Nic Petan is a big time scorer, having finished second in the WHL with 113 points. His 1.79 points per game surpass league leader Mitch Holmberg, as Petan played in nine fewer games.
The 18-year-old center was a stud postseason last year as well when he scored 28 points in 21 games. It's hard to imagine that his numbers won't be even better this year as he is the clear-cut number one option for the offensively gifted Winterhawks. Selected in the second round of last year's NHL Entry Draft by the Winnipeg Jets, the high-scoring Petan is sure to be hungry to grab the Memorial Cup that barely eluded him last season.
Eastern Conference theme of the playoffs
The big question or theme out East will be whether or not anyone can unseat one of the big Alberta teams. Edmonton and Calgary appear to be heads and shoulders above the rest of the pack and could be looking at another Eastern Conference Finals clash, as they had last season.
Can someone knock off one, or both of them? Will Medicine Hat make a run? Are the Pats for real? Can Prince Albert sneak in on the last day and fulfill the potential they showed in the off season? These are the questions that will be answered over the next couple of months in the Eastern Conference.
Western Conference theme of the playoffs
Does anyone have a realistic shot at beating representing the West other than Kelowna or Portland?
The Rockets feature the Western Conference's second-highest scoring offense and second stingiest defense. Kelowna plays both ends of the ice extremely well and has both the stars and role players that are present on any great team.
Portland features a more top-heavy lineup than the Rockets with high-flying stars such as Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Brendan Leipsic. They've scored the most goals of any team in the entire WHL and have allowed the fourth fewest in the Western Conference. Many players on the roster were also here last season when Portland advanced to the Memorial Cup final, so they certainly have the playoff experience to carry them a long way once again.
Both teams lack major holes that underdogs would be able to exploit in a seven-game series, making it difficult to believe that these two teams won't meet in the Western Conference Finals.
Follow Tim (@tpigulski) and Andrew (@andyeide) on Twitter.
Monday, March 17, 2014 @ 9:19am
By Tim Pigulski
Not many players currently on the Thunderbirds' roster have had a taste of postseason success.
Last year, the Thunderbirds fell in dramatic fashion to Kelowna in a thrilling seven-game series. For most Thunderbirds, the matchup against the Rockets offered them their first opportunity at playoff hockey.
Even those individuals who weren't with Seattle last year will be relatively new to the playoffs, including the four players acquired from Lethbridge, none of whom have ever been on a team that made the postseason.
Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman enters this weekend's matchup versus Everett with a bigger chip on his shoulder than most. In Game 6 of the Kelowna series last season, Hickman was assessed a four-game suspension from the WHL for a checking-to-the-head penalty. As a result, he was forced to watch from the stands as his teammates failed to finish off Kelowna in Game 7.
Thunderbirds forward Russell Maxwell knows this will be his only opportunity in the WHL playoffs. (T-Birds photo)
As captain this year, the Kelowna native will have a different role on the team than he did last year. In six playoff games, he had just one assist and 11 penalty minutes. This season, playing on a line with some of the team's top scoring weapons, and being one himself, expectations will certainly be higher.
"I'll be leading by example and making sure the focus is in the right place for the guys," he said. "I take [the captaincy] humbly and try and lead by example both on and off the ice, whether it's in the gym or doing anything that Coach asks. We've got a great group of guys and everyone will be holding themselves and each other accountable."
Hickman will be getting some help in the leadership department from fellow 19-year-old Adam Henry, who was acquired from Lethbridge early in the season and was named an alternate captain by head coach Steve Konowalchuk shortly after his Seattle career began.
"My first few years in the league I didn't make it [to the playoffs] and that was devastating," Henry said of his time with Lethbridge. "Being asked to be a leader is a colossal responsibility. Number one, my defensive partner Ethan Bear is just 16, so I've been a mentor to him all year, showing him the way both on and off the ice. When things aren't going well, it's important to make sure the valleys aren't too low, and when we're doing well to make sure the mountains aren't too high. Us leaders have to make sure we're setting a good example for the younger guys."
Russell Maxwell, a 19-year-old center who was acquired at the trade deadline from the Hurricanes, knows that this will be his first and only opportunity in the WHL playoffs. Despite having one more year of eligibility, Maxwell has already made the decision to forego his final Major Junior season in order to go on a mission for his church.
"I try not to think about it too much," Maxwell said when asked about this being his last run in the WHL. "I suppose I'm definitely going to miss it but it adds some extra incentive to know that this is my last kick at the can. I'm definitely going to leave it all out there."
The undersized center finished last season as the Hurricanes' leading scorer and was poised to be in the race for the honor again this season. Since his arrival in Seattle, Maxwell has just 10 points in 29 games, but has played a vital part in Seattle's sustained success. During his brief stint, he's been asked to move around more than most to accommodate for injuries to others or to provide a spark to linemates who may have been slumping.
"It's pretty exciting, all of these games are exciting to play in," said the 5-foot-8 Maxwell. "The games all mean something and every shift means something. It's the kind of hockey you grow up watching on TV and always dream of playing in."
Both Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie were part of the same Lethbridge teams that failed to qualify for the postseason in each of the years that they were there. While Seattle's numbers during the past few seasons have been almost equally uninspiring, the improvement this season was already evident by the time the two arrived in October.
Also a couple of the Hurricanes' top scorers last year, McKechnie and Yakubowski came in and were asked to play a different role, flanking Scott Eansor on a checking line that was responsible each game for shutting down some of the WHL's most potent lines, including those led by Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic in Portland and Mitch Holmberg in Spokane.
"I'm excited, just like all of the other (Lethbridge) guys that came in," Yakubowski said on the general mood of his former and current teammates. "We're excited to get going and make a push and do as much in the playoffs as we can. The mood is different this year and we know what's at stake. All the guys in that room have what it takes to win. We're just starting to come together and we know how deep this team is and how far we can go."
McKechnie echoed Yakubowski's statements, expressing his excitement at making the playoffs for the first time.
"Right from the start of the year, it's everyone's goal to play in the playoffs. This year feels a lot different. You don't know when the season is going to end, you don't want it to end, so you're playing to stay alive and it's a great feeling."
Branden Troock, one of just two T-Birds to average a point per game this season, is another player who was unable to help his team in the postseason last year, although for different reasons than Hickman. Troock spent the majority of last season on the injured list and is sure to be hungry and healthy entering the postseason this year.
Goaltender Taran Kozun, despite being on Kamloops Blazers teams that made the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, didn't face a single shot, as he was the primary backup each year. This season, firmly entrenched as the T-Birds' number one goalie, Kozun will be looking forward to leading his team to victory from between the pipes.
With so many different backgrounds on this year's Thunderbirds roster, the goal remains the same: focus on the game at hand and leave everything on the ice.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.
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