On a night when the Seattle Thunderbirds had to dress eight rookies, it figures that a couple of young players had some big moments.
Seattle was on the road against the Spokane Chiefs Wednesday night and rookie Zack Andrusiak would break open a third period 1-1 tie when he banged home a puck from right in front of Chiefs’ goalie Donovan Buskey. It was Andrusiak’s sixth of the year and gave the Thunderbirds a lead they would not relinquish.
“He’s been playing well the last few games,” Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said of Andrusiak after the game. “His play in general has been more consistent of late and he played well last game…he did a good job again today.”
Filling in for injured starter Rylan Toth, rookie goalie Carl Stankowski was in net Wednesday and he made 15 saves to pick up his second career WHL victory. Thanks to a suffocating Thunderbirds defensive effort, the rookie goalie only had to face eight shots over the final 40 minutes, but early on he made some key saves to keep the game even.
“When it was one to one, he made some good saves,” Konowalchuk said. “On their power play, back-door play, he did a real job of reading it and getting there.”
It wasn’t just the rookies who contributed to the win.
Ryan Gropp scored twice to tie his career high in goals at 34 while Keegan Kolesar added two assists. The two were once again playing without Mathew Barzal but they haven’t seemed to miss a beat.
“It’s been everybody, no doubt about it,” Konowalchuk said. “Gropper was real strong and Keegan worked hard today. Again, that line was real good for us.”
For Gropp, he’s made a pretty strong statement in the three games without Barzal that he’s a pretty good player on his own.
The two goals give him three in the games since Barzal’s illness and he’s added two assists.
“He was playing at a high level with Mat,” Konowalchuk said. “He was starting to just taper a bit right before Mat went out but with Mat going out, he’s stepped up big time and carried the play. He’s been good for us out there.”
Seattle (45-19-4-2) dominated last place Spokane (26-33-7-3) in terms of puck possession and shots on goal. The T-Birds ended the night with a 36-17 shot advantage and tilted the ice all night. Buskey was under duress and made some strong saves to keep the Chiefs in it early.
“I thought it was a bit of a playoff feel, the way we played,” Konowalchuk said. “Just sticking with it until we finally got something to break there. We kept putting enough pucks in and pushing the pace. Eventually they found their way into the net.”
Spokane managed to open the scoring on Wednesday night when Taylor Ross was left alone at the side of the net midway through the first period. Ondrej Najman found him with a nice cross-ice pass and Ross easily notched his seventh of the season.
Seattle turned up the pressure from that point and Gropp would get his first of the night on a Seattle power play. Donovan Neuls found him in the circle with a nice pass through the defense and Gropp buried it. The T-Birds ended the night 1-for-2 on the power play.
The two teams played a scoreless second but the Thunderbirds kept Buskey busy as they seemingly had the puck in the Spokane end for most of the period.
When the third started, Seattle continued that pressure and Andrusiak gave them the lead just over two minutes into it.
“I think it was a continuation from the second,” Konowalchuk said. “I really liked our second period. In the second period we were going at them and going at them with a lot of O-zone time. We just didn’t get the results but it was important that we kept our foot on the pedal and eventually if you stick it, you’ll get the goals.”
Gropp would score again just over a minute later when he aptly deflected a Turner Ottenbreit point shot past Buskey for his 34th.
Spokane would cut the lead back to 3-2 five minutes into the period, on their first shot of the period, when Jaret Anderson-Dolan scored his 37th from the slot. That goal gave the Chiefs a bit of momentum as they had some pressure but Stankowski was there and eventually, the T-Birds got going again.
Austin Strand would put down the Spokane uprising nine minutes into the period when he took a Chiefs turnover and quickly hammered it in for his ninth of the year.
The win is Seattle’s fourth in a row and they maintained its one-point division and conference lead over the Everett Silvertips. The Silvertips were in Kelowna on Wedensday and skated to a big 4-1 victory over the Rockets.
With Everett still holding one game in hand, the Thunderbirds know that they don’t control their own fate as they only have two games remaining in the regular season.
“We can’t do anything now,” Konowaclhuk said. “We’ve just got to keep playing. We’re taking care of our business and will play it out to the end.”
• Seattle will end the season with a road record of 19-12-4-1.
• The T-Birds’ 2016 first round draft pick, defenseman Jake Lee, was back with the club on Wednesday. He was playing in only his fourth WHL game. Seattle was again without defensemen Jarret Tyszka and Reece Harsch.
• Mathew Barzal missed his third game since leaving the ice prior to Friday’s game against Everett. The club is still awaiting test results to see if he has the mumps.
• Everett will play their last game in hand on Friday evening in Victoria. When asked if he was going to watch that game, Konowalchuk said, “If I’m sitting around doing nothing, I might watch it.”