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Conference Finals preview: T-Birds, Rockets have both overcome roster turnover

Ethan Bear (25) and Turner Ottenbreit now make up Seattle's top defensive pairing. (T-Birds photo)

In what probably shouldn’t come as too big of a shock, we’ll be seeing a repeat of last year’s Western Conference Finals between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets.

Seattle has rolled through the postseason so far with eight straight victories, including a sweep of division rival and top-seeded Everett in the second round. Most expected the T-Birds to make it this far, though few seemed to think they’d do it without losing a game.

Kelowna, on the other hand, finished fourth in the Western Conference but caught fire in the second half of the season. That momentum has carried into the playoffs, where they’ve defeated the Kamloops Blazers and Portland Winterhawks in six and five games respectively.

Last year saw the Thunderbirds sweep the Rockets, who had home-ice advantage, but the series was still extremely close, with three games decided by one goal and the fourth decided by two. The series was capped by a thrilling double-overtime win at the ShoWare Center that saw a 16-year-old Matthew Wedman outskate a fatigured Kelowna defense and beat Michael Herringer, who had stopped 70 shots to that point.

Both teams will feature a number of the same pieces from last year, but the changes each team has experienced should still make this series feel very different.

For the T-Birds, no longer on the roster from their Game 4 victory over Kelowna last season are Landon Bow, Logan Flodell, Jerret Smith, Bryan Allbee, Andreas Schumacher, Josh Uhrich, Brandon Schuldhaus, Jared Hauf and Nic Holowko. Cavin Leth, who was injured for part of the series, is also no longer with the team.

Of those nine players, Bow, Smith and Hauf were the biggest departures. Bow was otherworldly in net after coming over at the trade deadline, while Smith and Hauf made up the top defensive pairing on one of the league’s stingiest teams.

Seattle has done an impressive job replacing each of the names above. Rylan Toth was the T-Birds’ number one goaltender all year, though his injury during the regular season’s final weeks opened the door for Carl Stankowski, who has been remarkable during the playoffs. It remains to be seen what Toth’s health will look like this weekend and, if healthy, if he’d retake his starting role.

On defense, Ethan Bear and Turner Ottenbreit, who made up Seattle’s number two pairing last year, have been excellent as the top unit this season. The acquisitions of Austin Strand and Aaron Hyman at the trade deadline have done wonders to fill out the depth on Seattle’s defense, while Jarret Tyszka, who played on the third pairing last year, and Reece Harsch have made enormous strides over the course of the season.

When it comes to forward depth, the T-Birds feature essentially all of their top nine forwards from last year, but have also added a number of contributors.

Looking at the forwards that Seattle lost, including Allbee, who was a hybrid at forward and defense for much of the season, the T-Birds lost a combined 82 regular season points. The additions to the roster this year include Sami Moilanen, Tyler Adams, Zack Andrusiak and Luke Ormsby, who combined for 93 points during the regular season.

Then, of course, you have those same forwards essentially making up the top nine, but with an extra year of experience and growth under their belt. Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan, Alexander True, and Wedman are all back and hungry for another shot at the WHL Championship.

For Kelowna, there were some big losses at forward, though the defense remains mostly intact. Herringer returns in net and, like Stankowski, he has been fantastic in the postseason with a .924 save percentage, two shutouts and a 2.18 goals against average.

The only major loss for the Rockets on the blue line is Joe Gatenby, who was traded to Kamloops prior to this season. Cal Foote, Gordie Ballhorn and Braydyn Chizen were all rookies last season and now have an additional year of experience. Foote, who will be suspended for Game 1 after an elbow to the head of Portland’s Skyler McKenzie in round two, has developed into one of the league’s premier defensemen and will be a high NHL draft pick this summer. Also added to the mix is James Hilsendager, who broke out for 24 points in 46 games after being acquired from the Regina Pats.

Gatenby is a tough loss, but overall, this defensive unit appears stronger as a whole. They allowed 206 goals during the regular season this year after allowing 218 last year.

Up front, the Rockets have made some major changes. No longer on the roster are Tyson Baillie, Justin Kirkland, Cole Linaker and Rourke Chartier, who combined for 258 points in 251 regular season games last year. They’ve been replaced primarily by Carsen Twarynski, Reid Gardiner, Nolan Foote and Kyle Topping, who combined for 144 points during the regular season. Perhaps the biggest loss will come in the form of playoff experience, where the four departures combined for 224 postseason games. Foote and Topping are both rookies, while Twarynski and Gardiner have played in 56 playoff games between them.

Even without those big names, the Rockets possess plenty of firepower, which helped them finish tops in the West with 283 goals scored. Kole Lind, Calvin Thurkauf, Nick Merkley, Dillon Dube and Tomas Soustal all averaged close to or over a point per game during the regular season. Gardiner, a 20-year-old who spent the early part of the season playing in the AHL, is one of the league’s best offensive players and had six points in Kelowna’s clinching Game 5 victory over Portland. He had 92 points in 71 games last year with Prince Albert and 37 in 28 with the Rockets this season.

Overall, both teams have lost significant pieces. Seattle’s losses will be felt the most on the defensive side, while Kelowna’s biggest changes came up front. Despite all of the roster adjustments, both teams enjoyed similar regular season success, though Seattle will have home-ice advantage this year as they finished second in the West while the Rockets finished fourth.