Thunderbirds complete sweep of Kelowna with double-OT win, advance to WHL Championship

Apr 28, 2016, 9:38 AM | Updated: 9:39 am

Seattle will face either Brandon or Red Deer in the WHL Championship. (T-Birds photo)...

Seattle will face either Brandon or Red Deer in the WHL Championship. (T-Birds photo)

(T-Birds photo)

Kent – For the first time since 1997, the Seattle Thunderbirds will represent the Western Conference in the WHL Finals. And Wednesday night’s double-overtime victory over the Kelowna Rockets to complete the four-game sweep couldn’t have come in more dramatic fashion.

Matthew Wedman, a 16-year-old Edmonton, Altberta native, proved the unlikely hero by potting the game-winning goal 7 minutes and 52 seconds into the second overtime period. Following a pass from Ryan Gropp and a burst of speed up the left wing, Wedman deked to his backhand before tucking the puck inside of the post on Kelowna goaltender Michael Herringer’s glove side.

After nearly 90 minutes of hockey, the benches were exhausted. The tired legs on both sides opened the door for Wedman, who hadn’t skated for most of the third period and first overtime. With over 40 minutes of rest and two intermissions under his belt, Wedman was the only player in either lineup who appeared to have any gas left in the tank.

“He has fresh legs, but you also have to get them going,” coach Steve Konowalchuk said following the game. “That’s one of those ones where they don’t play a lot down the stretch during the third period. You hope to close it out but at some point you have to start getting other guys in there. He’s the kind of guy where the moment has never been too big for him all year long. He’ll remember that the rest of his life.”

“I was pretty fresh after sitting for 40 minutes, but I saw the d-man was tired so I just drove him wide,” Wedman said of the series-clinching goal. “You dream about it as a kid growing up and playing hockey. Everything just doesn’t seem real.”

But the heroics didn’t belong solely to the young center. Just sending the game to overtime required an improbable Seattle comeback in the game’s waning moments.

After a Justin Kirkland power-play goal with 6:10 left in the third period to make it 4-2, it looked like the series was headed back to Kelowna for Game 5. The T-Birds had struggled for most of the night to get the puck past Herringer, who finished the night with an incredible 71 saves on 76 shots.

Late in the third period, trailing by two, Seattle pulled Landon Bow to get a sixth attacker. With 1:15 remaining before the final horn, defenseman Ethan Bear fired a wrist shot from the top of the left circle through traffic that sneaked past Herringer. Jerret Smith and Mathew Barzal assisted on the goal, Bear’s second of the night.

A minute later, the T-Birds once again managed to get the puck deep in the Kelowna zone. Smith fed Bear at the right point, who then looked for a shooting lane with less than 10 seconds to go. With a Rockets defender closing in on him, Bear decided to pull the puck back rather than force a shot. He got around the defender and put a slapshot on Herringer, who made the initial save. The rebound found its way on to Keegan Kolesar’s stick and he made the chance count, putting the puck in the back of the net with 2.7 seconds remaining in regulation.

“Barzal gave me the puck and I guess I didn’t realize how much time we had left,” Bear admitted after the game. “I tried getting it to the net as fast as I could, but I didn’t have a lane so I pulled it back and shot. I didn’t see how it went in.”

After winning the first three games of the series, it became clear early that Seattle wasn’t entertaining the idea of a fifth game. They came out of the dressing room looking like a team that wanted to finish the series that night, outshooting the Rockets 16-8 during the game’s opening frame.

However, the T-Birds’ efforts were initially in vain. A number of impressive saves by Herringer kept Seattle off the scoreboard, while Rockets captain Rodney Southam and Tyson Baillie, the hero from the 2013 series, scored for Kelowna.

Headed into the second period, the T-Birds found themselves down by two goals despite heavily outplaying their opponent. They were ultimately rewarded 46 seconds into the second when Gropp came off the bench and headed straight into the slot outside of Herringer’s crease. Scott Eansor found Gropp, who fired a one-timer past Herringer to cut the lead to one.

Down by one after 40 minutes, the stage had been set for the T-Birds’ incredible third-period comeback. Bear’s and Kolesar’s late goals left the Rockets stunned heading into sudden-death overtime.

In the first overtime, there were five power-play opportunities – two for Seattle and three for Kelowna – including two T-Birds penalties for too many men on the ice. None proved consequential, however, as both Bow and Herringer made numerous saves to prolong the contest.

The T-Birds’ penalty kill once again proved why it was the league’s best during the regular season, allowing just one goal on seven chances.

Konowalchuk heaped praises on the veterans in the locker room following the game, whom he says kept everyone focused that morning on their still incomplete task.

“Our leadership (kept the) guys even,” Konowalchuk said. “Coming in this morning, our guys were ready to play. There wasn’t much talk. There wasn’t much happiness. They were focused this morning and they were focused before the game. It felt like they came a long way from a couple years ago. That’s playoff experience.”

One of those veterans is Smith, who has five points, all assists, and a plus-15 rating in 12 games this postseason.

“It’s probably the coolest moment ever,” said Seattle’s captain, unable to contain his happiness after the initial post-game festivities. “We just had to settle down (before the game) and make sure everyone was ready to go. The last game is always the toughest and (Kelowna) came out real hard tonight. We knew what we had to do.”

The T-Birds advance to the Western Hockey League Championship, where they will face either the Brandon Wheat Kings or Red Deer Rebels. After a 4-2 victory Wednesday night, the Wheat Kings lead the Rebels 3-1 and can clinch the series on Friday night at home.

Game notes

• Seattle wins the Western Conference for the first time in 19 years. That year, Seattle was led in scoring by 17-year-old Patrick Marleau, who is currently playing for the San Jose Sharks in the second round of the NHL Playoffs.

• Game 4 was the first time Kelowna led in the series and the Rockets held on to that lead for the first 59 minutes and 57 seconds. Seattle never led until the game-winning goal.

• Game 4 saw the return of Southam, who had been suspended for Games 2 and 3 following a hit that left T-Birds forward Cavin Leth struggling to stand up. Southam had the game’s first goal but also took three penalties.

• Seattle is now 12-1 in the postseason, by far the best record of any team remaining in the postseason.

• Seattle received multi-point contributions from multiple players on Wednesday night. Barzal had three assists, giving him a team-leading 19 points during the postseason. Bear had two goals and an assist, giving the young d-man 15 points in just 13 games. Kolesar and Gropp each had a goal and an assist, giving them ten and five points, respectively, during the playoffs.


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