Thunderbirds’ 20-year-olds shine in regular season home finale
KENT – Saturday night would be the last regular season home game for the Thunderbirds 20-year-old players and they went out in fine style.
Turner Ottenbreit, Donovan Neuls and Austin Strand all figured in the scoring as the Thunderbirds rebounded from a tough Friday night loss to bounce the Portland Winterhawks 5-1 in front of a sold out accesso ShoWare Center crowd. The win means that the Everett Silvertips will win the U.S. Division and be Seattle’s first round opponent in the WHL playoffs next week.
Ottenbreit and Strand each recorded a goal and an assist while Neuls scored his 22nd of the year along with picking up two assists. It was a strong response win for Seattle (34-27-8-2) after a tough Friday night in Portland.
“That was a great job by the guys,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said. “Everybody stepped up, we knew it was a big game. We didn’t want them to get any closer to winning the division and we wanted to play some good hockey in front of our fans.”
While there will still be home playoff games, Saturday was special for the three overagers, who will be moving on after this season.
Strand’s goal, his 25th of the year, came with Seattle up 1-0 after Reece Harsch had scored to give the Thunderbirds a lead. He got a pass from Neuls on the power play and one-timed a big slapper past Portland goalie Cole Kehler.
“It was nice to get a goal in the last home game,” Strand said. “I think all 20-bombs got one so that’s kind of nice. It was good, it was a pretty emotional last game, even though we’ve got a couple more in the playoffs.”
Ottenbreit would make it 3-0 for the Thunderbirds in the second period when he crashed the net during a scramble play. He would find the puck while fighting off Portland defenders and poke in his ninth of the year.
“It feels unreal,” Ottenbreit said of the night. “We talked earlier in the week about going into the playoffs on a roll and to get this one at home in front of these fans, it feels great.”
Portland (44-22-1-4) would cut the lead to two on a power-play goal by Henri Jokiharu in the third period but that is as close as the Winterhawks would get.
Neuls and Strand would set up Zack Andruisak for his 35th of the year at 14:20 of the third in response. It was the Thunderbirds’ second power-play goal of the night and the celebration was on. Neuls would then get in on the action when he as able to slide a puck past Kehler for his 22nd to round off the scoring.
“I don’t know how many people were there tonight in attendance, but they were loud,” Neuls said. “To finish it off on that was pretty incredible…We just wanted to come in today and show that we’re not a team that loses 8-3, or whatever it was yesterday. I’m proud of the guys coming in and playing the way we did tonight.”
With some bad blood carrying over from Friday night, the officials called Saturday close and the game devolved into a special teams battle. The two clubs combined for 15 power-play chances with the Thunderbirds converting on two of their nine chances.
Portland would end the night 1-for-6 with the man advantage.
“I thought our special teams stepped up a little bit and did a better job,” O’Dette said. “Guys weren’t happy with their game last night and we wanted to respond tonight.”
Liam Hughes came short of his first career shut out but played another strong game, kicking out 27 of the 28 shots he faced. The Thunderbirds will now head to Kennewick to finish the regular season against the Tri-City Americans Sunday afternoon.
The contest tomorrow won’t affect Seattle’s playoff position which could mean that some of the Seattle veterans will get a rest.
Seattle has won four of its last six games as they get ready to prepare for a tough playoff series against Everett.
“If we could take last night’s game out of the equation I think we’ve been playing pretty good,” O’Dette said. “Tonight’s game was a big time response and more of the type of game that we’re capable of. Obviously, Portland is a really good team and to be able to beat them the way that we did is a confidence booster.”
• Seattle will open the first round of the playoffs in Everett with Games 1 and 2 on March 23rd and 24th. The series will shift back to the ShoWare Center for Game 3 on Tuesday, March 27th and Game 4 on March 30th.
• Saturday’s win was Seattle’s fourth in the 12-game season series with Portland but the first one in regulation.
• Harsch’s goal was his first since Jan. 9th. He was injured in that game but hadn’t scored in the 11 since returning.
• Neuls has played in all 71 games with the Thunderbirds so far this year. Last season he played in all 72 games and the jury is out about whether he’ll be in the lineup Sunday. “I want to finish it off,” he said about playing. “I’ve got a bit of an iron man streak going so might as well play 72.”