T-Birds clamp down on Winterhawks for fifth straight win
Playing short-handed again on New Year’s Eve, the Thunderbirds extended their win streak to five straight with a 2-1 win against the Winterhawks in Portland.
The Thunderbirds’ current win streak is remarkable when you consider who is not playing for them. They were still without Shea Theodore and Alex True, who are playing in the World Junior Championships, and they continued to play without the injured Mathew Barzal and Donovan Neuls. Not only that, but prior to Wednesday’s game they learned that Ryan Gropp would not be able to go due to an upper body injury suffered on Tuesday.
That left Seattle with ten forwards to start the game – a number that would shrink as the game went on – and required an inspired effort from the rest of the lineup.
“I’m really proud of a lot of guys,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Ready from the start again, I think the starts are obviously important … A lot of guys stepping up again.”
During the win streak the starts have been good for the T-Birds. Not only have they scored early, they have had the better jump too, which sets the tone for the evening. On Wednesday, guys like Nick Holowko stepped in and provided Seattle with some energy.
It got the forecheck going early, which stymied any Portland offensive ideas and frustrated the Winterhawks.
“We always want to bring a strong forecheck,” Konowalchuk said. “If it’s good you can create some momentum with the forecheck and try to wear out their D.”
That momentum resulted in Seattle scoring the night’s first goal for the fifth straight game. This time it came from defenseman Evan Wardley, who beat Portland goalie Adin Hill with a slap shot from the point. It was Wardley’s fourth goal of the season.
Seattle’s defense kept Portland in check the rest of the period, and goalie Taran Kozun looked sharp right from the start. He was calm and the puck seemed to stick to him like glue, allowing for no rebound chances. Kozun stopped 23 of the 24 Portland shots and gave the T-Birds some confidence.
The T-Birds would extend their lead on the power play when Florian Baltram picked up his first WHL goal in the second period. The Austrian import has played a couple of strong games for the T-Birds of late and was finally rewarded with a goal. He worked the puck into the slot, where it bounced off his stick, rebounded off a Portland defender and past Hill.
“It was good to see,” Konowalchuk said of the goal. “It was a bit of a lucky bounce but he got the puck to the net … He’s been doing more of that, he’s been making good plays and he’s playing with some confidence. He’s a pretty happy kid, I don’t think he cares (how it went in).”
The second period was especially good for the T-Birds. They kept their strong forecheck going and controlled the play. Portland was also playing without three of their key players, but Seattle’s young guns outplayed their counterparts on the Winterhawks. They outshot Portland 18-6 in the frame and ended it with a commanding two-goal lead.
Seattle would end up down to nine forwards after the second period, however, as Justin Hickman was given a game misconduct for an altercation with Portland’s Keegan Iverson with six seconds left.
Even more short handed, it was all hands on deck for the T-Birds if they wanted to steer the win home. They responded.
“Holowko played well, Keegan seemed like he was out there every other shift in the third period and playing really well,” Konowalchuk said. “And (Scott) Eansor again, a lot of guys stepping up. Sahvan (Khaira) playing a little center and wing, so everyone just pitching in. Everyone should be proud of themselves in the locker room right now.”
Seattle kept to its game plan and held off a Portland charge that made things interesting when Dominic Turgeon tipped a Paul Bittner power-play shot past Kozun with just under four minutes to go. Portland attempted to pull Hill for the extra skater after that but would take a late penalty of their own that kept them from posing a serious threat.
The T-Birds now head into the weekend riding a five-game win streak and have climbed to fifth place in the Western Conference standings. It was their fourth win in Portland this year, which is a turnaround of their fortunes in recent years. Coming into this season the T-Birds had lost 11 straight games in the Rose City, and this season they have yet to lose.
It’s amazing the difference one year can make.
• Ryan Gropp was out with an upper-body injury. Konowalchuk characterized it as a day-to-day injury and was not sure if Gropp would be available to go on Friday.
• The Winterhawks continue to play without their top three scorers due to the World Junior Championships. Nic Petan is playing for Canada, Oliver Bjorkstrand for Denmark and Chase De Leo is with the United States team.
• Not only is Seattle undefeated in Portland this year, but the win was its fifth against their rivals, bringing their season record to 5-1. Seattle has not beat the Winterhawks five times in a season since 2008-2009, when it picked up eight victories over Portland.
• Lane Pederson added an assist to Wardley’s first period goal and is quietly getting hot. He has picked up points in three straight and four of his last five games. Getting the rookie center going would be a big boost to the T-Birds’ search for secondary scoring.
• Seattle will host the Tri City Americans on Friday evening, and they may not be in a good mood. Tri City was pasted at home Wednesday by Spokane to the tune of 10-2. The game featured 162 minutes in penalties and eight fighting majors.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.