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Justin Hickman is one of the T-Birds who had an improved 2013-2014 (T-Birds photo)

By Andrew Eide

In the moments following Seattle's Game 4 loss to the Kelowna Rockets last week nobody was thinking about how good of a season the T-Birds had just completed. The disappointment of the series loss was all anyone really could think about.

Time heals all wounds and now that some time has passed, head coach Steve Konowalchuk can look back on the season his Thunderbirds just went through and acknowledge the success. The team achieved it's pre-season goal of securing home ice advantage and the players on the roster came together to turn in an exciting season.

Seattle improved from 24 wins to 41, which was one of the best improvements in the WHL this past season. It wasn't easy however, as the team struggled through some adversity. The first such instance was a losing streak in November. Seattle had started well only to suddenly lose five straight, some of them in ugly fashion.

They took their five-game losing streak to Vancouver Island to play the Victoria Royals. The losing streak would extend to six in an overtime loss, but the next night the T-Birds played strong, broke the streak and were off and running.

"It was a lot of looking in the mirror and some honesty with some guys in the locker room," Konowalchuk said of the Vancouver Island turn around. "It was some pretty serious meetings about the kind of work that was going to be needed to go forward and if guys weren't going to do that then they weren't going to get the ice time they would like. I thought from that point on we started playing better."

They did play better. After that weekend they went on to win eight of their next ten games -- the ship had been righted.

Seattle would fight through another strange and tough stretch after the holidays. Faced with numerous injuries, and missing players due to tournaments, they limped through an Eastern swing that saw them get blown out in nearly every game. Once again however, the team bounced back as players returned to the lineup.

"It builds confidence, it builds character," Konowalchuk said of the adversity. "Even through the losing patches you can learn, you can push yourself to dig deeper. We were missing guys, guys had to step up and get more ice time. They had a chance for a bigger role and guys had to elevate their games. When you get everybody back together it makes you that much better."

Another blow that Seattle was able to overcome was the loss of winger Connor Honey. Injured in his seventh game of the season, the highly competitive and emotional forward never could get back in the lineup. He was the team's second leading scorer from the year before and was off to a good start.

"That's a big loss, no doubt about it," Konowalchuk says of Honey. "He's a top line player in the Western Hockey League and if you take any top line player off any team it's a blow. It happened early enough that guys were able to step up."

Guys did step up, and new guys were brought in. Ryan Gropp signed with the club and the team raided the cupboards of the Lethbridge Hurricanes. During the season the T-Birds made three trades with the struggling Hurricanes, bringing in Adam Henry, Jaimen Yakubowski, Sam McKechnie and Russell Maxwell to help bolster their roster. All four players were big for Seattle and played huge roles the rest of the way.

"I think Russ (Farwell) did a good job of getting guys in that wanted to play a high pace, highly competitive 200-foot game," Konowalchuk said. "I think he did a good job putting those pieces in place this year. Also with guys who can move the puck from the back end to become a quick transition team.

That's the style we want to play here, we did a good job of getting those kind of guys and to get the guys we already had playing at that level."

The T-Birds played a lot of young rookies in big spots this year. Coming into the season, Mathew Barzal had the highest profile of them all and he didn't disappoint. Barzal chipped in 54 points in his 58 games with the T-Birds and displayed his high-end talent, a talent that has people excited for his future. Konowalchuk liked what he saw as well, although admitted that his top end 16-year-old had some learning to do when he came in.

"I thought he grew up as the year went on," He said. "He has a high skill level which everybody sees, with that comes some minor hockey habits, where he was able to do whatever he wanted in minor hockey. As far as his style of play and long shifts and different areas of the game with the puck."

As the season wore on Barzal's game got stronger. He started improving on those old habits and his game was the better for it. In the second half of the year Konowalchuk put him on a line with Justin Hickman and Ryan Gropp. Those three developed chemistry and were one of Seattle's best lines. Gropp was another key rookie that Seattle relied on for big minutes during the season.

It took Gropp some time to get used to his new team and league but once he did, everyone saw the talent that made him a high first round Bantam pick.

"He continued to get better," Konowalchuk said. "Real elite skill level, he's a real good kid to work with and willing to do what ever you ask him. If you want to push him he responds with a good attitude."

Seattle also got big contributions from Ethan Bear on the back end. Konowalchuk praised Bear's poise and consistency -- something you don't see often in a 16-year-old defenseman. Keegan Kolesar, another first round draft pick, played on the fourth line for most of the season but Konowalchuk felt that he started to elevate his game as the season wore on.

All of these rookies give the team some excitement for next year. They are also key because the T-Birds have some decisions to make with their 19-year-olds. The T-Birds ended the year with ten of them and only three are able to return next year as 20-year-olds.

Some decisions will be made for the T-Birds. Maxwell has already informed the team he will not return as he attends to a mission for his church. Branden Troock signed a contract with the Dallas Stars this week which means he will most likely be in the AHL next season. Alex Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs will also most likely be gone as teams rarely use their over-age slot on European players.

One of the wild cards is captain Justin Hickman, who turned in the best year of his career. Hickman's play ended up earning him an amateur try out with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, who are the New York Islanders farm club. Konowalchuk concedes there is a chance his captain will end up in a pro camp to start the year. It's a great chance for Hickman, who Konowalchuk feels has a lot of potential.

"He's good, had a good year but I still don't think he believes how good he can be," Konowalchuk says. "To see him go up there (AHL) and get a little more confidence and even seeing how high end guys prepare for the game will be good for him."

Another player who's future might dictate what Seattle does with their 20's is Shea Theodore. While he will only be 19 next year, he is a first round draft pick coming off a monster year.

