T-Birds topple Giants 5-3 as Mathew Barzal returns
LANGLEY, British Columbia – The big story in Saturday’s game between the Thunderbirds and the Vancouver Giants was the return of T-Bird’s center Mathew Barzal.
It was the first game for Barzal since being sent back to Seattle by the New York Islanders and the T-Birds responded with a 5-3 win over the Giants at the Langley Events Centre. The T-Birds earned two points, but also earned an extra treat.
“I had a bet today that if we won I’d buy the boys Chipotle,” Barzal said with a smile after the game.
After spending a couple of days in Vancouver with family, Barzal was waiting at the arena when the Seattle bus pulled in. After a quick reunion with the team, he suited up and played a game without having one practice with the club since last spring.
“It was a little bit of a different experience,” Barzal said. “It’s nice to get back with these guys. A lot of my best friends are on this team and it’s fun playing again. It was a good win for us.”
Barzal picked up an assist in the game and the T-Birds had goals scored by five different players. Barzal was the story but it was team effort as Scott Eansor had a goal and two assists, Turner Ottenbreit had three points and goalie Rylan Toth picked up the win by making 26 saves.
Considering all the news of Barzal’s return, the T-Birds fought through any distractions in a game that neither team ever took control of. Seattle’s penalty kill was strong in killing off five Vancouver power plays and despite being outshot, the T-Birds were able to finish their chances.
“It was a weird game,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “There’s been a lot of emotions the last few days with our team and I think you could see that at times. At times we played well and at times we got away from our identity but we found a way to win.”
For Barzal, it was nice to be playing a full game again.
In his two-game stint with the Islanders he was limited in ice time and playing on the special teams.
He wasn’t sure what to expect on Saturday but was happy to get back to playing 20-plus minutes. He had called Konowalchuk earlier in the day to get a sense on what the coach had in mind for him.
“He said ‘get ready for 20-25 minutes’ and my face just lit up,” Barzal said. “Ear-to-ear smile and ready to go. It was great in New York to be playing against older and stronger guys and it was a lot faster. But coming out here and being able to handle the puck and playing my game was nice.”
While there may have been some rust in his game, he looked good and was ready to play. He set up Seattle’s first goal after he and Ryan Gropp gained the zone with ease. Once set up, the puck got to Ethan Bear at the point and the defenseman moved into the high slot and blasted a slap shot past Giants’ goalie Ryan Kubic in the first period.
It was Bear’s second goal in as many nights and a sign that Seattle’s offense might be on the rise now that it’s best player was back in the fold.
“You could see he’s a game changer on the ice,” Konowalchuk said. “He did a great job for us and we’re fortunate to have him back. We just have to make sure that we continue with the same identity and everybody takes care of their own job.”
Saturday night the team responded. Elijah Brown would score his first goal of the season in the second period after Alexander True made a nice play in driving the puck deep. Vancouver’s Matt Barberis would cut the lead to one after he stole the puck in deep and beat Toth high over his shoulder.
In the third period, Eansor and his line took the game over in some respects. On the wing, Nolan Volcan was physical all night and along with Eansor and Donovan Neuls, started to create turnovers and chances.
Eansor cashed in first when got a loose puck in the corner and attacked the net. His first shot was stopped by Kubic but Eansor followed up and easily swept the rebound in the net to make it 3-1. Three minutes later it appeared Eansor had scored again.
His shot from the high slot beat Kubic through the five hole and was slowly inching over the goal line. Just before it did, Volcan came crashing in and poked it home. Volcan got credit for the goal and may have stolen one from Eansor.
“Yeah, I think he did,” Eansor said. “He earned it, he went to the net hard and that’s what causes goals.”
Vancouver would score twice late on markers from Marcus Kichton and James Malm to make things interesting but Neuls would seal the deal at the end with an empty net goal.
It was the third goal that the Eansor line scored on the night as they were a big reason for the win.
“We pride ourselves on working hard but the first two periods we weren’t playing our best at all,” Eansor said of his line. “Glad we could get things going in the third.”
In the end the T-Birds got back to the win column and back to scoring goals. They managed the emotion of getting Barzal back and sound ready to get the season moving forward.
“Its excellent,” Eansor said of Barzal’s return. “He’s a good friend of mine personally and it will be a lot of fun having him back. In the locker room you can tell he’s back. We’re excited to have a strong push this year.”
• Barzal was wearing the captain’s C on his sweater Saturday night as the team will be alternating between him and Eansor from here on out. “Whether I have a C on my jersey or not I’m going to be the same guy, same player,” Barzal said. “You have to lead by example no matter what letter you have. At the end of the day, a lot of good players have worn it before me so I’m honored.”
• Konowalchuk started the game with Eansor on Barzal’s wing for the opening shift. It was a clear nod to the work that Eansor has done so far this season and Eansor was grateful. “That was fun and I’m happy Steve did that,” he said. “I wish we could have had a better shift but it was exciting.”
• Gropp picked up an assist on the Bear goal to extend his point streak to eight games.
• Sami Moilanen did not make the trip north with the team as he is still recovering from a hit that he took in Friday’s loss to Calgary.