Thunderbirds double up on Portland Winterhawks for 6-3 win
KENT – The Seattle Thunderbirds are just over a month away from a potential first-round playoff matchup with the Portland Winterhawks. If that series turns out to be anything like Friday night’s game between the two rivals, spectators will be in for a good time.
The two teams played an entertaining back and forth game that saw Seattle get the go-ahead score from Ryan Gropp in the third period, sparking Seattle to three unanswered scores in its 6-3 win in front of 4,178 fans at the ShoWare Center.
With the game on television and their most bitter rivals in town, the arena had a playoff atmosphere to it all night long.
“The crowd was going crazy,” Seattle’s Shea Theodore said. “It was pretty fun to play in.”
It was a special night for Theodore, who assisted two Roberts Lipsbergs’ goals to set the mark for the most points ever by a Seattle defenseman.
“It is what it is,” a humble Theodore said about the record. “At the end of the day we got a big two points against a really good team and that’s what we were really focused on.”
It seems like just yesterday Theodore hit the scene and showed promise as a raw 16-year-old defenseman. A few years later he is a first-round NHL draft pick, a World Junior gold medalist and on top of the Thundersbirds’ record books.
Afterward Friday’s game, his coach wanted to praise his defensive play instead of the offense.
“He played a really nice game,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “We all know about his points, but he beared down and played against (Nic) Petan and had good gap on him. Every time he turned around it looked like he was getting a stick in the way … (His defense) hasn’t been overlooked here. All of last year for the most part we had him against the top lines.”
Lipsbergs also had a big night, adding three assists to his two markers for the first five-point night of his WHL career. The 20-year-old Latvian now has 13 points in his last five games.
“It was pretty fun,” Lipsbergs said. “Always, playing Portland is fun – it’s our biggest rivalry.”
The biggest goal of the game came late in the third with the T-Birds clinging to a one-goal lead. Already out on a long shift, Theodore chipped the puck up ice where Lipsbergs out-raced former T-Bird Adam Henry, then beat goalie Adin Hill with a nice backhanded shot.
“I’m not sure (what happened),” Lipsbergs said about the goal. “I just saw the puck and started skating and break away. I saw (Henry) and I was kind of laughing. It was good.”
After blowing a three-goal lead six minutes into the third, Seattle turned it on and ended the final frame by outshooting the Winterhawks 20-9. Ryan Gropp would get the lead back for Seattle at the 7:52 mark when he managed to tip a Turner Ottenbreit shot past Hill. It was Gropp’s team-leading 21st score of the year, and it energized the Seattle bench.
“There was no message on the bench,” Theodore said. “We’re fine, we’re tied at 3-3 in the third period. We’re the home team and I felt like we had momentum and we really carried it out.”
Like they had in their last two games – both wins – the T-Birds got off to a great start on Friday. They managed the puck well, controlled the play and outshot the Winterhawks 8-2 to start the game.
They would also score.
Mathew Barzal got the T-Birds on the board early after an attempted pass deflected back to him. He carried the puck in close to Hill and beat him on the short side for his first marker since coming back from a knee injury.
“He’s still got a little bit more to go with his jump,” Konowalchuk said of Barzal. “But he’s darn close. He’s played two games. Today was as good as I’ve seen him play and the first game in Prince George was good … so now he needs to keep working and improving on his game.”
Lipsbergs would score next when he deflected Theodore’s point shot past Hill on the power play. That gave Seattle a solid two-goal lead after the first period, and they would add to it early in the second.
Evan Wardley got the puck from Lipsbergs at the point 3:49 into the period and fired a wrist shot past a screened Hill. It was Wardley’s fifth goal of the year and got the crowd at the ShoWare Center going.
Portland would get back into the game on the back of its best player. Oliver Bjorkstrand cut into the Seattle lead 13 minutes into the second when he weaved into the T-Birds zone, created space for himself and fired a shot past Taran Kozun for his 36th goal of the season.
He came close to scoring again moments after that on a short-handed breakaway, only to be stopped by an excellent pad save from Kozun. The Seattle goalie had a strong game, making 26 saves on the night.
The Winterhawks rely on the Bjorkstrand, Petan and Paul Bittner line for the majority of their offense. They are elite players and keeping them in check is always a chore, but Seattle did a good job as the Bjorkstrand goal would be the only point those three would pick up.
“They’re good,” Konowalchuk said about Portland’s top line. “The two guys on that team are top players. It’s tough, you can see even if you’re going well, they can create scoring chances. You’re not always going to shut that line down but you don’t want to them to beat you alone, and I thought that’s what we did today.”
As he did in their last meeting, Konowalchuk matched up Eansor, Gropp and Keegan Kolesar up front with that line while Theodore and Jerret Smith got the call on the back end. Eansor is one of the toughest defensive centers in the WHL and he gave Petan fits all night long.
“Keeping it simple and playing with confidence,” Eansor said. “We’re a good line too, playing with two great players, so it was a good match up. It was an even matchup whenever we were on the ice. It was a lot of fun and obviously you’ve got to play smarter and safe. As long as you’re working hard you can play with anyone.”
Eansor would add the exclamation point to the game with 30 seconds left when he stole the puck and went in on Hill alone. He got dragged down from behind by a Portland player but still managed to sweep the puck into the Winterhawks net for his eighth goal of the season.
Portland evened the game earlier with contributions from their other lines. After finishing the second period with some momentum, the Winterhawks struck twice quickly in the third. Keegan Iverson put back a rebound to cut the lead to one and a minute later Dominic Turgeon snapped a perfect shot to beat Kozun for the equalizer.
From there the T-Birds turned up the heat, Gropp would put them ahead for good three minutes later, and they never looked back. With the number of games left on the season shrinking, the win pulls the T-Birds to within seven points of Portland for second in the U.S. Division. The T-Birds have three games in hand so Friday was in many ways a must win.
“It keeps us in the hunt,” Konowalchuk said. “They’re a good team there. They’re going to win games, we’ve got to keep winning games. It gives us a chance to catch them.”
The T-Birds will get a chance to win again Saturday night as they host the Vancouver Giants at the ShoWare Center.
• Originally, Lipsbergs had as assist taken away from him on Barzal’s first period goal. After the game he wasn’t sure why and joked that he needed to go talk to someone. It must have worked because the assist reappeared in the official box score.
• Seattle played with tremendous discipline on Friday night and was whistled for only one penalty. That call was for too many men on the ice and didn’t happen until late in the third period. The T-Birds were 1-for-5 on the power play themselves.
• With the score tied in the third Konowalchuk juggled his lines a bit. He moved Gropp up to Barzal’s line in an attempt to get his offense going again. It worked as that line scored the go-ahead goal.
• With a busy schedule in the week ahead, Konowalchuk wasn’t sure if he was going to go with Kozun in net again on Saturday. He said that the coaching staff was going to talk about it after the game and make a determination.
Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.