By Andrew Eide
If it feels like it has been a while since the Thunderbirds have given up a goal against the Spokane Chiefs, its because it has been.
Seattle goalie Taran Kozun stopped 29 shots Wednesday night to pick up his second consecutive shut out against Spokane as the T-Birds won easily by a 4-0 score. Offensively the T-Birds were paced by Justin Hickman’s first career hat trick as the big forward continues his hot play of late.
In a big game as far as playoff positioning goes, the T-Birds took control in the second period and beat Spokane for the sixth straight time this season. More importantly, they put some distance between the two clubs in the standings.
“I thought it was a good team effort, its a team win,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “There were a lot of good things out there.”
For Kozun, Wednesday continued his hot start with Seattle and he has yet to allow a goal against the Chiefs. As he has since joining the T-Birds, he was calm, in control and made tough saves look easy on Wednesday night.
“Really solid back there, very composed and calming,” Konowalchuk said of his goalie. “He made a key save on the penalty kill through traffic. Aviani took a shot and he made a glove save look pretty easy…at that point I thought it was going to be tough to get anything by him.”
While Kozun was keeping the puck out of the net, Hickman was putting it in.
He started in the first period, by stealing the puck in the Spokane zone and fired it past Spokane goalie Garrett Hughson. That gave the T-Birds a one-goal lead after the first period.
They extended their lead early in the second period when Alex Delnov put back a rebound for his 22nd goal of the night. That goal deflated the Chiefs a bit and the T-Birds began to take over the game.
“I think its a big one,” Konowalchuk said. “If they come out and tie it up 1-1 there that would give them some life. We scored our second and I really liked after we scored that guys kept pushing to get that third goal, playing the right way.”
Seattle’s defense stiffened and they began forcing Spokane into turnovers both in the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. It kept the Chiefs from getting any offensive flow and created scoring chances for the T-Birds.
Late in the third Hickman was back at work and put the Chiefs out of their misery. With under two minutes in the period he tipped a Ryan Gropp point shot past the net to give Seattle a three-goal lead.
In the third period he completed the hat trick by beating Hughson again. It was Hickman’s 18th goal of the year and fifth in two nights as the team captain has been turning it on.
“He played really well,” Konowalchuk said. “He’s playing a complete hockey game for us. Penalty kill, power play, he’s been big for us. He competes every night, it’s nice to see when a guy competes every night that he gets some bounces.”
Seattle is now 6-0 against the Chiefs and Wednesday’s game was big. The win moved the T-Birds six points ahead of the Chiefs for fourth place, and home-ice advantage for the first round, in the Western Conference. The two teams meet again on Friday and Konowalchuk knows that his guys will face a desperate Spokane squad.
“We know the value to both these games,” he said. “They’re going to try and come in and try to rebound. We definitely know the magnitude of this game.”
Friday’s game is at the ShoWare Center and starts at 7:35 P.M.
Mathew Barzal picked up an assist on Hickman’s third goal and now has six points in his last four games.
The third part of that line, Ryan Gropp, also had an assist Wednesday and now has eight points in his last six games. The three are becoming the T-Birds top scoring line.
Once again, the T-Birds shut down the Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani line, one of the best in the WHL. Konowalchuk said the key to stopping them has been to limit their odd man rushes and to make them out-grind Seattle — something the Spokane duo has not been able to accomplish in six games.
Taran Kozun had not faced the Spokane Chiefs prior to this season. He now has faced them twice and shut them out twice, so there should be no surprise that Konowalchuk plans on starting him in net on Friday.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide