KENT – The Thunderbirds’ big Friday night match up with Everett took a strange twist before the puck was even dropped.
Seattle star Mathew Barzal was on the ice for the intros but as the national anthem began he skated over to the bench briefly and then left the ice. It turns out that he had become ill and did not return which meant the Thunderbirds would have to try and win the game without their best player on the ice.
That left Seattle (43-19-4-2) even more shorthanded than they already were. Despite the loss of Barzal and missing two of their top six defensemen, the Thunderbirds got a late goal from Ethan Bear to grind out a huge 3-2 win over the Silvertips.
“They’re good character guys,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said about his team. “Why would they quit today? In the biggest game. They’re not going to quit on the biggest game of the season so far. They buckled down.”
As time was winding down the game seemed to be destined to head into overtime while tied at two. With 2:15 left in the game, Bear took a slap shot that was blocked by one of the Everett defenders. The puck came right back to him and he adjusted his position and fired again. This time the shot found its way through a maze of players and past Everett goalie Cater Hart.
Seattle would then hold off a late Everett (40-15-8-3) push to secure its 17th straight win at home and regain the top spot in the U.S. Division and Western Conference.
Rylan Toth made some big stops late on his way to 21 saves and picking up his 36th of the season. That puts him within one win of tying Danny Lorenz for the franchise record for wins in a season by a goaltender.
“That’s pretty cool,” Toth said. “It’s a big honor for sure and I definitely didn’t do it alone.”
Toth also had to come up big in the second period when he stopped Everett’s Sean Richards on a penalty shot. It was the second straight game that Toth has had to face a penalty shot.
“Its starting to become a regular thing,” Toth said with a chuckle. “He made a nice move and kind of lost the puck, I might have bumped him a bit. Its fun, you don’t want too many of those, but it’s a big opportunity. Just you and the shooter and its what you dream of.”
Friday was another example of the team’s resiliency as they lost, perhaps the top player in the league, during the national anthem.
Alexander True was called to step up and center the top line and responded with a big short-handed goal.
“True played a heck of a game,” Konowalchuk said. “Just lugging the puck out and helping the D out. He played with a lot of pace, a lot of speed. I thought our whole team played a fast, a good paced game.”
On the back end, both Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch were out and the Thunderbirds only had five blue-liners in the lineup. Bear, Turner Ottenbreit, Austin Strand, Aaron Hyman and Anthony Bishop had to rotate partners and play a ton of minutes.
“You’re rolling through five guys and you don’t know who you’re playing with on any shift,” Ottenbreit said of the adjustment. “It’s just talking and communicating, trying to keep it as simple as you can out there.”
After a first period chess match, the action heated up in the second period.
Everett got on the board in the second period when Richards banged home a loose puck in front of the Seattle net.
The Thunderbirds answered right back with a goal of their own just under a minute later. Ottenbreit had the puck in the circle, managed to keep it on his stick and fling a wrist shot past Carter Hart for his seventh.
Everett then went on the power play with a chance to get the lead back. Alexander True had a different plan however as he and Ryan Gopp took off short-handed. Gropp fed True the puck and he buried it for his 22nd of the season.
It was a big night for True, who had to play with new linemates.
“I don’t know what to say,” the Danish import said. “It was really fun to play with Gropp and (Keegan Kolesar). It was really nice to play with unbelievable players. I didn’t go out there and try to be Barzal, I just played my own game and do what I could.”
With under a minute to go in the second, Everett tied it after Toth tried to play a puck into the corner and wandered too far from the net. Connor Dewar flung it back at the Seattle goal and as Toth tried to snare it, he accidentally knocked it backwards, into his own goal.
That set the stage for an entertaining third period that saw the Thunderbirds beat Everett for the sixth time in eight tries.
While Seattle has the division lead, the Silvertips still have two games in hand. Seattle only has four games left in the regular season while Everett has six games to go. For now, the Thunderbirds aren’t too worried about the standings.
“We’ve got to worry about tomorrow,” Konowlchuk said. “We have to worry about a real quick turnaround and play a good hockey team tomorrow. We have to be ready to roll.”
The Thunderbirds will be headed to Portland Saturday night at 6 PM.
• Kolesar did not register a point on Friday which snapped his 16-game point streak. Bear’s goal extends his scoring streak to 14 straight games.
• With the win, and Tri City’s loss, the Thunderbirds have clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
• Konowalchuk said that Barzal’s status for Saturday’s game was unknown.
• The Thunderbirds confirmed that forward Wyatt Bear had left the team to return home.