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Austin Strand’s late goal lifts Thunderbirds over Hitmen

Seattle goalie Liam Hughes makes one of his 25 saves as the Thunderbirds beat Calgary 4-3 (Candice Ward/Calgary Hitmen)

Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Austin Strand had scored all six of his goals to start the season on the power play. Saturday night in Calgary, he picked a big moment to score his first even-strength goal.

The Thunderbirds were seemingly in control of the game with a 3-0 lead heading into the final frame but got on their heels as the Calgary Hitmen stormed back to tie it up with a flurry of scores. With time running out, and overtime looming, Dillon Hamaliuk got the puck to a charging Strand who tipped it past goalie Matthew Armitage to seal a 4-3 win for Seattle.

Strand’s seventh marker of the year saved Seattle (6-5-0-1) from what would have been a tough loss to swallow.

“We’ll take them any way we can get them,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said about Strand scoring his first even-strength goal.

For the first 40 minutes of play at the Scotiabank Saddledome, the Thunderbirds were playing well. They were pushing the pace, piling up shots and built a three-goal lead. That all changed in the third period when Calgary (4-10-1-0) got a goal from Jake Bean at 7:13 of the third period.

That goal sparked the Hitmen and they would score twice more and had Seattle reeling down the stretch. Goalie Liam Hughes made some big saves for the Thunderbirds late and ended the night with 25 saves for his second win of the season.

“The first 40 minutes we stuck to the game plan, we were efficient and didn’t give up much,” O’Dette said. “They made a big push in the third. I don’t know if we got a little fatigued but they caught us on the back check and grabbed the momentum.”

The Thunderbirds picked up goals from four different goal scores, converted twice on the power play and for the second straight night, outshot their opponent.

A night after struggling to find rebounds in close and convert on chances, Seattle found a rebound to open the scoring in the second period. Blake Bargar was able to find the puck after a Nolan Volcan shot was stopped and buried it at 6:25 of the second period.

Seattle would keep the pressure on the Hitmen and would start to draw penalties. The Thunderbirds ended the second period with three power-play chances and used it to build their lead. First it was Reece Harsch who one-timed a pass from Zack Andrusiak that beat Matthew Armitage at 13:03.

Then, at 18:33, Donovan Neuls fired a slap shot from the face off circle that beat Armitage through a Volcan screen and destroyed the goaltender’s water bottle. It was the second of the season for Neuls and extended the Thunderbirds lead to 3-0.

Seattle was dominant in the middle frame. It outshot Calgary 15-7 and not one of the Hitmen shots came during 5-on-5 play.

It appeared that the Thunderbirds would cruise to a win but Calgary would cut the lead when Bean got in close and beat Hughes with a backhand. It was the Carolina Hurricanes draft pick’s first of the season and sparked the Hitmen.

Vladislav Yeryomenko would pull Calgary to within one at 13:08 of the third when he fired his third goal from the face off circle. Just over a minute later, the Hitmen went to the power play and tied the game when Mark Kastelic potted his third of the year from the slot.

Seattle killed off five of the six Hitmen power plays but none were bigger than a late Calgary power play that came at 17:04.

“We had to stay positive and dig deep for that kill,” O’Dette said. “Our killers stepped up when they needed to and we got the kill.”

The call was on Strand who had to watch from the penalty box as his team worked to keep the game even. It was after he got out of the box, that he found himself racing up ice to score the game-winning goal.

“It was probably the perfect guy to come out of the box, with the confidence he has right now,” O’Dette said. “A lot of guys would have played that safe. But what a great play for Strander to drive past their defenseman and get a great pass from Hamaliuk.”

The six-game road swing continues for the Thunderbirds Sunday afternoon when they’ll head to Lethbridge to face the Hurricanes at 4 pm.

Notes

• Saturday night saw the return of three Seattle players who had been out with injury. Jarret Tyszka and Aaron Hyman were both back in the lineup after missing Friday’s game against Kootenay. Winger Tyler Carpendale made his season debut after coming back from an injury himself.

• Strand – who was playing in his hometown on Saturday – also picked up an assist in the win and his 15 points puts him fifth in the WHL in defensemen scoring.

• Hyman is also a Calgary native and started last season playing for the Hitmen. He picked up an assist in his return while earning a plus-2 rating on the evening.

• Since O’Dette scrambled his lines last week against Moose Jaw, Seattle has been generating more shots. The Thunderbirds have topped the 30 shot mark in all four games since the change after only averaging just over 25-per-game.