Thunderbirds shut down Americans in 3-1 win

Dec 6, 2014, 2:01 AM | Updated: 1:18 pm
Scott Allan and Florian Baltram double team Tri City’s Justin Gutierrez in Seattle’s 3-...
Scott Allan and Florian Baltram double team Tri City's Justin Gutierrez in Seattle's 3-1 win Friday. (T-Birds photo)
(T-Birds photo)

KENT – In most sports, a solid defense will take you a long way. The Seattle Thunderbirds have been a good defensive club all year, and Friday night may have been their best defensive performance to date.

Seattle beat the Tri City Americans 3-1 by playing a strong and suffocating defense while picking up some timely scoring. It may have been one of the team’s most complete games of the year.

“Pretty solid game,” head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Guys were ready to play and for the most part we were sticking to the system.”

The T-Birds (12-12-2-2) stifled the Americans all night, limiting them to only 18 shots – a season-low allowed by Seattle – while Taran Kozun made 17 saves to guide home the victory.

“I think our D are solid with good battle and good gap,” Konowalchuk said. “We have every line back-checking hard. We have five guys committed to doing what it takes in the defensive zone.”

Seattle set the tone early in a dominant first period that saw it build a lead and take an early 8-1 shots on goal advantage. The Thunderbirds would end the period outshooting Tri City 10-6 as they kept control of the puck and hemmed the Americans (15-13-0-0) in their own end.

Offensively, the T-Birds were paced by two players who have been red hot of late. Defensemen Ethan Bear scored his third goal in his last four games early in the first. Seattle was on a 5-on-3 power play when Shea Theodore floated a pass to him that he blasted past Tri City goalie Eric Comrie.

“I feel it’s going good,” Bear said. “I’m just getting shots on net and just making sure I’m ready to go each game.”

It was Bear’s fourth straight game with a point as he is starting to provide Seattle with much needed secondary scoring. Seattle ended the night 1-for-2 on the power play.

Six minutes later another hot player extended the T-Birds lead. Ryan Gropp stole the puck deep in the Tri City zone, turned and snapped a quick shot that Comrie wasn’t ready for.

The unassisted goal was Gropp’s third in the last two games as he has caught fire after a seven-game goal-scoring drought. He now leads the T-Birds with 13 goals on the year.

“I think I went through a little bit of a slump the last couple of games,” Gropp said. “Got it going last game and I’m trying to keep it going. Big win for us.”

With Mathew Barzal still out, getting Gropp going is big for Seattle.

“(He’s) stronger on pucks,” Konowalchuk said of Gropp. “Big thing for him is being stronger on pucks. He’s doing that and he’s confident to shoot right now. He’s got a pretty good shot.”

Seattle extended its lead 47 seconds into the second period when Jerret Smith glided into the Tri City zone and beat Comrie with a screened wrist shot. Comrie, who leaves for Team Canada’s World Junior camp next week, made 22 saves on the night and kept the game from getting out of hand for the Americans.

Getting a big lead against a top goalie like Comrie is huge.

“It’s big against that goaltender there,” Konowalchuk said. “He’s a good goaltender and you can see a lot of saves he made to keep it tight so you want to get a lead against him and make that team chase.”

The T-Birds had been struggling with their discipline and getting in penalty trouble over the past month. They improved that on Friday night as they didn’t take a penalty until late in the second period and only had three minor penalties called on them in total.

“That’s where we like to be,” Konowalchuk said of the penalties. “They weren’t undisciplined penalties, they were penalties that happen in a game.”

On the night they went short-handed three times and didn’t allow a power-play goal for the first time in six contests.

Down three goals, the Americans got one back late in the second period when Mitch Topping snapped a shot that beat Kozun on the glove side. From there the T-Birds clamped down and steered home their third win in their last four games.

Friday’s game was the first in another three-in-three weekend as the T-Birds will be back on home ice Saturday night when they host the Central Division-leading Medicine Hat Tigers. They will then wrap up the weekend with a road game in Spokane.

Notes

• Shea Theodore picked up an assist on Ethan Bear’s first-period goal. It was career point 169 for the Anaheim Ducks prospect. That puts Theodore eight points behind Thomas Hickey for second in the club’s all-time defensemen scoring. Theodore is 17 points away from catching Craig Channell for the top spot. He already is the franchise leader in goals by a defenseman with 46.

• Evan Wardley played his fourth game as a winger Friday night. Once again he was a physical presence and had the attention of the Tri City defensemen. His size caused the Americans to give the puck up early and he forced several turnovers. Might he be at forward to stay? “We’re just going to take care of tomorrow and then we’ll see where we are at,” Konowalchuk said about Wardley’s position.

• Konowalchuk said that Danny Mumaugh will get the start on Saturday night against Medicine Hat. This will be Mumaugh’s fifth start of the season as he once again draws a tough opponent. By facing the Tigers, Mumaugh will have started against three of the four division leaders, having previously started against Brandon and Kelowna. Konowalchuk said that the rotation has a lot to do with the schedule and is a sign that the team has absolute faith in the 18-year-old goalie.

• Speaking of goalies, Taran Kozun is quietly having a monster year. The 20-year-old is now tops in the WHL with a 2.19 goals-against-average and only Tri City’s Eric Comrie and Swift Current’s Landon Bow have a better save percentage than Kozun’s .920 mark.

• With the T-Birds win they gained ground on the rest of the U.S. Division. All four of the other clubs lost Friday night and Seattle is now only five points behind second place Portland, with three games in hand.

Follow Andrew Eide on Twitter @andyeide.

Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge has some moves to make this offseason. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds photo)...
Andy Eide

Thunderbirds GM Bil La Forge dishes on the upcoming offseason

Thunderbirds general manager Bil La Forge will make some moves this summer to improve his club. Will they be big ones?
1 year ago
Seattle’s Keltie Jeri-Leon celebrates his final WHL goal Sunday against Spokane. (Brian Liess...
Andy Eide

Thunderbirds end strange and hard season on a high note with dominating win over Spokane

The Seattle Thunderbirds dealt with a lot of adversity this season but end on a high note.
1 year ago
Keltie Jeri-Leon plays his final WHL game for the Thunderbirds Sunday night. (Brian Liesse)...
Andy Eide

Keltie Jeri-Leon set to play his final WHL game as Thunderbirds face Spokane Sunday

After five seasons, Seattle's lone over-aged player, Keltie Jeri-Leon will play his final junior game Sunday night.
1 year ago
Seattle rookie Scott Ratzlaff won his first WHL game in his first start. (Judy Simpson/TC Americans...
Andy Eide

Scott Ratzlaff earns first WHL win as Thunderbirds beat Tri-City

Behind a rookie goalie, the Thunderbirds kicked off the season's final weekend with a 5-2 win in Kennewick against the Tri-City Americans.
1 year ago
The Seattle Thunderbirds celebrate after snapping a six-game losing streak Sunday night. (Brian Lie...
Andy Eide

Thunderbirds enjoy winning again after snapping six-game losing streak

The Seattle Thunderbirds have been scuffling but battled against a good Portland Winterhawks club to snap a six-game losing streak.
1 year ago
Thunderbirds forward Reid Schaefer fights for position Sunday in Portland. (Megan Connelly/Winterha...
Andy Eide

Dealing with adversity, young Thunderbirds drop pair of games in Portland

Injuries and penalties have thrown a ton of adversity at the young Thunderbirds which showed up in a pair of losses at Portland this weekend.
1 year ago
Thunderbirds shut down Americans in 3-1 win