THUNDERBIRDS

Thunderbirds notebook: Kelowna, Ryan Gropp and the power play

Apr 20, 2016, 9:18 AM

The defending WHL Champion Kelowna Rockets now stand between Seattle and a trip to the finals.

The Thunderbirds had to wait to find out their opponent for the Western Conference finals and the Rockets made them wait a bit longer on Tuesday night. Kelowna tied up its Game 7 with the Victoria Royals on a goal from Justin Kirkland with less than a second left on the clock. Calvin Thurkauf then won it for the defending champs 6 minutes into the overtime period in what was a remarkable hockey game.

That sets up the third postseason meeting between the Thunderbirds and Rockets in the last four years. Each year, the stakes have grown higher as four years ago they met in the first round then the second a year later and now, after a year off, the conference finals.

The two clubs split their season series with each winning both of its head-to-head home games. Seattle has not played Kelowna with Landon Bow in net as he was injured when the two teams met in the second half of the season.

There will be a lot to talk about this week in this series, but here’s what’s new with the T-Birds:

Rested Birds

One advantage that Seattle has going into this series is rest. The T-Birds have been off since Saturday night and have only played nine playoff games. The Rockets have had two grueling seven-game series to fight through and have played 14 games already.

Will that make a difference?

It’s hard to say, but Seattle should enter Friday’s game in Kelowna with some fresh legs. One theory is that having a week off could hinder the T-Birds’ hot streak, but they had the same amount of time off before their second-round series with Everett and were able to win that one in five games.

Kelowna will have home-ice advantage in this series as the Rockets finished the regular season with more points in the standings than Seattle.

One T-Birds player who can use the time off is Ryan Gropp. After missing the first round and most of the second-round games with injury, Gropp returned to play in Game 4 in Everett. He only had a few practices before getting back into game action.

“I tried to prepare myself and get in the best shape that I could,” Gropp said after Game 4. “(My legs) were pretty heavy, to be honest. Cardio wasn’t really there for me, but it will get better as we go.”

The extra week of practice will be key to Gropp getting back into game shape from a cardio standpoint. Of course, with two game-winning goals in the games he played in, you have to wonder what he’ll look like when he gets back into top form.

Power-play struggles

The T-Birds had one of the WHL’s top power plays during the regular season, but the playoffs have been a different story.

After the first two rounds, Seattle is only 4 for 31 with the man advantage in nine games. That 12 percent rate is the lowest of all the playoff teams and something that will have to improve.

Those numbers aren’t good, but there may not be reason to panic quite yet.

For the first seven games of the postseason, the T-Birds were unable to put their top power-play unit on the ice. The aforementioned Gropp was a key player on the power play and he wasn’t available until the last two contests. They also missed Keegan Kolesar, another key power-play guy, for two games, so the chemistry has been disrupted.

With Gropp back, the T-Birds were 0 for 4 on the power play, so there is still some work to be done. You can bet that head coach Steve Konowalchuk will be running the team through a lot of power-play drills this week in practice.

Theodore makes debut

 While the T-Birds are fighting their way through the WHL playoffs, their former captain made his debut in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Shea Theodore is with the Anaheim Ducks and has played in all three of their playoff games against the Nashville Predators. He is getting regular minutes on the Ducks’ third defense pairing and playing some on special teams as well.

Anaheim beat the Predators 3-0 on Tuesday night to cut Nashville’s series lead to 2-1. If the Ducks can advance along with the San Jose Sharks, it would set up a second-round series that would feature four former T-Birds: Theodore and Nate Thompson with Anaheim and Brenden Dillon and Patrick Marleau for the Sharks.

Follow Andy Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

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