T-Birds headed to Western Conference Finals after ousting Everett in five games
Apr 17, 2016, 11:54 AM
KENT – For the first time since the 2002-2003 season, the Seattle Thunderbirds are going to play for the WHL’s Western Conference championship.
The T-Birds beat the Everett Silvertips 3-2 Saturday to win their second-round series 4-1. For the second straight night the T-Birds got the game-winning goal from Ryan Gropp as they outshot the Silvertips 42-19.
With the win, Seattle will now advance to take on the winner of the Victoria-Kelowna series, which might be completed on Sunday evening.
“Its pretty surreal, you know,” Seattle captain Jerret Smith said. “Coming into the year I knew we had a pretty good team this year and I was just hoping to go far in the playoffs. I’m just enjoying the moment right now.”
As they did Friday night, the T-Birds started the game on fire. They outshot Everett 15-3 to set the tone on the night in the first. Seattle would get on the board first after Scott Eansor scored on a wraparound goal to give the T-Birds a 1-0 lead.
Eansor’s line – with Donovan Neuls and Nolan Volcan – was dominant on Saturday, again controlling the puck and creating havoc in the Everett zone. While they didn’t score on Friday, on Saturday they were rewarded with a big goal.
“Nolan and Neuls, they forecheck so hard and they win their forecheck,” Eansor said. “Getting on the defensemen so quick. it’s easy for them to turn pucks over and it creates offense because they’re throwing pucks blind.”
Puck possession turned out to be what won the series for Seattle. It simply controlled the puck for the majority of the time which limited any chances that Everett had at the Seattle net and goalie Landon Bow.
Eansor’s line was a big part of that but all four of Seattle’s lines won their shifts on a regular basis.
“We think the best defense is being on the attack and forechecking,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “With Everett, the strength is their defense and the way they move it to the forwards and if you give them time you’ll be spending time in your own end…you have to get on them quick.”
Nick Holowko would extend the Seattle lead in the first period when he broke in on a two-on-one and kept the puck which fooled Everett goalie Carter Hart.
The Silvertips are a tough team to beat and they found a way to get back into the game. Brandon Ralph would score his fourth playoff goal midway through the second period to cut the Seattle lead in half.
The T-Birds would answer right back with a big goal from the recently returned Gropp.
The New York Ranger prospect centered a pass from the boards to Turner Ottenbreit, who was pinching in deep. Ottenbreit’s shot was stopped by Hart but the rebound went into the slot where Gropp had skated to. Gropp picked it up and buried it for his second goal in as many nights.
That would be a big goal as, late in the second period, Everett’s Devon Skoleski would bang home a rebound on an Everett power play to cut the lead back to one.
“I don’t think you can overestimate the timing of getting Gropp back,” Konowalchuk said. “How big is that to get him back against a team that’s really hard to score against? You need guys who can put the puck in the net and beat a good goalie like that.”
Nursing a one-goal lead heading into the final period, the T-Birds poured it on.
They buzzed the Everett net in the third, sending 18 shots at Hart, but could not find a way to beat one of the league’s top goalies. Hart kept his team in it and the T-Birds had to avoid being frustrated.
“They’re a really frustrating team, they work so hard,” Eansor said. “There’s a lot of emotions in a game like this. You’ve just got to make sure the guy next to you is calm and ready for his next shift.”
A Seattle penalty with under two minutes left in the game brought on some anxious moments as the Silvertips would pull their goalie to get a six-on-four advantage. The drama increased as Seattle shot the puck out of play for an additional delay-of-game penalty with only three seconds left on the clock.
That set up a crucial faceoff deep in the Seattle zone with six Everett players on the ice to Seattle’s three.
Konowalchuk sent Mathew Barzal out for the critical faceoff, one that he had to win to avoid any late-game miracles for Everett.
“You have to win that faceoff,” Konowalchuk said. “With a six-on-three that puck’s going to the net.”
Barzal won it cleanly and sent the puck into the corner where Smith was on it and pinned it against the boards while the final seconds ticked away.
Seattle now finds itself four wins away from reaching the WHL Championship round for only the second time in franchise history.
“The guys are all fired up and so it’s nice to see the guy’s smiles on their faces,” Smith said. “They deserve it, all the guys worked hard.”
• Seattle’s opponent for the conference finals is yet to be decided. Kelowna leads Victoria 3-2 in their series and Game 6 is Sunday night. A Rockets win and the T-Birds will be headed to Kelowna next Friday for Game 1. Konowalchuk said he might tune in to see who wins that game and joked that he hoped it went to a seventh game.
• The T-Birds depth was front and center in this series. Mathew Barzal was held pointless in three of the five games yet the T-Birds advance. Once again, they’ve proven that they are a deep team that can beat you in more than one way.
• With an Everett team that was still missing a couple of key players, Seattle made sure to get on the Silvertips early again Saturday. The T-Birds had a dominant first period in the last two games and combined to outshoot the Silvertips 25-4 over the last two opening frames.
• Games 1 and 2 will be on the road for the T-Birds regardless of the opponent. They will take place this coming Friday and Saturday nights. Seattle will be home for Games 3 and 4 on April 26 and 27.
Follow Andy Eide on Twitter @andyeide.