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Thunderbirds to see the end of an era in Friday’s Game 5 against Regina

Win or lose, the Thunderbirds will play their last home game of the season Friday night. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

With the WHL Championship Series far from over, Friday’s Game 5 is the end for several key members of the team.

It’s the end of a successful stretch of four seasons that has seen the Thunderbirds send their faithful fans home from the ShoWare Center happy 117 times. That’s a lot of home wins and the core of the Seattle roster responsible for most of those wins will be lacing it up for the last time at home in Game 5.

Even if Seattle were to win the series, it would then head to Windsor, Ont. to take part in the 2017 Memorial Cup and won’t play anymore games at home.

With the success, the Thunderbirds have built one of the WHL’s best home-ice advantages over the past four seasons. Loud and boistourous, the ShoWare Center hordes don’t make things easy on opposing players.

Seattle co-captain Scott Eansor is one of those players about to play his last game in front of those fans.

“I’m not going to lie, I’ve thought about it.” he said. “It hasn’t really set in yet and I try not to think about it. Hopefully we have quite a few more games to go here. I’m just going to try and have some fun with it and hopefully some good things will come out of it. Just focus on the game and I’ll think more about it after.”

Eansor, along with fellow captain Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear have been the mainstays on a Thunderbirds team that has seen its most successful four-year stretch in franchise history.

They won a division title, two conference titles and are on the doorsteps of handing the franchise its first league championship. They all will be playing their last game in Kent.

While Friday will have a lot of sentimental feelings, the team still has games to play, starting with Friday’s pivotal one against the Regina Pats.

“It’s still just another game and we really want to focus on that,” Gropp said about Friday. “It’s obviously my last game, so I want to have a good game.”

Gropp got on the board with a goal in the first period during Wednesday’s Game 4 blowout win of the Regina Pats. Over the past four years he’s entertained the home crowd with his top-end speed and a deadly wrist shot, one that’s quick, accurate and NHL quality.

While he’s been moved to a line with Alexander True, it’s with Barzal and Kolesar that he’s made his mark over the past four seasons. The three have grown to be one of the more dangerous lines in the WHL and have thrilled the ShoWare Center fans with a great deal of excitement.

They want to do it one more time at home before heading back to Regina to try and win the whole thing.

Barzal has been the biggest star of the bunch. He has delighted the home fans with his dazzling stick-handling and playmaking. He’s a true competitor who makes those around him better. The Thunderbirds haven’t seen a player like him in a long time and he will go down as one of the best to wear the sweater.

He was drafted in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft by the New York Islanders, on a weekend that saw Gropp selected in the second by the New York Rangers, Kolesar in the third by the Columbus Blue Jackets and Ethan Bear in the fifth round by the Edmonton Oilers.

Kolesar has developed into one of the premier power forwards in the WHL.

He’s had some big moments in the ShoWare Center as well. Nobody will forget his last second goal to send the T-Birds into overtime against Kelowna in last year’s Western Conference clinching game. In this playoffs he’s been spectacular. Kolesar is third in the league playoff scoring with 26 points and also had a big goal in Wednesday’s Game 4.

Armed with a wit as sharp as his play, he brushed off questions about Friday’s home finale.

“No, not at all,” he said with a smirk when asked if he had thought about his last home game.

Bear has become one of the more popular players among the fans over the past four seasons. His remarkable return to the playoffs after injuring his hand is a testament to his drive and competitive nature. He’s humble off the ice but loud on it. His slap shot will go down as legendary among Seattle fans and will forever echo in the rafters of the ShoWare Center.

Then there is Eansor.

The scrappy center from Colorado didn’t come to the Thunderbirds with a great deal of fanfare. He wasn’t selected in the Bantam Draft and signed with Seattle in what turned out to be a steal. Hard working, tenacious, always moving, Eansor has been the heart and soul of this team over his time in Seattle.

While he says he’s trying not to think too much about Friday being the last home game, he will be missed by the Thunderbirds fans.

But before he, and his teammates, reflects on their time in Seattle, they have some business to attend to.

Friday’s Game 5 is critical for Seattle. Lose it, and you have to try and win two road games against a tough opponent. Win it, and you’re one win away, one victory from completing the mission that they set out on four years ago.