"Very good season," Konowalchuk said of Theodore. "To get the amount of points he had, to be a plus season playing against the other team's top line, that's a pretty nice goal. He worked hard to be better defensively and he was, he was good for us. He was probably one of our top two players."

While the coach says that usually 19-year-old defenseman don't stick in the NHL unless they're going to play regularly, there is still the chance that Seattle loses Theodore. It's not unprecedented. Former Moose Jaw warrior Morgan Rielly stuck with the Toronto Maple Leafs this year, as a 19-year-old defenseman.

Konowalchuk likes to see his guys get these chances as it helps build a culture of winning and success with the club. Over the past three years that culture has been growing with each season's improvement. For the younger players, it's now the norm.

"They've learned what it takes to win," Konowalchuk says of his younger players. "Even this year, when we experienced some adversity, how hard you have to work to turn that thing around, to get the momentum going. It's not ok to lose, if you want to be a professional or competitive athlete, you can't accept that. It shouldn't be any fun to not go out and perform your best and not win hockey games. I think our players understand that."

With the influx of young players this past season, the future looks good for Seattle. Konowalchuk sees no reason to lower their expectations or goals moving forward.

"We want to keep the culture," he said. "The whole culture of winning and expectations, expecting yourself to win every game is set. That's what we have to continue. I believe that home ice should be our goal again next year. We want to eventually win a Memorial Cup here. That's our goal."

How long before training camp starts?

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.

tbirds
Shea Theodore was the Thunderbirds' Most Valuable Player and best defenseman in 2013-14. (Thunderbirds photo)

By Tim Pigulski

Now that the Thunderbirds season is over, it's time to take a look back at the 2013-14 campaign. First up is postseason awards.

Most Valuable Player: Shea Theodore

There wasn't much of a contest here, but there may have been if goaltender Taran Kozun had spent the entire season with the team and performed the same way he did after his acquisition. The Thunderbirds had a number of important players, but none more so than Theodore, who not only led the team in points with 79 in 70 contests, but also often played against the opposition's top scorers.

While no one has questioned his offensive ability, Theodore's play in his own zone has been viewed as a work in progress since his arrival in the league. There are still questions surrounding Theodore's decision-making, but he was undoubtedly a much better player this season than he was last year.

A first-round draft choice of the Anaheim Ducks last season, Theodore was recently called up to the Ducks' AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, where is scoreless in three games so far. As a 19-year-old next season, Theodore will have to either play in the NHL or with the Thunderbirds, so it's a good bet he will return, although not a 100 percent certainty.

Playoff MVP: Scott Eansor

The rookie from Colorado tied for the team lead during the postseason with four goals in nine games, most of which came at opportune times. Perhaps more importantly, he was lined up against both Everett's and Kelowna's top offensive lines and performed admirably. Against the Silvertips, he, along with Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie, shut down Everett's only real offensive threats in Josh Winquist, Jujhar Khaira, and Ivan Nikolishin. Towards the end of the series, 'Tips coach Kevin Constantine was forced to separate his scoring line in an effort to avoid the T-Birds' checking line led by Eansor.

Rookie of the Year: Mathew Barzal

Barzal entered his rookie season with the fanfare of few prospects before him. He met expectations, averaging nearly a point per game with 54 in 59 contests. As the season progressed, so did his 200-foot game, making Barzal an impact player at both ends of the ice. Rookies often take a good amount of time to adjust to the league, but Barzal's adjustment period was brief and he never really showed the timidity often expected of newcomers. Next season, in his draft year, Barzal should make a big jump and perhaps could be the first T-Bird to surpass 100 points since Bret DeCecco during the 1998-1999 season.

Ryan Gropp deserves an honorable mention here, and may have even earned our top rookie honor had he spent the entire year with the team. With 42 points in 59 games, Gropp should join Barzal in creating a formidable 17-year-old tandem next season.

Top Newcomer: Taran Kozun

He only spent about half of the season with the Thunderbirds, but the goaltender from Nipawin, Saskatchewan's impact was undeniable. In a tight race for home-ice advantage that lasted through the regular season's final weekend, Kozun's four shutouts end up looking like the difference between fourth and fifth place. He compiled a 14-9-0-1 regular season record during his time in Seattle en route to winning multiple CHL awards.

When Kozun was acquired, it looked like he may be a rental player who could help the team this year in their push for the playoffs. However, after his impressive performance at the end of the year, Kozun could certainly be in the running for one of the team's three overage spots next season.

Player Who Will Be Missed Most: Russell Maxwell

This could change as this roster will look much different in a few months, but as of right now, the only players guaranteed to be leaving are Mitch Elliot, who graduates from the league, and Maxwell, who is forgoing his final season of eligibility for religious reasons.

Elliot's commitment to the team and fans, both on and off the ice, is undeniable and certainly deserves recognition. But Maxwell's addition at the trade deadline proved extremely important for the team, especially when Eansor went down with injury. The 19-year-old center was able to play in all situations and adjusted quickly when he was asked to move back and forth between offensive and defensive roles. He had 10 points in 29 regular season games with Seattle and was a +6, then improved on those numbers in the playoffs where he had seven points in nine games.

Top Forward: Justin Hickman

While he may have been outscored by the likes of Alex Delnov, Branden Troock, Barzal, and Roberts Lipsbergs, Hickman was a consistent contributor in every situation. Playing with two talented rookies in Barzal and Gropp, the big forward was tasked with being their protector on the ice, but also was counted on to create space for the younger players to allow them to work their magic.

Hickman scored, killed penalties, fought, delivered bone-crushing hits, and captained the team to their best playoff performance in over five years. As a result, he received an Amateur Tryout Contract from the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers, which increases the chance that Hickman won't return next year as a 20-year-old, which would be a huge loss on and off the ice for the T-Birds.

