tbirds 2
Roberts Lipsbergs may have played his last game in a Seattle Thunderbirds uniform. (Thunderbirds photo)

By Tim Pigulski

Much was made during the season about Seattle general manager Russ Farwell's decision to load the Thunderbirds' roster with 19-year-olds.

Before the season began, Seattle's roster featured six 19-year-olds, a manageable number that would be easy to get down to the maximum of three once the season concluded.

As the months wore on that total increased by five, as the Thunderbirds finished the season with 11 19-year-olds, reminding some of last season's Saskatoon Blades, who decided to make an all-out push for the Memorial Cup in a year that they were hosting it and therefore granted an automatic placement in the CHL's final tournament.

While Seattle's situation isn't quite as dire as Saskatoon's, who had 13 potential overagers on their roster, many decisions still have yet to be made before the 2014-15 season gets underway.

As pointed out by Andy Eide, some decisions will be made for the Thunderbirds.

Center Russell Maxwell, acquired at the trade deadline from the Lethbridge Hurricanes, has confirmed that he will not be returning for his final WHL season as he pursues a mission trip for his church.

Branden Troock signed a contract with the NHL's Dallas Stars on Tuesday, which means he'll likely spend next season with Dallas' AHL affiliate, the Texas Stars. After an injury-riddled major junior career, Troock was able to (for the most part) stay healthy this season en route to earning himself a contract.

Seattle's two import players, wing Roberts Lipsbergs and center Alex Delnov, likely won't be back either and will not easily be replaced. Each team has three roster spots for 20-year-olds and two for import draft choices. If either Delnov or Lipsbergs stuck around, it would mean that they'd occupy both an overage and an import spot.

Wing Justin Hickman, Seattle's captain this past season, was signed to an amateur tryout contract with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the New York Islanders' AHL affiliate. He scored a goal in his second game and plays a physical style that appeals to NHL teams, so he very well may have played his last game in Seattle as well -- although this is not a certainty by any means at this point.

Another wing, Connor Honey, is a huge question mark at this point. One of Seattle's most talented players two seasons ago and a great locker room presence, Honey began this past year with six points in seven games while playing on Seattle's top forward and powerplay lines. However, he suffered an upper-body injury and was never able to return to the ice, despite the team feeling at many times throughout the year that he may just be a few days away. At this point his health remains an uncertainty, which could make it difficult to invest a valuable overage spot in him.

If each of those players leave, which again isn't a certainty, Seattle is left with five potential overage players vying for three spots on their roster next year. Forwards Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie, both of whom were also acquired from Lethbridge early this season, defensemen Adam Henry (another Lethbridge acquisition) and Evan Wardley, and goaltender Taran Kozun.

Yakubowski was a welcome addition to the Seattle roster, finishing with 18 points in 47 games with Seattle, as well as 158 penalty minutes in 58 total games this season, fifth in the entire WHL. Many of his penalties came on fighting majors -- he had 15 with Seattle and 17 total this year. If the team does indeed lose all of Maxwell, Troock, and Hickman, Yakubowski's physical style of play would be important to have next season.

McKechnie finished with similar offensive numbers to Yakubowski (15 points in 57 games with Seattle) and very well may have been the team's best penalty killer.

Both players were essential when the team was shorthanded, and as defensive specialists their plus-ratings while lining up against the opposition's top scorers shouldn't go unnoticed.

On the blue line, Henry and Wardley both provide value, although in very different ways.

When Henry was acquired eight games into Seattle's season, he not only brought veteran experience, but was also a puck-moving defenseman who could take some of the pressure off of Shea Theodore. There's a slim possibility Theodore doesn't return next season, which would increase Henry's value even more. The Winnipeg native scored points (38 in 64 regular season games), manned the point on the second powerplay unit, killed penalties, and mentored defensive partner Ethan Bear, whose future is very bright. Henry was a sort of jack-of-all-trades for the Thunderbirds and he wouldn't be an easy player to replace.

Wardley, on the other hand, was an enormous physical presence on the blue line. He was certainly the hardest hitter on the team, and may have been one of the strongest players in the entire WHL. His season was highlighted by a Feb. 25 body check that sent Prince Albert's Chance Braid through the glass at the ShoWare Center. Wardley is one of few players who can change the momentum of a game with his physical play, and this season he did a much better job of not taking bad penalties.

In net, Taran Kozun was essential in helping Seattle secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs against the Everett Silvertips. In 24 games with Seattle, he put up an eye-popping .928 save percentage and four shutouts en route to a 14-9-0-1 record.

Seattle's prospect pool on defense is deep, and even if Henry and Wardley aren't included, there will be a battle for roster spots next season that could feature seven or more players. The team is hopeful that highly-touted Dante Fabbro will sign soon and Luke Osterman was impressive in training camp last season, leaving many thinking that he deserved a roster spot.

Add those two prospects, as well as a couple of others who will be fighting for spots, to the current defense corps of Theodore, Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith, Bear, and Kevin Wolf, and you have a group that is both deep and heavy on experience. Theodore and Hauf have both been receiving consistent minutes since they were 16, and Smith since he was 17.

Kozun will be difficult to move, not because other teams won't want him, but because he put together such an incredible finish to the regular season. When he was acquired it was thought he may only be around as a half-season rental, biding time for 17-year-old Danny Mumaugh, who appeared expected to start this upcoming season. That may not be the case now after Kozun's outstanding season-ending run, but if Kozun is kept around, finding a place for Mumaugh could be tough, as the team also has Logan Flodell waiting in the wings, who will be entering his 17-year-old season in 2014-15.

Up front, the team loses a great deal, including a combined 113 goals and 229 points (excluding Honey). Seattle scored 228 goals as a team last season, so the five forwards potentially leaving account for nearly 50 percent of their scoring. Both Yakubowski and McKechnie have shown the potential to score, with 32 and 26 goals respectively for the Hurricanes during the 2012-13 season. Last season they showed they can excel playing a defensive game as well, meaning one or both would be very valuable to keep around.

Ultimately, who the Thunderbirds keep will likely come down to the return that they can receive in trades. Each of the aforementioned players, whether they're 19 now or younger, could be an excellent fit for a different team, bringing back draft choices or players who could fill in where the T-Birds are lacking -- namely in next year's 18-year-old age group, where Calvin Spencer and Scott Eansor will be the only forwards in that group and Wolf will be the only defenseman.

It's also possible that any of the unsigned 19-year-olds could receive tryouts from professional teams, affecting their status with the Thunderbirds, as Hickman did. Earlier this season Farwell mentioned that in addition to Hickman, Wardley had been receiving interest from NHL teams, who were big fans of his hard-nosed style of play.

Last offseason it appeared as though the Thunderbirds were gearing up to make a big push for a WHL championship and Memorial Cup appearance sometime in the next few years, perhaps at the height of Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, and Ethan Bear's major junior careers. With the influx of 19-year-olds during the season, it appeared that the front office may have felt the time to chase that title may be now.

Although that didn't happen, the future is still extremely bright for Seattle. Barzal, Gropp, and Bear return and will all see huge improvements in their game. Other young players such as Keegan Kolesar, Eansor, and Spencer have already seen significant time in the WHL and will be ready to play a bigger role next year.

Prospects such as Lane Pederson, Fabbro, Nolan Volcan, Kaden Elder, and Donovan Neuls will be very good in supporting roles, likely next season, before they get the chance to establish themselves as everyday high-caliber players.

With big changes to the roster imminent, Seattle has enough of a core that they should be at least as competitive as they were this past year. If they can capitalize on their import draft choices, perhaps by adding a couple of goal-scoring forwards, and can get a decent return in trades, they'll be a competitive team with the potential to be even better than they were in 2013-14.

Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.

TBirds
Ryan Gropp and Ethan Bear turned in great rookies seasons for Seattle this year. (Thunderbirds)

By Andrew Eide

As the calendar advances and the weather slowly starts to warm, it's time to look ahead for the Seattle Thunderbirds. While to a man they'd rather be on the ice fighting it out for the conference championship, the season is over and they are officially in offseason mode.

This coming summer shapes up to be an interesting one for the T-Birds as they hope to continue the steady improvement that they've experienced in the last three seasons. General Manager Russ Farwell acknowledges that his club took a step this past year but also talks about how streaky the team was, something that showed in the playoffs as Seattle was swept by Kelowna in the second round.

"That's how our year went," Farwell said. "When we were good we were real good and would challenge the better teams and when we weren't playing well we really couldn't lick our lips."

Perhaps the biggest offseason question for the T-Birds is the tough decisions they have to make with their over-aged spots. They are only allowed to bring back three of the 10 19-year-olds who all played big roles for them in 2013-2014. Some have speculated that having to replace that many players will spell doom for the T-Birds. What people fail to remember is that Seattle relied on five rookies to play big roles this past season. Four rookies will all be back next year.

Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear and Scott Eansor all played important and tough minutes for the T-Birds this season. Those guys all have big upsides and should be even better next season, along with some guys coming through the system that will be ready to step in.

"I think we have some kids ready, like (Lane) Pedersen, to step in," Farwell said of the youth movement. "We've had (Kaden) Elder and (Nolan) Vulcan in and they've played well for us on the trip and I'm sure they could step in and play ... We're going to be younger up front and then we have to wait to see how everything sorts out with our 20-year-olds."

There are a lot of scenarios that can still play out with the 20-year-olds next year, but if the T-Birds decide to bring back three forwards they would add some experience to the club's forward group.

"There certainly is some unknowns," Farwell said. "We're going to have two new imports, every year that's a bit of an unknown and we have to wait and see what the quality is there. Then we wait and see who we get back as over-agers, no sense in worrying about it because some of it isn't our decision."

Seattle will be a player in the CHL Import Draft this year, after taking the year off last summer. With Roberts Lipsbergs and Alex Delnov leaving, the T-Birds will be adding two new import players. With the returning depth the T-Birds have on their back end it would make sense to assume that they will look at bringing in two more forwards. Farwell said that's not a complete lock.

"I would say that's a preference, but I guess it will depend on the draft and who's available," Farwell said of the Import Daft. "I can't see us picking two defensemen but I can't say it's impossible for us to take a defenseman, depending on if we had the latitude to adjust our roster. If we have choices and they were sitting there for us I think forward is a priority."

The T-Birds don't have a timeline in place for making the over-age decision yet, there are too many unknowns. Branden Troock signed an entry contract with the Dallas Stars last week and most likely will end up in the AHL next season. Then there's Justin Hickman. Hickman got a look at the AHL level after Seattle's season had ended and his status is uncertain for next season. If he impressed NHL scouts there's a chance he will be drafted this June, signed and sent to the AHL as well.

All of this will slowly start to unfold as the summer progresses. Farwell hopes to have some of these decisions narrowed down as training camp approaches. He said he would like to avoid bringing a bunch of guys that won't be able to stick around.

"We'll get closer to training camp," he said. "I don't like to bring a number of guys in if you don't have a job for them. So we may come to camp with four 20-year-olds but I can't see us coming with five or six because there's only three jobs to be had."

All of the guys that Seattle might have to move should garner some interest, as all were contributors and can play in the WHL. Farwell isn't worried about the process and says it's all just part of the junior hockey game each year.

"It's kind of the normal process but we have to let it unfold as it does and then make our decision from the guys we have available," he said. "We aren't going to trade someone away until we know who else might get signed and who else might not be available to us."

Another interesting piece to all of this is the decision to be made in net. Last offseason the T-Birds had two inexperienced guys in Danny Mumaugh and Justin Myles that started the season in goal. They picked up 19-year-old Taran Kozun at the deadline and Kozun played really well, helping them secure home-ice advantage in the first round. Kozun could be a guy that they want to use one of their over-age spots for.

The wrinkle is that Seattle has an impressive looking goalie prospect, 17-year-old Logan Flodell, that they need to get on the ice. So, do they bring Kozun back or go into the season with Mumaugh and Flodell?

"There's no doubt that is a puzzle that we have to sort through," Farwell said. "It is getting to the point where we need to make some decisions there. I don't think Danny can be a back up again, exclusively, so we've got to sort that out. Kozun's no different than any of the other 19-year-olds. We have to wait to see if there's interest in him."

The T-Birds will also get a chance to pick up some new prospects with the WHL Bantam Draft on May 1. The T-Birds have the 16th pick in the draft and Farwell said that they don't have a particular position in mind. With those players not being eligible to play for a year, most teams will take the best player that's available -- which is what Seattle will do.

The T-Birds will certainly be active this summer as they try to put the right pieces together to make another run next year. They are in a position to build on their success last season and they expect to be just as competitive again.

"I think we're going to have some real good, quality experience on defense and depending on what we do in goal," Farwell said of next season's outlook. "I think the year's experience for Gropp, Barzal and Kolesar will be huge coming back. I think we'll be able to generate some points and score, we'll just have to sort it out. I think that will be our goal, to compete in our division. Everyone's going to lose some guys and we're not looking at it as a starting-over point."

Follow Andrew Eide 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.

121951
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.

Next »

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.



mynorthwest.com
Copyright © 2014 Bonneville International. All rights reserved.