T-Birds hang five on Americans, take 2-0 series lead
KENT – The Thunderbirds gained a lot of playoff experience last season and that paid off for them on Saturday night.
One of the heroes from last season’s run, Matthew Wedman, scored a big goal with just over five minutes left to go in the third period of a tie game. It gave Seattle a 3-2 lead and it would go on to win 5-2 and take a 2-0 lead over the Tri-City Americans in its first round, best-of-seven series.
The goal came after Tri-City had come back to score twice and erase a 2-0 Seattle lead. The Thunderbirds have been here before and didn’t waver.
“There are some veteran guys out there and you’ve just got to try to believe in what you’re doing,” Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “You can’t worry about the score or you’ll get too emotionally high or low.”
For the second straight night, the Thunderbirds relied on their entire roster as five different players scored and goalie Carl Stankowski turned in another fine performance.
The rookie goalie, who was starting again in place of injured starter Rylan Toth, made 28 saves to pick up his second career playoff win.
“I can’t even imagine,” Scott Eansor said of the goalie. “My first year in playoffs I was a little star struck. I can’t even imagine him, being alone in the net. He’s been mentally strong and you can tell right now that he’s continuing to do that on the ice, I’m really proud of him.”
Eansor scored a big goal midway through the first period to give Seattle a 2-0 lead. He skated into open ice off the half-boards and wound up a big slap shot that found its way through traffic. It was the first goal for the center since coming back from injury and first since Dec. 31st.
The scrappy center said it was nice to get back on the scoresheet but scoring goals isn’t the main focus.
“I don’t really focus on that anymore,” he said. “Right now, it’s for the love of the game and the playoffs. It’s like a drug. There’s nothing else like it, it’s so much fun. Big moments, big faceoffs, all that stuff. It’s something you’ll never forget.”
Tri-City was game on Saturday and fought back to erase a 2-0 Seattle lead and tie it early in the third period. The Americans did so despite being heavily outshot on the night, thanks to 36 big saves by goalie Rylan Parenteau.
After giving up the lead, the Thunderbirds didn’t flinch, however. They kept pushing and eventually pulled away to hold serve on home ice.
“It’s one game, but it’s also a series,” Konowalchuk said. “You just have to keep playing and the results will take care of themselves … I thought our guys played a pretty solid game.”
Seattle cashed in on its first power-play chance midway through the first period on a nice passing play. Austin Strand found Nolan Volcan across and he fired a one-timer past Parenteau. Eansor then made it 2-0 and the Thunderbirds seemed to be in business.
With the lead, Seattle started to tilt the ice in the second period and at one point had outshot the Americans 11-3. Parenteau made several big saves, however, and kept his club in the game. That would pay off for Tri-City as late in the period a Seattle turnover in its own end went to Carson Focht, who fired a shot from the point that was tipped in by Parker AuCoin to cut the lead in half.
Tri-City gained some momentum off that and even the score seven minutes into the third period when they finally converted a power-play chance. Maxwell James parked in front of the Seattle net and easily tapped in a pass from Tyler Sandhu.
With overtime looming, the T-Birds would go ahead for good when Wedman cleaned up the mess after a wild scramble in front of the Tri-City goal.
“I came around the net and tried to get it to Scotty, a little scramble play,” Wedman said. “Strand ended up getting it and got it to me in the slot and I was lucky enough to get it in.”
It was a redemption play of sorts for Wedman, who had missed a chance in the second period when he was parked right in front of the net.
“I was a little frustrated after that one,” he said.
Seattle added an important insurance goal 26 seconds after that as Donovan Neuls walked the puck off the half-boards and fired a wrist shot, making it 4-2. Aaron Hyman would add another late marker, when he scored a power-play goal with just 18 seconds left in the game.
The T-Birds now head to Kennewick for a Game 3 match up with the Americans on Wednesday. They’re off to a good start, but know that they have a long way to go.
“We’ve got two more to go and there’s nothing to celebrate now,” Eansor said. “Take 30 minutes tonight and then focus on the next game tomorrow.”
• The Americans’ power play was a focus coming into this series. They are one of the top power-play units in the league, but so far the T-Birds have handled it well. Tri-City was 1-for-5 on Saturday and is now only 1-for-12 in the series. Seattle was 3-for-4 on the night.
• Eansor scored on a big slap shot, something he’s not normally known for. “I did a lot of ropes and upper-body workouts,” Eansor said with a chuckle. “My upper body strength is great and I feel like that helps a bit.”
• There was still no word about the injury status of Toth or Mathew Barzal. Hoewver, there was a Barzal sighting Saturday. He was in the building and in the dressing room with the team after the game.
• Stankowski again impressed with his poise. His biggest save came early on, while Tri-City was on the power play. He slid over in the crease and put his skate on what looked like a sure goal. “A big save early, a big save,” Konowalchuk said. “Back door early. That turns out to be a real big save.”