Top Defenseman: Shea Theodore

It's easy to look at Theodore's offensive contributions to know how valuable he is to the team, but his improvements in his own zone this season deserve to be called out as well. There is certainly still work to be done, but Theodore, along with defensive partner Jerret Smith, often played against their opponent's best scorers, something they weren't asked to do in past years. The improved competition makes Theodore's high point total even more impressive.

He still needs some work in his decision making, but Theodore's outstanding skating ability allows him to cover for many of his mistakes. If Theodore returns next season, which appears likely at this point, he'll be one of the top defensemen in the entire WHL.

Most Improved Player: Keegan Kolesar

Kolesar is the type of player who usually has difficulty adjusting to the better competition in the Western Hockey League. He's a big, strong player whose foot speed needed work if he was going to achieve what was expected out of him as a first-round draft choice.

At the beginning of the season Kolesar often looked overmatched, but during the season's final weekend he was one of the Thunderbirds' best players. If he continues to work as hard during the offseason as he did during the regular season, he'll greatly improve on his eight points in 60 games next season.

All of Seattle's rookies deserve an honorable mention here, including Barzal, Gropp, Eansor, and defenseman Ethan Bear. All five made huge strides since the beginning of the season as they became dependable players that coach Steve Konowalchuk could count on.

Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski

T-birds-rockets
Justin Hickman shakes hands with Kelowna's Tyrell Goulbourne after the Rockets eliminated Seattle. (T-Birds photo)

By Andrew Eide

KENT – After one of their most successful campaigns in several years, the Seattle Thunderbirds' season has come to an end.

As has been the theme of their entire series against Kelowna, the T-Birds could not cash in on the chances they generated and fell to the Rockets 5-2 Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center. Kelowna got two points from Damon Severson and once again relied on its depth, along with 42 saves by goalie Jordon Cooke, to complete the series sweep.

"Their goalie played well," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "I thought we played a fairly strong game, their guys capitalized more than ours. Congratulations to them, they were the better team."

The T-Birds pushed hard in this game, playing desperate hockey, but struggled to find the big goal they needed to stay alive. Seattle again was given several power-play chances and once again couldn't take advantage. A big turning point, one that was the epitome of the series, was the start of the season's final 20 minutes.

Trailing 2-1 going into the third period, the T-Birds had 2:45 seconds left of a power play that carried over from the second period after Ryan Olsen was given a double minor for high sticking. This was Seattle's big chance to try and get the game even. The T-Birds worked the puck around and came close a couple of times but Cooke either made a save, or the puck just bounced off a Seattle stick.

In the end, Kelowna killed off the penalty and Seattle lost a great deal of momentum, and maybe hope.

"That's the game," Konowalchuk said of the extended power-play chance. "You get momentum. Their special teams were a lot better than ours, that's another big part of this series."

It was like that all series long. The T-Birds ended the night 1-for-7 on the power play and have to feel that they could have won this game. The contrasts in special teams was evident again on Wednesday as the Rockets converted on two of their five power-play chances. For the series, Seattle was 2 for 22 with the man advantage.

The frustrating thing for the T-Birds is that they were in this series. The Rockets did not dominate possession or the play territorially. Instead, Kelowna simply scored when it got a chance to and Seattle could not.

"That makes it frustrating," Konowalchuk said. "We could have been better. We didn't have the same desperation, same passion as the first series. I talked to the guys, we've got to use this as a learning experience and there are some pretty upset guys in that locker room right now. They're young men so I hope they use it as a learning experience."

Seattle didn't roll over in Game 4. The T-Birds played hard, played like their backs were against the wall, but in the end they had dug too deep of a hole against a team that had the best record in the WHL all year.

The T-Birds did manage to get their first lead of the series after an Ethan Bear power-play goal in the first period. The 16-year-old defenseman fired a wrist shot past Cooke for his second playoff tally. The problem for Seattle is that it couldn't build on that lead.

Not that Seattle didn't have its chances. The T-Birds pushed and just missed on several golden opportunities -- the theme of the series.

In the second period the Rockets struck back. First Severson scored his fourth goal of the series as he turned in the high slot and fired a shot that deflected off a Seattle player and past goalie Taran Kozun. Two minutes later, Cole Linaker gave Kelowna the lead as he stuffed home a wrap-around goal for his fourth goal of the postseason.

After Seattle failed on its early power-play attempt in the third period, the Rockets went in for the kill.

Kelowna got goals from Marek Tvrdon and Tyson Baillie to build a 4-1 lead that would end up sending the T-Birds home. Seattle got the game closer when Sam McKechnie scored with just under 5 minutes left, but when Nick Merkley slid the puck into an empty T-Birds net with under 30 seconds to go, the celebration was on for Kelowna.

The Rockets were clearly the better team in this series but the T-Birds played with a little less intensity than they had in their first-round series with Everett. They have to feel that, at the minimum, this series could have been closer than the four-game sweep indicates it was.

Afterwards, Konowalchuk talked about this being a learning experience for his players.

"Some are going to be back here playing juniors, some are moving on to pro hockey," he said of his players. "If they don't think, that in this series, they didn't give it everything they've got every game, this should hurt. But they can learn from it, that's what this is all about, learning from it. Because I think we could have been a better team in the second round."

In the end, the loss caps off a season that was ultimately a successful one, despite the disappointment on Wednesday. The T-Birds won 41 games, ended up with home-ice advantage in the first round, and beat one of their biggest rivals in the first round of the playoffs. There will be plenty of time to reflect on that, but on Wednesday night, the loss was still too fresh, too raw.

