By Andrew Eide
KENT — Three years may not seem like a long time to most of us. For the Seattle Thunderbirds, who have failed to qualify for the WHL playoffs over the last three seasons, it had to feel like an eternity. That long drought is officially over thanks to an impressive 8-3 drubbing of the Tri-City Americans in front of 5,034 excited fans at the ShoWare Center. Seattle was led by their captain, Luke Lockhart, who picked up two goals and an assist in the win.
“You know what, we went in with the mentality of winning it for the guys who couldn’t play tonight,” Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “They’ve been battling for us all year, get it done for them and everybody stepped up their game. (Danny) Mumuagh played a good game and congratulations to him.”
There were many heroes Tuesday night, including rookie goalie Mumaugh, who picked up his first WHL win while clinching a playoff spot. Seth Swenson also had a big night with a short-handed goal and two assists. For the 16-year-old rookie Mumaugh, it’s hard to imagine a better spot to win your first career game.
“It feels great,” Mumaugh said. “It couldn’t have come at a better or more critical time. It was a team effort — I mean eight goals really made it easy for me. It’s just fun to finally get that first win in like seven or eight tries, it feels good.”
Despite all the heroics, it was the captain Adam Kambeitz that set the tone, as he’s done every game during the playoff stretch.
“He’s played big,” Konowalchuk said of his captain. “Kambeitz has played great. You could really kind of see it coming on about a month ago really. It’s their (Luke Lockhart and Kambeitz) team. That’s really been the approach to say, ‘You know what guys, it’s your last year here and it’s your team and go do it.’ And he’s (Lockhart) done a great job.”
In the first period Seattle picked up a power play, and Lockhart got the scoring going as he knocked in a rebound that laid at the feet of Tri-City goalie Troy Trombley. It was Lockhart’s 25th of the season, and it instantly ignited the crowd. The Americans did fight back, however, and tied the game four minutes later when Justin Feser broke past a Seattle defender to beat Mumaugh up high.
Eight minutes into the period Tri-City had a chance to take the momentum back, but Lockhart snatched it from them. While short-handed, he broke down the left side of the rink and whipped a wrist shot past Trombley for his seventh short-handed goal of the year, putting him in the league lead, and giving Seattle a 2-1 advantage.
“Playing on the power play you don’t really expect the other team to jump,” Lockhart said of his aggressive penalty kills. “You can catch them off-guard sometimes, and sometimes you do get more breaks penalty-killing. I’ve just been capitalizing on them and the puck’s been bouncing my way.”
The T-Birds weren’t done with the Americans’ power play. Before the penalty ended Seth Swenson found himself with the puck and heading down the ice with lots of room. As Lockhart did, Swenson solved Trombley with a nice wrist shot putting Seattle up 3-1.
“I think it was (Jesse) Forsberg who chipped it up the wall,” Swenson said of his goal. “The D-man actually got a piece of it, it bounced past him and I was going with speed there making sure the guy didn’t get the shot through. It bounced over the line and I was right there to pick it up and was on my way.”
Tri-City managed to get back into it before the period ended. With 18 seconds remaining Malte Stromwall pounced on a T-Birds giveaway between the circles and fired a shot that cut the Seattle lead to one. Goals like that can shake a team and give their opponents a big lift.
Momentum changing goals have hurt Seattle in the past, but tonight would be different. A minute into the second period Roberts Lipsbergs banged away at an Alex Delnov rebound until it found the net past Trombley. The goal was Lipsbergs’ 25th of the year, but more importantly it built Seattle’s lead back to two.
“It was a big goal,” Konowalchuk said. “Big goal to get that two-goal lead again. They didn’t change their game but Tri scored there late, like eight seconds or whatever it was. We came in and they just stayed on it, did a good job and everybody worked hard.”
From there the T-Birds poured it on. They added goals from Shea Theodore, Kambeitz, Connor Sanvido and Connor Honey to run away from the Americans. Danny Mumaugh made all the saves that he needed to in picking up his first win, filling in for the suspended Brandon Glover.
After a tough and emotional loss to Everett on Saturday the team seemed determined to take out their frustration on the Americans.
“It was obviously a disappointing loss, losing to Everett there,” Lockhart said. “But the best way to shove it back in their face was to win tonight, make them have to win another couple games to catch us.”
That sentiment rang throughout the T-Birds’ dressing room.
“That game was obviously very emotional,” Swenson said. “It got the guys fired up. One way to get back at Everett, since we don’t play them again, was to keep winning here. So I think that’s just the playoff mentality that we have.”
The only drama left in the game was whether or not the Prince George Cougars were going to lose in Spokane, something Seattle needed to clinch a playoff spot. Spokane had built a five-goal lead, but as the T-Birds were celebrating on the ice and in the locker room the Cougars were staging a ferocious comeback, cutting the Spokane lead to 5-4 with two minutes remaining. In the end the Chiefs held on to win 6-4, sending Seattle to the playoffs, something they so desperately were after.
“It feels really good,” Konowalchuk said. “I think we made it harder than we had to. We had a big bump in the road mid-way through the year but I thought we played better hockey than our record shows. We played some good hockey games that we came up short in. Anything can happen but our guys came out and played a pretty darn good hockey game.”
It’s been three long years with a lot of ups and downs, but Seattle finally has that monkey off its back. While there were many happy players and coaches Tuesday night, nobody had a bigger smile than Lockhart did. He has been with the T-Birds for five years and is the only player on the roster who has seen a playoff game in a Seattle uniform — four years ago.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “You know I’ve battled the last four years, this is my fifth year here. It seems like just yesterday and forever at the same time that I was playing my first playoff game. It’s great, we have a great group of guys back there and we think we can go far in the playoffs. In a seven-game series we’re going to take it to whoever we play.”
The T-Birds are not done yet, however. They have two more games left with the Portland Winterhawks to secure the seventh seed. They lead Everett by three points in the standings, and Everett still hasthree games on its schedule.
“We’re going to enjoy this one tomorrow,” Konowalchuk said. “Then we have another day to really get serious and get a couple points out of next game and the game after. We want that seventh spot.”
Lockhart came close to a hat trick when it appeared he scored in the third period. The goal was waived off as Lipsbergs knocked over Luke Lee-Knight, but that did not stop several fans from flinging their hats on the ice, which they most likely were not able to retrieve.
Mumaugh got the start as Brandon Glover is serving a two-game suspension for fighting with Everett’s Austin Lotz on Saturday. Konowalchuk said that he let Mumaugh know he was not just ‘filling in’ and that he had earned his ice time. The young goalie played with confidence and made all the saves he had to.
The eight goals matched Seattle’s highest output this season — they previously accomplished the total in Kennewick on Dec. 8 in an 8-4 victory over the Americans.
If you want to plan ahead, Seattle will host Games 3 and 4 of its first round playoff series on March 26-27. Games 1 and 2 have yet to be scheduled as the opponent is not known.
T-Birds prospect Ethan Bear is with the club and participated in warm-ups.
Follow Andy on Twitter @andyeide