THUNDERBIRDS

Top ten moments from the Thunderbirds 2016-17 season: 1-5

Aug 20, 2017, 8:45 PM | Updated: 8:47 pm
Counting down the top ten moments of the Thunderbirds championship run (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)...
Counting down the top ten moments of the Thunderbirds championship run (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)
(Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

The Seattle Thunderbirds short summer officially ends this coming Wednesday as the WHL Champions open up their 2017 training camp at the ShoWare Center.

It was quite a season that Seattle is coming off of and before training camp begins, we continue our countdown of the top 10 moments from this past season. We started last week with numbers 6-10 and now will give you the rest.

Here are the top five most memorable moments from Seattle’s championship season.

  1. Short-handed? No problem.

It was late February and the Thunderbirds were in Portland for the last of a grueling three-in-three weekend. Not only was it their third game in as many nights, but their fifth game over their past eight days.

On top of it all, the roster was riddled with injuries and they didn’t have enough players to put a full group of forwards out on the ice. Things got worse in Portland when Keegan Kolesar became a late scratch after taking warm ups. He had been banged up the night before and just couldn’t go.

Head coach Steve Konowalchuk had to put his lines in a blender and lean heavily on his top players to play big minutes. The WHL doesn’t keep minutes played statistics but Mathew Barzal had to be pushing 30 in this one. He seemingly was on the ice every other shift, despite playing so many games in a short time.

The Winterhawks had built a 4-2 lead in the third period and it looked like Seattle was going to take a loss. But as they did all year, they fought back.

First, it was Donovan Nuels who made a nice play at his own blue line to spring himself on a breakaway. He scored to cut the lead and then, in the final moments of the third period, Sami Moilanen would tie it up with the extra-attacker on.

Overtime didn’t solve anything and the contest went to the shoot out. Barzal scored on an incredible deke and one-handed shot to put Seattle up. Moilanen sealed the deal as he waited Portland goalie Cole Kehler out and lifted a shot over him.

Afterwards, the Seattle dressing room had loud music blasting out of it and loud cheering as the club had pulled off an improbable win.

Konowalchuk summed it up in the simplest of terms.

“For a regular season win, since I’ve been coaching, this was probably the most fun,” he said afterwards. “The guys played their ass off, right to the end. That’s all I can ask of them.”

  1. Neuls wins it late

Seattle opened the second round of the playoffs in Everett against the rival Silvertips. There was a lot of anticipation for this series as the two clubs had jockeyed for position during the regular season. The Silvertips came out on top by just two points, despite Seattle having more wins.

Game 1 was also the return of Barzal to the Seattle lineup. He had missed the previous month, and the first round of the playoffs, due to an illness. He made his presence felt right away with a big goal in the second period as the Thunderbirds got off to a strong start.

Everett managed to tie the game at one but a third-period goal by Tyler Adams would put Seattle up 2-1 late. As the clock worked down, Everett pulled goalie Carter Hart for an extra skater. That move paid off as defenseman Aaron Irving fired a seeing-eye slapper that found the top corner of the Seattle goal.

That tied it up with 1:38 left to go and overtime looked like a done deal.

Konowalchuk responded by putting Barzal’s line out for one last shift. They had a determined look and they worked the puck into the Everett zone. Barzal spun around the zone, flung the puck towards the goal where it hit Kolesar in front. It rebounded off Kolesar’s body right to the stick of Neuls who banged it in with just a handful of ticks left on the clock.

Everett won the division based on having more overtime losses, which still gained them points in the standings. The playoffs are a different breed however, as Konowalchuk reminded after the game.

“You’re not playing for overtime right,” the now former Seattle coach said. “In the regular season you’re thinking ‘take the point and we’ll get it in overtime’. Here, whether you get it there or in overtime, its huge. They were real good to come back that way.”

  1. No Bear, no Kolesar, no problem

Seattle had a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals as they hit the ice in Kelowna to try and eliminate the Rockets. They would have do so without the WHL Defenseman of the Year in Ethan Bear. The Edmonton Oilers prospect would miss his third straight game in the series due to a broken hand.

The Rockets took a 1-0 lead in the first period and then things got tougher for Seattle.

Kolesar was given the gate after a check-from-behind major as called on him. That penalty cost Seattle its leading post-season scorer and put them on the penalty kill for five minutes to end the period.

The Thunderbirds penalty killers, and goalie Carl Stankowski, fought through the major penalty however and denied the Rockets a chance to extend their lead. It seemed that Seattle picked up some momentum from that as it would come out in the second period and get its game going.

Austin Strand would tie the game up at one and a few minutes later, Alexander True would score on the power play to give the Thunderbirds a lead. Later in the period, the Kelowna defense somehow lost track of Barzal who was parked in front of the net by himself. He would score from there to give Seattle a 3-1 lead heading into the final frame.

Seattle’s defense would shut down the Rockets from there and the celebration was on – the Thunderbirds were going back to the WHL Finals.

During the Western Conference trophy ceremony, the T-Birds threw off tradition and gleefully touched the trophy and took an impromptu team picture on the ice.

  1. The core goes out with a flare

The Thunderbirds and the Regina Pats were tied at two games apiece as they took the ice for Game 5 at the ShoWare Center. It was a pivotal game as the Thunderbirds didn’t want to have to go back to Regina needing two wins.

It was also the last home game for Seattle’s core players. Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Kolesar, Scott Eansor, Bear and True were all playing at the ShoWare Center for the last time. Not only did they want a big win, but they wanted to give the home fans one last show.

They didn’t disappoint.

The Pats struck quickly for a pair of goals but Seattle would storm back. Barzal scored twice on the night, with the biggest being his second goal which broke a second-period 3-3 tie. That goal sparked the team as they would add three more on their way to a 7-4 win in front of the largest, and loudest, crowd in the history of the ShoWare Center.

Gropp would score a goal while adding an assist and Kolesar ended the night with a goal and two helpers as the top line went out in style.

It may be a long time before Seattle sees a core group of six players of the same caliber and it was a special night. The core had all played together with the Thunderbirds for their entire junior career and were the foundation of a team that would end up winning the first championship in franchise history.

The win gave Seattle a 3-2 series lead and they still had work to do but the fact it was the last home game wasn’t lost on the team’s star players.

“It’s been a great four years here and I’ve matured a lot as a player and as a person,” Barzal said after the game. “To go out with a nice night like that, you couldn’t ask for more and now we’re just chasing the next one.”

The next one would come two nights later.

  1. The moment of True

Could there be any other moment?

After 40 long years of waiting, Alexander True’s overtime winner in Game 6 gave the Thunderbirds their first WHL Championship. True picked the puck up at center ice and broke in on the Regina goal. He fired a shot that goalie Tyler Brown stopped, only to have the rebound slide right back to True. The Danish import calmly skated to his left, slid the puck in and the Seattle bench emptied onto the ice.

It was a typical win for the 2016-17 Thunderbirds.

They lost Turner Ottenbreit earlier in the game and found themselves down 3-1 with under six minutes to go in the game. But as they had all year, they kept playing.

It was Gropp who struck first to cut the lead to one. A few minutes later Kolesar fired a one-timer from the circle to get the game even. Was there any doubt they would come back? Was there any doubt they would win in overtime?

That win was a shining example of the type of hockey the team had played all year. It didn’t matter the score or who was out of the lineup, they just kept playing.

Eansor and Barzal, the two co-captains, accepted the Ed Chynoweth Cup from the WHL commissioner at center ice and skated it back to their jubilant teammates and the party was on.

It was the culmination of a season for the ages and one that will be hard to replicate. Since winning the title, Konowalchuk has left the club for the NHL, the core players are all off to the pro ranks and the team will have a different look this coming season.

But on opening night, the T-Birds will raise their championship banner and it will always remind ShoWare Center patrons of True’s shining moment.

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Top ten moments from the Thunderbirds 2016-17 season: 1-5