Thunderbirds bounce back to blank Chiefs 2-0 in Spokane

Jan 25, 2015, 9:32 PM | Updated: Jan 26, 2015, 11:00 am

Playing their third game in as many nights, the Seattle Thunderbirds saved their best performance for the last game.

The T-Birds were in Spokane Sunday and blanked the Chiefs 2-0 behind 20 Taran Kozun saves and goals from Donovan Neuls and Shea Theodore. The win snapped Seattle’s three-game losing streak and vaulted them into third place in the U.S. Division.

“It was a good win, good win. Guys were ready,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Came with a lot of emotion and a lot of passion and I thought we needed to build off our game yesterday.”

The T-Birds played well in their Saturday night loss to Portland, and they took the positives from that game to get off to a good start against the struggling Chiefs. They got on the board nine minutes into the first period after Ryan Gropp weaved his way through the Spokane defense and got a good shot on goalie Tyson Verhelst. The Spokane netminder stopped the shot but left the rebound in the crease for Donovan Neuls, who banged it home for his fifth goal of the season.

In their three-game losing streak, the T-Birds surrendered the first goal in each loss. But Sunday they scored first, something they did regularly during their earlier streak of nine wins out of 12 games.

“The first goal is always big because you don’t want to get chasing,” Konowalchuk said. “It’s hard to chase. You see in this league if you get that first goal it’s big in general and I thought for the most part we were ready to start and played a pretty good 60 minutes.”

The T-Birds finished the first with the one-goal lead after a solid road period. They would get into a little trouble in the second period by taking a string of penalties, though. Spokane had three straight power-play chances, including 42 seconds of a five-on-three opportunity. The T-Birds penalty killers got the job done, and when they didn’t Kozun was there to shut the door.

“Very good PK,” Konowalchuk said. “They came up big, I thought, from a couple of guys I thought needed to step up on the penalty kill. Definitely a crucial part of the game there.”

The T-Birds would survive the second and head into the third still clinging to their one-goal advantage. Spokane was playing short handed due to a number of injuries, including losing leading scorer Adam Helewka during Sunday’s game. The Chiefs were also playing their third game in as many nights, and that fatigue started to show in the final frame. Seattle would take advantage by pushing them hard, controlling the puck, creating chances and drawing penalties.

Seattle got four power-play chances of their own in the third period thanks to driving the play. Spokane held off the T-Bird charge through the first three by getting some huge saves from Verhelst. The T-Birds moved the puck around nicely and just missed on several opportunities. Finally on the fourth power play they cashed in.

Jerret Smith moved the puck across the blue line to Shea Theodore, who picked his spot and fired a wrist shot past a screened Verhelst. It was Theodore’s seventh goal of the season and was the final nail in the coffin for the Chiefs.

“Both (power-play) groups were generating some offense, and it was good to finally get one,” Konowalchuk said. “Another big goal, it was another of those games where even though you’re out playing a team they’re hanging around.”

The shutout for Kozun was surprisingly the first of the season for him, who has a remarkable year even so. He played in all three games this weekend, which makes the shutout in the third even more impressive.

It was a team effort as Seattle’s defense did a good job limiting Spokane’s chances. And when the Chiefs did get in close, Kozun was there.

“He’s such a good goalie in this league,” Konowalchuk said. “He was excited – we weren’t sure who we were going to go with today. He was excited to be able to get back and build off his third period yesterday. Against Portland he had a really good third and he carried that through today.”

Seattle ended the weekend picking up three points and leapt ahead of Spokane in the standings. The Chiefs are reeling after a great start to the season and have dropped six straight games while being shut out in three of their last four.

For the T-Birds, they have recovered from a bump in the road earlier in the week and now have played two strong games in a row by getting back to playing the type of hockey they want to.

“That’s the most important,” Konowalchuk said. “I said last night we were disappointed we didn’t get the win but we played the right way. We got close to the way we want to play and you’re going to get your wins. We carried that forward today and got guys on the right page today. The team should start to feel more confident.”

Notes

• Theodore had two points on the night, as he picked up an assist on Neuls’ first period goal in addition to his own score. He continues to inch closer to Seattle’s top spot for defenseman scoring, drawing within five points of Craig Channell’s record 187 points.

• Mathew Barzal still has yet to get on the score sheet since his return to the lineup Friday at Tri City. That doesn’t mean he isn’t playing well, though. Barzal has looked like he has no ill effects of his injury and continues to generate chances. He probably should have had several assists on Saturday and Sunday but was robbed twice by Verhelst.

“He’s creating chances and making plays,” Konowalchuk said of Barzal. “The points will come and he’s starting to get some of his separation using his speed. I like the way he’s battling. He’s bumping and grinding, getting bumped and getting knocked around a bit. He’s not just waiting for the puck, he’s digging in and fighting in puck battles. That’s good to see, with that compete it will be really good for us and himself.”

• Kozun loves playing against Spokane. The shutout Sunday was his fourth against the Chiefs over the last two years with Seattle.

• Speaking of goaltending, there may be some roster shuffling coming. The Nipawin Hawks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) posted a tweet Sunday afternoon saying that that goalie Logan Flodell has been recalled by the T-Birds. Flodell made one start for Seattle this season before being reassigned to Nipawin. There was no official word or confirmation from the T-Birds Sunday.

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

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