The last time the Seattle Thunderbirds were at Prospera Place in Kelowna, they hoisted their second straight Western Conference championship trophy.
Friday night they were back and while the stakes weren’t as high, Seattle skated away with an impressive 6-4 road win over the Kelowna Rockets. Donovan Neuls paced Seattle with a couple of goals and once again the Thunderbirds shook off some adversity to persevere.
With the win, the Thunderbirds snapped Kelowna’s 13-game win streak at home. It’s something that Seattle (19-14-4-1) was well aware of coming into the contest.
“It was motivation for us,” head coach Matt O’Dette said. “We knew they had a 13-game home winning streak and used some of the adversity against us and played with a chip on our shoulder. Knowing they had the win streak on the line, that would be a nice feather in our cap to end that.”
It was a nice feather for a Thunderbirds squad that has won four in a row of its own while picking up points in seven straight games. Seattle won despite a shaky second period that saw Kelowna (24-12-2-1) score three unanswered goals.
As they did last weekend, the Thunderbirds shook off the adversity.
“I think we’ve matured as a team in these tight games,” O’Dette said. “Just grind it out and stay the course and find ways to win.”
Goalie Liam Hughes made his third start in as many games Friday night and stopped 26 Rockets shots to pick up his third straight victory.
He got some help from Seattle’s penalty kill unit that was put to the test seven times. They killed off six of those power plays and avoided losing their cool as the Thunderbirds were only awarded one power play, despite plays that looked like penalties should have been called.
“I think we were teetering on the brink of losing our composure but we held on,” O’Dette said. “Our leaders helped reel some guys in. At this point, we’re used to it. We know getting riled up isn’t going to help so we just dig our heels in and get the penalty kills.”
Playing in his first game since Dec. 1st, defenseman Aaron Hyman got the Thunderbirds on the board the first time he touched the puck. Matthew Wedman won a faceoff back to Hyman at 1:36 of the opening frame and the big defenseman fired a wrist shot that found the back of the net.
Seattle played a strong road period and would extend its lead at 13:52 when Noah Philp charged the net and was able to slide the puck across the crease to Dillon Hamaliuk. With goalie James Porter down, Hamaliuk hammered the puck home for his seventh goal of the year.
Kelowna would get one back late in the period however. Leif Mattson took a couple of shots and Hughes could not stop the second one. It was Mattson’s 11th marker and came at 16:11 of the first period.
Neuls would score his first on a Seattle power play six minutes into the second. He fired a one-timer from the top of the face off circle to make it 3-1.
The Rockets would storm back though, scoring three unanswered goals in the period. First it was Gordie Ballhorn with a one-time power-play goal of his own at 8:25. Two minutes later, Kyle Topping got a rebound in front and swept it past Hughes for his 15th score. Carson Twarynski’s 27th of the year would give Kelowna its first lead at 17:16 and things were looking bleak for the Thunderbirds.
But Neuls would strike again, with under two minutes in the period, when he scored during a scramble play to even the game up at four on his 11th of the season. It stopped the Kelowna run and was the biggest goal of the evening.
“It was huge,” O’Dette said of the goal. “They seized the momentum…we were on our heels and that line went out and had a gritty shift. A down low shift where they got the puck to the net, took two, three whacks at it and got the greasy goal at a great time of the game.”
Seattle would score the only two goals in the third to seal the win.
Nolan Volcan tipped his 17th score past Porter at 8:59 to give the Thunderbirds the lead back and then Austin Strand would add an insurance goal at 12:09 to finish up the night’s scoring.
The Thunderbirds won’t have too much time to revel in the win as they’re back in action Saturday night when they host the Spokane Chiefs.
“It doesn’t get any easier tomorrow night,” O’Dette said. “A great team coming into our building and we need to keep this momentum going and come up with another big game.”
• Volcan’s goal set a new career high for the speedy winger as well as extending his point streak to seven games.
• Along with the return from injury for Hyman, Seattle also had Sami Moilanen back in the lineup. The Finnish import added an assist.