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Thunderbirds vs Kelowna Rockets: How the series will be won

The Thunderbirds and the Rockets split their regular-season series 2-2 in 2015-16. (T-Birds photo)

For the third time in four years, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets will meet in the WHL Playoffs.

Their meeting in 2013 was a thrilling affair, though it ultimately ended in disappointment for the T-Birds. A heavy underdog, Seattle jumped out to a 3-0 series lead before losing four games in a row. Captain Luke Lockhart tied Game 7 with just seven seconds left to send the game to overtime, instilling a Cinderella feeling once again that was ultimately quashed when Tyson Baillie scored the game-winner that ended Seattle’s season.

The series and Seattle’s Game 3 overtime victory at the ShoWare Center in particular represented the beginning of a new era for the Thunderbirds, who haven’t missed the playoffs since.

It was also that Game 3 victory in front of a sellout crowd that current T-Birds star center and then top prospect Mathew Barzal witnessed that sealed his decision to come to Seattle.

The following season, the two teams met again in the second round, with Kelowna once again winning four games in a row. In that series, however, Seattle wasn’t able to put up much of a fight, getting swept after its first winning season in five years.

Last season the two teams took a break from each other, but will face off once again, this time with the Western Conference Championship on the line.

For the Thunderbirds to reverse their fortunes and defeat the Rockets, there are a few things that they will need to do.

Come out strong early. Seattle has played nine games in the playoffs and heads up to Kelowna for Game 1 on six days of rest. Kelowna has played in 14 games already, winning both of their Game 7s.

The Rockets sealed their second-round series against Victoria late Tuesday night, then made the trek back home and will be running on just a couple days of rest. Their improbable Game 7 win over the Royals, in which they tied the game with 0.2 seconds left in regulation, likely took a lot out of the team both mentally and physically.

Seattle, on the other hand, has played some close games but overall made easy work of its first two opponents. If Seattle can take one game on the road early in the series, it would give it home-ice advantage and take away the momentum that Kelowna built last series.

Get the power play in gear. Kelowna has the second-worst power play in the playoffs of any team left. They’ve scored on just 7 of 52 chances, a conversion rate of 13.5 percent.

The only team with a power play that has struggled more than Kelowna? Seattle. The T-Birds have scored on 4 of 31 chances in the postseason, going 2 for 16 against Prince George and 2 for 15 against Everett.

Unlike Seattle, Kelowna started to see improvement in round two, converting 5 of 26 chances.

The T-Birds have gotten away with a lackluster power play to date this postseason, but they’ll be facing a Rockets club that is much better than either of the teams they have faced so far. The return of Ryan Gropp, Seattle’s top goal scorer during the regular season, will surely help. Gropp played well after returning from injury, though he admitted he had some work to do to get fully back into game shape. The week of practice should have him back at 100 percent for the Kelowna series.

Put the puck on net. Seattle just finished a series in which it beat arguably the WHL’s best goaltender, Carter Hart, four times in five games. Kelowna will be without their No. 1 goalie, Jackson Whistle, after he was shut down following hip surgery. Prior to his injury, Whistle was the team’s most valuable player, according to Rockets play-by-play voice Regan Bartel.

His replacement, Michael Herringer, has plenty of experience this season but hasn’t proven that he’s in the same class as someone like Hart or Whistle.

Seattle was able to beat Hart, but for the most part, it wasn’t easy. A big part of the T-Birds’ success came from putting a ton of shots on net and then following those shots up with second and third chances. One particularly memorable instance was the opening goal in Game 5 when Scott Eansor had a golden chance from the slot that Hart stopped. Eansor followed up his own shot with another chance that Hart once again got in front of. The puck stayed low in the zone, Eansor eventually picked it up again, wrapped it around the net and finally solved the Everett goalie.

If Seattle can average nearly 34 shots per game again, a few more should find the back of the net than we saw in round 2. This will be important as Kelowna is a far more potent offensive team than Everett and will surely generate more chances than the Silvertips did.

Be strong mentally. There are a ton of storylines heading into this series: The recent postseason battles between the two teams; the Rockets’ Memorial Cup run last season; Seattle’s longest playoff run in 13 years; the absence of both first-round NHL draftee Nick Merkley and Whistle from the Rockets’ depth chart.

For Seattle, all of that needs to be thrown out and each game needs to be approached independently of everything else. A lot of stock is put into postseason experience (for good reason) and that is one place that Kelowna has a clear advantage over Seattle. Plenty of the names on the Rockets roster have gone deep in the WHL playoffs and also played for the Canadian Hockey League’s highest honor. The Rockets are also one of only two teams in the WHL’s Western Conference who had a better record than the Thunderbirds.

Seattle has shown plenty of mental strength, particularly over the past couple of months as its been one of the WHL’s best teams. For Kelowna, one has to wonder if it has used up its luck in winning two overtime game 7s.

Whatever the case may be, the playoffs are a whole new season, and for the most part in each round the reset button is hit.