"I'm upset right now, I don't want to be too negative on the whole year," Konowalchuk said. "I told the guys I'm proud of our regular season, played a real good team in the first round and competed real hard. As proud as I am, I'm disappointed right now ... its going to take a few days to sit back, see where we fell in and see if we're satisfied or not."

Notes

• The T-Birds' struggles on the power play hurt them in this series and has been a constant against Kelowna. The Rockets feature the league's best penalty kill and over the last two postseasons have only allowed Seattle to go 2 for 49 on the power play. That is as big a reason as any why they have moved on two years in a row.

• The T-Birds had several players who played their final game in a Seattle sweater on Wednesday night – we just don't know which ones. With 10 19-year-olds on their roster, they will have to say goodbye to several players. Which three return as 20-year-olds next season will be one of the most intriguing offseason stories to watch.

• The Rockets will now move on to the Western Conference Finals. They will play the winner of the Victoria-Portland series. Portland leads that series 3-1 and the Winterhawks can close it out Thursday when they host the Royals in Portland.

• One player that the T-Birds did say goodbye to was Mitch Elliot. The tough and gritty 20-year-old was a fan favorite and played 322 games for Seattle in his WHL career.

• We will take a look back over this series and the past season over the next week, so check back to the blog for more.

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

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Seattle's Justin Hickman battles Colton Heffley during Kelowna's 5-4 win Tuesday. (T-Birds photo)

By Andrew Eide

KENT – After a late third-period rally came up just short, the Seattle Thunderbirds find themselves on the brink of elimination.

The Kelowna Rockets built a three-goal lead on the strength of their special teams and held on to beat the T-Birds 5-4 in front of 5,029 fans at the ShoWare Center Tuesday night. The win gives the Rockets a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Rockets' depth was also key again as their five goals came from five different players.

The T-Birds will now have to win on Wednesday night if they want to extend the series.

"It's do or die, right," Justin Hickman said. "Leave it all on the line tomorrow."

The story in Game 3 was much the same as it has been all series – Seattle couldn't cash in on its chances and Kelowna seemingly cashed in on every chance.

"The effort is there," Adam Henry said. "The chances are there, but obviously we didn't get them in the back of the net enough to win the game."

The T-Birds had 10 power-play chances on the night but could only cash in on one of them. By contrast, the Rockets scored on two of their three power-play chances.

"We had some chances, their goalie made some good saves," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said about the power play. "They've got a good penalty kill and then when we did have some chances, we didn't put them in."

Much like in Game 2, the T-Birds came out and were the better team early and were generating chances and drawing penalties. On two different occasions in the first 10 minutes, they found themselves up two men, and still could not score.

They came close on one occasion as Shea Theodore ripped a slap shot that hit the cross bar only to rebound harmlessly out of the net. It's been that kind of series for Seattle.

"We haven't had a lead against these guys yet," Konowalchuk said. "That was a four-on-three there. If we score there, we get the lead and it sure helps the game go in our direction a little bit."

Not much has gone in Seattle's direction during this series.

Late in the period the Rockets got their first power play and capitalized as Ryan Olsen redirected a Damon Severson shot up over Taran Kozun's shoulder. Seattle would surrender a tough goal just a minute later as Tyrell Goulbourne took an innocent looking shot that somehow got past Kozun's blocker.

"That's a tough goal to give up for our team there," Konowalchuk said of Goulbourne's tally. "Faceoff in their end and to come right down and score, we stumble at the red line ... it's a tough goal."

That goal came with less than a minute left in the first period and once again put the T-Birds in a hole – where they have been for the entire series.

"Definitely it's frustrating," Henry said. "I think the last two games of the series we came out with really good first periods and they've got a two-goal lead, it's definitely tough on morale."

The T-Birds were given four more power-play chances in the second period but the league's best penalty-kill unit kept them off the board again. Seattle cut the lead to one when Ethan Bear got a slap shot to trickle through Jordon Cooke, but the Rockets would answer right back with two more quick strikes by Tyson Baillie and Madison Bowey to build a 4-1 lead.

From there the T-Birds were in desperation mode and not just for the game, but for their playoff lives.

In the third period, Henry gave the T-Birds life when his slapper beat Cooke to once again get Seattle to within two. As they have all series, however, the Rockets struck right back with a Justin Kirkland goal.

That has been a constant in this series – Seattle cuts the lead only to have the Rockets take it right back.

"We get a little momentum going and then they make a big play," Konowalchuk said. "Its tough. They've done a good job with that."

The T-Birds made a late flurry as they finally started to play with desperation. Hickman scored on the power play and then with just over a minute left in the game, and the Seattle net empty, Alex Delnov scored his fourth playoff goal to get the T-Birds to within one.

"Obviously in the third we generated chances," Hickman said. "We've got to bring that to the game tomorrow."

Shortly after the Delnov goal, a mad scramble at the Rockets' end left the net empty with Cooke behind the net. The puck floated through the crease and in a fitting fashion, there was no Seattle player there to capitalize on that chance. The game would end a few seconds later.

So now the T-Birds face an enormous uphill battle. They will attempt to do what only two teams have ever done in the WHL Playoffs – come back from a 3-0 deficit to win. The last time it was done, of course, was just last year when Kelowna did it against the T-Birds.

"If you look back to last year, I wasn't here, but Seattle was in the driver's seat," Henry said. "We all know what happened, so its not over until it's over. It's a seven-game series for a reason and we're not going to give up."

The team's captain agreed.

"It's not impossible," Hickman added. "It's a seven-game series, you've got to win four and they've won three. Credit to them, they've taken care of the business so far. We're just focusing on one game at a time.

Wednesday's Game 4 is at the ShoWare Center and starts at 7 p.m..

