Seattle’s Justin Myles stops Portland’s Chase De Leo as the T-Birds win on opening night (photo Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT – The Seattle Thunderbirds opened the 2013-2014 season with a thrilling 4-3 shoot out win against the defending WHL Champion Portland Winterhawks. Seattle got two goals from Roberts Lipsbergs and shoot out conversions from Mathew Barzal and Branden Troock to seal the win.
“Good effort right from the get go,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said afterwards. “Guys were ready to play in the first period, they were playing as a team, playing the system with good team speed. There were definitely some mistakes we need to clean up so we don’t put ourselves in trouble. When we did make mistakes we had a good second effort to bail each other out.”
As they did last season Seattle found a way to beat the Winterhawks on opening night. This game felt different than last year’s win though as the the T-Birds matched Portland with the gap between the two clubs getting closer. The game was the WHL debut of Seattle’s newest star in 2012 first round draft pick Mathew Barzal. Barzal had a good game and ended up with an assist along with the shoot out goal.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Barzal said about his WHL debut. “That shoot out at the end made it that much better. I think we really came together as a team that game, the last two games in preseason we were a little shaky, but I think it all came together tonight and we showed we’re going to be a good team this year.”
Seattle (1-0-0-0) jumped out to a first period lead late in the frame after a nice play by Jared Hauf at the blue line. Hauf kept the puck in the zone where he got it to Seth Swenson who found a wide open Lipsbergs for an easy goal. The goal completed a strong first period for the T-Birds who played fast and controlled the play – out shooting the Winterhawks 16-8.
The T-Birds extended the lead early in the second when a Barzal shot was stopped by Portland goalie Brendan Burke and the rebound went right to Lipsbergs for another easy score.
“My partners did everything,” Lipsbergs said after. “I just needed to be in the right place at the right time.”
As they often do, Portland (1-0-0-1) fought back and got into the game. Rookie Ethan Price got them on the board with a quick snap shot off the face off that surprised T-Birds’ goalie Justin Myles. That goal seemed to give the Winterhawks life as they started to control the pace of the game.
In the third period Portland continued with the momentum and got the equalizer in the first minute as Oliver Bjorkstrand scored just after a Winterhawks power play ended.
With that goal the Winterhawks smelled blood and began to buzz around the Seattle net. The T-Birds goalie situation has been a hot topic this off season and Justin Myles stood tall, making several key saves.
“Very good game,” Konowalchuk said of his goaltender. “Solid, calming, saved what he had to save and won the game.”
Seattle took the lead back five minutes later when Jerret Smith’s power play slap shot beat a screened Burke and sent the 5,098 fans in attendance into delirium.
That delirium was silenced a bit when Chase De Leo tied the game back up after taking a couple of point blank whacks at the Seattle goal. The biggest scare of the night came with 1:20 left in the game when Portland’s Oliver Bjorkstrand appeared to score a killer of a goal. Almost immediately after the puck landed in the net the T-Birds players were after the referees asking for the goal to be waived off. The goal was reviewed by the video judge who determined that Bjorkstrand knocked it in with a high stick and the goal was disallowed.
That sent the game into overtime where each team had their chances but neither goalie was willing to relent.
In the shoot out Barzal was first up and almost flubbed his chance as the puck got away from him. He was able to regain control of it and beat Burke.
“I pushed it forward and I had no idea it was going to run like that,” a smiling Barzal said. “I’m lucky I got it back, if I pushed it forward any more it would have been a dump in.”
Nic Petan then converted for Portland to even it up and then Brandon Troock got his opportunity. Troock, who was strong all night, made a nice move on a shot that Burke got a piece of but could not keep from trickling into the goal.
At the other end Myles stoned Bjorkstrand to pick up the win and send the T-Birds bench onto the ice.
After two lack-luster games to end the preseason Seattle came up with a solid victory that should carry with it some confidence moving forward into the year.
“It was great for us, a great confidence boost,” Myles said after the game. “It shows us that we can beat anyone in the league. We think we’re a top team in this league and we showed that tonight.”
Seattle’s next game is Wednesday as they head up to Vancouver to take on the Giants, face off is at 7 p.m,
With his two goals Saturday night Roberts Lipsbergs now has six in his last two games against Portland. He scored four in the regular seasons finale last year.
Last year Seattle struggled with overtime games, leading the league with seven losses in the extra frame. Saturday they reversed those fortunes and when reminded about last year’s struggles a happy Konowalchuk quipped, “I didn’t know that.”
Seattle’s next game on Wednesday will be a home coming for Barzal, who is from the Vancouver area. He said that he has had the game circled on his calendar and while he is looking forward to playing in front of family and friends, getting the win was more important.
Seattle was short on defense again as Shea Theodore is still in camp with the Anaheim Ducks (and will be in their lineup Sunday) and Jesse Forsberg is still nursing an injury. Konowalchuk said that Forsberg is still day-to-day and it’s too early to say if he’ll play on Wednesday.
Ethan Bear saw a lot of ice time Saturday, playing on the power play and killing penalties. Konowalchuk did not seem afraid to use him in big moments. “It doesn’t seem like the moments are too big for him,” Konowalchuk said.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide