By Andrew Eide
For the third straight game the Seattle Thunderbirds worked into overtime as they beat the Spokane Chiefs 1-0 Tuesday night at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
After both teams failed to score during regulation Ryan Gropp ended the game, and opened the scoring, with 44 seconds left in the overtime period when he flung the puck at Spokane goalie Eric Williams. The shot caught Williams off guard and the puck found its way through his body and trickled over the goal line to give Seattle its fourth straight win.
“They (overtime games) keep you on your toes,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Definitely fun when you win them.”
Seattle (26-14-2-3) has been winning them as they have won three such games in a row.
For newly acquired goalie Taran Kozun, you couldn’t ask for a better Thunderbirds debut. He stopped all 28 shots he faced in recording his first shut out of the season and third in his WHL career. Tuesday was his first start for Seattle after being acquired from Kamloops last week.
“He played a very good game,” Konowalchuk said about Kozun. “I mean you can’t ask for anything more than that. He played the puck really well, tracked the puck well. Those games are tough to play sometimes when you’re not seeing a ton of shots and then all of a sudden there’s a chance.”
Another new Thunderbird came up big when his team needed it on Tuesday. Russell Maxwell was playing in his second game for Seattle since being picked up at the trade deadline from Lethbridge. While he didn’t figure in the scoring he made some huge plays to keep the game scoreless late in the third period.
Spokane (26-13-2-2) was given a power play and almost immediately Maxwell’s stick broke. Playing without one he threw his body in front of three Chiefs’ shots, blocking them all and managing to kick the last one out of the zone for a clear.
“That’s awesome,” Konowalchuk said. “I mean when we’re playing well and our guys are out there to play for something its huge. He puts himself on the line and its contagious on the bench and thats competing…Crucial part of the game, not only do they get the power play but you lose your stick. Maxwell thought he was playing goalie there I think. It’s good energy for our team.”
Being a new comer to a team can be tough, but plays like that can cement yourself with your new teammates pretty quick.
“Any athlete at any level, they play to earn respect of their teammates,” Konowalchuk said. “When you see a guy go out there like that it doesn’t take long to earn respect. I’m sure his teammates know he’s got their back no matter what. He’s a big member of the team now.”
Later on that same power play Kozun also lost his stick and made a couple of big saves with his blocker to preserve the shut out for Seattle.
With the win the T-Birds now have three straight overtime wins (one technically a shoot out) and two straight overtime wins against a division rival in Spokane. The win also gives the T-Birds a 5-0 record against the Chiefs and they have now won four straight games in Spokane going back to last year.
The two points picked up Tuesday were tough to come by.
Both clubs had ample chances on the power play to pick up a goal — which would have been the difference.
Seattle had five power play chances to Spokane’s four. In a tight game like that you have to wonder if not scoring will end up costing you.
“You definitely like to capitalize,” Konowalchuk said. “There were five or six we didn’t score on, definitely want to get one there…their penalty kill matched our penalty kill so it kind of washed out.”
A week and a half after Seattle was struggling to stay competitive in games they now have found a way to win them, in many different fashions. Tuesday’s game was one where any mistake could have cost them two huge points — something that was a bit of a problem on Saturday night.
“Guys were sharp. When they had something going I thought we did a good job,” Konowalchuk said. “When there were turnovers, which is going to happen, we were able to get guys back and protect the house and help each other out.”
Seattle has now taken all ten of the points on the line with Spokane so far this season. Fighting through a bump in the road after start of the new year they now seem to be back the form they showed prior to the holiday break.
“I think that was a pretty good road game.” Konowalchuk said. “It’s nice to come away with the extra point because that team played really well over there. They played hard, we played a smart road game….It was one of those games that could have gone either way.”
The T-Birds will return home to face the Tri City Americans this Friday at the ShoWare Center.
Seattle’s perfect record against Spokane comes in large part because of how they have played Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani. The two Spokane 20-year-olds have combined for 72 goals so far this season. In five games against Seattle they have combined for only three. “You’ve got to make them work for everything,” Konowalchuk says of defending them. “You’ve got to limit their odd man rushes, you’ve got to play defense first against that line and make them play a 200 foot game.”
The shut out marked the first time in 55 regular season games that the Chiefs have not scored a goal. (thanks to @WHLFacts).
Gropp’s game winner was assisted by Adam Henry and came after another shift where a Seattle player had lost a stick in his own end.
The win jumped Seattle over Spokane into fourth place in the Western Conference with 57 points. Having already surpassed last year’s win total of 24 they are now one point off of last years point total for the season.
The Chiefs have lost 13 regulation games and two in overtime. Both their overtime losses have come at the hands of the T-Birds as have three of their regulation losses. If they end up on the road in the first round of the playoffs they may look to how they have fared against Seattle as a big reason why.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.