Seattle goalie Taran Kozun was huge as Seattle took Game 1 against Everett (Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT — As expected, the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips opened their first round playoff series in dramatic fashion Saturday night.
Seattle scored two first period power play goals and relied on 38 saves by goalie Taran Kozun to hold off the Silvertips and take a one-game lead in their best-of-seven tilt. The T-Birds were paced offensively on goals by Russell Maxwell and Shea Theodore.
Everett and Seattle have played close, gritty games against each other all year and Saturday was no exception.
“Game 1, it’s very exciting,” Justin Hickman said. “We’ve been waiting all year for that. That was a hell of a game. We knew it was going to be a 60 minute battle, and that’s what it was.”
The way Seattle started the game it looked like the trend of close games wasn’t going to hold in the playoffs. Seattle struck twice in the first 20 minutes to build a big two-goal lead.
It started on the power play when Maxwell scored his first WHL playoff goal, banging home a rebound from the side of the net. Playing for Lethbridge his entire career, Maxwell was excited to finally see some post season action.
“It was pretty fun,” Maxwell said. “It’s a lot different game, that’s for sure…I was really fortunate on my first shift to get a lucky bounce and get a goal.”
The T-Birds struck again half way through the period when Theodore blasted a slap shot through traffic that beat Everett goalie Austin Lotz. On the play, Lotz felt he was interfered with and was furious afterwards. He knocked over Ryan Gropp in frustration and shoved the goal off it’s moorings — somehow avoiding a penalty.
“Good start,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Any time you can get off to a lead like that, capitalize on the power plays against a team that starts really well. Our guys did good, they were ready to play in the first.”
In the second period the Silvertips pushed back, aided by a Seattle parade to the penalty box. Seattle found themselves short handed four times in the first five minutes of the second period, and would pay.
Everett cut the lead in half on a two-man advantage when Patrick Bajkov beat Kozun with a one-timer off of a Josh Winquist pass. The Silvertips built momentum off of the multiple power plays, out shooting Seattle 19-4 in the period. Seattle managed to hold onto their lead with some good penalty killing and outstanding goaltending by Kozun.
“They [Everett] generated quite a bit on their power play,” Konowalchuk said of the second period. “Kozun was big for us, our penalty kill was big for us to get us through that. That’s where they generated a lot of their momentum today, we’ve got to stay out of the box.”
Like Maxwell, Saturday was Kozun’s first action in the WHL playoffs. He did not wilt from the pressure.
“It was a blast,” the netminder said. “I was kind of nervous going in but a strong first, pretty good second, they got that one on the five-on-three…other than that I thought I had a good game.”
There’s an old saying that your best penalty killer has to be your goalie and as good as the penalty killers were Saturday, Kozun was better.
“For me, I’ve just got to be the best penalty killer out there,” Kozun said. “Stop all the ones that I need to and make a couple big saves if I have to.”
After forty minutes the T-Birds were fortunate to still have a lead, albeit the slimmest of leads.
The third period bogged down into a fast-paced, defensive struggle. With a great deal of end-to-end play without whistles, neither team was able to generate many good scoring chances. Kozun made all the stops he needed to and the T-Birds held on to take the early lead in the series and delight the 4,560 in attendance.
“The crowd was unbelievable,” Hickman said. “That’s what you work all year for, home ice advantage and it’s a big difference. Now we’ve got to go into their building which is a tough place to play, it will be rocking, and it’s another test tomorrow.”
Both clubs know that there is still a lot of hockey left in this series, hockey that will be tough as neither allows for much room on the ice. The series now shifts to Everett for Game 2 on Sunday. Seattle knows that they will have their hands full with an Everett team that will not want to fall down by two games.
“It’s gonna be a whole different ball game for sure,” Maxwell said of playing on the road. “They’ll have a big crowd, they’ll be excited. It’s a big game obviously, we’d like to take a little bit of advantage in the series.”
Playoff hockey is often about the adjustments coaches make from game to game. The team that wins usually doesn’t have to make too many. With how well these teams know each other, Sunday’s game will probably be more of the same.
“We try to focus on our game,” Konowalchuk said. “We try to focus on our game and getting on the attack and on the forecheck and not worry about the other team so much. When we worry about our game we seem to have a little more energy and jump.”
Sunday’s game starts early, at 4 P.M. from the Comcast Center in Everett.
Seattle gave up the one power play goal in the second period, on a five-on-three advantage. Other than that goal they were able to kill off five Everett power plays while going 2-for-4 when they had the man advantage.
There were a lot of good performances by T-Birds players who didn’t figure in the scoring. The Gropp,Mathew Barzal,Hickman line was strong all night, generating chances and playing in their own end. The shut down line of Jaimen Yakubowski, Scott Eansor, and Sam McKechnie were able to shut down Everett’s top line. Branden Troock and Keegan Kolesar also had strong games as the win was truly a team effort.
There has been a lot of talk about the neutral zone leading into this series. Saturday night Seattle managed the puck pretty well against the Everett trap. There were very few turnovers and hardly any Silvertips odd-man rushes. Seattle will have to keep that up as the series progresses.
An odd, somewhat scary, moment occurred in the third period. After about ten minutes of play without a whistle, Hickman hit an Everett player along the boards. On the play he got his hand stuck between two panes of glass and was momentarily trapped as he needed assistance to free himself. Afterwards he said that was a first for him and that his hand was fine.
Seattle will have some interesting match up options on Sunday. Konowalchuk’s shut down line was strong Saturday against the Josh Winquist line for Everett. On the road Seattle will not be able to dictate the match ups and will have to find another line to try and stop Everett’s top unit. Look for the Barzal line to get a shot at it. They have had some success in Everett against that line by keeping it away from the Silvertips and forcing Winquist and company to play in their own end.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.