Up 3-0 on Kelowna, Thunderbirds have been here before
As a writer, there’s nothing I love more than a good storyline. And this is the story you hoped might not come, but still probably expected, after the T-Birds won their first two Western Conference Championship series games in Kelowna then followed that up with another inspired performance in Game 3 that has Seattle in the driver’s seat headed into Wednesday night’s Game 4.
We all remember what happened in 2013. The T-Birds, after missing the playoffs for three consecutive years, clawed their way into the postseason as the seventh seed despite just a .403 winning percentage. That team turned the world of Major Junior hockey on its head, defeating the heavily-favored Rockets in the first three games of their first-round series.
It’s hard to believe but Games 1 through 3 that year were even closer than the matchup we’ve seen this postseason, with Seattle winning each of the three games in 2013 in overtime. Without the benefit of a sound measurement tool, it’s probably a safe bet that Seattle’s Game-3 victory that year in front of a sellout Two-for-Tuesday crowd was the loudest the ShoWare Center has ever been.
With a chance to wrap things up and pull off perhaps the biggest upset in WHL postseason history, the underdog T-Birds fell flat. With just 2,559 in attendance – less than half of the ShoWare Center’s capacity – the T-Birds were shut out in Game 4, lost by one goal in Kelowna in Game 5 then returned to Kent, where they fell 4-3 in overtime in Game 6 in front of a healthier crowd of 4,344.
In the blink of an eye, what looked like the most improbable upset in WHL history turned into one of its biggest comebacks.
Tied at three games and headed back into hostile territory, Seattle put forth a spirited effort. Big defenseman Evan Wardley kicked off the scoring midway through the second period, giving Seattle a 1-0 lead. But Kelowna answered quickly, tying the game just 13 seconds later. The Rockets’ goal scorer? Tyson Baillie, one of the few players on either current roster who participated in the series three years ago.
Baillie scored again with about 7 minutes remaining in the third, and it appeared the potential for a Cinderella run by Seattle was set to come to an end.
But like any good fairy tale, the T-Birds had just enough left in the tank to tie it up. With just 7 seconds remaining in his WHL career, center Luke Lockhart beat Kelowna goalie Jordon Cooke to send the game to overtime.
With another blink, Seattle once again had all of the momentum heading into the overtime period. For some, it may look very similar to Kelowna’s Game-7 victory over Victoria in the second round this season. The Rockets’ Justin Kirkland scored with just 0.2 seconds left to send the game to overtime, where Calvin Thurkauf eventually sent Victoria packing.
The T-Birds, however, wouldn’t be quite so fortunate. Baillie scored his third goal of the game and seventh of the series to propel Kelowna into the second round, where the Rockets were swept by the Kamloops Blazers.
So here we are today, as Seattle leads the series 3-0 after a close victory in Game 3 in front of a rowdy Two-for-Tuesday crowd with a chance to send the Rockets packing tonight.
A lot looks the same as that series in 2013, but so much is different.
First, hardly anyone on either roster this year was a part of what happened three years ago. For Kelowna, Baillie returns, but he has been shut down by Seattle’s defense with just one assist in three games. Cole Linaker was the only other current Rocket who played much of a role on the 2013 team, but he, like Baillie, has just one point this series. Kirkland, Riley Stadel and Joe Gatenby all played in that Game-7 overtime victory three years ago, but none could have been considered part of Kelowna’s core at the time.
As for Seattle, only Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith and Keegan Kolesar were on the ice for the heartbreaking defeat. Both Smith and Kolesar were rookies, with Kolesar having seen just one game of regular-season experience before being thrust into the lineup for two postseason matchups.
One player who wasn’t on the ice but was in attendance for Seattle’s Game-3 overtime win was Mathew Barzal, who scored last night’s third Seattle goal that sealed the victory. Barzal has three goals and an assist and is the series’ leading scorer.
“Any other team, up 3-0, you might feel relieved a little bit,” Barzal said after the win Tuesday night. “But not Kelowna. These guys know how to win. They’ve proved it in the past. They stole three quick games against Victoria. We can’t get complacent and have to come out like it’s the last game of our lives (Wednesday night).”
The individual who probably remembers the sinking feeling best is Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk, who was in his second year behind the bench in 2013. Is it even worth it to make the comparison?
“No, not at all,” Konowalchuk said with a laugh when asked if about the similarities. “Such different teams. This is Junior hockey. There’s too much turnover to even (think about it).”
Aside from the personnel differences, the fact is that if Seattle wins this series, whether it’s in four games or seven, it won’t be an upset. This is a team that has now been to the playoffs for four straight years and proved that it can compete with anyone in the league.
Up front, Seattle boasts both talent and depth. On defense, the T-Birds held the high-scoring Rockets to four goals in three games. In net, Landon Bow has only gotten better as the playoffs have worn on.
Ultimately, this is a story that isn’t really much of a story. It’s fun to look back and make the comparisons, but realistically, this is a T-Birds team that is in an entirely different place than the one that was so close to pulling off a fairy tale upset three years ago.