For the fourth time in five seasons, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Kelowna Rockets will meet in the postseason. This year marks the first time in those four meetings, however, that Seattle will have home-ice advantage. Kelowna won the first two meetings, including the unforgettable 2013 series that saw seventh-seeded Seattle take a 3-0 lead before eventually losing the series in historic fashion. The T-Birds finally got their revenge last year by sweeping the Rockets in the Conference Championship.
Kelowna is a team that provides plenty of punch with their scoring. They’ve embodied the playing style of their first-year head coach, Jason Smith, who accumulated over 1000 penalty minutes during his long NHL career, but also led the Western Conference in goals with 283.
The two teams faced off four times during the regular season, with Kelowna winning three of those contests. Here’s a look at some of the numbers that could go a long way in influencing the outcome of this year’s series.
.370. The Rockets converted on 37 percent of their power play opportunities in their second-round matchup with the Portland Winterhawks, which they won four games to one. They scored 24 goals total in the series, meaning that 42 percent of their scores came with the man advantage. Overall, they doubled Portland’s output, outscoring them 24-12 in the series.
The first round looked quite a bit different as Kelowna converted on just four of their 21 chances with the man advantage against the Kamloops Blazers. A big part of that was probably due to Blazers goalie Connor Ingram, who allowed just 2.18 goals per game and had a .946 save percentage in six games.
During the regular season, Kelowna had one of the league’s best power plays, converting 25.2 of their chances, which placed them third in the WHL. Overall, 29 percent of their goals were scored with the man advantage. By comparison, Seattle scored 61 of their 253 goals on the power play, or 24.1 percent.
.917. Kelowna was excellent on the power play in the regular season and the second round of the playoffs, but like many other teams, they’ve had some trouble solving Seattle’s penalty kill. In four games, Seattle was disciplined, giving up just 12 power plays to the Rockets and allowing only one goal. In killing over 91 percent of the Rockets’ power plays, the T-Birds were well above their season average of 83.3 percent, which ranked third in the WHL.
By comparison, Seattle was better on the power play against the Rockets than they were against the rest of the league. They converted six of their 18 chances, good for a 33.3 percent conversion rate, over 10 percent better than their 22.2 percent success rate over the course of the entire regular season. On the other hand, that means Seattle scored 60 percent of their goals against the Rockets with a Kelowna player in the box.
3. When looking at a team’s overall special teams success, one way to get a good gauge is to add their rankings on the power play and penalty kill. The best possible score a team could attain would be two if they were first on both the power play and penalty kill.
So far in the postseason, Seattle’s “special teams score” of three is the best in the WHL. They’re tops on the power play through two rounds with a 37.9 percent success rate and have killed 89.7 percent of their opponents’ chances, good for second overall.
Who is first on the penalty kill? None other than the Kelowna Rockets (90.7 percent kill rate), who have an overall score of six due to their fifth-ranked power play, converting at a 29.2 percent clip.
With the returns of Mathew Barzal and Scott Eansor in particular for the postseason, Seattle’s had tons of flexibility on both special teams units. Eansor plays minutes on both the power play and penalty kill, while Barzal often plays close to the full two minutes on each Seattle advantage. Having Eansor on the PK gives Seattle six very good penalty killers – Eansor, Alexander True, Nolan Volcan, Donovan Neuls, Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar – meaning Steve Konowalchuk can have a ton of flexibility when down a man.
22. The number of points scored by Kelowna forward Reid Gardiner so far in the playoffs, good for best in the WHL. He saw a nice boost to that number in the deciding Game 5 of the second round versus Portland, playing a part in all six of the Rockets’ goals (four goals, two assists).
Gardiner, acquired in early January for a variety of draft picks, played the first half of the season in the AHL with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. In 28 WHL regular season games, he had 37 points on 18 goals and 19 assists. Last year with Prince Albert the Humboldt, Sask. native had 92 points in 71 games, which ranked eighth in the WHL.
