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Thunderbirds use speed to edge Portland Saturday night

Seattle rookie Jordan Gustafson scored his first WHL goal Saturday night. (Brian Liesse)

KENT – In the not-so-distant past, Seattle Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette wanted to avoid getting into a track meet with the Portland Winterhawks.

During those past games, which were as distant as last season, the Winterhawks held a significant advantage with speed and skill. Saturday night at the accesso ShoWare Center the tide may have started to turn just a bit.

Seattle skated with the Winterhawks, and an argument could be made the Thunderbirds skated around and past the Winterhawks in a 3-2 win. The two teams combined for 70 shots on goal, 40 coming off Seattle sticks, and the Thunderbirds twice erased a one-goal deficit.

Matching Portland’s game wasn’t a sudden change of philosophy for O’Dette and the Thunderbirds, it comes about thanks to an infusion of speed and skill from his new rookies.

“We’ve got those two young D that push the pace and can get up and down the ice, creating,” O’Dette said. “There’s a new element of speed with our young guys, up front. It’s been a goal of ours to be better in transition. At the same time keeping some of our heaviness down low and I think we had that combination tonight.”

That combination was on full display during the second period Saturday.

Seattle outshot the Winterhawks 14-6 and had Portland hemmed in its own zone for much of the period. At one point, the Thunderbirds were able to complete a full line change while still possessing the puck in the Portland end.

It all resulted in three goals and the period ending with Seattle in front.

The game-winning goal came late, with just 53 seconds left in the period. One of those speedy rookies up front, Jordan Gustafson was parked just outside the crease and tipped home a Tyrel Bauer shot for his first WHL goal.

“It’s fun winning,” Gustafson said. “Just to be able to help the team win makes this awesome. I think Bauer came down to the half wall and shot it. I didn’t really bat it in, but it hit the shaft of my stick. It was a greasy one.”

Greasy or not it came from in close as the Thunderbirds were able to crowd Portland goaltender Dante Giannuzzi with traffic in the second period. Gustafson’s goal came after Connor Roulette set up Lucas Ciona for a goal earlier in the period to erase a 1-0 Portland lead. The Winterhawks’ Simon Knack answered that, but Peyton Mount would get things square again when he fired his first of the season.

Seattle outshot the Winterhawks in each period and for the second straight game threw 16 at Gianuzzi in the first period. He again was good, but Seattle got better traffic in the second period.

“We started to get frustrated,” O’Dette said of the first. “We had to take a breath and stay the course. I thought we had the right game plan to give us success and we just had to stay with it. I think the work we put into the first period; the accumulation started to pay off in the second. We weren’t doing anything too differently. I think just breaking through with that first one carried through the momentum.”

Portland is always a tough matchup and even though the Winterhawks are missing four key players who are off in the USHL – another irregularity to this shortened WHL season – matching their speed and skill is a big step for the Seattle rookies.

Kevin Korchinski and Jeremy Hanzel are the two defensemen that O’Dette referenced and again were paired up. The two continue to impress and have no fear in pushing the pace offensively or jumping into the rush and open space in the zone.

“We’ve had to do a double-take with these guys with the way they’re playing,” O’Dette said of all his rookies. “Credit to our scouting staff with the way they’re playing. It’s fun to watch them develop and you can see them grow with each and every game.”

Korchinski ended the night with an assist – his third in four games – and fired off five shots on goal. In the third period he dangled through the zone, and Portland defenders, only to be turned away by Gianuzzi. It was a bold and confident play for a guy who had just four WHL games under his belt coming into Saturday.

Gustafson had the big goal and is playing up in a top-six role. Like Korchinski, he’s being deployed in every situation including late penalty kills and power plays.

“We are confident playing up and down the ice and transitioning quick,” Gustafson said. “The whole coaching staff has done a great job of letting us younger guys play with confidence and poise, hold on to the puck a little longer. We’ve done a good job with it and the systems are awesome.”

The newfound Seattle speed will get another chance against Portland Sunday evening as the two teams will meet again at the accesso ShoWare Center at 5 PM.

Jackson Berry good

Saturday was the second of three straight games for the Thunderbirds this weekend so O’Dette gave goalie Thomas Milic the night off in turn for rookie Jackson Berry. The rookie had played five games with the Moose Jaw Warriors last year, but Saturday was his first start with the Thunderbirds, and he didn’t disappoint.

Berry kicked out 28 Portland shots, including a couple of breakaways, to pick up his first WHL victory. He also showed that he’s got some bite in his game and not afraid to express his displeasure with opposing players in his crease.

“He gets involved,” O’Dette said. “That’s his style and if that keeps him into the game then that’s great. Great job by him tonight, first WHL win, and the guys played hard in front of him, and he got it done. That’s a tough assignment to try and get your first win over that team. He’s been great since the start of training camp. We’ve been impressed with him.”

O’Dette did confirm that Milic would be back in net Sunday evening.

Game Notes and Nuggets

• Sunday will complete Seattle’s first three-in-three weekend of the season and fatigue will be an issue. Portland is also playing its third game this weekend so both clubs will test their fitness. “Just recover tonight, everyone gets good sleep and a good breakfast in them tomorrow, and be ready to play another battle against Portland,” Mount said.

• Henrik Rybinski’s game doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet but the 19-year-old is having a strong start. He picked up an assist Saturday but more importantly, he drives the play. His forecheck is infectious and havoc-inducing as he creates possessions for the Thunderbirds. The WHL doesn’t provide advanced analytics such as Corsi or expected goals but if they did, Rybinski would surely be posting important numbers that aren’t obvious to the naked eye.

• Roulette’s numbers from Saturday also are deceiving. He helped on one goal but was a dangerous force in the Portland zone all night. He took a big hit against the boards late in the game and was shaken up on the play. He left the ice but was waiting at the door, in full gear, to celebrate with his team when the final horn sounded.

• Sunday’s game will be televised locally on JoeTV.