Electrifying comeback gives Thunderbirds their first ever WHL Championship
REGINA, Sask. – There really wasn’t any other way for it to end.
Without Turner Ottenbreit, who was ejected from the game midway through the second period, and down two goals late in the third, the Seattle Thunderbirds staged an improbable third-period comeback in Game 6 of the Western Hockey League Championship to capture their first league title since their inception as the Seattle Breakers 40 long years ago.
In a game that saw just two goals – one by each team – scored through the first 48 minutes and 10 seconds, the Regina Pats scored two within a span of 82 seconds to give themselves a 3-1 lead with 6:48 left in the third period.
With how tightly the game had been played, a two-goal deficit felt like an Everest-sized mountain to climb.
A late third-period comeback and an overtime game-winner felt like the only appropriate way for this team to cap it all off.
“They don’t quit. They haven’t quit all year,” said T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk amidst Seattle’s post-game celebration. “We’re down 3-1, I think everybody but our bench thought that we were done tonight, but they didn’t quit. Why would they? The character and talent is so impressive to watch. Those guys come back and just keep going.”
Ryan Gropp, a 20-year-old whose rollercoaster of a year unexpectedly saw him return to the Thunderbirds, showed off the laser wrist shot that led to the New York Rangers selecting him 41st overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He gained control of the puck to the left of Regina goalie Tyler Brown, waited out the defense, then fired his shot over Brown’s left shoulder, just inches below the crossbar.
“This makes it all so sweet,” said Gropp, reflecting on the season full of ups and downs. “It’s been an awesome year and doing it with all of these guys is so unbelievable. No one got down (late in the game). Everybody was still sticking with it. We knew we were going to tie it up and it’s what we’ve been doing all year.”
Then, with a power play, it was another player likely in his final season in Seattle that provided the heroics as Keegan Kolesar fired a low slap shot that beat Brown on his left side. The goal gave Kolesar the new T-Birds record for goals in a single playoff with 12, as he surpassed teammate Alexander True…briefly.
This overtime wouldn’t have Seattle win it on their first shift as they had done in Game 1. Both teams, knowing what was at stake, seemed content with feeling things out for the first few shifts.
With seven minutes and 24 seconds left in the extra frame, True, with help from Kolesar, would send the Thunderbirds to the first championship in their long history.
As the puck made its way through the neutral zone along the boards, Kolesar saw a streaking True making his way up the boards. Kolesar screened a Pats defender, tapping the puck to True, who had a full head of steam. True skated up the right wing and put a shot on Brown, then followed the rebound to the front of the net where he was able to settle it down and, after what seemed like an eternity, got a shot above Brown and into the back of the net.
“It was like slow motion,” said Konowalchuk of what he saw on the game-winner. “I’m thinking ‘Get it up! Get it up! Get it up!’ And he gets it up enough into the empty net. You see that bounce in the neutral zone and all you can think is ‘Come on, get that thing in.’”
As they had done in each of the previous four games, Regina got on the board first. After a tripping call on True, Sam Steel found himself alone in the slot and was able to one-time a Josh Mahura pass low past Carl Stankowski for his 11th goal of the postseason. Just moments earlier, Steel had rung a shot off the post on Stankowski’s glove side. It was the Pats’ eighth power play goal of the series.
That’s how the first period would end as Seattle got a power play of their own after Dawson Leedahl was called for cross checking, but the T-Birds were unable to convert.
Regina managed only three shots in the game’s first 20 minutes to Seattle’s 10, but Steel’s goal stood as the only marker in the period.
The T-Birds were able to get on the board with 11:05 left in the second period when Scott Eansor and Sami Moilanen broke into the Pats’ zone on a two-on-one. Eansor banked a pass off the boards in the neutral zone to a breaking Moilanen, who beat Brown low on his stick side. The goal was Moilanen’s seventh of the postseason.
Just 16 seconds after Moilanen’s goal, Ottenbreit laid a big hit on Austin Wagner as Wagner entered the T-Birds zone. Ottenbreit was assessed a five-minute major for charging and ejected from the game.
Multiple replays showed that Ottenbreit did not leave his feet on the hit, nor did he make contact with Wagner’s head.
Either way, Seattle was able to kill the first three minutes and 12 seconds of the ensuing major before Dawson Leedahl was called for slashing to negate the final 1:48 of Ottenbreit’s major penalty.
