Thunderbirds overcome first-period jitters to win Game 1
The Thunderbirds’ Game 1 victory over the Kelowna Rockets was essentially a tale of two halves.
It’s not a surprise that the Rockets got the jump on Seattle, as playing for stakes this high is nothing new for most of the roster. Last year, they advanced all the way to the Memorial Cup and return the majority of that team. The year before, they were eliminated by the Portland Winterhawks in five games in the Western Conference Championships.
For Seattle, most of the roster has never even seen the second round of the playoffs, let alone the Conference Championships. But then again, the T-Birds have already surprised us this postseason, haven’t they? Not by advancing as far as they have, but by doing it in such a decisive manner, winning eight of their nine contests through the first two rounds.
When both teams took the ice Friday night, it was clear that one team had been here before. Despite shots being even at five through 20 minutes, scoring chances heavily favored Kelowna. The puck spent most of its time in the Seattle zone, while the T-Birds showed just about every telltale sign of nerves. Pucks missed their target by inches on more than a few passes. Players got rid of the puck before taking a look and assessing the situation. In more than one instance, they put just a bit too much or too little on their clearing opportunities.
“Definitely some jitters,” said head coach Steve Konowalchuk. “And some decisions. We’ve got to be smarter. You get into the game. You give a hit, you take a hit. You start getting into the zone a little bit. A real good opponent and the first game of the series; there’s usually more jitters on both teams.”
The T-Birds escaped the first period unscathed and were bailed out in the second on more than one occasion by goaltender Landon Bow. As the period wore on, momentum started shifting back into the Thunderbirds’ favor.
It wasn’t until late in the second that the T-Birds really started to gain control and play to their ability. Goals by Mathew Barzal and Scott Eansor 36 seconds apart were the reward as the T-Birds’ calm and focused demeanor put them into the game’s final period with a lead that Kelowna wasn’t able to overcome.
“I don’t know how many guys here have played in front of crowds like that,” Barzal said following the victory. “We know how big this series is and we haven’t been (to the Conference Championships) for a while.”
The T-Birds out-shot Kelowna in each of the final two periods, cut down on the scoring chances they allowed, and settled into a groove that should put them in a better position to start Game 2.
“I think we had a little bit of nerves. Then again, they really took us in that first period,” Eansor admitted. “It showed how good of a team they really are. We have to be ready for tomorrow. They’re going to be coming out even harder. It’s going to be a test for us.”
Facing a team that won nearly eighty percent of its games at home, a split on the road may have been the goal entering the series. With home ice now in their control, the T-Birds have the chance to make a huge statement on Saturday night in Game 2.