Young Thunderbirds take first step in shootout win against Spokane

Mar 20, 2021, 7:53 AM

Seattle rookie Thomas Milic stretches out to make a save during the Thunderbirds season opener. (Br...

Seattle rookie Thomas Milic stretches out to make a save during the Thunderbirds season opener. (Brian Liesse-T-Birds)

(Brian Liesse-T-Birds)

It is hard to pick the most impressive part of the Seattle Thunderbirds season and home opener at the accesso ShoWare Center Friday night.

They overcame a 2-0 deficit against the Spokane Chiefs, which was impressive coming after a season where that kind of hole meant certain defeat. Keltie Jeri-Leon scored two goals after hitting a couple of posts and that too was impressive. Florida Panthers prospect Henrik Rybinksi caused havoc on the forecheck and set up a goal.

All of that was positive but it was the Thunderbirds rookies who stole the first spotlight of the season.

In the second period, it was a group of five rookies on the ice together that would score a highlight-reel goal to cut the lead and jumpstart a Thunderbirds group that was shaking off the rust of over a year away from the game.

“That was a huge goal and what a great play,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said after. “Great pass, great finish for a first WHL goal. That was a shot in the arm for us, gave us some life and it was great to see them have some success.”

Rookie defenseman Jeremy Hanzel got the goal after starting the play in his own end with an area pass to speedster, and fellow rookie, Gabe Ludwig. With a head of speed, Ludwig created a two-on-one with Hanzel who joined the rush. Ludwig slid a perfect pass across the ice and Hanzel banged it home.

It sparked Seattle who would eventually go on to win 4-3 in a shootout.

The five rookies celebrated in the corner, giving the Thunderbirds a peek into the future of the club. It’s a future that looks promising.

“We threw each other in the boards, we were so excited,” Ludwig said after the game.

Ludwig recently turned 17 but this is his 16-year-old season and Friday was his first WHL game. The Alaskan displayed dazzling speed and quickness all night long. He surprised Spokane’s defensemen with that speed on the forecheck. Then he showed off the skill with the pass to Hanzel.

He’s waited a year to get going after signing with the Thunderbirds last spring.

“Right when we stepped out for warmups, I had a big smile on my face,” Ludwig said. “I can’t believe it was happening, we’ve been waiting so long. It was amazing. I had a blast, and it was so fast. The team was excited, we were all jumping and cheering each other on. It was such an amazing experience.”

Backstopping the fun was rookie goalie Thomas Milic who was making his second WHL start after getting a brief injury call up last year. He would make 29 stops and as the game wore on, he got better and better.

Spokane’s Adam Beckman beat him 24 seconds into the game with an NHL quality wrist shot – Beckman is after all a Minnesota Wild prospect and led the league in scoring last year. Beckman took nine more shots after that one including two in overtime that looked like game-winners.

Milic had them all.

“Our coaching staff gives a great scouting report of all their top guys,” Milic said of the challenge. “When it comes down to it, it’s a shot and I have to make a save, it doesn’t matter who it is. Just stop the puck.”

Of course, it wasn’t just the rookies who led Seattle on Friday.

“Everyone played great,” Jeri-Leon said. “It was a full team effort tonight and we needed everyone to win that game. Everyone stepped up and played how they needed to play. Getting back out there was so much fun to finally play a game. Everyone in the room was buzzing. I’m really proud of the guys tonight.”

Jeri-Leon is coming off a career year and his two scores came a minute apart in the third period to give the Thunderbirds a 3-2 lead. It was his fourth career multi-goal effort and going back to the end of last season, he now has goals in three straight games.

It could have been a frustrating night for the 20-year-old after hitting two posts early on.

“Posts are a good sign, it means you’re beating the goalie,” he said. “Just a couple more inches to the right or the left and it’s in. I just stayed calm and eventually, two went into the net.”

In overtime, Milic was dialed in and made three of his best saves. Twice he robbed Beckman and the rookie bested the Wild prospect yet again during the ensuing shootout.

He is now 2-0 in his young WHL career.

“He slammed the door with multiple big saves,” O’Dette said. “Two-on-one saves, coming across. Obviously, staring down Beckman in the shootout is pretty impressive. He looked fantastic and gave us a chance to win.”

The Thunderbirds as a group looked fantastic and watching the first game of this season it was hard not to notice how different the team looked from a year ago.

With seven rookies in the lineup, Seattle was fast and played with energy. The rookies weren’t perfect and there will be work to do but it was an impressive start.

O’Dette didn’t hesitate to put them out in tough spots Friday. Late in the game, Ludwig was on the penalty kill. Jordan Gustafson and defenseman Kevin Korchinski got late shifts and time in the extra frame. Hanzel and Korchinski were paired on defense all night.

You get the feeling this is just the first step.

“They earned those situations,” O’Dette said. “I felt comfortable with them on the ice. They got some high-level situations for sure. They handled that well and there was no hesitations putting them on the ice for sure.”

The excitement was and is real but even in a 24-game schedule, there is a lot of hockey still to come.

“It’s only one win and we have a long and busy season ahead of us,” Milic said. “I think it’s a good start, but we have a lot more work to do. We need to rest up and get ready for the next game.”

Notes and Nuggets

• Rybinski played well, centering the top line. His forecheck set a tone and he picked up an assist in the third period. He was also stellar at the dot, winning 11 of 17 faceoffs.

• Gustafson and Sam Popowich picked up their first WHL points in the win.

• Kai Uchacz and Brendan Williamson were scratched and did not play in what was described as a ‘team decision’. Their availability for Saturday’s game against Portland is unknown.

• There were no fans in the ShoWare Center Friday and the Thunderbirds had to play in an unfamiliar spot. They managed to find the energy by generating it themselves. “We certainly miss our awesome fans,” O’Dette said. We’re used to that boost that they give us. Especially opening night when it’s electric in here. We miss them but we know they were supporting us in any way they could. Online and on the radio, we could feel their presence.”

• Seattle will host the Portland Winterhawks Saturday night at 5 PM.


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