After 40 minutes, the game was tied at one with Seattle up 23-18 in shots on goal.
That’s when the Pats re-took the lead with 8:10 left in the third period on a rebound goal by Mahura. It was his fourth goal of the series and eighth of the playoffs.
Regina made it 3-1 one minute and 22 seconds later when Wagner, who had returned at the start of the third period after missing the second half of the second, used his great speed to find a loose puck in the neutral zone and beat Stankowski high on a breakaway.
That’s when the T-Birds buckled down and made their fantastic comeback.
In less than three minutes, the T-Birds shocked the hometown crowd at the Brandt Centre with two goals to tie the game and send it to overtime, where True would win it.
After the game, the T-Birds slapped a “C” on Mathew Barzal’s sweater for the post-game festivities. He and Eansor had spent the season rotating as captain from game to game, and Sunday evening just so happened to be Eansor’s night.
“I’m thinking about my parents right now and I couldn’t be more proud of this group of guys,” Barzal said after the game with tears in his eyes. “It’s been a long season and I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and so has this whole team. We’ve been so resilient all year. In games against Kelowna we were down. In games against Regina we were down. Just to battle back like that…it’s incredible.
“Me and Scotty (Eansor) just have such a great relationship. There’s no bad blood at all when we’re switching up wearing the ‘C’. We both went up there and grabbed the trophy and I let him hoist it first. He deserves it. He’s 20 years old and has been our leader right from camp in August. He’s a heck of a player and one of my good friends.”
Barzal’s career has been full of highlights – getting drafted by the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2015 draft, making two Canadian World Junior teams, being this year’s Western Conference nominee for Player of the Year – but none compared to winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup.
“Losing World Juniors, losing last year (in the WHL Championship), getting sent back from the Islanders…I couldn’t ask for more right now. I’m so happy.”
Eansor too was overcome with emotion when asked about what it was like to go from an undrafted player to the captain of a championship team.
“It’s been a tough journey,” said a choked up Eansor. “Missing my 16-year-old year with hip surgery — my parents supported me the whole way in getting me to this point. Through injuries, financially, being at every game, my family supported me the whole way. It’s emotional right now.
“Not many people know my full story but my family’s been a huge part of my success and I thank them so much.”
Then there was Ethan Bear, one of six Saskatchewan natives on the T-Birds roster. Much has been made over the past four years of the support Bear’s received from his family and Sunday evening was no different.
“To do it in Regina makes it really special,” said Bear of winning the trophy in his native province. “With the support here as the away team, it was unbelievable. Honestly it felt like home ice for us. I think it just gave us a little extra drive.”
“It feels phenomenal,” continued Bear. “To do it with this group of guys – everyone pitched in, every guy mattered. We didn’t stop. We didn’t give up. We never felt like we were down. This is such a great group of guys to win it with.”
Now, Seattle prepares for the Memorial Cup, where they will participate in a round-robin style tournament with the Erie Otters, who won the Ontario Hockey League, the Saint John Seadogs, who won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and the host of the tournament, the Windsor Spitfires.
It’s the first time since 1992 when they were the host team that Seattle will participate in the Memorial Cup. This year marks the only time that the Thunderbirds will represent the WHL as winners of the league.
• Barzal was named Playoff MVP with seven goals and 18 assists in 16 games. He missed Seattle’s first-round series due to illness before returning in the second round to boost his team.
• Kolesar finishes with the T-Birds single-playoff record for points with 31 after he had a goal and an assist on Sunday evening. Those two points also placed him first in playoff scoring in the WHL this season, surpassing Regina’s Sam Steel in four fewer games.
• Stankowski, who started every postseason game and was never replaced in any of the 20 games played, capped off one of the most improbable playoff runs by an individual player in WHL history with another outstanding performance on Sunday, stopping 28 of the 31 shots he faced. Once again, many of his most difficult saves came in the third period. The rookie who played in only seven regular season games finishes the postseason with a 16-2-2-0 record, .911 save percentage, and 2.50 goals against average.
• Ottenbreit rejoined his team wearing his full gear following the handshake line. His plus-19 rating during the playoffs finished second in the entire WHL to only Regina’s Sergey Zborovskiy. This after Ottenbreit led the Western Conference during the regular season with a plus-45.