PORTLAND, Oregon – It came down to a match up between two guys named Hughes in the Moda Center on New Year’s Eve.
Seattle Thunderbirds goalie Liam Hughes needed to stop Portland’s Ryan Hughes in the shoot out to send his club to its third straight win. Ryan picked the puck up at center ice, skated in, and tried to get Liam to commit early. The Thunderbirds net minder stayed true, forced Ryan to try and move the puck which allowed Liam to make the save and celebrate a 4-3 win on the ice with his teammates.
The fact that Liam Hughes was even playing is quite remarkable. He was forced into action Saturday night after missing three weeks with an injury but showed no signs of rust as he backstopped Seattle (18-14-4-1) to a pair of big victories over Portland (22-12-1-2).
He ended Sunday’s tilt by kicking out 33 Winterhawks shots.
“Portland is a great team and for him to come back and play like that is pretty remarkable,” Seattle’s Turner Ottenbreit said. “Credit to him for the hard work and he was ready for us tonight.”
The Thunderbirds swept their three game weekend schedule and in each game overcame moments that might have resulted in losses earlier on in the season. Sunday night that included allowing a game-tying goal from Ryan Hughes with just 58 seconds left in the game.
“We didn’t panic,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said. “I think earlier we would have been pretty fragile after that but we stayed strong. I thought we had a good overtime again. Just a great weekend from the guys, I’m proud of all of those guys.”
For the captain Ottenbreit, who had two assists on Sunday, the weekend is a sign of the club maturing.
“Weve grown a lot as a group and we’ve gelled and learned from our mistakes,” he said. “That’s key, obviously early in the year we got behind late in games and kind of gave up. It’s nice to see that turn over.”
After scoring twice on Saturday night, Portland’s Sklyer McKenzie would strike first on Sunday. This time on a second-period power play when he one-timed a Cody Glass pass for his 27th of the year at 2:22 of the second period.
The Thunderbirds responded to that goal and began to tilt the ice.
They would cash in on a power-play chance five minutes later when Donovan Neuls found Reece Harsch flying into the zone and the big defenseman fired his eighth of the year. For Harsch, it would be his fifth goal in his last seven games.
Seattle had the momentum and less than a minute later would take its first lead of the night when Nikita Malukhin crashed the net during a scramble and poked in his fourth marker of the season and fifth point in his last five games.
The big Russian seems to have turned a corner in his rookie season.
“He’s playing well,” O’Dette said. “You get rewarded when you go to the net. Nikita driving to the net hard and barreling the puck, his man, and anything that was in his way. That’s how we’re going to score goals.”
A bad line change at the Seattle bench at 14:05 of the second would allow Portland to tie the game at two. Defenseman John Ludvig noticed the confusion at the bench and found Reece Newkirk alone in the neutral zone. Newkirk walked in and snapped a quick shot through Liam Hughes’ pads to tie the game at two heading into the third period.
The T-Birds didn’t let that goal get in their way however and would take a 3-2 lead with just over three minutes to go in the third period.
Ottenbreit fired a shot from the point that rebounded off the end boards and back out in front to where Matthew Wedman was parked. Wedman quickly deposited the puck behind Portland goalie Cole Kehler for his sixth marker of the season.
“I shot it at his stick there and I think he got a piece of it, kind of tipped it wide,” Ottenbreit said of the goal. “He was hungry and got the rebound, it was a big goal for us.”
It looked like enough but Ryan Hughes would tie it up on a scramble play late, with the extra skater on. It was his fifth of the season and sent the contest into overtime. Seattle played well in overtime, generating chances but neither Liam Hughes or Kehler would flinch, forcing the shootout.
In the shootout, Noah Philp would convert for Seattle and Liam Hughes stopped all three Portland attempts for the win.
It ended a successful weekend for Seattle as they won three games and have picked up points in six straight contests.
“Momentum and confidence is a big thing,” O’Dette said. “We’ve got some confidence right now and all the guys believe in each other and are pushing in the same direction.”
• With over ten thousand fans in the Moda Center, Sunday’s game had a playoff feel to it. “Portland fans, you’ve got to give them credit,” Ottenbreit said. “They’re great fans and they come out with a lot of energy. It’s a good atmosphere, much better than a dead barn.”
• Harsch continues his offensive surge. The second-year defenseman has surpassed his totals from last year and Sunday’s goal gives him markers in five of his last seven games.
• Nolan Volcan added an assist to extend his point streak to six games.
• Portland had leading scorer Cody Glass back in the lineup but was still without three key players due to the World Junior Championships. Seattle, of course, is still without Sami Moilanen, who suffered a minor injury with Team Finland.