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T-Birds down Portland 6-3 to remain on top of Western Conference

PORTLAND, Ore. – Saturday night in Portland, Alexander True was front and center for the Thunderbirds for the second night in a row.

With Seattle holding onto a slim 3-2 lead to start the third period, True and Ryan Gropp took the ice to kill off a Winterhawks power play. Like they did the night before, Gropp stole the puck and raced up the ice with True short-handed. Gropp feathered a perfect pass to True, who had skated in close, and the big Danish import banged the puck past Portland goalie Shane Farkas.

The goal was a huge momentum swing in what was a one-goal affair and sparked the Thunderbirds to an impressive 6-3 win over the Winterhawks in Portland’s Veterans Memorial Coliseum.  Seattle (44-19-4-2) had goals from six different players as once again they had to find a way while missing key players.

“Guys are having fun and stepping up when they have the opportunity,” Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Their game still has to be at a top level which is what you’re seeing right now. It’s a good win.”

The win kept the Thunderbirds a point ahead of Everett in the U.S. Division and Western Conference standings as the regular season moves into its final week. It was Seattle’s fifth straight win over their rivals and snapped a five-game win streak for the Winterhawks.

For the second straight game, the T-Birds were without Mathew Barzal. The star center was struck ill moments before Friday night’s game and was still recovering on Saturday. Seattle was also without two of its top six defenseman and had to play without goalie Rylan Toth for most of the game.

Toth started the game and played a clean first period but suffered what was described as a minor injury. Matt Berlin would start the second period and ended the night getting the win while making 17 saves.

After the game, Konowalchuk described the switch as more precautionary than anything else.

“We’re still looking at the big picture,” he said. “The playoffs are coming up and we believe in the goalies we have so it wasn’t like it was panic city. We know those guys can play.”

With Barzal out, True once again joined Gropp and Keegan Kolesar on the top line. The three combined for two goals and four assists. True has elevated his game but so have Gropp and Kolesar, proving that they can play some pretty good hockey in their own right.

“Their playing hard,” Konowalchuk said. “I think with Barzal, he gets the attention and is a real good player, but those guys are good players as well. They can still be a force to be reckoned with.”

Those three hooked up for a big power-play goal late in the second period to give Seattle a 3-1 lead. Kolesar found True in the slot and he quickly got the puck to Gropp who buried a shot for his team-leading 32nd goal of the year.

Even without Barzal, that top line is producing.

“Truesy was great,” Gropp said. “He’s a great player and is working really hard right now. He’s a responsible guy and moving the puck up and he’s fit really well on our line. I think Keegs and I have been working hard of late and taking more of a leadership role.”

Special teams were a big factor on Saturday night. The Thunderbirds went 2-for-6 on the power play and killed off five of six Portland chances. Not only did they get the kills, but they scored two times while short-handed.

There was the True goal in the third and earlier, in the second period, Donovan Neuls found Nolan Volcan on the doorstep for a short-handed marker. That goal had given Seattle a 2-1 lead.

Seattle’s penalty kill was put to the test early in the third period as they found themselves down a man three times in the first six minutes of the period.

“The penalty kill was huge,” Konowalchuk said “The one problem we had was penalties. We’ve got to stay out of the penalty box. Scoring two goals was huge and then big kills in the third period.”

After a scoreless first period, the Thunderbirds took the lead two minutes into the second when Matthew Wedman banged home a rebound past Farkas. It was Wedman’s fifth of the year and first since he returned from injury last week.

The lead was short-lived however as Portland got things square when Skyler McKenzie got behind the defense and beat Berlin on a breakaway.

Seattle then built a 3-1 lead on Volcan and Gropp’s markers but the Winterhawks would get closer when defenseman Shaun Dosanjh was able to score during a delayed penalty call.

After True scored short-handed, the Winterhawks again got to within a goal at 4-3 when Keegan Iverson banged home a power-play tally from in close.

The T-Birds would pull away however and it started when Sami Moilanen was taken down from behind while on a breakaway. He was awarded a penalty shot and made a nice deke to sweep the puck past Farkas for what would be his 21st of the season.

Moilanen had beaten Portland with a similar move in the shootout the last time the T-Birds were in the Rose City. After that game, Konowalchuk admitted he had not watched the shot and relied on the reaction of the bench.

Saturday was a different story.

“I did watch it,” the coach said with a smile. “It was a nice move again.”

Ethan Bear would blast home a power-play goal late in the game to seal the deal and send the 7,235 in attendance towards the exits.

Seattle has just three games left in the regular season and hope to get healthy in time for the playoffs. If they are still missing guys however, they’ve shown that they can overcome all types of adversity.

“I think it definitely speaks to all the character guys in the room,” Gropp said. “We’ve faced a lot of injuries this season, a lot of guys going down on short notice but everybody stepped up and played an increased role. It was a huge win for us.”

Notes

• With the injuries, Seattle was playing with just 17 skaters, which is one under the minimum. It’s the 12th time in the second half of the season they have played with less than 18. They are 11-1 in those games.

• Bear’s goal was his 28th and he extended his point streak to 15 straight games.

• Seattle’s second line of Neuls, Volcan and Moilanen played a strong game on Saturday. Volcan and Moilanen had the goals while Neuls chipped in with two assists. He also made the pass that set up Moilanan for the penalty shot.

• The Thunderbirds were down a defenseman and once again had to rotate their pairings all night. It was another strong game for the group, highlighted by Turner Ottenbreit. The big defenseman played a strong game and at one point blocked a shot that stung him to the point where he was struggling to skate off the ice. He would return and finish the game with no problem. “How many shots has Otto blocked,” Konowalchuk asked. “He leads by example and is a warrior back there. Everybody is doing their part and they’re having fun playing.”