The T-Birds celebrate their third straight overtime victory and take a 3-0 lead over Kelowna (Seattle Thunderbirds)
By Andrew Eide
KENT — How do you describe the indescribable? The indescribable is precisely what happened Tuesday night at the ShoWare Center as the Seattle Thunderbirds continued their shocking WHL first round playoff series by beating the heavily favored Kelowna Rockets 3-2 in overtime.The win was the third straight overtime game in this series and gives Seattle a commanding 3-0 lead.
Defenseman Evan Wardley was this night’s hero as he fired a shot from the point 4:55 into the extra frame to send the 6,021 rowdy fans into a frenzy.
“Tough battles, tough battles out there,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said afterwards. “They (Kelowna) came out in that first period and were really skating, pushing the pace and showed what kind of team they had. It’s just tough battles and its sure nice to get those overtimes.”
Wardley, not known for his offense, only had two goals during the regular season. Needless to say, this was the biggest goal of his career. The play started with some magical skating by Shea Theodore who spun a Rockets player in circles before getting the puck to Wardley. The big defenseman flung the puck on net, through traffic, and past the screened Jordan Cooke.
“It was a great play by Theo,” Wardley said after the game, sporting a retro Seattle Breakers wind-breaker. “We kind of got mixed up there and he dished it to me in the middle and I saw some traffic in front. My first thought was just make sure it hits the net and I was lucky enough to see it go in.”
The game had many heroes for Seattle and was very similar to Game 2 which featured tight checking and some physical play.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Konowalchuk said about the style of play. “You have to work for everything out there, they’re not giving us an inch and we really have to dig in and work for everything we get out there. We have to try and do the same for them because its playoff hockey and there’s not too much open ice.”
Seattle also got a huge night from goalie Brandon Glover who ended the night with 33 big saves, many of the highlight variety.
“It was a great game by us,” the Victoria native said. “It’s a huge win, its the biggest game of the series so far. It puts them in a tight spot and I thought the best thing was that we didn’t give up when we gave up the two goals early there and the crowd stayed in it and gave us energy.”
Kelowna, desperate for a win, came out of the gates firing and scored the games first two goals as Zach Franko and Cody Fowlie found the back of the net. They had the T-Birds on their heels a bit and opened the game out shooting Seattle by a lopsided tally of 12-3.
But the T-Birds fought back, like they have all series, to tie it with just under five minutes in the period when Roberts Lipsgergs took two whacks at the puck and got the second one home. It was his second goal of the playoffs and got the crowd back into the game.
“We got a couple of crucial saves when it was 2-0,” Konowalchuk said. “We got a good penalty kill, if they get that third goal it’s a long way to climb back. We hung around there and chipped away.”
The second period featured both teams upping the physical game as big checks were thrown up and down the ice. Wardley in particular used his size to make a statement.
“That’s an element of my game that I want to improve on always,” the big defenseman said. “For our team we had a slow start in the first ten and we needed to get back on the hitting parade and I think that really created momentum and got the fans into it and got them loud.”
Seattle would get even just before the second period would end.
As time was winding down Justin Hickman, Riley Sheen and Andrew Johnson cycled the puck and held it in the Kelowna zone wearing down the Kelowna defenders. The puck went to Jesse Forsberg who took a big slap shot that found paydirt with 24 seconds left.
It was a huge goal and gave Seattle a great deal of momentum. For Forsberg it was his second goal in the series and his fifth point so far as he is playing some of his best hockey at the most crucial part of the season.
“I think I’ve just been starting to prepare a little more,” Forsberg said. “I’ve been working with our D coach and getting chances to convert and have been converting. So I’m just going to keep on trying to do that.”
The T-Birds continued to push and managed sustained pressure on the Rockets but could not score. With time running out in the third period Seattle got the biggest save of the night from Glover. Traffic in front swept him up and out of position, leaving the net wide open. With the puck on the stick of a Rockets player it seemed the game was going to be lost right then and there. Glover desperately jumped back towards his crease and managed to get a skate on the puck and deflect it to safety.
“I was expecting a call on the play because I thought it was their guy that ran into me,” Glover said. “I think it was Vido (Connor Sanvido) actually. It was just instinct, coming back to an empty net and he happened to throw it at my feet, I just kicked it out and luckily we hung on.”
Late in the period Seattle was called for a penalty giving the Rockets a big chance late in the game. The Rockets have the 4th best power play unit in the WHL but Seattle has been able to neutralize it all series long and continued to do so in this game.
“Huge timely kills today,” Konowalchuk said. “Good job on the penalty kill, blocking shots, there were a couple of key blocks on the kill in overtime and it makes a difference for us, gives us a chance to win the game.”
Kelowna did not convert and with just under two minutes left Seattle got a chance and also could not convert on the power play as the game went into overtime for the third straight night.
That’s when Wardley scored his first career playoff goal to send everyone home happy. With the goal the T-Birds bench emptied and the crowd went berserk as Seattle won it’s first playoff game on ShoWare Center ice and now is one game from a most improbable series win imaginable.
The crowd was a story as well as they were loud throughout and the team seemed to respond.
“It was great, great atmosphere,” Wardley said. “Everyone was great from the get-go, really loud, really energetic and it’s going to be hard for any team to have to play here.”
Brandon Glover, who played in front of large playoff crowds in Calgary last season concurred.
“It was louder tonight than the Sadledome was last year,” he said of the ShoWare Center atmosphere. “I don’t know what it is, whether the building is smaller, or fans are a little crazier in the States here or its $2 beer night, I don’t know.”
With a chance to close out the series in sweep every player to a man talked about how dangerous the Rockets still are and stressed that the T-Birds still had work to do.
“They have about an hour-and-a-half to enjoy this,” Konowalchuk said. “Then we have to get ready for tomorrow. Because we’re going to see another level from this team here.”
Game 4 will be Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center, face off is at 7 PM
The win Tuesday was the first playoff victory for the T-Birds in the ShoWare Center
While Seattle has won all three games they have only led for 8:29 of the series when they went ahead in period two of Game 1. They have either trailed or been tied the remainder of the play.
In the Eastern Conference the Medicine Hat Tigers, the seventh seed, took a 3-0 series lead on the Saskatoon Blades, bringing the two seventh seeds record to 6-0 in the playoffs.
Kelowna has an uphill battle as they have to win four straight games to survive the series. The last time a WHL team has done so to salvage a series was 1996 as Spokane came back to beat Portland.
Seattle is getting contributions from many players as seven different players have scored goals in this series.
The win was Glover’s fourth playoff victory and his impressive playoff stats continue to improve. He now has a playoff record of 4-1-1 with a goals against average of 2.00 and a save percentage of .933. Clearly he thrives on the playoff pressure.
Seattle’s 2012 first round Bantam pick, Mathew Barzal, was in attendance Tuesday and I was able to chat with him. We will have that story up on Wednesday
Here are the highlights from Tuesday’s big win: