T-Birds take first of two in Victoria 3-1 behind Gropp hat trick
With a roster that continues to become thinner and thinner due to injury, the Seattle Thunderbirds keep finding ways to win games.
It was a Ryan Gropp hat trick and stellar defensive play that gave Seattle the 3-1 victory over the Victoria Royals at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria on Tuesday night. The win was Seattle’s eighth consecutive over the Royals dating back to March 2, 2015 when the Royals defeated the T-Birds in a shootout.
Seattle broke the scoreless tie nine minutes into the first period and it was once again their first line doing the damage. Mathew Barzal controlled the puck near the top of the right circle alongside Keegan Kolesar, who had entered the zone to Barzal’s left and outpaced him as the two approached the net. Barzal saucered a pass to Kolesar, who immediately made a tricky feed to Gropp that Gropp was able to wire over a diving Griffen Outhouse.
While the Thunderbirds were unable to score on the power play Tuesday night, they once again controlled the play five on five, something that begins with the team’s leadership said head coach Steve Konowalchuk immediately following the game.
“It all starts with our leaders. Our veteran guys were good five-on-five with some of our guys out of the lineup. Everyone else gave us good minutes and did a good job playing at a high pace.”
The Royals tied it at one with 1:24 left in the first period on a power play goal by Dante Hannoun after a Gropp holding penalty. After a couple of unfortunate bounces in the offensive zone, the puck found its way onto Hannoun’s stick, who was able to beat T-Birds goalie Matt Berlin through traffic.
“When you’re playing so well five-on-five obviously you don’t want to give the other team life,” Konowalchuk said of the importance in not taking penalties when you’ve played so well at even strength. “We did a good job killing penalties tonight other than the first one, but it definitely takes momentum and we have to use guys to kill those penalties, which makes it harder to keep your foot on the gas.”
It looked as though Victoria would be able to carry that momentum into the second period, but Seattle answered quickly, once again off the stick of Gropp, who quickly made up for his earlier penalty. Barzal won a faceoff in the offensive zone back to Ethan Bear, who faked a shot, then fed Gropp who had wrapped around behind Bear near the right point. Gropp skated into the high slot with space and was able to unleash his lethal wrist shot to beat Outhouse for the second time on the night. It was Gropp’s 17th goal of the season.
While the second period didn’t have any scoring, it proved costly as the injury bug bit Seattle once again. With their 2016 first-round pick Jake Lee making his WHL debut, the T-Birds’ 2015 first-rounder, Elijah Brown, was one part of a collision in front of the Victoria net and was unable to leave the ice under his own power. He joins a growing list of hurt Thunderbirds, including forwards Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman. It’ll be a situation to keep an eye on moving forward as Seattle’s roster and lineup flexibility has been greatly diminished due to injury.
“We’re not changing our style,” Konowalchuk said about any adjustments that need to be made with all of the injuries. “We have the same game plan for everybody. We want to protect the puck. We want to play a north-south forechecking-style game and everybody needs to do that.”
The third period remained scoreless until Gropp finished off the hat trick with an empty-net goal at 18:59, sealing the victory for the T-Birds. It was Gropp’s first hat trick of the season and fifth of his WHL career.
“There isn’t extra pressure them to produce, just to make sure they’re playing as hard as they can,” said Seattle’s coach about any additional responsibility his top line faces with so many important players out with injury. “They have to make sure they’re playing both ends of the ice and it’s not just about scoring goals.”
Seattle’s defense allowed just 18 shots on the evening, 17 of which Berlin was able to keep out of the back of the net. The T-Birds’ backup goalie has now secured at least a point in all seven of his Seattle starts with a record of 5-0-2-0.
“Berlin has gotten in there and done a good job. He stays positive and works hard every day. He gives himself a chance to succeed and the guys in front of him want to play well because he practices so hard. He’s always ready.”
“It was a good team defensive effort — we didn’t sit back,” continued Konowalchuk. “The top line was playing a 200-foot game and had the puck on their sticks a lot. From there, (Donovan) Neuls and Sami Moilanen’s line played well and protected the puck.(Anthony) Bishop, (Zack) Andrusiak and (Tyler) Adams continue to evolve as players and play key minutes. Before he was injured, I thought it was one of the better games Brown had played in a while”
The T-Birds will look to make it nine straight over the Royals on Wednesday night as the two finish their regular season series tomorrow night in Victoria.
• Lee was the 18th overall pick in the 2016 Bantam Draft and almost immediately signed to play for the T-Birds. His WHL debut left his head coach impressed. “He was solid. Definitely what I expected,” said Konowalchuk. “He wins his battles and moves the puck up. That’s pretty good for a 15-year-old. He looks like a guy in the future that’s going to be able to play a lot of games on the back end.”
• Jarret Tyszka, who hasn’t played since January 24, took warm-ups but was the team’s final scratch. Nolan Volcan, who was hurt in Saturday’s loss to Portland, has been practicing but did not play on Tuesday night. Scott Eansor, who had previously been listed as day-to-day with a lower body injury, was downgraded to week-to-week in the WHL Weekly Report.
• Seattle picked up two points on idle Everett, leaving them just three points out of first place in the U.S. Division. They also extended their lead over third-place Tri-City to four points with three games in hand. The T-Birds have a chance to move within one point of the Silvertips on Wednesday night.