Thunderbirds grind out win in Tri-City while saying goodbye to Roulette and Milic
When the final horn blared at the Toyota Center in Kennewick Sunday night, the Seattle Thunderbirds bench emptied onto the ice to surround goalie Thomas Milic. The rookie goalie picked up a 3-2 win over the Tri-City Americans by stopping 21 shots and while his teammates surely congratulated him on the ice, they were soon saying goodbye.
Sunday was the last game of the season for Milic as he and teammate Conner Roulette will leave the team to play for Canada in the U18 World Championships over the next month.
Milic made the most of his last start, keeping Seattle in the game early with key saves on Tri-City breakaway attempts.
“Great game by him,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said after. “Sometimes when the game doesn’t start out the right way you need your goalie to hold the fort down.”
Milic ends his shortened rookie season with the Thunderbirds with a 2.74 goals-against average and .913 save percentage in nine games while also picking up his first career shutout. He’ll be back with the Thunderbirds next fall but is excited to play for his country when the tournament starts in Frisco, Texas on April 26th.
This won’t be his first international experience as he excelled for Canada at last year’s U17 tournament.
“These international competitions are all about experience,” Milic said last week. “It’s great to get a few games and get a grasp of these countries and how they play the game.”
Roulette was a teammate of Milic’s last year at the U17’s and will be so again this month.
He came into the season as an ‘A’ rated NHL prospect by Central Scouting, which projects him to be selected in the first two rounds of July’s NHL Draft. Being able to play in this tournament means he’ll be tested against tougher competition and get greater exposure to NHL teams.
The 17-year-old forward started slow the first couple of games this season but started to heat up and is peaking at the right time. He ends up with six goals and 12 points in as many games while pressuring opposing defenses and goalies.
“I just felt like I need those few games to get my feet under me,” Roulette said. “Going into the tournament I’m confident and the last few games have been good for me personally. I’m just trying to go into the tournament playing my best game.”
It’s the NHL Draft year for both players and they are aware of how scrutinized the tournament will be. With the late start to the season, NHL scouts have been scrambling for information on players that they may want to select in the Draft – That includes scouts from the Seattle Kraken who will be drafting players for the first time this summer.
There’s pressure but the task at hand first and foremost is a gold medal.
“Just stick with basics,” Roulette said of his approach. “We’re all going for the same common goal, to win a gold medal. If you start worrying about the scouts and the Draft, you’re going to lose focus. If you think too much about what’s going out outside of the game, it’s going to affect you on the ice.”
For the Thunderbirds and O’Dette, the departures require some lineup scrambling.
O’Dette is losing two key pieces to his team but is looking at it as a positive.
“We want our guys to have the opportunity to play on these international tournaments,” he said. “It’s a credit to those players for the work that they’ve put in. It’s good for our organization when our players are in these tournaments… (ice time) will get spread out. More opportunity for everybody and it’s that next man up mentality.”
Goalie Jackson Berry will take over for Milic and the team has recalled 2020 second-round pick Scott Ratzlaff to back up. The loss of Roulette up front – along with center Matt Rempe who is out nursing a lower-body injury – will require Sam Oremba to play more along with forward Nico Myatovic, who was an eighth-round pick in the 2019 Draft.
Those young rookies will pick up ice time but O’Dette will continue to lean on his veteran players to pull the cart.
Sunday night’s win showed how key those players are.
Henrik Rybinski scored a goal and added an assist in the win, and the 19-year-old Florida Panthers prospect continues his exceptional play this season. He’s leading the Thunderbirds in scoring with 13 points in 11 games, is winning 53-percent of his faceoffs, and O’Dette has turned to him to play the role of shutdown center against the opposition’s top lines.
Behind him, Jared Davidson has stepped into the second center role nicely to fill in for Rempe. He also chipped in with a goal and assist Sunday and has played quality minutes for O’Dette.
On the blue line, Berry will get support from a defensive core that is improved from a year ago. Now veterans, the defense has kept Seattle in games and Sunday night, suffocated the Americans in the third period to protect a one-goal lead.
“I think we only allowed three or four shots and that’s how you finish out a game,” O’Dette said. “It’s a matter of making sure you’re getting above the puck, backchecking hard, and protecting the house in our end. Everyone buckled down to get that done.”
The official total was three shots allowed by the Thunderbirds in the third period in what was the best defensive period the club has played all season.
Those are all encouraging signs moving forward over the final 13 games of the schedule.
Junior hockey is unique in that there are, at times, tournaments that take some of the top players away from their club team. This year it comes during a short season and while it will hurt to have two quality players no longer available, the cupboard is anything but bare.
For Milic and Roulette, the U18 Tournament is the opportunity of a lifetime to not only wear their home country’s colors but to improve their NHL Draft Stock. It’s also bittersweet as they have to say goodbye to their teammates they just were just reunited with in March.
“It’s a big honor and I’m really excited for it, but you have to leave your brothers behind,” Roulette said. “I know they’ll be supporting us. They’re my brothers, I’m always a Thunderbird and they’re going to be behind us.”