By Andrew Eide
KENT – The Thunderbirds turned in one of their best performances on the season Saturday night and put an end to their rivals hopes of tying a WHL record.
Seattle scored four unanswered goals and got 41 big saves from goalie Taran Kozun to beat the Portland Winterhawks 4-1 in front of 6,031 rowdy fans at the ShoWare Center. The T-Birds picked up their four goals from four different players and were able to stick to their game plan for the full 60 minutes of the game.
“That definitely feels good,” Justin Hickman said. “They’re going for a record, we played 60 minutes. I think that’s the best performance we put together in the second half. It feels good, especially against those guys.”
The win helped Seattle in its playoff positioning and put an end to Portland’s impressive 21-game win streak – one shy of a WHL single-season record. The Winterhawks feature a roster loaded with offensive talent but Saturday night the T-Birds were able to control the play.
“It’s about our game,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “We’ve talked about the last 20 games, it’s about what we do as a team. Today’s focus was about us playing our best game. Emotion, physical, puck management, good D-zone coverage, so it’s not so much about what they have, it’s about how we have to play.”
The T-Birds had strong performances up and down their roster, but perhaps none better than Kozun in net. The 19-year-old goalie continued his strong play since joining the T-Birds and picked up his 13th win with Seattle.
“It was an exciting game,” Kozun said. “I love playing them, they get a lot of scoring chances. They never quit throughout the whole 60 minutes, so it’s really exciting playing against them. Rivalry games are the best. We had a nice big crowd tonight and they were really into it.”
Kozun held the league’s top offensive club to one goal and was calm and confident the entire night. Seattle also got a big boost from their shut-down line made up of Justin Hickman, Russell Maxwell and Jaimien Yakubowski. The three forwards were given the tough assignment of checking Portland’s top line, a line that features the league’s leading scorer in Nic Petan and the dangerous Brendan Leipsic.
“Those guys, they’re so good offensively,” Hickman said. “Trying to get pucks in their end. It doesn’t matter how many times it takes you to shut them down, it was nice to get rewarded there. The main goal is that we shut them down and got the win.”
Not only was Portland’s top line kept off the score sheet, but Hickman scored a big goal late in the third period. Leading 2-1, the shut-down line went to work forechecking. Maxwell forced a turnover in the Portland zone and got the puck to Yakubowski, who made a nice feed to Hickman for the goal.
“‘Maxi’s doing a good job on the back check,” Hickman said. “Kind of stripped the puck, dished it to Yak, and Yak fed me back door for a nice tic-tac-toe. Nice passing play by those guys.”
It was Hickman’s 21st goal of the year and gave Seattle a big two-goal lead heading into the final 20 minutes of play.
“Your job is to shut down the other team,” Konowalchuk said of his shut-down line’s goal. “If you can come out on the plus side that’s a real bonus. … A good shut-down line, if you play the right way can chip in some goals like that.”
In the third, the T-Birds got the insurance goal when Branden Troock out-muscled Portland’s Derrick Pouliot for the puck and went in alone to beat Winterhawks goalie Corbin Boes.
When playing Portland this year, the T-Birds have sometimes succumbed to getting in penalty trouble, letting their emotions get the best of them. Saturday night they were able to keep those emotions in check while still playing a physical game against the highly-skilled Winterhawks.
“We’ve been talking about it for the last month,” Konowalchuk said about playing with the right amount of emotion. “The guys have been getting better at it. They did a good job. I believe we limited them to a couple of power plays until the game was 4-1, late in the game, so that going down the stretch is very important.”
On the night the T-Birds only gave Portland four powerplay chances, shutting down all four, which was a big contrast from the last time these two teams met – a game where Seattle was shorthanded eight times.
In what has become a growing trend this season, the T-Birds were buoyed by a big, loud and vocal crowd. The ShoWare Center faithful were in the game from the start and Seattle used that to get some momentum.
“Our guys love it,” Konowalchuk said. “It’s awesome when there’s a big hit and the crowd goes nuts. You block a shot and the crowd’s loud. All those things, it gives the bench energy, its very important. Kids are emotional, more and more so than even the pros. … I think we have the most fun place to play for our guys. It’s an awesome environment.”
Seattle fell behind early in the game when a Taylor Leier shot was stopped by Kozun and trickled behind him. Chase De Leo poked it in the Winterhawks.
The T-Birds got that goal back on the power play when Shea Theodore ripped a slap shot from the point to beat a screened Boes. Seattle extended its lead later in the period after a good Seattle forecheck turned the puck over, and Alex Delnov banged it in off of Boes’ body.
The win was big for Seattle as it picked up two more points on Spokane, who lost against Tri City, for fourth place in the Western Conference standings. They now lead the Chiefs by six big points heading into the season’s final weeks.
The T-Birds hit the ice again Sunday afternoon against the Everett Silvertips, another team that is fighting for playoff positioning. Face off is at 5 p.m. at the ShoWare Center.
• Saturday’s win was Seattle’s fourth against the Winterhawks this season. All four wins have come at home as they have struggled in Portland. The T-Birds will get a chance to make a big statement against their rivals in Portland next Friday.
• Portland’s win streak fell one short of tying a single-season WHL record. The 1967 Estevan Bruins won 22 straight games and hold the mark. The 1981 Victoria Cougars hold the overall record with 24 straight wins, but those came over two seasons.
Seattle and Portland have had long streaks broken before. Last year the T-Birds were on a frustrating 15-game losing streak and ended it on January 19th, 2013 when they beat the Winterhawks 4-3.
• Lost in the statistics Saturday night was the outstanding play by the Mathew Barzal-Ryan Gropp-Sam McKechnie line. The trio failed to score but they generated numerous scoring chances and played a strong 200-foot game.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.