Thunderbirds goalie Liam Hughes ready for the playoff spotlight
It was just this past Friday night in Portland when a Seattle turnover sprung two Winterhawks skaters down the ice. There was nobody to stop them. Nobody but Thunderbirds goalie Liam Hughes that is. Hughes desperately dove back, stick held out in front of him, and somehow deflected the puck to safety to stop what seemed like a sure goal.
“I got lucky,” Hughes said of the play. “I’ve tried that a couple times this year and didn’t get it, I got that one.”
Luck or not, the play came in a game that was a blow out. It wouldn’t have mattered if Hughes stopped that shot, Seattle wasn’t winning that game and would lose 8-3. Making that play is an example of the competitive nature that Hughes has shown since taking over the number one goalie spot late in December.
As he prepares for his first playoff appearance in the WHL, he says that’s just the way he plays the game.
“I just try to play every play and not worry about the score and focus on the next shot,” he says. “I just threw the stick back, hoping it would hit it.”
The box score that night in Portland wasn’t pretty.
Hughes was saddled with seven goals allowed but he played a strong game. The stick save on the two-on-none was just one of the handful of spectacular saves that he made. He didn’t finish that game but the next night was back in the crease and showed no signs of the previous night.
He beat the same Portland team 5-1 and came close to picking up his first career shutout. Being able to shake of a frustrating game is a skill that can help Hughes in the playoffs, where there will be adversity.
“He brushed that Friday game aside and had a great game Saturday,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said of his goalie. “Part of what makes a good goalie is mental toughness and being resilient. He showed that off this weekend and that will be important in this series.”
Hughes will be a key cog if the Thunderbirds hope to upset the U.S. Division’s top club in the Everett Silvertips.
He has faced Everett seven times this season and has been stingy in those games by sporting a .930 save-percentage. Those were regular season games however and this will be the first time Hughes has faced the pressure of the post season.
He’s ready for it.
“It’s something I’ve been looking forward to my whole life,” he says. “There’s a little bit of nerves obviously but you just want to go in there and prepare like any other game and hope for the best.”
Hughes hails from Kelowna, B.C. and says growing up he had fond memories of watching the Rockets in the post season, including seeing them win the WHL Championship in 2015.
He’s ready for the high stakes and the intensity that comes with the playoffs.
“I love pressure,” Hughes says. “I like the atmosphere and big crowds. I feel like I play a little better but the boys play well in front of me too.”
Hughes joined the Thunderbirds via a trade with the Edmonton Oil Kings just prior to the start of the season. After suffering an injury in November, he returned to the lineup in late December and took over the number one goalie slot.
Since Dec. 30th, he’s posted a .913 save percentage, which would put him in the top 10 of all WHL goalies. The guy on top of that goaltender list is Carter Hart, the goalie that Hughes will be matched up with in the upcoming series with Everett.
The Philadelphia Flyers prospect has turned in a spectacular season with the Silvertips and Hughes is looking forward to playing against him.
“He is one of the more well known goalies in Canada and North America,” Hughes says of Hart. “It’s a good challenge to see how I compare to him but I don’t like to compare myself too much with other goalies.”
In the season series between the two teams, goals have been tough to come by on both sides and Hughes has more than held his own against the two-time reigning WHL Goalie of the Year in Hart. The two clubs have played 10 times already with eight games decided by one goal. There will be no surprises as the series kicks off Friday with Game 1 in Everett.
If Seattle is going to pull off an upset here, it will have to play its best hockey of the season. Hughes will have to be good and overcome any tough spots that he encounters.
As he showed this past weekend, he has a short memory and knows how to come back from adversity.
“In life there’s going to be bounce backs,” he said. “You’ve got to come back the next day and think about playing the game again. Life’s greatest setbacks lead to life’s greatest comebacks.”