Playoffs represent last chance for several Thunderbirds
The WHL playoffs are a day away and after last year’s run, the excitement and anticipation is at a high level.
Playoff hockey is tough. The stakes are amped, the checks are a bit harder and the games are more entertaining. The highs are high in the playoffs but the end can come quick and in the blink of an eye.
It’s that sudden finish that helps breed the excitement of the playoffs and in junior hockey, that sudden finish also means the end of careers.
The Thunderbirds have a number of players who will see their WHL careers come to an end at some point over the next two months. It all starts Friday night when they will host the Tri City Americans for Game 1 of their best-of-seven first round series.
“For a lot of us, this is our last year so we really want to finish strong,” Seattle center Scott Eansor said before a practice this week. “Especially the guys I grew up playing with, started rookies together. I hope we can finish with a championship.”
As one of the club’s 20-year-old players, Eansor is entering his last stretch in the league. So is goalie Rylan Toth, another 20-year-old.
“Watching the last (game) was kind of tough to think that I’ll never play a regular season game again in the WHL,” Toth said. “It’s kind of sad…it was a little emotional but its motivating for the playoffs.”
Along with Eansor and Toth, Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar and Ethan Bear are also entering their last run with the Thunderbirds and the WHL. Unlike the rest of that list, Eansor and Toth have a less clear future.
Barzal, Gropp, Kolesar and Bear have all signed NHL contracts and know that they will be at some level of pro hockey next season. Eansor and Toth are free agents as they head into the playoffs and while the possibility of a pro contract is certainly there in both cases, nothing is for sure.
Contract or not, going out with a flurry is a motivating factor.
“You play this game and it’s a journey with yourself and you want to finish strong,” Eansor said. “I hope I can finish strong in my last playoff push and journey and hopefully make some more memories along the way.”
In his Seattle career, Eansor has flourished in the playoffs. In 33 career playoff games, he’s potted 16 goals and 32 points, which is a higher scoring rate than his career regular season numbers. While Eansor has shown he’s not afraid of big moments, it was looking like he might not be part of this year’s run.
He suffered a lower body injury in December and tried to play through it early in January before finally having to sit out and miss games. He worked hard to get back and this past weekend, got back into the lineup and is ready to go for the playoffs.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “The anticipation has been huge since I’ve been hurt so I’m really excited to get back and get back with the guys and finish my WHL career with a championship.”
Eansor was a big part of last season’s run through the Western Conference and into the finals. He says the team learned a lot from that experience.
“We learned what it takes to get there and the extra mile you’ve got to go to get there and finish,” Eansor said. “It’s not good enough to get to the finals and lose. You’ve got to go as far as you can and at the end of the day, as long as you put your effort forward you won’t be upset with yourself.”
Like Eansor, Toth has been dealing with some injury concerns.
He missed the team’s last four contests after leaving during a game in Portland with a lower body injury. The team is hopeful that he will be able to go, especially when he too has had some big playoff moments.
In his previous 14 playoff appearances, Toth has a higher save percentage than he does in his regular season career. Last year, with Red Deer, he had some great games. He was huge in a Memorial Cup match up where the Rebels eliminated the WHL Champion Brandon Wheat Kings. Prior to that, he backstopped Red Deer to a memorable overtime win in Game 7 against Regina in the Eastern Conference semis.
In that last game, he made 32 saves – including 15 in the final 20 minutes – to lead the Rebels to a narrow 2-1 win that sent them to the conference finals. Those experiences taught him a lot about playoff hockey.
“It’s just controlling your emotions,” Toth said. “It’s such a big game and there’s so much going through your head. But the thing you really should be thinking about is that it’s just a hockey game. Nothing changes. The stakes are higher but it’s still just hockey.”
As this year’s playoff story begins to unfold on Friday night at the ShoWare Center, Eansor and Toth will be key figures. They, along with their teammates, will be fighting to ensure that they get to play one more game before taking off that Thunderbirds sweater for the last time.