By Andrew Eide
KENT — Dominance. There is no other way to describe the season series between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Spokane Chiefs.
Seattle shutout the Chiefs Friday night 4-0 to bring their record against Spokane to 7-0. Goalie Taran Kozun made 35 saves for his second shutout this week, both against Spokane, and the T-Birds had big nights from Mathew Barzal and Ryan Gropp who combined for three goals and five points.
For Kozun, it was his fourth shutout since joining the T-Birds in January and his third consecutive shutout against Spokane. It’s the second time this season he has had back-to-back shutouts — he previously blanked Spokane and Tri City on consecutive games.
In 184 minutes of hockey against Spokane, Kozun has stopped 92 shots, allowed zero goals and Friday even picked up an assist. That means that Kouzn has more points against Spokane than their entire roster has against him this year. How is it that he can dominate one club so much?
“I have no idea,” the goalie said with a smile. “Just get to play them three times, three shutouts. It’s pretty amazing actually. I just try to do the same thing for every game and it seems to work really well for them, I don’t know what else to say about that.”
Offensively Seattle (35-16-2-3) got big nights from their two high-profile rookies. Barzal and Gropp were put on the same line with Justin Hickman about two weeks ago and the three have gelled. Barzal picked up three points Friday for the second time in three games and has seven points over that stretch.
“I guess ‘Hicks and Groppy have been really good, its easy to play with both of them,” he said Friday. “I feel like we pump each other’s tires every time we do one of these interviews. But, they were good again tonight…we had another good night.”
Early on in this game it looked like the Chiefs might finally break through Kozun and the T-Birds. Spokane (31-18-3-2) came out of the gates strong and had an early 11-1 shot lead. The T-Birds leaned on Kozun early and the goalie kept them in it.
“The first period there a couple went through the five-hole and ended up not going in,” Kozun said. “I was pretty shocked but I guess the hockey gods were with me.”
The T-Birds started to turn the tide around the ten minute mark after a couple of good shifts from the Barzal line and the Chiefs were never able to generate any sustained pressure the rest of the way.
“Spokane came out pretty strong in the first ten minutes…I didn’t like the first ten minutes,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “We were sloppy with the puck, we had guys miss the net, let them get a little bit of momentum. I thought we got going after that to get the lead and specialty teams were huge, pretty good solid win.”
The teams were scoreless after the first period but Seattle would take the game over in the second.
Barzal got the first goal on a power play after he wheeled down the ice, beat the Chiefs defense and found a seam on goalie Eric Williams short side. It was his 10th goal of the year as the 16-year-old is looking to shoot the puck more often.
“Off the break out Theo (Shea Theodore) just gave me a pass and I walked around the d-man,” he said of the play. “I need to start shooting more I thought so I just let one go and just found a crack up top.”
With a one-goal lead the frustration started to take hold for the Chiefs and they began to show it by taking some liberties. The T-Birds had some unlikely players step up to stand for their teammates. Barzal jumped into a scrum after a whistle and goal scorer Roberts Lipsbergs got into his first WHL fight. Seeing guys like that not afraid to mix it up can have a resounding affect on the rest of the team.
“It’s big,” Konowalchuk said. “They’re all a team in there and we want everybody to to do everything. When you happen to be in the spot where you have to stand up for somebody you have to stand up for somebody. I know the bench gets a lift from it, its good to see.”
Barzal got a cut on his nose for his efforts — what he referred to as his first ‘battle scar’.
“Usually it’s ‘Hicks on our line doing it,” Barzal said about standing up. “I was the first there tonight. I thought Groppy got kind of speared a little bit so I had to jump in.”
Barzal and Lipsbergs’ willingness to jump in was noticed by the bench and the players on the ice.
“It really fires the guys up and gets guys in the game,” Gropp said. “It’s pretty awesome to see those guys standing up for teammates.”
After the altercations the T-Birds got back to scoring goals.
Branden Troock picked up his 21st goal of the year on the power play as he weaved his way through the Spokane defense before knocking the puck off of one of their players and in. Spokane picked up another penalty on the play and Seattle immediately went back to the power play.
With the puck along the boards, Barzal surveyed the ice and found a seam in the Chiefs’ penalty kill. He fired a seeing-eye pass through the defense to Gropp who wasted no time in burying it for his 14th goal of the year.
Gropp would finish off the scoring in the third as he crossed the Spokane zone and rifled a pretty back-handed roof shot past the Spokane goalie.
The win leaves Spokane eight points in the T-Birds rear view mirror as they continue to push for home ice advantage in the playoffs. Seattle was also able to keep pace with Victoria and Portland — the two teams directly ahead of them in the Western Conference standings.
The T-Birds will next take on Kelowna on Monday afternoon at 2 P.M.
Taran Kozun’s brief time with Seattle has been nothing short of spectacular. In his ten starts with the club he is now 9-1 with a goals against average of 1.18, a save percentage of .962 and has four shut outs.
Kozun is the first T-Birds goalie with three consecutive shutouts against the same opponent. In the 2008-2009 season Riku Heleniun shutout Portland in two consecutive games but couldn’t get the third. Calvin Pickard shutout Kelowna three times in 2007-2008 but they were not in consecutive games. Bryan Bridges shutout Spokane twice in a row in 2004-2005 along with shutting out the Vancouver Giants three times.
How good has the Gropp-Barzal-Hickman line been? Since being put together seven games ago the three have combined for 13 goals, 31 points and are plus-24.
Kozun’s second period assist on Barzal’s goal was his fourth of the year. With four points Kozun is now the WHL’s leading scorer among goalies. After the game he mentioned that he was aware of where he was in goalie scoring, coming into the game tied with Spokane’s Eric Williams at three.
Friday was a good night for Seattle’s power play as they went 3-for-4 on the night. Spokane was 0-for-5.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide