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Thunderbirds clinch second consecutive conference title after 3-1 win in Game 6

The T-Birds celebrate back-to-back conference titles after beating Kelowna 3-1 in Game 6 (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Shoot the Breeze)

The Seattle Thunderbirds will play for the WHL Championship a second straight time.

Seattle scored three goals in the second period to beat the Kelowna Rockets 3-1 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Championship. The Thunderbirds win the series 4-2 and will now prepare for the league finals.

“We’re going to enjoy the bus ride,” Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk said afterward. “The Rockets played really hard and our guys are pretty tired. They played hard and they should be tired. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t have won, I guarantee you that. That team battled right to the end for every minute.”

Mathew Barzal came up big for the Thunderbirds, scoring a goal and adding an assist to spark Seattle. It was his second straight multi-point game in the series as he extended his post-season scoring streak to 10 games.

“Really good job for him,” Konowalchuk said of Barzal. “He’s a special player. I hate to talk about just him because so many guys stepped up. I challenged a few players. I challenged Scott (Eansor) before two games ago and he raised his game to new level.

“I challenged Barzal, he was playing pretty good, but just try to find another level and the last two games he did that, and so did Scott. (Turner) Ottenbreit stepping up with all the minutes he played with Bear out. The guy’s a warrior blocking shots there at the end.”

The Thunderbirds, playing without defenseman Ethan Bear for the third straight game, stymied the Kelowna attack and only allowed 18 shots on the evening. Konowalchuk credits not only the defenseman who stepped up to fill in for Bear, but also the centers.

“I thought our centers did an excellent job of being good defensively and really supporting the D,” he said. “(Alexander) True, Barzy, ‘Eans and (Mathew) Wedman did a heck of a job helping out.”

In a season that saw Seattle have to overcome numerous key injuries, getting back to the finals seemed like it might be impossible. But this Thunderbirds squad answered every bit of adversity and clawed their way to a second straight Western Conference title.

Without Bear, they had to face more adversity Sunday evening as Keegan Kolesar left the game in the first period after he was assessed a five-minute major for a check from behind. That carried a game misconduct with it so not only did the Thunderbirds have to kill off a major penalty, but they lost their postseason leading scorer.

Down a goal at the time, the T-Birds killed off the five minutes at the end of the first period and into the start of the second. It was a real momentum-changing moment in the game.

“It seems that it brings guys tighter together when we hit adversity,” Konowalchuk said. “I thought today kind of summed up our year when Keegs goes out and we kill off that penalty down 1-0. We go down 2-0 and it’s a different outcome. That kill was a big momentum swing.”

Seattle started the game a bit tentatively and only managed one shot on goal in the first period. The Rockets didn’t fare much better, limited to just four, but got on the board thanks to a Nolan Foote power-play marker.

The Thunderbirds had to spend the last four minutes of the period killing off the Kolesar major penalty but did so without allowing a shot to the Rockets. That may have provided a sparked as the T-Birds came out firing in the second period.

Austin Strand evened the score when he flung a wrist shot through traffic to tie the game at one. Seattle then had a 5-on-3 power-play chance when Calvin Thurkauf played the puck with his hand during a faceoff.

While the Rockets couldn’t take advantage of their prolonged power play, Seattle took advantage of its chance. While on the two-man advantage, Alexander True fired his third goal in two games from the slot. That gave the T-Birds their first lead of the game and they would add on to it six minutes later.

Aaron Hyman found Barzal all alone at the side of the net, with Barzal burying his first goal of the series to give Seattle a two-goal lead.

Rookie goalie Carl Stankowski only had to make 17 saves but several of them were big. None were bigger, however, than the one he made with less than four minutes left and the Rockets on a power play. Reid Gardiner received a pass in close and Stankowski somehow got a pad on the puck to keep the two-goal lead intact.

Stankowski ends his run through the conference playoffs with a near perfect 12-2 record, which is made more remarkable when you remember that these are the first 14 playoff games he’s played.

“It’s just a hockey game,” Konowalchuk said. “He keeps it in perspective; he’s having fun with it. He’s a good goalie and he’s playing well for us. We don’t expect him to be perfect, it’s a team game.”

After killing off the late Kelowna power play, the T-Birds ran the clock down and as the horn sounded, poured off the bench to mob Stankowski behind the goal.

There are a lot of hockey superstitions and one is that you don’t touch the conference winning trophy, since it’s not the one you really want. Seattle players stayed away last year and lost in the finals so this year they showed no fear. Barzal and Eansor both accepted the trophy and together held it up as the rest of the team gathered in to get a touch as well.

“I let them do whatever they wanted,” Konowalchuk said with a chuckle about the trophy presentation.

The Thunderbirds will get back on their team bus and make the long, but happy, trek back to the ShoWare Center. They will get a couple of days off before they prepare to take on the Eastern Conference Champion Regina Pats.

Game 1 will be Friday night in Regina.

Notes

• With a two-goal lead heading into the third period, the T-Birds did not sit back. They pushed the pace early and midway through the period had a 10-1 shot advantage.

• Seattle killed off six of the Rockets seven power-play chances while converting on 1-for-5 of their own.

• Rookie Dilon Hamaliuk was in the lineup on Sunday to make his WHL Playoff debut. Hamaliuk started the season with the T-Birds, playing in 17 games but had not been with the club since November.

• Regina came back from a 3-0 deficit in its Game 6 on Sunday to beat the Lethbridge Hurricanes 7-4 to clinch the conference title. The Pats have not won the WHL Championship since 1980.