KENT – The Seattle Thunderbirds raised a couple of banners Saturday night in their home opener but had to quickly bear down to the task at hand against the Tri City Americans.
A lot has been written the past week about Seattle being a team in transition and as if it were scripted, a rookie came up with the play of the game.
Tied at three to begin the third period, rookie defenseman Jake Lee fired a slap shot from the point that found its way through traffic and into the Tri City net. It gave the Thunderbirds a 4-3 lead that they would hold on to as they picked up a win in front of a loud, sell out crowd at the ShoWare Center.
“Its unbelievable, I still have adrenaline pumping through me,” the 16-year-old Lee said about his first WHL goal.
It was a team effort for the Thunderbirds as four different players scored and goalie Matt Berlin was big in stopping 31 shots to get the win.
After a tough preseason, Seattle came to play when the lights were turned on for real.
“It was a full team effort,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said. “They had us hemmed in there a few times but guys were laying out and blocking shots. They were doing whatever it takes to win the game and that’s what we need each and every night. Everyone stepped up and I’m proud of the way they battled.”
The Thunderbirds twice came back from one-goal deficits before Lee gave them the lead for good. It was reminiscent of last season when Seattle never buckled, even when behind.
“Just never giving up,” Austin Strand said. “You don’t really worry about being down one or two, the crowd just fuels you to keep going. I was just trying to push the pace and push the guys.”
Strand had a three-point night as he set up the final three Seattle goals, including Lee’s game winner. The big defenseman cited the emotion from the pregame ceremony as helping the team get fired up to take on the Americans.
“It really got us fired up and the crowd was insane,” Strand said. “The whole ceremony I had chills going through my body. It was pretty cool, pretty intense and well done. Not many guys get to say they had the chance to do that.”
Prior to the puck drop, the Thunderbirds brought the Ed Chynoweth Cup out on the ice and raised both a Western Conference Championship banner and a WHL Championship banner. That got the sell out crowd going and the team did the rest.
“We wanted to ride the energy,” O’Dette said. “Our fans give us a lot of juice and we had them amped up right from the start.”
Seattle got into some early penalty trouble and found itself down two men 5:47 of the first period. Tri City capitalized when Jordan Topping scored from the side of the net to give the visitors an early lead.
Sami Moilanen would get the Thunderbirds square at 9:33 when he tipped a shot from Nolan Volcan past goalie Beck Warm. That goal gave the Thunderbirds an extra jump and they would take the lead just over a minute later when Donovan Neuls found Zack Andrusiak in close for a goal.
Topping would score again for Tri City to get the game even at two when he found a rebound at the side of the net and scored at 17:38 of the first.
Seattle missed a golden opportunity early in the second period while on the power play. Andrusiak had a lot of net to shoot at down low but somehow pushed the shot wide. Tri City took the puck the other way and Parker AuCoin would make a nice move to get Berlin down before he slid the puck in for a short-handed goal that gave the Americans a 3-2 lead at 2:33 of the period.
Elijah Brown would tie the game back for Seattle at 7:01 when he went around a defenseman at the blue line and fired a wrist shot past Warm. That would set up Lee’s big shot to start the third period and Seattle’s defense held on the rest of the way.
That included a big penalty kill midway through the third period when Tri City had a big chance to get the game even again. Seattle killed that off and Berlin closed the door to get Seattle its first win of the new season.
“The penalty kill isn’t always X’s and O’s sometimes,” O’Dette said. “You have to sacrifice the body and win those loose puck battles and I think that was the theme for us all night. Doing the little things, the grinding things.”
• There was a lot of emotion Saturday night and a good deal of bad blood. That ill will boiled over after the third period horn sounded. The two teams were assessed a combined 10 penalties, six of which were game misconducts.
• Berlin had a strong night in net. He made several big saves in the third period which included several close calls. “He was playing really confident, really solid,” Strand said. “We were just trying to block as many pucks as we could. We’ll do anything to get the win. He was awesome, nice to know he’s back there.”
• Former T-Bird player and assistant Tyler Alos was on hand for the ceremonies.
• Seattle was without captain Turner Ottenbreit who was serving a one-game suspension that stemmed from Game 6 of the WHL Finals. Tri City was without stars Michael Rassmussen, Jusso Valimaki, and defenseman Kyle Olson.