Thunderbirds in first place with 6-2 win over Tri City
KENT – The Thunderbirds jumped into first place in the U.S. Division Friday night in a game against Tri City that lacked any flow.
The official’s right arms had to have been tired by the end of the game after they handed out a total of 15 power plays on the evening. Seattle scored on three of its eight, on the way to a 6-2 rout of the Tri City Americans in front of 5,308 fans at the ShoWare Center.
With that much time spent on special teams, it was hard for either team to get into a rhythm.
“Tough game for flow of the game,” Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “We had power play early, then they had power plays and when that happens you can see emotions get going on both teams when that kind of game gets going.”
Seattle’s top line were the stars of the game once again. Keegan Kolesar scored a goal while adding three assists, Mathew Barzal picked up three more assists and Ryan Gropp extended his point streak to 11 straight games.
Gropp has also scored a goal in five straight games, a stretch that has seen him pot seven goals total. It was just a month ago, that Gropp seemingly couldn’t get a break.
“I was kind of snake bitten earlier but it’s nice to see them finally go in,” the New York Rangers prospect said. “We’re winning some games so it’s quite a feeling in the locker room and we’re just looking forward to keeping it going.”
Winning has been the theme for the Thunderbirds, despite playing short-handed again. Seattle, playing with just 11 forwards, was able to win its 16th game out of their last 18 and the win jumped them over the Everett Silvertips by one point for first place in the division.
“We’ve been playing well lately and that’s a credit to our whole team,” Kolesar said. “We’ve picked it up as a whole and made a big climb. We’re battling for first place in the division and we’re not counting out first place in the conference either.”
Seattle (34-15-3-2) had the better of the early play but would fall behind on a Tri City (31-21-3-0) power-play goal. Jordan Topping was alone on the door step to bang home a rebound for his 16th goal of the year.
The Thunderbirds would strike right back a few minutes later for two power-play goals of their own to end the period up a goal. Donovan Neuls would get the first when his back hand from the slot beat Evan Sarthou between the five-hole.
Back on the power play just three minutes later, Keegan Kolesar would beat Sarthou off the rush for his 15th goal of the year to give the T-Birds the lead.
The second period became a special teams slog as the officials began to seemingly whistle down every play.
The two teams combined for eight power-play chances. The first four went to Seattle and they finally cashed in when Barzal slid the puck to Ethan Bear on the point. The defenseman blasted a slap shot home for his 20th goal of the year.
After struggling on the power play for most the season, the three power-play goals on Friday give them six in their last two games.
On the faceoff after the Bear goal, Sami Moilanen would score unassisted as he moved into the high slot for his 17th of the season. That came just nine seconds after Bear’s goal and gave the Thunderbirds a big 4-1 lead.
With the lead, it was Seattle that began the parade to the penalty box. The next four power plays went to Tri City and they cut the lead to 4-2 when Parker Wotherspoon fired a wrist shot through traffic just as a 5-on-3 power play ended. The goal was Wotherspoon’s ninth and made him Tri City’s all-time leader in points for a defensemen.
“We deserved a lot of our penalties, don’t get me wrong,” Konowalchuk said. “It’s just a weird game that way and by the end emotions get frustrated because you can’t just play the game.”
That’s as close as the Americans would get and Seattle would score twice more in the third period as Gropp banged home a loose puck and then set up Alexander True for his 17th goal of the season to make it 6-2.
Seattle’s hot streak is made more impressive when you consider the injuries its dealing with. Scott Eansor was a scratch again on Friday night, as was Nolan Volcan and Mathew Wedman. Defenseman Turner Ottenbreit left the contest in the second period and did not return. Moilanen would also leave the game late in the third period due to injury.
“Guys are playing hard and sometimes you’re short forwards and all that means is that Barzy’s line is on the ice more,” Konowalchuk said. “They like to be out there as much as possible. It was a good team win.”
That has been a key formula for Seattle. The Barzal line is playing at such a high level that they are picking up some of the production lost by the other injuries.
“We just really want to focus on playing our game and obviously when our line’s going we feed off it,” Gropp said. “All we can control is how hard we work and to push the pace.”
The T-Birds won’t have much time to revel their newly found lofty spot in the standings. The Portland Winterhawks will be at the ShoWare Center Saturday night and points are still vital.
“We have stepping stones on this team right now and our first was to climb the ladder,” Kolesar said. “We’re in first place now and it feels good but we have a game tomorrow against Portland. The two points are huge.”
• Barzal’s three assists give him 187 in his career in 189 career games. He has 48 points this season in only 28 games played.
• Konowalchuk said that Ottenbreit left with an upper body injury and he did not have an update after the game. He also was not sure what was ailing Moilanen, who left late. The Thunderbirds did get Jarret Tyszka back on Friday.
• Goalie Rylan Toth made 18 saves in the win but he also contributed to the offense. He picked up an assist on Kolesar’s first period power-play goal. It is the second assist for the goalie this season. Edmonton’s Patrick Dea leads all WHL goalies in scoring with four assists.
• The three power-play goals for the T-Birds moves them from 16th in the league up to 14th.