Seattle’s Adam Henry chases the puck during Seattle’s 6-4 loss on Tuesday (Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT — The Seattle Thunderbirds are finding ways to fill the last week of the season with more drama than they probably wished for.
With a chance to take a strangle hold on fourth place the T-Birds played a sloppy game and lost to the fifth place Spokane Chiefs 6-4. Spokane was paced by Mike Aviani’s two goals and has pulled to within two points of Seattle for home ice advantage, with only three games left in the year.
“That’s a stinger right there,” Justin Hickman said. “It would have been nice to have that one. I think we would have pretty much put our foot in fourth place there. We’ve just got to keep going and we don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves, we’ve got a big weekend coming up.”
In the eighth meeting between the two clubs, Spokane was finally able to solve the T-Birds and pick up a huge win as the season winds down. They also found a way to solve Seattle goalie Taran Kozun, who had not allowed a goal against the Chiefs in over 180 minutes of hockey this season.
“I thought I needed to make some saves and it didn’t happen,” Kozun said. “I’ve got to put the blame on myself tonight.”
While Kozun probably would like a couple of the goals scored Tuesday back, the entire team seemed to play a little too sloppy and loose in the defensive zone. It led to several quality chances for Spokane and ultimately, too many goals.
“I saw a good physical effort by most guys,” Head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “But mentally we just weren’t quite there, I don’t know if its because of all of the hockey we’ve (played). Mentally, some of our reads were a bit slower than usual. A couple of our decisions, that’s why they got five goals.”
Playing their fourth game in five nights, all against quality playoff teams, the T-Birds seemed a step off all night. In their previous seven wins against the Chiefs they were physical and sharp with the puck. Tuesday they did not hit the smaller Spokane roster as much and were not careful enough with the puck, especially in their own end.
“We were just a little bit off, and that’s mental,” Konowalchuk said. “Physically, it wasn’t a bad effort.”
The game was a back and forth affair as both teams would take, and give up, leads. The first period saw each team score twice, started by Spokane’s Dominic Zwerger’s 16th goal of the year.
Seattle battled back and got a goal from Alex Delnov a couple minutes later and then took the lead when Sam McKechnie chipped a puck off Spokane goalie Eric Williams for his 7th goal of the year.
Spokane didn’t waste any time getting the game square again as Adam Helewka was given room in the slot and beat Kozun with a wrist shot.
The Chiefs would then take the lead in the second, on a good bounce after Mitch Holmberg’s shot rebounded off Kozun, into the body of Aviani and found its way into the net. Mathew Barzal would answer for Seattle with his 14th goal of the year as the see-saw affair continued.
Seattle started to feel better about themselves when Ryan Gropp settled down a bouncing puck at the side of the net and was able to beat Williams for his 17th goal, giving the T-Birds a 4-3 lead. Unfortunately, the Chiefs would get the game even again, on a power play goal by Hudson Elynuik. Elynuik fired a shot that got by Kozun on the short side, causing frustration for the goalie as he banged his stick on the ice after.
The big moment came late in the third as overtime was looming. Shea Theodore burst out from behind his own net with the puck, only to have it bounce off his stick and to Aviani. Aviani was able to take it to the net and poke it through Kozun for what would be the game-winner.
The T-Birds had chances throughout the night, and in the third, but were unable to extend the game and Connor Chartier ended all doubt with an empty net tally with under two minutes left.
Seattle will now get a day of rest on Wednesday, according to Konowalchuk, and watch as the Chiefs will host Everett. A win for Spokane and they will pull even with Seattle in the standings. With only three games left, the scuffling T-Birds need to finish strong if they want home ice in the first round.
“Just keep your heads up.” Hickman said. “I don’t think too many guys in here think we’re in a slump or anything. We’re all excited for the playoffs, we have a huge weekend left and then it really starts.”
Seattle’s job this coming weekend won’t be easy. They play three games in three nights, two of which are against Portland. They will need to find points in these games if they hope to fend off the Chiefs.
“We’ve just got to keep winning games,” Konowalchuk said. “We still are in position to get our goal, there’s no panic here. Can’t get frustrated, they played a pretty hard hockey game. Again, we didn’t play terrible, we didn’t play our best. We would have liked to get the win here tonight and make it easier on our selves.”
Seattle has lost three out of their last four games now but that isn’t keeping them from looking forward and feeling confident about the last weekend of the season.
“We expect to win a game or two, or three this weekend,” Konowalchuk said. “We expect to play good hockey.”
Spokane hosts Everett on Wednesday in a game that the T-Birds will hope the Silvertips win. Everett has been playing well of late, going 8-0-0-1 in their last nine games. The bad news? They have not won in Spokane since 2010.
Looking forward, Spokane appears to have an easier schedule than Seattle has. Seattle has two games with Portland and a game at Tri City to end the season. Spokane has Wednesday’s game with Everett followed by a home-and-home with Tri City. The Americans clinched a playoff spot last night and have nothing to play for in those games.
Barzal has now scored goals in two consecutive games and has five points in his last four games.
After being nearly unbeatable early on, Kozun and the Seattle defense have been leaky in the last few games. They have allowed 16 goals in Kozun’s last three starts.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.