But Gardiner isn’t the only high-level scorer the Rockets have. Dillon Dube, Calvin Thurkauf, Kole Lind and Nick Merkley are offensively-gifted players, and they’re one of few teams who may be able to match Seattle’s forward depth. Carsen Twarysnki, Tomas Soustal, Nolan Foote, Kyle Topping and Rodney Southam can all chip in offensively.
0. As with every other team this season, Seattle didn’t play any of their four games against the Rockets with their full lineup.
In the first matchup, which Seattle lost 5-1, the T-Birds were missing Barzal, Gropp and Kolesar – three of their top four scorers during the regular season.
Seattle lost the second game 6-1 in early December. They had their top forward line back, but hadn’t yet added Austin Strand or Aaron Hyman to the blue line.
In game three Seattle was missing Eansor and Volcan, two of their best defensive forwards and high-energy players. With those two out, Seattle called up Cody Savey to make his WHL debut. Savey didn’t get a ton of ice time, which meant Seattle was running a short bench most of the game. It seemed Seattle’s injuries finally caught up with them as they surrendered four goals in the second half of the third period to take the loss.
The T-Birds’ lone regular-season victory over the Rockets came on February 25 when they had almost their full lineup present with the exception of Eansor. Seattle won 5-3 behind a Gropp hat trick, four assists from Barzal and three points from Kolesar.
It’s their game four lineup plus Eansor that Seattle hopes to have heading into the Conference Championship.
.848. The combined save percentage across all four head-to-head games by Seattle’s goalies, who struggled mightily in games one through three.
Rylan Toth allowed five goals in games one and two on 30 and 23 shots, respectively. Matt Berlin came in for Toth in game two and stopped seven of the eight shots he faced.
Berlin started game three and surrendered six goals on 32 shots. Through two periods he allowed two goals on 14 shots, but Seattle’s collapse in the third period meant he allowed four goals on 18 shots in the final 20 minutes.
Game four was a different story as Toth stopped 36 of the 39 shots he faced and was named the game’s third star. If you exclude this game, T-Birds goalies had an .817 save percentage in their three losses to the Rockets.
Heading into the weekend, the status of Toth remains unknown. He was expected to be ready for the start of the playoffs, but we have yet to see him dress in the postseason. Did he aggravate a previous injury, or has Carl Stankowski simply been so good that they don’t need to rush Toth back?
If Toth is healthy, it presents Konowalchuk with a good problem – does he go with a rookie goalie in Stankowski whose shown incredible poise in his limited action and has the hot hand? Or does he go back to Toth, his 20-year-old WHL veteran who led the team through the regular season, played in last year’s Eastern Conference Championship and has Memorial Cup experience on his resume?
581. The number of playoff games, including this season, that the Kelowna roster has under their belt (at least those who played in Game 1 versus Portland, before suspensions occurred later in the series). They’re led by Nick Merkley and Rodney Southam, who have 51 apiece.
By contrast, Seattle’s healthy Game 4 lineup against Everett has played in 449 total playoff games, led by Eansor and Bear’s 41 each. Even if you replace Stankowski with Toth, that number only increases to 455. Despite their run to the WHL Championship last year, the T-Birds still fall well short of the Rockets’ postseason experience.
The Rockets are one of few teams in the WHL who can match or exceed Seattle’s playoff experience. This is Kelowna’s fourth straight trip to the league semifinals, so most players on the roster are familiar with the stakes.
Seattle’s two opponents so far, Tri-City and Everett, haven’t had nearly the same experience as this Rockets team. The Americans haven’t advanced past the first round since 2012, while Everett has been eliminated by Seattle in three of the past four postseasons. The T-Birds were excellent in the second round at winning one-goal games and overcoming deficits, something their playoff experience likely helped.
Also worth noting is that Seattle has gone 20-1 the past two postseasons against their Western Conference foes. Going 12-1 last year and 8-0 so far this year means they haven’t had any long series to inflate the total number of games played.