Thunderbirds tentative in 4-2 Memorial Cup opening loss to Erie
WINDSOR, Ontario – The Seattle Thunderbirds Memorial Cup debut on Saturday turned out to be a sloppy affair.
Whether it was nerves, the Erie Otters or the early start, the Thunderbirds turned the puck over too much, got off their game and dropped Game 1 by a 4-2 score. Seattle will not have much time to wallow in the loss as they are back in action Sunday evening against the host Windsor Spitfires.
“I think a bit of our identity wasn’t there and we’ll correct a few things,” Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk said after. “Our guys will be excited to get back at it. A good team over there and no surprises, they played well.”
Erie, the Ontario Hockey League champions, came out the gate firing and outshot Seattle 32-20 on the afternoon. Many of those shots were on good scoring chances and if not for the fine play of rookie Carl Stankowski, the game could have been out of hand for the T-Birds.
The Seattle goalie ended the afternoon with 31 saves to give the Thunderbirds a chance. Erie was paced by leading scorer Alex DiBrincat who scored a goal while adding an assist. There were some good moments for the Thunderbirds, but to a man, they felt they didn’t play their best.
“We kind of sat back on the forecheck and let them use their skill,” Seattle co-captain Scott Eansor said. “I feel like that is not how we play. We want to play faster on the forecheck and be a puck possession team.”
The Thunderbirds started the game tentative and by throwing the puck away. Breakout passes were a struggle, plays in the neutral zone didn’t work and they were on their heels for much of the first period.
If not for some stellar saves by Stankowski, they might have found themselves in trouble early on.
“We didn’t want to tip toe,” Eansor said. “That was one of the things that we tried to say to the guys in the room. But it felt like we did, the first half of the game we were tip-toeing.”
With Seattle tip-toeing, the Otters took advantage. They held the territorial play early but could not find a way to beat Stankowski.
Playing on the biggest stage of his life, the young goalie continued to show the poise of a player well beyond his age. His play is appreciated by his teammates.
“Carl’s been awesome for us all playoffs,” Eansor said. “You know all season he’s been working his bag off to get to this point. He kept us in it for the first half there.”
Erie finally found a way to get one past Stankowski just over five minutes into the second period while on a power play. It would come off the stick of DeBrincat, moments after he was robbed by the Seattle goalie. He took a pass in low off the cycle and snapped it past Stankowski.
It capped off a period-and-a-half stretch that saw the Otters pushing the pace and when they scored the goal, were out-shooting Seattle 20-10.
The T-Birds were on their heels a bit and Konowalchuk put his lines in the blender. Keegan Kolesar took a shift with Alexander True and Mathew Wedman. The two big wingers each recorded big hits that may have given Seattle some life.
On the next shift, Eansor picked up a loose puck in the neutral zone, raced into the Erie zone and wired a wrist shot past Otter goalie Troy Timpano.
“Tried to play with a lot of speed,” Eansor said of the goal. “Volcan and Sami (Moilanen) made a few nice plays and one of them I happened to capitalize on a shot.”
That goal gave Seattle some life but the Otters would answer back eight minutes later when defenseman Jordan Sambrook walked in from the point, cut across the slot and scored to make it 2-1.
The Thunderbirds answered right back however.
Mathew Barzal wheeled around the zone and found Austin Strand with some room at the point. The big defenseman took two strides and fired a shot that beat a screened Timpano to get the game even again as the two clubs were tied heading into the third period.
Erie would get the game-winner 1:36 into the final period on a nice play by winger Taylor Raddysh. On a rush, the Tampa Bay Lightning prospect waited out Seattle defenseman Jaret Tyszka who was down on the ice. At the last second Raddysh centered the puck to an on-rushing Dylan Strome, who tapped it in for his first goal of the tournament.
“Throughout the game we were just standing around with the puck instead of skating with it,” Konowalchuk said. “At times our back check and blocking shots, a little bit of our desperation that got us to this point was missing.”
Seattle played somewhat better in the third but the Otters did a good job of clogging things up against them and taking away space. Each team managed six shots but the Otters would ice the game late with an empty net score by Christian Girhiny.
With the way that the Thunderbirds tore through the Western Hockey League playoffs, it was surprising to see them play a tentative and turnover filled game.
“I think it was a bit of nerves,” Strand said. “It’s a big tournament and everyone knows that everyone is watching. So, a bit of nerves and they’re a good team and they really came at us.”
The good news for Seattle is that it was only one game and there is plenty of time to rebound. They will get a chance to redeem themselves right away as they will take on Windsor on Sunday.
“I think the last half of that game there were some things that we can build on going into next game,” Kolesar said. “That’s the beauty of these back-to-backs.”
• Special teams were not much of a factor on Sunday. Seattle was 0-for-2 with the power play while the Otters went 1-for-3.
• Despite the loss, Eansor played a strong game. His line had a tough match up with Strome’s line most of the night. Eansor ended the night leading Seattle with five shots and went 11-for-23 in the faceoff dot.
• The Memorial Cup is unique in that these teams have not played each other before and there is a certain amount of unfamiliarity, which may have played a role in Seattle’s slow start. “I thought we were feeling them out too much and letting them come at us,” Kolesar said. “We played more of a passive game and we didn’t get on them enough from the start.”
• Windsor, Seattle’s next opponent is 1-0 after Friday night’s 3-2 win over the QMJHL Champion Saint John Sea Dogs.