T-Birds wear down Chiefs in 4-1 win

Dec 7, 2014, 10:54 PM | Updated: Dec 8, 2014, 8:28 am

The Thunderbirds hopped on a bus Sunday and headed across the state to play a big division game against the Spokane Chiefs. Both clubs were playing their third game in as many nights but it was the T-Birds that had the fresher legs and got the win.

Seattle scored early to set the tone and then cruised to a solid 4-1 win at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The win was Seattle’s fourth in its last six and it extended the Chiefs’ losing streak to five games.

When playing on tired legs, the start can often time make or break the game. The T-Birds (13-13-2-2) had the early jump and their energy line got them going early.

With some players missing up front, head coach Steve Konowalchuk juggled his lines and placed Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan and Evan Wardley on a line together. If you’re looking for energy, those are three guys that bring it every shift.

“They’re good smart hockey players,” Konowalchuk said. “They work hard and they play the game the right way and they generate chances and when you generate scoring chances you’re eventually going to score.”

Score they did. Volcan got the T-Birds on the board first when he flung the puck towards the Spokane net. It hit a Chiefs player in front of goalie Tyson Verhelst and in. It was Volcan’s third goal of the year and gave Seattle a jolt of momentum 1:30 into the game.

Three minutes later, that line was on the ice again and this time Volcan found Wardley in the slot between the circles. Wardley took the past and fired it past Verhelst for his second goal in as many nights. Just like that, the T-Birds had a two-goal lead.

“We were stressing the importance of getting a good start and be ready for the start in a game like this,” Konowalchuk said. “Big division game where both teams are tight in the standings.”

The teams were tight in the standings, coming in Spokane (14-12-3-0) was three points ahead of Seattle. When the game ended the margin would be even tighter.

The Chiefs got on the board with 13 minutes left in the period when Riley Whittingham scored a power-play goal by beating Taran Kozun with a back-hand shot. It would be the only goal that Kozun would give up as he made 24 saves and has won four starts in a row.

Since giving up four goals to Moose Jaw on Nov. 12, the 20-year-old goalie has been on fire. He has not allowed more than two goals in his last eight starts and has not allowed more than one in three straight.

One of the most underrated aspects to his game is his stick handling. The Chiefs tried to create offense by dumping the puck in the Seattle zone to get their forecheck going. Most of the night Kozun would get the puck and make an outlet pass to a T-Bird defenseman who would get it out of the zone.

“What we try to do a good job with is good gap in the neutral zone to force a dump,” Konowalchuk said. “A guy like (Kozun) can get out and play the puck so well it stops their forecheck.”

With Kozun and the Seattle defense taking care of the Spokane offense, the T-Birds went back to work early in the second period.

On the power play, Keegan Kolesar got the puck to Ethan Bear, who had pinched in deep from the point. Bear fired a shot past Verhelst to give Seattle its two-goal lead back. It was the seventh goal of the season for the suddenly red-hot Bear. He now has four goals in his last six games and has a six-game point streak going.

“He’s playing good, solid two-way hockey,” Konowalchuk said of Bear. “He’s confident with his play and making good plays.”

Midway through the second period, another player who has caught fire struck again. Kolesar took a pass from Theodore and took a wrist shot that hit the traffic in front of Verhelst and deflected in the net. It was Kolesar’s third goal in two games and the big winger now has 10 goals on the season.

Earlier in the year, the T-Birds were looking for scoring depth and Sunday they picked up goals from four different players. If they can continue to get that kind of scoring they will keep winning hockey games.

Kolesar’s goal was more than enough offense for the T-Birds as they cruised through the third period and wore down the weary Chiefs. The T-Birds now have won four straight division games and have gained ground on the teams ahead of them in the standings.

They end their weekend by picking up four of the possible six points and look to build on that momentum moving forward.

The T-Birds will be on the ice again Friday night when they head to Kennewick to play the Tri City Americans.

Notes

• Justin Hickman was a scratch Saturday night. Konowalchuk said that Hickman was dealing with an upper body injury that has been giving him trouble all year. He is day-to-day.

• Seattle was also missing forward Florian Baltram, who is off to join Team Austria for the World Junior Championships. Sunday was the last game Shea Theodore will play for Seattle before he heads off to Team Canada’s selection camp. If Theodore is selected for the team, Seattle won’t see him until after the new year.

• Theodore picked up another assist on Sunday and now is within six points of catching former T-Bird – and current New York Islander – Thomas Hickey for second on Seattle’s all-time defenseman scoring list.

• Ryan Gropp also had an assist and now has a modest four-game scoring streak going for himself.

• The Evan Wardley experiment at forward continues to be a big success. Before stepping in to play up front, Wardley only had two assists on the season. Since moving, he has five points in seven games and his two goals ties his career high.

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