Notes

• Once again the T-Birds struggled on defense and allowed too many easy goals for Kelowna. Most of their scores were open back-door tap-ins. Konowalchuk feels that the team still needs to improve its play away from the puck to keep the Rockets from getting free.

• Delnov has now scored a goal in four straight playoff games.

• Seattle is now a frustrating 1-for-18 on the power play in this series. This is after going 0-for-27 in last year's seven-game series with Kelowna. The Rockets have the league's top penalty kill, but you have to think if Seattle can get anything going with the man advantage this series might be different.

Ethan Bear scored his first WHL Playoff goal, but he didn't see it. He took a slap shot and then turned to make a change. As the puck trickled in the net he heard the crowd and seemed surprised that he had scored.

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

By Andrew Eide

Despite a much better effort Saturday night, the Seattle Thunderbirds find themselves returning home in a two-game hole.

Kelowna used a three-goal second period along with 36 saves by goalie Jordon Cooke to beat the T-Birds 6-3 in Game 2 of their best-of-seven series. The Rockets got goals from six different players and now have a 2-0 lead in the series as it heads back to the ShoWare Center.

The T-Birds played better in Game 2 than they did on Thursday but once again suffered one bad period that put the game out of reach.

On Saturday, the game was lost in the second period.

"We didn't play a good second period," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "The goals were on just too big of breakdowns, and it's not that they're coming at us the whole game but they're causing big breakdowns and we're not good enough away from the puck."

Seattle outshot Kelowna 18-7 to start the game and headed into the second tied at two and feeling good about their game. The Rockets would soon put that feeling to rest as they struck three times on 17 shots to build a big three-goal lead.

It started on the power play when Damon Severson scored his third of the series as he skated between the circles and beat Taran Kozun with a wrist shot. Just over two minutes later Cole Linaker scored after Seattle failed to clear a rebound from out in front.

Later in the period, Rourke Chartier found another rebound loose in the slot and banged home his fifth playoff goal to give the Rockets a lead they would not relinquish.

In the first two games, controlling rebounds has been an issue for the Seattle defense. Too many times the Rockets have scored after the initial save by Kozun because no T-Birds players were able to find the puck and clear it out.

"You've got to be on your guy so they can't find the rebound," Konowalchuk said about the rebounds. "When you get away, you're too puck-focused, and you've got to be on your guy and know where your guy is at."

The three-goal outburst by the Rockets killed what had been a good start for Seattle. They controlled most of the play in the first twenty minutes and generated numerous scoring chances. If not for several great saves by Cooke, Seattle easily could have scored four goals.

Despite that start they still fell behind 2-0 early on. Kelowna only had three good chances in the period but managed to score on two of them. The first was on a two-on-one break that resulted in Riley Stadel scoring an easy goal. Later, after Seatle failed to clear the puck, Nick Merkley potted his first playoff goal from the side of the net.

The early deficit didn't phase the T-Birds, however, as they quickly got right back in it. Brandon Troock made a nice pass from the goal line to a wide open Roberts Lipsbergs, who scored on the back hand. Two minutes later Scott Eansor swooped into the slot and picked up a loose puck to score his fourth of the playoffs.

Just like that the T-Birds had tied the game and had all the momentum – something they seemed to lose in the intermission.

Seattle out shot Kelowna again in the third period, and Alex Delnov scored to cut the lead to 5-3. That was as close as they would get, however. With Kozun on the bench, Tyrell Goulbourne stole the puck and skated up ice for an easy empty-net tally to close out the scoring and the game.

Despite the loss, there was some positives for the T-Birds. They were skating toe-to-toe with the Rockets for two-thirds of the game, which is something they might be able to build on for Game 3 on Tuesday.

"The first and third were good periods," Konowalchuk said. "Again, it wasn't that they came at us the whole game. We had a lot of chances and scored a few goals, but we have to continue that and then correct our defensive mistakes."

The defensive mistakes have been killers. Failing to clear rebounds and allowing odd-man rushes because of breakdowns have been key to the two losses so far. With a team as skilled as the Rockets, the T-Birds cannot afford to make things easy for them.

"You've got to stick with the structure," Konowalchuk said of the breakdowns. "You've got to be smarter away from the puck."

So Seattle now heads home trailing by two games – the exact opposite of last year's series with the Rockets when they led by two as the series returned to Kent. The T-Birds are far from dead, however, as they have a chance to win two home games and get the series back to even.

"We've got to win the next game, that's our next focus," Konowalchuk said. "At home, we're a better home team. We've got to play better than we did here. Now we've got to take care of our home ice."

Game 3 is Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center and face off is at 7:05 P.M.

Notes

• Seattle was without Jaimen Yakubowski on Saturday as the gritty winger suffered an undisclosed injury in the first period of Game 1 on Thursday. The injury allowed rookie Lane Pederson to get into his first WHL playoff game. Konowalchuk liked how Pederson played, going as far as saying he was better than some of the T-Birds regulars and will play again on Tuesday if Yakubowski is still out.

• Kelowna was again without their regular season leading scorer Myles Bell, who suffered a lower body injury in the opening round against Tri City.

• Delnov has now scored a goal in each of the last three playoff games.

• The Rockets went 1-for-3 on the power play Saturday and now have scored a goal in every one of their playoff games this year.

Mathew Barzal scored his first career WHL playoff goal in Game 1. His counterpart for Kelowna, 16-year-old Nick Merkley, scored his first for the Rockets on Saturday.

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide

By Andrew Eide

The Kelowna Rockets landed a first big punch Thursday night to let the Thunderbirds know that they weren't going to overlook them again this year.

The Rockets capitalized on Seattle penalties and two goals from Damon Severson to win going away 6-2 at Prospera Place in Kelowna. The win gives the Rockets the early 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series and leaves the T-Birds licking their wounds a bit. Seattle got a goal from Mathew Barzal and Alex Delnov but made it too easy for Kelowna.

