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Despite tough loss to Portland Sunday, Thunderbirds off to encouraging start

Thunderbirds center Matthew Rempe tries to find his way through a maze of Portland Winterhawks. (Biran Liesse)

Whether it was tired legs, poor execution, or a suffocating Portland Winterhawks forecheck, the Thunderbirds came up short in their bid to sweep a three-game weekend Sunday night at the accesso ShoWare Center.

The visiting Winterhawks skated away with a 7-4 win and while the game was tied at 4-4 after two periods, Seattle was playing on borrowed time. Portland’s forecheck had its way with the Thunderbirds who spent most of the evening retrieving the puck out of their own end. Bad passes, fumbled pucks, and turnovers plagued their attempt to get up ice and have a consistent attack.

“It was ugly, it was definitely ugly,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said. “Execution all around, every facet of the game was not sharp. Moving the puck, completing passes, carrying it up ice, it just wasn’t there for us. Obviously fatigue in a three-in-three, just not executing and not efficient enough.”

It was also a learning experience.

Just 24-hours earlier, the Thunderbirds break-out was efficient and it was Seattle that hemmed Portland in its own zone. Learning to replicate the game plan, the system, and energy is a big takeaway from Sunday night.

Like Seattle, Portland was playing its third game in as many nights but when you spend a majority of the game in the opponent’s end, the legs start to feel fresher. Defense expends more energy than offense, a truism in every sport.

O’Dette will have some valuable lessons to offer in Seattle’s next film session.

“This is, for a majority of our guys, their first three-in-three at this level,” O’Dette said. “It’s an eye-opener. In these situations, you have to simplify and be efficient every shift. It all adds up over the course of the game.”

Seattle is the youngest team in the WHL again this season and the lessons are going to be plentiful but should pay off down the road.

That’s not to say Sunday was all bad however, there were bright spots.

Connor Roulette opened the game 90 seconds in by being hooked on a breakaway. He converted the ensuing penalty shot to give Seattle an early lead. Lost in that goal was the great outlet pass by Lucas Ciona to spring Roulette. He doesn’t get the assist despite setting that play up.

Rookie, and official ball of energy, Gabe Ludwig scored his first WHL goal in what was a wild second period Sunday when he crashed the net. Jordan Gustafson scored his second goal in as many nights on a similar play when the puck bounced off him and in.

Henrik Rybinski also picked his first of the season after five games where he has played some good hockey.

“All three of those goals were rebounds going to the net,” O’Dette added. “Just not enough of that, not enough zone time so we could do that.”

The weekend was overall a positive one.

Friday night the Thunderbirds aced their first road exam with a 5-0 shutout in Spokane against the Chiefs. It was Thomas Milic’s first WHL shutout in just his fourth start in the league. In that game, Roulette scored twice and found a lot of chemistry on a line with Jared Davidson, who scored a goal while also adding two assists.

O’Dette deployed new lines Friday, and kept them for the most part, throughout the weekend.

“Obviously the Davidson line got hot there in Spokane,” he said Saturday night. “I think it’s more of a balance, balance out some of the speed. Just shuffle up and look for some chemistry to click. That’s what happened. I’ve liked all of the lines so far this weekend.”

So now the Thunderbirds stand at 3-2 on the season – not that records, or standings are as meaningful in what is a development season this year.

They’ve been in every game and there have been moments that should excite O’Dette, his coaches, and general manager Bil LaForge. Five games in after a shortened training camp with no preseason, overall the feelings should be positive about Seattle’s start.

With 10 rookies on the roster, nine of which have played, there are going to be games like Sunday night from time to time. The team is faster and more skilled however and the unprecedented nature of this season is allowing LaForge and O’Dette the ability to play young players in high leverage game situations that they might otherwise have been limited in.

Gustafson and rookie Kevin Korchinski have been regulars on the Seattle power play, as has Ludwig. All three players have been part of the penalty kill. Playing against stars like Portland’s Seth Jarvis or Spokane’s Adam Beckman has also allowed these young players to see firsthand what a challenge the top players in the WHL present.

These are lessons that may not have been abundant in a normal season where their ice time would have been somewhat limited.

“It’s still a work in progress for sure, we’re five games in,” O’Dette said. “We’d be in the Tri-City preseason tournament by now. We’re learning, we’re learning what makes guys tick right now and their strengths in certain situations. We need a rest day and back to the drawing board on Tuesday.”