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Thunderbirds clinch wild card with dramatic overtime thriller in Tri-City

Seattle's Henrik Rybinski battles with Tri-City's Sasha Mutala during the T-Birds playoff-clinching win Wednesday (Judy Simpson/Tri-City Americans)

The Seattle Thunderbirds clinched their playoff spot Wednesday in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans and did it with a flair for the dramatics.

A minute-and-a-half into overtime and tied at 5-5, Noah Philp led an odd-man rush up ice. He flipped the puck over to defenseman Owen Williams who fired and beat Americans’ goalie Beck Warm. The Thunderbirds bench spilled out on to the Toyota Center ice to mob Williams and celebrate a 6-5 victory that sends them to the post season.

“That was definitely a roller coaster ride,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said about the win. “Junior hockey, you never know what can happen and that was definitely what happened tonight.”

The roller coaster ride started in the third period when the Thunderbirds watched a 4-2 lead evaporate with three straight Americans goals, the first two of which came just under a minute apart. Seattle captain Nolan Volcan tied the game, with this third of the night, at 16:04 of the third to force the overtime.

Seattle (29-29-6-2) got big offensive nights from its best players as Volcan led the way with his second hat trick of the season, Matthew Wedman added two scores while Henrik Rybinski chipped in with four assists.

“What can you say about those guys,” O’Dette asked. “They took it upon themselves to not be denied tonight. Volcan was a man on a mission tonight. He was dialed in right from the get go and the other guys were there as well. Credit to those guys. That’s our no-quit attitude. We went up by two and next thing you know we’re down by one late and the captain came calling again and got hat big goal for us. It was a pretty good feeling there in overtime.”

The win gives the Thunderbirds the second wild card spot in the Western Conference but their first-round opponent is yet to be determined. They will play the top team in the conference, a spot held by the Vancouver Giants heading into the weekend. The Giants have a two-point lead over the Everett Silvertips and both clubs will be in action over the weekend.

There will be plenty of time to worry about match ups for the Thunderbirds however. For now, they’re just enjoying having clinched their place in the playoffs.

“There is obviously a sense of relief,”O’Dette said. “It would have been a little dicey the last couple games there. It doesn’t look like Kamloops is planning on losing. It was pretty stressful, we knew we needed to get those points ourselves.”

Wedman and Volcan both scored in the second period to build a 2-1 lead for the Thunderbirds but they would see that lead vanish late in the period when Krystoff Hrabik tied the game on his 20th of the season at 15:02.

It would be the same combo for Seattle in the third period, Wedman scoring 28 seconds in on his 39th and Volcan following up four minutes later to build what felt like a clinching 4-2 lead.

Tri-City (34-26-5-1) didn’t lie down.

The Americans tied the game in a blink of an eye on goals from Parker AuCoin and Sasha Mutala and then went ahead 5-4 when Nolan Yaremko potted his second of the night at 15:23 of the third period.

“I’ll give a lot of credit to Tri-City,” O’Dette said. “A team that is locked into their spot and playing for the win, like they should be in a meaningful game…Lots of respect for Tri-City.”

With the clock moving under four minutes, it looked as if the Thunderbirds were in trouble and would have to go into the season’s final weekend needing a win.

That’s when Rybinski stole the puck and found Volcan in front of the net, where the captain scored his third, and 26th of the year, to tie the game.

“It was all happening so fast,” O’Dette said. “We had to regroup and start pushing for the tying goal. I think the bench was in a little bit of shock at the time. That’s when the veteran guys took the bull by the horns and got that tying goal.”

Seattle is in the playoffs, a position that seemed unlikely at the end of December. After losing a New Year’s Eve game in Portland, the Thunderbirds were in last place of the Western Conference. The next day, general manager Bil La Forge reset the roster by trading away the team’s number one goalie, top scorer and a top-pairing defenseman.

The Thunderbirds’ new pieces gelled and the team took off, climbing back up the standings and now into the playoffs.

“Quite honestly, we still believed as an organization,” O’Dette said. “We were gunning for the playoffs. We truly believed that the moves were the right moves to improve our team, not only now, but in the future. Credit to Bil for making those moves. He had the line ‘this is not a white towel situation’ and the proof is in the pudding. Lots of credit to our whole organization and staff and mainly our players.”

After the win Wednesday, the Thunderbirds jumped on their bus to head home and prepare for two final games that will be less stressful than the previous 66.

“We’ll stop and get some candy and enjoy the ride,” O’Dette said about the trip home.

Notes

• Rybisnki set a new career high for assists and points in one game with four. He also drew two penalties and since joining the Thunderbirds as part of the New Year’s Day trades, has 31 points (7g-24a) in 31 games. “He was an engine for us out there,” O’Dette said of Rybinski’s game Wednesday. “Never stopped, just tenacious on pucks, stealing pucks, winning battles, protecting pucks. He gets those assists by working hard and creating havoc, to be honest. He is crafty with the puck but he’s out there dictating possession and a heck of a game from him tonight.”

• Philp had two assists Wednesday for his 20th multi-point game on the season.

• Roddy Ross got the win in net for the Thunderbirds by making 25 saves as the Thunderbirds out shot the Americans 33-30.

• A night after missing on five power-play chances, the Thunderbirds were a perfect 2-for-2 Wednesday night.