Shea Theodore’s shot attempt is stopped by Portland’s Brendan Burke during Friday’s game (Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT — Playing in their last regular season home game of the year, the Seattle Thunderbirds continued their late season swoon Friday night.
Needing a win to keep pace with Spokane and Everett the T-Birds were beaten 5-2 by the Portland Winterhawks. Portland got two goals from Oliver Bjorkstrand, built a lead and never looked back against the struggling T-Birds.
“It was one of those nights you know,” Adam Henry said. “We just couldn’t seem to get grounded and come all the way back.”
It’s Seattle’s eighth loss in their last eleven games and they now find themselves tied with Spokane for fourth place.
“We’ve got to get more consistent on the body,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “I thought at times it was there but it’s got to be everybody, all the time. We’re still not playing with enough, I don’t know if ‘anger’ is the right word, but a ‘we got to do whatever it takes mentality.”
Portland (52-13-2-3) used their high end skill and speed to pressure the T-Birds and keep the flow of play in their favor. The T-Birds are the bigger team and when they’ve had some success against Portland it has been in games where they were able to hit the Winterhawks — something they did not do Friday.
Portland started to build their lead in the first Friday night on a goal from Matt Dumba as he walked into a slap shot from the point that beat goalie Taran Kozun. On the play the T-Birds forwards were standing around too much in their own zone and gave Dumba enough room to wind up and take what is a high-end slap shot.
It’s the eighth straight game that the T-Birds have given up the game’s first goal. As they have for most of the games through this stretch, they could not recover.
The Winterhawks extended their lead in the second period when Brendan Leipsic fired puck on a back-door play for a power play goal. Down two goals the T-Birds then would inflict some damage on themselves.
A turnover at the blue line led to an odd-man rush for Portland the other way. Kozun made the initial save on a Bjorkstrand attempt but the rebound deflected off of Justin Hickman and in the net.
Just like that the T-Birds were in a three-goal hole.
Seattle (40-24-2-4) started to get some life after that however and got on the board late in the second period when Mathew Barzal made a pretty pass through the slot to find a streaking Ryan Gropp. Gropp deposited the puck behind Brendan Burke for his 18th goal of the year.
That momentum carried into the third period as Seattle came out and seemingly found their physical game. They were generating chances early and got the game closer when Roberts Lipsbergs tipped a Shea Theodore point shot past Burke.
Now down only a goal, the 6,150 faithful at the ShoWare Center were back in the game and so were the T-Birds.
That excitement was doused however as the Winterhawks quickly got their two-goal lead back just over a minute later. After failing to get the puck out of their zone, the T-Birds watched as Bjorkstrand spun and fired a shot from the slot that Kozun could not find.
That goal was a killer and would end up being the final dagger on the night.
“That fourth goal, tough goal there,” Konowalchuk said. “I thought we still kept coming a little bit. I didn’t think our guys gave up. I like the way our guys came out to start the third with some big hits.”
Portland would add to their lead when a Taylor Leier shot deflected off a Seattle stick and in the net.
“It’s tough,” Henry said. “Obviously you’re frustrated but at the same time you’ve got to make sure that going into the playoffs you’re not hanging your heads. You don’t want to be falling apart as a team so we’re going to try to take as many positives as we can.”
Since clinching their playoff spot a few weeks ago the T-Birds have struggled – going 3-8-0-1 in their last eleven games. Only one of those wins was a regulation win and the team seems to have taken their foot off the gas in that stretch.
“A little bit of complacency,” Konowalchuk says of the recent struggles. “We haven’t found a way to get that out of our (game). I think things were getting too good for us there and we’ve maybe forgotten how hard it is to win…its still not good enough.”
With the loss the T-Birds now have two games left and a magic number of three to clinch fourth place, two to clinch fifth. They travel down to Portland for a rematch with the Winterhawks on Saturday before finishing off the season at Tri City.
The good news for Seattle is that they control their own destiny, they don’t need to scoreboard watch if they can take care of business in their final two games of the season.
“The message is that we’ve still got to get to playing better hockey,” Konowalchuk said. “Then we’ve got to try and take care of it and get some points here.”
The T-Birds challenge this weekend may be tougher as forward Brandan Troock may be looking at some league discipline after charging Burke late in the third period. Troock hit Burke pretty hard as the goalie’s mask went flying off. Troock was assessed a five-minute major charging penalty, along with a game misconduct.
Liepsic’s second period goal was his 300th point in his career with Portland.
Bjorkstrand added two assists to his two goals Friday night and now has scored 21 points against Seattle in their 11 games.
Friday night was Mitch Elliot’s final regular season home game for the T-Birds. He has played all 320 games of his WHL career with Seattle and was awarded with a special award after the game.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.