By Andrew Eide
It’s been a week since the Seattle Thunderbirds were knocked out of the WHL playoffs in that exciting Game 7 in Kelowna. That game ended a season that at times seemed bleak, and at other times was spectacular.
Seattle had a young team, which very well may explain some of the up-and-down play they experienced. In the end they managed to right the ship, end their playoff drought and play an opening round series for the ages. While Kelowna may have won, the T-Birds took their pound of flesh as the Rockets went on to get swept in the second round by Kamloops.
For second-year head coach Steve Konowalchuk, he managed to overcome the low points of the season and get his guys fired up to play down the stretch. The coach took some time to reflect back on the season that we just saw.
“If you think about the whole year, it was definitely a roller-coaster, that’s for sure,” he said. “I really liked our first half — sure looked like there were some good signs of taking the next step. Then we hit a wall there at Christmas, and some games we played good and couldn’t win and some games we played bad and didn’t win. We kind of got back to a little of a loser’s mentality where you’re used to losing and started accepting (it) a little bit.”
Despite the second half rough patches, Konowalchuk felt that overall things turned out pretty well.
“We had to get out of that culture and change it back to the culture we had the first part of the year” he said. “Guys picked it up the last month and a half of the season, played good hockey and carried it on to the playoffs there. It was an exciting playoffs. It was disappointing not to win that series, but it was a real good hockey team we faced. We gave them everything they could handle.”
At the beginning of the season, Konowalchuk said that making the playoffs was of course a goal, but he wanted more. He wanted to have a winning record and to compete with the top dogs in the WHL. The team fell short of getting the winning record but did manage some big wins along the way. Did Konowalchuk feel the season was a success?
“I do now,” the coach said. “The way the playoffs went, when we really competed with a team that’s one of the top teams in the league. We competed at a pretty high level. (But not finishing with a) winning record was disappointing to me and it was frustrating a lot of the year because I felt that we were a better team than what our record showed.”
Those that followed the team agreed that they seemed to have more talent than their play on the ice reflected, something that their performance against Kelowna may have proven to be true. Konowalchuk talked about why he felt they were better than the record.
“There were a lot of losses where we needed a timely goal and didn’t connect,” he said. “Or we had one defensive breakdown and would lose by one goal. It seemed like there was one small reason in a lot of hockey games that put us on the losing end. It wasn’t the case like two years ago where we weren’t in a whole lot of hockey games. This year we felt like no matter who we played we had a chance to win. That was a big change, and I think that showed in the playoffs.”
Seattle was optimistic coming out of training camp. They felt they had four solid lines up front that could help turn the corner. It didn’t take long for that to fall apart after a couple of tough injuries, though. The first was the loss of Tyler Alos, a gritty player who could play up and down the ice and was off to a great start. Alos had to retire from hockey due to the risk of further concussions.
“Huge loss,” Konowalchuk said about losing the Spokane native. “Alos was a guy that could play in any situation. He was starting to really take off offensively. He was going to play a lot of minutes. He’s a hard player to play against but he was really starting to show he could contribute in other areas. It would have been fun to see where he ended up.”
Seattle also played the majority of the season without one of their top offensive players in Branden Troock, who battled a shoulder injury that limited him to playing just 19 games.
“Troock is a talent,” the coach said. “You can see what he can do by himself, the frustrating thing is that we haven’t been able to get him in the lineup enough to build chemistry. Any line he’s on he’s a threat to score at any time. Team’s have to respect that. Physically he is the most talented player on the team.”
Those two losses caused Seattle to scramble their lines early and often. Konowalchuk said that “health is a big part of it, especially key guys, they’re harder to replace.”
Seattle hit the skids just before the holiday break, when their long losing streak began. One of the key games in the losing streak was a Dec. 14 loss to the Spokane Chiefs, in which Seattle built a 6-2 third period lead only to have Spokane roar back to win 7-6 in a shootout. As tough as that loss was, Konowalchuk pointed to a pair of games a week later as being a bigger turning point.
“Spokane was a big loss,” Konowalchuk said. “I think the bigger game for me was the losses when we got back after Christmas. We played Everett two games — we played them well but we lost the games. We outplayed them,(Austin) Lotz played really well, and we lost both of those games. That to me is when our mentality started to fall back to last year. The losing streak started to wear on us.”
Ah the losing streak.
15 long games that were tough on the players, coaches and fans. There were many nights when it seemed like they were going to snap it, only to lose at the end. How tough was that stretch on the players?
“It was tough on the guys, some guys more than others,” Konowalchuk says.
Despite it being tough, the coach felt that in the end it may have brought the team together.
“I think the losing streak, coming out of it and having success at the end made us a better team,” he said. “Because during that losing streak you find out a lot about character and the price to pay to win consistently. Our team really experienced two extremes this season. The losing was miserable and no fun, and then the high of the playoffs, big games and the high of that. They started to play because they wanted to win. They started to play for each other.”
That doesn’t mean that it was hard on the head coach though.
“It was very frustrating because I knew we were a better team than that,” Konowalchuk said. “For me I just had to make sure that I stuck with what I believed in. During those streaks some guys go in different directions. I had to make sure I stuck with it, hold guys accountable, give guys the ice time who were still committed to doing it and guys who weren’t as committed I started taking their ice time away.”
Just as the games against Everett after the holiday break set the tone for the losing streak, it may have been another game with the Silvertips that helped propel the team. Seattle lost a frustrating late season game to their I-5 rivals on March 9th by one goal. It was game that saw Seattle take out its frustrations late by taking some penalties — including a now-infamous goalie fight between Brandon Glover and Austin Lotz.
“That Everett game we showed some emotion from everybody,” Konowalchuk said. “It wasn’t something you wanted to happen. You don’t want guys to take penalties. It’s not a good thing at the time, but it showed the emotion we were playing with and that carried forward to Tri-City, where we played the best game of the regular season, and that carried forward into the playoffs.”
Seattle entered the season with a pretty green defensive group. They took their lumps early but by the end they were playing well and a huge reason the team had success against Kelowna.
“I’m very happy,” Konowalchuk said about the defenses progression. “You look at their plus/minus during three quarters of the season, the guys were minus players and then all of a sudden they became close to equal. Haufy (Jared Hauf) was plus the last twenty games, Theo (Shae Theodore) played better the second half on defense. If you look at the playoffs during five-on-five against a very good offensive team, I think our guys were all plus players. That shows signs of them growing up.”
Now that the dust has settled on the season it’s time to look forward to next year. Seattle returns several of its top players, and Konowalchuk says that he is excited about what is coming back. With that comes higher expectations, as Seattle should score and will have no more reason to worry about their back-end with its defensemen are now in their prime.
It’s been a while since Seattle has had this much talent returning, and in many ways is a reward for the lumps they took this year learning how to improve — something they did as the year drug on. That growth was evident the most as they nearly pulled off the biggest upset in league history.
Follow Andrew on twitter @andyeide