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Liam Hughes backstops Thunderbirds to shootout win

Liam Hughes stops Tri-City's Morgan Geekie during in the shootout Tuesday night. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

KENT – The Seattle Thunderbirds have been putting in a lot of extra time at home lately.

For the fifth straight game at the accesso ShoWare Center, the Thunderbirds played a game that went to overtime. Tuesday night, it was against a high-flying Tri-City Americans team that came in ahead of Seattle in the standings. Overtime would not solve it and the two clubs would need a shootout to decide the outcome.

Nolan Volcan converted his shootout attempt to put Seattle on the cusp of winning and at the other end Liam Hughes would stop Juuso Valimaki to seal a hard fought 3-2 win.

That duo was huge for the Thunderbirds as Volcan also scored a short-handed goal in the second period while Hughes tied a career high with 48 saves to pick up his 10th win.

“He was great,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said about his goalie. “What else can you say about him? He’s been there for us ever since he came back. He’s been standing tall playing these high powered offensive teams. It sure is nice to have a goalie to make those saves.”

Hughes had to contend with a Tri-City (27-17-7-1) club that features three first-round NHL draft picks on it and was up to the task. The win also gives Hughes an impressive 4-1 record in shootouts this year.

Sporting a newly painted mask, he was calm and collected all night and never flinched, even when the Thunderbirds had to kill off a dangerous four-on-three power-play in overtime.

“It just felt good,” Hughes said of the game. “The boys kept it to the perimeter and it was real easy to see a lot of the shots. It was an easy game in the sense of shot quality, but they made some nice plays to drive the net and made good plays in tight.”

Volcan not only had the big conversion in the shootout but his goal during regulation helped stop momentum that the Americans had built up in the second period. It had been five games since the Thunderbirds’ leading goal scorer had found the back of the net, and there was a sense of relief afterwards.

“It’s been a few games,” Volcan said. “It was nice to get it in and big to get the win too. It was a big bounce back and good to get the two points.”

The goal came at the 14-minute mark of the second while Tri-City was on a power play, and was tilting the ice. Volcan picked the puck up at center ice and turned on the jets. He beat the Tri-City defender and cut in on goalie Beck Warm where he would sweep in his 25th of the season.

“I just kind of got a break on the PK there,” Volcan said. “I just went down and thought (the defenseman) was a little bit above. I just pulled ‘er in and took it to the net and lucky enough to put it in.”

It was part of a big night for the resurgent Thunderbirds’ penalty kill that ended up killing off five Tri-City power-play chances. It also gave Seattle (27-18-5-2) a 2-1 lead that it held into the third period.

For the second straight game however, the Thunderbirds would allow the game to get evened up. This time it came with just 1:45 left in regulation as Morgan Geekie found room in the high slot and ripped his 20th of the season.

Unlike Saturday night against Victoria, the Thunderbirds didn’t falter.

“Way better game,” O’Dette said. “I thought our guys battled the full 60. Obviously, you don’t want to give up that late goal but it’s not by lack of effort or focus. I think Saturday night there was an element of that creeping in. Tonight, was a full effort.”

Tri-City controlled the play for most of the first period and outshot Seattle early on. That disparity would pay off at 10:57 when Nolan Yaremko potted his 17th of the season when he fired a loose puck past Hughes during a scramble play in front of the Seattle net.

Seattle would get a push back in the second half of the period and tie the game after a strong frorecheck freed the puck. Donovan Neuls picked it up and tucked the puck in at the side of the net at 17:37 for his 19th of the season.

Noah Philp would open the shootout with a conversion while Parker AuCoin would do the same for the Americans. It would take five rounds before Volcan converted and Hughes shut the door sending the Thunderbirds to the ice to celebrate.

The win moved the Seattle to within one point of  Tri-City for third place in the U.S. Division as the playoff races tighten up. The team will now prepare for a grueling three-in-three weekend, starting with a Friday night game at Vancouver.

Notes

• Volcan’s conversion was the first of the year after missing on two previous attempts this season. Surprisingly, he is not super confident about the shootouts in general. “I get a little nervous but I’m getting better at them,” he said. “I think I just needed to get the one out of the way.”

• O’Dette matched up Matthew Wedman, Volcan and Blake Bargar against Tri-City’s big line centered by Detroit Red Wings first-round pick Michael Rasmussen. “I think it’s a bigger centerman that can contend with him,”  he said about why he liked Wedman in that role. “He’s a heavy load to handle there. I just liked having Volcan out there. Just his battle level against other team’s top lines is an asset for us.”

• Wedman added an assist, along with the tough defensive assignment, which extended his scoring streak to four straight games.

• Tri-City’s Isaac Johnson extended his point streak to eight straight with an assist on Yaremko’s goal in the first period.