By Andrew Eide
Despite a much better effort Saturday night, the Seattle Thunderbirds find themselves returning home in a two-game hole.
Kelowna used a three-goal second period along with 36 saves by goalie Jordon Cooke to beat the T-Birds 6-3 in Game 2 of their best-of-seven series. The Rockets got goals from six different players and now have a 2-0 lead in the series as it heads back to the ShoWare Center.
The T-Birds played better in Game 2 than they did on Thursday but once again suffered one bad period that put the game out of reach.
On Saturday, the game was lost in the second period.
“We didn’t play a good second period,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “The goals were on just too big of breakdowns, and it’s not that they’re coming at us the whole game but they’re causing big breakdowns and we’re not good enough away from the puck.”
Seattle outshot Kelowna 18-7 to start the game and headed into the second tied at two and feeling good about their game. The Rockets would soon put that feeling to rest as they struck three times on 17 shots to build a big three-goal lead.
It started on the power play when Damon Severson scored his third of the series as he skated between the circles and beat Taran Kozun with a wrist shot. Just over two minutes later Cole Linaker scored after Seattle failed to clear a rebound from out in front.
Later in the period, Rourke Chartier found another rebound loose in the slot and banged home his fifth playoff goal to give the Rockets a lead they would not relinquish.
In the first two games, controlling rebounds has been an issue for the Seattle defense. Too many times the Rockets have scored after the initial save by Kozun because no T-Birds players were able to find the puck and clear it out.
“You’ve got to be on your guy so they can’t find the rebound,” Konowalchuk said about the rebounds. “When you get away, you’re too puck-focused, and you’ve got to be on your guy and know where your guy is at.”
The three-goal outburst by the Rockets killed what had been a good start for Seattle. They controlled most of the play in the first twenty minutes and generated numerous scoring chances. If not for several great saves by Cooke, Seattle easily could have scored four goals.
Despite that start they still fell behind 2-0 early on. Kelowna only had three good chances in the period but managed to score on two of them. The first was on a two-on-one break that resulted in Riley Stadel scoring an easy goal. Later, after Seatle failed to clear the puck, Nick Merkley potted his first playoff goal from the side of the net.
The early deficit didn’t phase the T-Birds, however, as they quickly got right back in it. Brandon Troock made a nice pass from the goal line to a wide open Roberts Lipsbergs, who scored on the back hand. Two minutes later Scott Eansor swooped into the slot and picked up a loose puck to score his fourth of the playoffs.
Just like that the T-Birds had tied the game and had all the momentum – something they seemed to lose in the intermission.
Seattle out shot Kelowna again in the third period, and Alex Delnov scored to cut the lead to 5-3. That was as close as they would get, however. With Kozun on the bench, Tyrell Goulbourne stole the puck and skated up ice for an easy empty-net tally to close out the scoring and the game.
Despite the loss, there was some positives for the T-Birds. They were skating toe-to-toe with the Rockets for two-thirds of the game, which is something they might be able to build on for Game 3 on Tuesday.
“The first and third were good periods,” Konowalchuk said. “Again, it wasn’t that they came at us the whole game. We had a lot of chances and scored a few goals, but we have to continue that and then correct our defensive mistakes.”
The defensive mistakes have been killers. Failing to clear rebounds and allowing odd-man rushes because of breakdowns have been key to the two losses so far. With a team as skilled as the Rockets, the T-Birds cannot afford to make things easy for them.
“You’ve got to stick with the structure,” Konowalchuk said of the breakdowns. “You’ve got to be smarter away from the puck.”
So Seattle now heads home trailing by two games – the exact opposite of last year’s series with the Rockets when they led by two as the series returned to Kent. The T-Birds are far from dead, however, as they have a chance to win two home games and get the series back to even.
“We’ve got to win the next game, that’s our next focus,” Konowalchuk said. “At home, we’re a better home team. We’ve got to play better than we did here. Now we’ve got to take care of our home ice.”
Game 3 is Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center and face off is at 7:05 P.M.
• Seattle was without Jaimen Yakubowski on Saturday as the gritty winger suffered an undisclosed injury in the first period of Game 1 on Thursday. The injury allowed rookie Lane Pederson to get into his first WHL playoff game. Konowalchuk liked how Pederson played, going as far as saying he was better than some of the T-Birds regulars and will play again on Tuesday if Yakubowski is still out.
• Kelowna was again without their regular season leading scorer Myles Bell, who suffered a lower body injury in the opening round against Tri City.
• Delnov has now scored a goal in each of the last three playoff games.
• The Rockets went 1-for-3 on the power play Saturday and now have scored a goal in every one of their playoff games this year.
• Mathew Barzal scored his first career WHL playoff goal in Game 1. His counterpart for Kelowna, 16-year-old Nick Merkley, scored his first for the Rockets on Saturday.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide