By Andrew Eide
KENT – After one of their most successful campaigns in several years, the Seattle Thunderbirds’ season has come to an end.
As has been the theme of their entire series against Kelowna, the T-Birds could not cash in on the chances they generated and fell to the Rockets 5-2 Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center. Kelowna got two points from Damon Severson and once again relied on its depth, along with 42 saves by goalie Jordon Cooke, to complete the series sweep.
“Their goalie played well,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “I thought we played a fairly strong game, their guys capitalized more than ours. Congratulations to them, they were the better team.”
The T-Birds pushed hard in this game, playing desperate hockey, but struggled to find the big goal they needed to stay alive. Seattle again was given several power-play chances and once again couldn’t take advantage. A big turning point, one that was the epitome of the series, was the start of the season’s final 20 minutes.
Trailing 2-1 going into the third period, the T-Birds had 2:45 seconds left of a power play that carried over from the second period after Ryan Olsen was given a double minor for high sticking. This was Seattle’s big chance to try and get the game even. The T-Birds worked the puck around and came close a couple of times but Cooke either made a save, or the puck just bounced off a Seattle stick.
In the end, Kelowna killed off the penalty and Seattle lost a great deal of momentum, and maybe hope.
“That’s the game,” Konowalchuk said of the extended power-play chance. “You get momentum. Their special teams were a lot better than ours, that’s another big part of this series.”
It was like that all series long. The T-Birds ended the night 1-for-7 on the power play and have to feel that they could have won this game. The contrasts in special teams was evident again on Wednesday as the Rockets converted on two of their five power-play chances. For the series, Seattle was 2 for 22 with the man advantage.
The frustrating thing for the T-Birds is that they were in this series. The Rockets did not dominate possession or the play territorially. Instead, Kelowna simply scored when it got a chance to and Seattle could not.
“That makes it frustrating,” Konowalchuk said. “We could have been better. We didn’t have the same desperation, same passion as the first series. I talked to the guys, we’ve got to use this as a learning experience and there are some pretty upset guys in that locker room right now. They’re young men so I hope they use it as a learning experience.”
Seattle didn’t roll over in Game 4. The T-Birds played hard, played like their backs were against the wall, but in the end they had dug too deep of a hole against a team that had the best record in the WHL all year.
The T-Birds did manage to get their first lead of the series after an Ethan Bear power-play goal in the first period. The 16-year-old defenseman fired a wrist shot past Cooke for his second playoff tally. The problem for Seattle is that it couldn’t build on that lead.
Not that Seattle didn’t have its chances. The T-Birds pushed and just missed on several golden opportunities — the theme of the series.
In the second period the Rockets struck back. First Severson scored his fourth goal of the series as he turned in the high slot and fired a shot that deflected off a Seattle player and past goalie Taran Kozun. Two minutes later, Cole Linaker gave Kelowna the lead as he stuffed home a wrap-around goal for his fourth goal of the postseason.
After Seattle failed on its early power-play attempt in the third period, the Rockets went in for the kill.
Kelowna got goals from Marek Tvrdon and Tyson Baillie to build a 4-1 lead that would end up sending the T-Birds home. Seattle got the game closer when Sam McKechnie scored with just under 5 minutes left, but when Nick Merkley slid the puck into an empty T-Birds net with under 30 seconds to go, the celebration was on for Kelowna.
The Rockets were clearly the better team in this series but the T-Birds played with a little less intensity than they had in their first-round series with Everett. They have to feel that, at the minimum, this series could have been closer than the four-game sweep indicates it was.
Afterwards, Konowalchuk talked about this being a learning experience for his players.
“Some are going to be back here playing juniors, some are moving on to pro hockey,” he said of his players. “If they don’t think, that in this series, they didn’t give it everything they’ve got every game, this should hurt. But they can learn from it, that’s what this is all about, learning from it. Because I think we could have been a better team in the second round.”
In the end, the loss caps off a season that was ultimately a successful one, despite the disappointment on Wednesday. The T-Birds won 41 games, ended up with home-ice advantage in the first round, and beat one of their biggest rivals in the first round of the playoffs. There will be plenty of time to reflect on that, but on Wednesday night, the loss was still too fresh, too raw.
“I’m upset right now, I don’t want to be too negative on the whole year,” Konowalchuk said. “I told the guys I’m proud of our regular season, played a real good team in the first round and competed real hard. As proud as I am, I’m disappointed right now … its going to take a few days to sit back, see where we fell in and see if we’re satisfied or not.”
• The T-Birds’ struggles on the power play hurt them in this series and has been a constant against Kelowna. The Rockets feature the league’s best penalty kill and over the last two postseasons have only allowed Seattle to go 2 for 49 on the power play. That is as big a reason as any why they have moved on two years in a row.
• The T-Birds had several players who played their final game in a Seattle sweater on Wednesday night – we just don’t know which ones. With 10 19-year-olds on their roster, they will have to say goodbye to several players. Which three return as 20-year-olds next season will be one of the most intriguing offseason stories to watch.
• The Rockets will now move on to the Western Conference Finals. They will play the winner of the Victoria-Portland series. Portland leads that series 3-1 and the Winterhawks can close it out Thursday when they host the Royals in Portland.
• One player that the T-Birds did say goodbye to was Mitch Elliot. The tough and gritty 20-year-old was a fan favorite and played 322 games for Seattle in his WHL career.
• We will take a look back over this series and the past season over the next week, so check back to the blog for more.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.