THUNDERBIRDS

T-Birds complete sweep of Tri-City; await outcome of Everett-Victoria series

Mar 31, 2017, 10:50 PM
Alex True stepped into the first line center role and averaged two points per game in the first rou...
Alex True stepped into the first line center role and averaged two points per game in the first round (T-Birds photo)
(T-Birds photo)

KENNEWICK, Wash. – Heading into Friday night’s Game 4, you didn’t expect to see a repeat of Seattle’s 9-2 thumping they laid on the Americans in Game 3 in front of the Tri-City faithful.

With their backs against the wall, Tri-City put forth a valiant effort but eventually fell 5-2 and were unable to overcome a T-Birds team that scored 23 goals in four games despite missing Mathew Barzal for the entire series and Ryan Gropp for half of it.

“It was an effort up and down the lineup,” said Steve Konowalchuk about different players stepping up in the series. “You see through the year different injuries created opportunities for guys. (Alexander) True stepped up and elevated his game when Barzal went out. (Donovan) Neuls elevated his game when Gropp was out and he produced. Then it brings our fourth-line guys up to the third line and they have to play good, solid minutes. (Matthew) Wedman had a real strong game for us and won a lot of battles down low.”

The T-Birds got off to another fast start as True registered a power play goal just three minutes and one second into the first period. With assists from Ethan Bear and Keegan Kolesar, the T-Birds’ power play continued to excel, scoring their eighth power play goal on 18 opportunities to that point.

The Americans, however, wouldn’t go down without a fight. At 13:41 of the first, Kyle Olson scored his first goal of the series. Using Reece Harsch as a screen on T-Birds goalie Carl Stankowski, Olson cut into the high slot and fired off a wrist shot that Stankowski didn’t see until it was already behind him and in the back of the net.

Even after the early goal, Stankowski showed poise not commonly seen in a rookie goalie and was able to recover quickly.

“Heck of a series after getting thrown into the fire,” said Konowalchuk of Stankowski, who won all four games he started and allowed just two goals in each. “He had no idea he’d be starting this series. Thank goodness he came back at the end of the season and was able to get a couple games in to get the rust off. They scored that first goal on him tonight, but he was poised and came back. Rebounds were sticking to him and he was fighting off the puck through traffic.”

Not content to head into the first intermission tied, the T-Birds added one more tally in the final second of the first period when Nolan Volcan was able to slide a rebound underneath Tri-City goalie Rylan Parenteau, who started Game 4 after coming in for relief of Evan Sarthou midway through the first period of Game 3. Scott and Eansor and Bear were credited with assists, but it was Sami Moilanen’s impressive play to win a battle along the boards and get the puck to Bear on the point that got things moving for the T-Birds before the eventual goal.

The Americans were able to knot things up three minutes and 58 seconds into the second period after the T-Birds had some difficulty getting the puck out of their own zone. A couple of clearing failures in front of Stankowski led to the puck eventually landing on Nolan Yaremko’s stick and he was able to tap it in to tie the game at two.

Overall, the second period saw the Americans give some of their best effort of the series so far, but two more late goals by Seattle made it 4-2 heading into the third.

First, after a two-minute four-on-four, Moilanen and Donovan Neuls broke the puck out of the Tri-City zone on a two-on-one with Austin Strand trailing. Both teams, exhausted after a long shift, moved slowly into the Americans’ zone, but Moilanen was able to float a saucer pass on to Neuls’ tape. The 19-year-old Saskatchewan native waited for Parenteau to bite, then lifted a shot into the back of the net.

Not long after, Moilanen once again broke out of the Seattle zone on a breakaway. He attempted to slide a backhand through Parenteau’s five-hole, but the Tri-City goalie was able to make the initial save. Once again, it was Strand trailing and he managed to find the loose puck under Parenteau, who had slid out to the left of his net. Moilanen was waiting in front and able to put the puck into the back of the net, finishing the play that he started.

“I got the breakaway and didn’t really know what to do,” admitted Seattle’s Finnish import. “I just tried to make something happen at first, then Strand got me the puck and I had an open net.”

The third period saw only one score, an empty-net goal by Alexander True with one minute and 27 seconds left, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t without some drama. Just before Kolesar found True breaking out of the zone, there was a mad scramble in front of the Seattle net that Stankowski was somehow able to keep out of the back of the net. The puck was loose in the crease for what felt like an eternity but somehow stayed out, despite at least eight players being piled up in Stankowski’s personal space.

“I don’t know how that stayed out of the net — he’s unreal,” said 19-year-old defenseman Austin Strand, who was on the bench at the time of the play. “It’s so good for the organization seeing a guy like that coming up at 16 years old. He’s going to help this team so much in the next couple of years.”

Sweeping a Tri-City team that won 41 games during the regular season was no small feat for Seattle, and the fact they did it without their top two scorers from the regular season and without their starting goaltender makes it even more impressive.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever swept in a series,” said Strand. “Everyone came together and played well. (Tri-City) came out and played well this game and kept it close up until the third. They ran out of gas because our forecheck was so physical. You never really know but I thought it was going to be a close series. I know how good our team is but I still can’t believe we did it.”

Thrilled to get out of the series in four games, Konowalchuk echoed his defenseman’s thoughts.

“You never imagine it’s going to be a four-game series,” said Seattle’s coach. “You plan for seven games and just try to wear the other team down. They’ve got a good team there. I’m surprised it wasn’t a longer series. We respected them and knew they could be very dangerous coming in, but I’m proud of the way our guys played. We played a smart, disciplined series. We won our battles and took some hits – everything you need in playoff hockey. Different guys stepped up at different times.”

Now, Seattle awaits the outcome of the series between Everett and Victoria. Everett currently leads the series 3-2 and the two teams head back to Vancouver Island for Game 6 on Sunday.

“We’re not playing until next Friday or Saturday,” said Konowalcuk about the break his team will get this week. “They’ll have a day or two to shut things down, relax and take a break. Then we’ll have a couple of days to refocus.”

Game Notes

• Kolesar had 11 points in the series on three goals and eight assists, giving him the most points in the WHL postseason through Friday night.

• Seattle’s power play converted eight of 20 opportunities in the four games, scoring at a 40 percent clip. Their penalty kill allowed just one goal on 19 opportunities, killing off 94.7 percent of Tri-City’s advantages.

• Tri-City’s five leading scorers through the regular season were Morgan Geekie (90 points), Tyler Sandhu (83), Parker Wotherspoon (66), Juuso Valimaki (61) and Vladislav Lukin (58). Those five players combined for just six points in four playoff games against the T-Birds. Only Sandhu, who had three assists, registered more than one point. Lukin was held scoreless in the three games he played.

• Meanwhile, Seattle had seven players who averaged over a point per game in the series: Kolesar, Bear, Neuls, True, Strand, Moilanen and Gropp.

• This marks the end at least three players on Tri-City’s roster’s WHL career – Parenteau, Dalton Yorke and Sandhu are all 20 years old and graduate this offseason. Yorke did not play in Games 3 or 4 after being suspended for a high hit on Ryan Gropp at the end of Game 2. It’s also likely the end of Parker Wotherspoon’s WHL career as he was drafted by the New York Islanders and signed an entry-level contract, making him eligible for the AHL next year. Lukin will be 20 years old and an import player next season, so he may not return either.

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