Hitmen take out T-Birds 3-2
KENT – There is nobody in the WHL playing better hockey than the Calgary Hitmen right now and Tuesday night they made the Thunderbirds their latest victims.
The Hitmen beat Seattle 3-2 in front of 5,137 fans at the ShoWare Center for their 14th win their last 15 games. The win vaulted Calgary into sole possession of the top spot in the Central Division as the Hitmen have run down and now passed the Medicine Hat Tigers. The Hitmen built a 3-1 lead early in the third period and held off a late Seattle surge to secure the win.
Calgary played a suffocating defense that forced the T-Birds into turning the puck over repeatedly and were in control for most of the night. The Hitmen were also stronger along the boards and won nearly every one-on-one puck battle.
“We didn’t want to pay a price to win puck battles,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “We threw it away quick and they definitely won more one-on-one battles and that’s why they won the game.”
Just two nights after playing nearly perfect against Everett, the T-Birds were unable to generate any sustained offense as the Hitmen controlled the puck to out-shoot and out-chance the T-Birds all night long.
“If you want to beat the top teams in the league, you can’t be making those turnovers,” Shea Theodore said. “They’re a good team, they had good gap all night. Our goal should have been to chip it deep and grind them out on the forecheck. We didn’t accomplish that enough.”
The Hitmen had the T-Birds on their heels from the start when they opened the game out-shooting Seattle 10-2. If not for three excellent glove saves by Taran Kozun, the game would have been ugly early. Kozun ended the night making 29 stops on 32 shots faced.
Seattle withstood the initial burst from Calgary and managed to take a lead late in the period. Ethan Bear scored his 12th goal of the year on a power-play wrist shot that goalie Mack Sheilds could not find.
The T-Birds were unable to carry that momentum into the second period.
Calgary turned up the defensive heat in the second and the T-Birds could not respond. They managed the puck poorly and turned it over in the neutral zone and in their own end. The results were very little offensive pressure as they were dominated in the puck possession game.
Afterwards, Konowalchuk’s disappointment with his team’s effort was clear.
“We had some individuals that didn’t demand enough out of themselves,” he said. “There’s one puck out there and you’ve got to win the battle to have the puck. It’s pretty simple and in the second period we didn’t, and that’s not good enough. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, there’s one puck out there. If these guys want to go on and play in higher levels you’ve got to win the puck battles. Hockey’s a pretty simple game.”
The turnovers and lost puck battles would end up in the back of Seattle’s net.
It started 1:21 into the second period when Jake Virtanen swiped the puck off a T-Birds stick deep in Seattle’s zone. He was able to walk in all alone on Kozun and fire a shot for his 17th goal of the year. The Vancouver Canucks’ first-round draft pick was strong all night and was named the game’s first star.
Four minutes later, Calgary rookie Jake Bean made a nice, diving play to keep the puck deep in Seattle’s zone. It ended up with Chase Lang behind the net and he was able to jam it past Kozun on a wrap-around shot for his 24th goal of the year.
With a 2-1 lead, the Hitmen clamped down even more on Seattle and the T-Birds struggled to get the puck past the neutral zone for the majority of the second period.
“Starts from just being soft coming up the ice a little bit,” Konowalchuk said of the second-period struggles. “When we did have chance to throw pucks at the net we kind of took a step back from last game and wanted something better. Against a good team there’s not something better; you’ve got to get pucks to the net, take what they give you.”
A big moment in the game came early in the third period. After pushing and shoving between the two teams ended the second, Seattle was awarded a two-minute power play to start the final frame. The T-Birds were unable to convert and 35 seconds later found themselves down another goal.
Calgary’s big third goal came off yet another T-Birds giveaway in their own end. Carsen Twarynski picked up the gift puck and fed it to Terrell Draude, who had room and scored his 10th goal of the year. It was a back-breaking type of play.
“It’s a big swing against that team,” Konowalchuk said of the goal. “We don’t score on the power play. We’d like to but we lose a one-on-one battle in front of the net on that third goal. We should have skated out with the puck, and that’s a tough goal.”
The T-Birds went from a chance to tie the game up to trailing one of the WHL’s top defensive clubs by two goals, and time was running out.
“Going into the third with two minutes, you really want to bear down on the power play and get some life to our team,” Theodore said. “That’s a really tough break getting that goal against after it.”
Seattle would get a goal with one minute left from Roberts Lipsbergs, who scored with the extra skater on the ice. That gave the T-Birds a glimmer of hope but they were unable to get the tying goal as the Hitmen steered home the win.
The frustration was evident after the game. It was a big game against a good, high-profile team and the T-Birds have shown that they can play with the league’s elite. Tuesday night they didn’t compete enough and paid the price.
“I think we know tonight was a big game,” Mathew Barzal said. “We were talking about it as a four-point game, so it’s a tough loss. It would have been a big win against a top team in the East; they’re really hot right now. It sucks to come out not winning tonight.”
The T-Birds have a couple of days to regroup before two more home games this weekend against Prince George and Portland. Tuesday’s loss put them seven points back of the Winterhawks for second place in the U.S. Division, so both games have big playoff implications.
“We’ve got to learn from (the loss), demand more out of ourselves,” Konowalchuk said. “In certain situations it’s not good enough, the second period isn’t good enough, we were soft on pucks. If you want to be a good hockey team and good hockey players, you’ve got to be better than that.”
• The Hitmen continue to be the only Alberta-based franchise to never have lost at the ShoWare Center. They have a loaded roster that features nine NHL Draft picks, which includes two first-round picks in Virtanen and defenseman Travis Sanheim.
• Barzal picked up an assist on the Lipsbergs goal near the end of the game. That extends his point streak to five games with 10 assists in his last four contests.
• Calgary’s Adam Tambellini picked up an assist to extend his scoring streak to five games. The New York Rangers prospect leads the Hitmen in scoring with 73 points.
• The T-Birds usually fare well when they score first, as they did Tuesday night. The Hitmen stormed back and dropped the T-Birds’ record to 22-7-1-3 when they light the lamp first.