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Kozun, Maxwell shine in Thunderbirds debuts

By Tim Pigulski

Things couldn’t have gone much better for 19-year-old goaltender Taran Kozun – whom the T-Birds acquired at last Friday’s trade deadline – in his Seattle debut.

Playing in front of a hostile Spokane crowd of over 4,000 Tuesday night, Kozun was able to keep the Chiefs and the WHL’s leading scorer, Mitch Holmberg, completely off of the scoreboard. Spokane, which currently stands fourth in the Western Conference in goals scored, peppered the Nipawin, Saskatchewan native with 28 shots, none of which found the back of the net. In fact, Tuesday night marked the first time in 55 games that the Chiefs were shut out.

Russell Maxwell has already made a positive impact since being acquired last Friday. (Brian Liesse, Thunderbirds)

The Chiefs had a fair amount of scoring opportunities, but Kozun stood tall, making a couple of clutch saves in what ended up being a 64-minute, 16-second game. It’s been said that a good goaltender won’t win a championship by himself, but will have the ability to steal games that perhaps should have been losses. With a roster still decimated by injury, the T-Birds were unable to score until late in the overtime period, making this a game that they, perhaps, should have lost. Instead, they pick up two points, placing them one point ahead of Spokane in the standings in sole possession of fourth place.

Playing behind a Kamloops team that has allowed the second-most goals in the Western Conference and currently sits in last place in points, Kozun’s numbers weren’t all that impressive. Last season, when the Blazers advanced to the Western Conference Final and boasted a much more formidable roster, Kozun’s numbers looked like that of a No. 1 goaltender. Now with Seattle, it’s expected that his numbers will more closely resemble those that he established last season.

Russell Maxwell, the other 19-year-old acquired at the trade deadline, may not be as prominent on the scoresheet so far as Kozun was in his lone appearance, but he’s been an important addition nonetheless.

The 5-foot-8 center has already earned high praises from head coach Steve Konowalchuk, who has commended Maxwell’s constant competitive edge and how it has a positive effect on the entire bench. Almost immediately after being acquired, Maxwell was added to both the power-play and penalty-kill units, demonstrating the versatility that the coaching staff envisioned when he was acquired from Lethbridge.

Reminiscent of fan favorite Luke Lockhart, Maxwell – after losing his stick on a penalty kill and in complete disregard for his body – threw himself in front of three Chiefs shots before clearing the puck using his skate. It’s exactly those types of efforts that can quickly endear you to the rest of the locker room, and the type of player that every team needs to make an impact in the playoffs.

While the T-Birds lack depth at forward right now due to injury, they still have a large number of highly-capable scorers on the roster. Trusting that Maxwell can be placed into a non-scoring role when those players return – and that he can play it very well – gives Konowalchuk even greater flexibility with his forwards as this team prepares for the playoffs.

Many expected more and different moves to be made when Friday’s deadline approached. However, both players have already made positive contributions on the ice and were major factors in gaining the team at least a couple of points so far.

Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.