Nothing went well for Seattle in this game. They gave Kelowna six power play chances which led to three power play goals for the Rockets in the first half of the game. On top of that, the T-Birds were disorganized in their own end for most of the night, which led to numerous odd man chances.

"Surprised and upset," is how head coach Steve Konowalchuk described his feelings on the night.

The mistakes started early for Seattle as Kelowna scored two goals in the first five minutes of the game. The first came on the tail end of a Seattle power play as Tyrell Goulbourne raced down the ice and took a shot that Taran Kozun stopped. The problem was nobody from Seattle picked up Cole Linaker who banged home the rebound.

While not technically a short handed goal, it had the same affect as one. Two minutes later, the T-Birds penalty parade began and Rourke Chartier deposited a loose puck past Kozun to build the early two-goal lead.

Seattle picked up a bit of momentum up half way through the period when a Rockets turnover led to a two-on-one chance for Mathew Barzal and Justin Hickman. The two passed the puck back and forth and Barzal beat Jordon Cooke for his first career WHL playoff goal.

Any momentum picked up by that goal was soon erased as Seattle went short handed again and Severson scored his first of the night from the point. Just like that it was 3-1, all in the first period.

"Our power play gives up a shortie and then they score two power play goals," Konowalchuk said. "That's their first three goals and its not good enough."

On the night the T-Birds gave up six more power plays, something that has been a common theme in the playoffs. In their six games, Seattle has been short handed 31 times and have allowed eight goals. The T-Birds want to play physical hockey, but they have to stay disciplined.

"A combination of everything, selfish penalties, we were a little bit too aggressive," Konowalchuk said of the penalties. "I didn't like a couple of calls either. They embellished a couple of times and got the call, that can't happen this time of year, but we deserved a couple."

Seattle's penalty kill struggled early in this game, giving up the three goals on Kelowna's first four power play attempts. They have now given up four power play goals in their last fourteen short handed attempts. With the fire power that Kelowna has, allowing that many chances can only spell doom.

"We weren't there to clean up in front of the net," Konowalchuk said of his penalty kill. "We didn't block a shot, just weren't desperate enough."

In the second period there was another moment where Seattle could have climbed back in the game. Three minutes into the second Delnov beat Cooke with a wrist shot from the face off circle for his second playoff score. That cut the lead back down to one and gave the T-Birds some hope. Sam McKechnie then broke down ice on a clear break away, got a shot off but could not beat Cooke, who made a nice save.

That kept Seattle from tying the game and the wheels would start to fall off later in the period.

Kelowna picked up their third power play goal with just under seven minutes left in the period when Ryan Olsen scored. Then, with less than a minute left, Madison Bowey flung a shot from the point that found its way past Kozun to give the Rockets a 5-2 lead heading into the third.

Any hope the T-Birds might have had for a miracle comeback was dashed 24 seconds into the third period when Severson scored his second of the night after he weaved around a Seattle forward to give himself room.

In the end, the disorganization in Seattle's end allowed far too many quality scoring chances for Kelowna. The Rockets feature the league's second best offense and capitalized often Thursday night.

"Any time you give up six goals it's not good," Konowalchuk said. "There's a lot of stuff we've got to work on five-on-five, special teams."

The T-Birds will now have a day off to clear this game away, fix the issues they had and get back to their game plan for Game 2 on Saturday. Despite the score, this was just one loss and in the end it won't matter what the spread was if Seattle can bounce back.

"We've got to go and win the next game," Konowalchuk said. "We've got to correct our mistakes and win the next game. That's what we've got to go do. It is only one loss but we've got to go win the next game, and get going."

Game 2 is Saturday at Prospera Place in Kelowna and face off is at 7:05 P.M.

Notes

The 31 power plays that Seattle has allowed is the second most in the playoffs so far. They trail the eliminated Calgary Hitmen who allowed 36 in their six-game opening round loss to Kootenay.

The Rockets feature a good number of high powered forwards in their lineup but are driven by their back end. Thursday they picked up three goals from defenseman as Severson had two and Bowey one.

Seattle was 0-for-3 on the power play and have not scored a post season power play goal against the Rockets in 30 straight attempts.

Justin Hickman had an assist on Thursday night but the Kelowna native has yet to score a goal at Prospera Place (Stick tap to Rockets broadcaster Regan Bartell for the stat).

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

McKechnie

The T-Birds are in Kelowna tonight to kick off the second round of the WHL playoffs (Thunderbirds photo)

By Andrew Eide

The Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets open their second round best-of-seven playoff series this evening at Prospera Place in Kelowna. It's a series that has a lot of people talking about last year's exciting and wildly entertaining seven game masterpiece.

Will it be that good again?

It certainly seems that it will. Last year the Rockets were 50 points ahead of the seventh seeded T-Birds and nobody really expected much from the series. Seattle managed to get the league's attention after taking the first three games, all in overtime.

This year, Seattle is better and Kelowna has managed to improve after an excellent year last year as well. While still the underdog, nobody is going to be surprised by Seattle making this a tough series again.

"I think we're not as big an underdog as last year that's for sure," Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk says of the match up. "Last year we weren't supposed to win a game. I think this year people are expecting it to be a good series. They're still the favorite, they're the first place team in the Western Hockey League and I think number one in the CHL most of the year. They're still going to be the favorite but I think this year people are expecting a good series."

These teams are pretty familiar with each other. The seven games last spring plus the four regular season tilts this year give each a good idea of what the other brings. Looking at the Kelowna roster, it's pretty similar to the strong team that Seattle faced last year.

"It's a similar team," Konowalchuk says. "I mean they're just a year better, you can say the same thing about us, we're a year better. They've added Merkely and we've added Barzal. I think we've probably had a few more changes throughout the year. They're a pretty similar team, real good depth, four lines, six D and two good goalies."

When asked if there was one player that Seattle had to worry about shutting down in this series, Konowalchuk laughed and said "a bunch". Looking at the Rockets its easy to see why that would be his answer. They score a lot of goals and were the second leading scoring team in the WHL during the regular season. They have six players who topped the twenty goal mark and can roll more than one line at you.

During the Everett series the Scott Eansor line was huge for Seattle, shutting down Everett's scoring line. Against Kelowna, Seattle's other three lines will have to step it up as well.

"We're going to make sure we're playing our game," Konowalchuk says. "Every line's got to make sure they're doing their job against the line they're matched up against. We want to make sure we're managing the puck well, playing the cycle game, probably nothing different than the last series."

One line for Seattle to watch is the Mathew Barzal line. Barzal, along with Justin Hickman and Ryan Gropp are not going to play the same way that Eansor, Sam McKechnie, and Jaimen Yakubowski play. Barzal's line will have to fight skill with skill. Something that has worked well for them at times this year, most recently in Game 5 against Everett's Josh Winquist.

"All their lines can score," Konowalchuk says about Kelowna. "So they've (Barzal's line) got to be able to score without being scored on and try to come out a plus line each night. Whether you get matched up against (Tyson) Baillie, (Rourke) Chartier or (Ryan) Olsen, tough match ups."

Kelowna presents a bigger problem than just their group of talented forwards. They have a tough and experienced defense group that all can move the puck and are really the engine to the Rockets offense. Guys like Madison Bowey and Damon Severson are just as good moving the puck as they are in their own end, defending.

"They still move the puck up really well," Konowalchuk says of the Rockets defense. "They lead the rush, they join the rush with their defense to move the puck up to their forwards. Very quick transition team and a good puck possession team."

Seattle's game plan should come as no surprise. As they did against Everett, they will try to get the puck deep and give the Rockets all they can handle from a physical stand point. They had some success against Kelowna in last year's series wearing down the Rockets. They will need to do that again.

"We want to try and make it a seven game series," Konowalchuk says. "We want to try and extend the series as long as we can. If we can be physical right from the start, maybe we can wear them down. That's kind of our mindset and worry about what we do for the first shift of the series might pay dividends on the last shift."

With the playoffs last year -- and the tight four game series during the regular season this year -- we should be in for some exciting hockey. The more times two teams are faced off in big games, the higher the emotions rise.

"I think there's some emotion between the two teams," Konowalchuk says. "I felt that in the regular season games. Playoffs start rivalries, and it seems that we have a bit of a rivalry between these teams. We only played them four times but they were pretty spirited affairs. I don't think it will be any less than that, we want to make sure we are really disciplined and keep our emotions in check."

Seattle will have to keep their emotions in check and avoid taking too many costly penalties. With the fire power that the Rockets can put on the ice for the power play the T-Birds will sink their chances if they spend a great deal of time short handed.

With Kelowna having home ice advantage, Seattle is going to have to win at least one game at Kelowna, something that doesn't happen very often. Seattle's has had some success up there however, winning twice in last year's series and once this year.

"We're going to have to win one there," Konowalchuk says. "It is tough, tough to get one up there but we're going to have to get one at some point if we're going to have a chance at the series."

After dispatching the Everett Silvertips the T-Birds now know they are four wins away from playing for the conference title. They have a huge obstacle in front of them however and they will need to come out playing some of the sharpest hockey they have all season. After winning the first series, they should be ready to go.

"They're looking forward to the games," Konowalchuk says of his guys. "This time of year practice is a little tougher. You don't want to do as much physical stuff, more technical. You want to save your energy and get ready to get going here."

It's game day, it's time to get going.

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

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Alex Delnov, who had just one goal in Seattle's opening-round series, will need to step up against Kelowna. (T-Birds)

By Tim Pigulski

The regular season couldn't have gone much better for the Kelowna Rockets, who finished with the WHL's best record and found themselves ranked atop most polls as not only the best team in the Western Hockey League, but the entire Canadian Hockey League.

For Seattle, there were some definite high and low points, but overall it was a very good season. The T-Birds recorded 30 more points during the regular season than they did last year, including 17 more wins. With that improvement, they finished fourth in the Western Conference, giving them home-ice advantage in the first round, which Seattle made the most of in defeating rival Everett four games to one.

However, none of that matters now, as the T-Birds and Rockets are set for a rematch of last year's historic first-round series. As the conference's top seed, Kelowna will have home-ice advantage, but if the T-Birds are able to do a few things they have a chance to upset one of the top teams in major junior hockey.

Play with an edge, but smart. For the T-Birds to be successful against a very good Kelowna team, they're going to need to assert themselves physically. If they can play like they did in Game 5 versus Everett, when they set the tone with a few big open-ice hits but were penalized only once, they'll put the Rockets back on their heels and control the tempo of the game.

Players like Evan Wardley, Jared Hauf, Mitch Elliot, Jaimen Yakubowski, Justin Hickman, Branden Troock, and Keegan Kolesar will be important in this series. Each is capable of changing the momentum of a game when they throw their weight around. However, it's also important that these players (and everyone else) stay out of the penalty box. In Seattle's only loss in the opening round, the Silvertips went 2-for-5 on the power play while Jaimen Yakubowski served a one-game suspension for a hit on Everett's Noah Juulsen. The penalties, combined with the absence of a key player, opened the way for an offensive explosion by the 'Tips.

The Rockets, led by gritty wing Tyrell Goulbourne, won't back down easily. In the same way that Seattle will hope to pressure Kelowna's defensemen on the forecheck, Seattle's own blueliners will need to be able to stare down the Rockets' pressure and make good, quick decisions with the puck on the breakout.

Win the special teams battle. When these two teams faced each other in the playoffs last year, Seattle's power play was dismal en route to an 0-for-27 performance. Considering that Kelowna's final three victories of the series were all by one goal, just one or two timely power-play goals over the course of the series could have changed everything for Seattle.

During the regular season, Seattle and Kelowna played four times, each finishing with a 2-1-0-1 record against the other. In the T-Birds' two losses combined, Kelowna was 4-for-11 with the man advantage. In Seattle's wins, the Rockets were just 1-for-11.

In the first round this season, the T-Birds had only 17 power-play opportunities in five games against the rarely-penalized Silvertips, three of which they converted. They're sure to have more opportunities against a Kelowna team that was shorthanded 98 more times than Everett during the regular season.

Make no mistake – the Rockets are a very, very good hockey team. The T-Birds will need to take advantage of their power-play opportunities while ensuring that they limit their opposition's.

Taran Kozun needs to steal a game (or two). Kelowna was the WHL's second-highest scoring team during the regular season, averaging 4.3 goals per game. If T-Birds goalie Taran Kozun can steal a game or two – which he has shown he is perfectly capable of – and be solid during the remainder of the series, Seattle can win.

In their first-round matchup with Tri-City, the Rockets lost only one game. That contest, a 4-3 defeat at the Toyota Center, saw the Americans' Eric Comrie turn away 52 of 55 shots. That total ended up being Kelowna's highest in the series, yet it turned into their lone loss.

Against Everett, we saw the T-Birds win a couple of close games that they perhaps should have lost due to outstanding performances by Kozun in net. The Nipawin, Saskatchewan native had four shutouts in just 24 regular-season games with Seattle. If he can put together one or two of those performances against an offensively-potent Rockets team, Seattle will be in a very good position to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

One thing that makes this Kelowna team so tough is its defense's ability to jump into the play, essentially giving the team four forwards. The Rockets are led by Damon Severson, a New Jersey Devils selection two years ago who has a cannon of slapshot, and team captain Madison Bowey, a Washington Capitals draftee who had 60 points during the regular season. Both are great two-way players.

Three of the Rockets' top 11 scorers were defensemen, and Mitchell Wheaton would also factor into that number had he not missed a month of time after being taken off the ice on a stretcher following a hit from Seattle's Roberts Lipsbergs. Seattle's forwards will need to ensure that they play a sound positional game to avoid odd-man rushes and give Kozun as much help as they can.

Play with urgency the entire series. Ask T-Birds coach Steve Konowalchuk and just about every loss this season can likely be attributed to a lack of consistent effort. If the T-Birds give a 99 percent effort in this series, they will lose.

Both Konowalchuk and alternate captain Adam Henry agreed that the main reason for Seattle's only first-round loss to Everett was due to a lack of urgency. The Silvertips, with their backs against the wall and in a must-win situation, played like a team that had to win to keep playing, while the T-Birds' effort reflected that of a team that could afford to lose a few games.

Seattle rebounded in a big way, turning in an impressive 60-minute effort just 24 hours later to clinch the series. While Game 4 was ugly, it may have served the purpose of proving to the T-Birds that anything less than their best wouldn't cut it. Against a team like Kelowna, which is far superior to Everett in every aspect, rebounding may not be so easy. Look no further than last season, when the T-Birds made history by squandering a three-games-to-zero lead. No game, and certainly not the series, will be over until the final whistle blows.

Match Kelowna's depth. The Rockets feature four lines that can score, which isn't something that many teams in the WHL can match. Its roster featured 11 players that had over 30 points during the regular season.

The T-Birds, however, do have the talent up and down their depth chart to keep up with Kelowna. During their first-round series, just two skaters who played didn't register a point – Wardley, who made a huge impact with his aforementioned physical play; and Calvin Spencer, who played in only one game while Yakubowski was suspended.

Even if you look at the players who had just one point during that series, you can see that they still made a huge impact on the outcome. Captain Justin Hickman's only point was an overtime game-winning goal. Henry had just one assist, but was also a plus-five, which tied for best on the team. Sam McKechnie was an essential penalty killer, and Hauf was a menacing presence on the blue line.

One player who will need to step up in this series is forward Alex Delnov. Despite being one of the most offensively-talented players on the roster, the Russian forward finds himself playing on the fourth line between bruisers Elliot and Kolesar. He's struggled defensively, but if he can work out his kinks at both ends of the ice before the series starts, Seattle will be able to feature four lines that can score, intimidate, and keep the Rockets off the score sheet.

Additionally, if someone can step up offensively in the second round the way that Scott Eansor did in the first, it will give Seattle one more important weapon. Whether it's Eansor again or someone new like Kolesar, Elliot, McKechnie or Yakubowski, having those extra couple of goals from an unexpected source will force Kelowna coach Ryan Huska to modify his game plan.

If the T-Birds can outmuscle their counterparts in a smart way, play better in both special-teams situations, get a couple of huge games from Kozun, play each game as though it could be their last, and skate four lines consistently, they could find themselves advancing to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-2003 season.

Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.

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Andrew Eide

Andrew Eide is the new Thunderbirds reporter for 710Sports.com. He attended his first T-Birds game in 1987 and has been hooked on hockey ever since. He also writes about the Canucks, the WHL and NHL draft prospects for The Hockey Writers.

Tim Pigulski

Tim Pigulski is the new Thunderbirds analyst for 710Sports.com. Following an 11-year amateur hockey career, Tim spent two seasons working in the T-Birds' media relations department. He grew up in Pasco, Wash. and attended the UW.



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