WHL Playoffs: Seattle Thunderbirds versus Vancouver Giants series at a glance
For just the second time in the history of the two franchises, the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Vancouver Giants will meet in the Western Hockey League’s post season. The first-round, best-of-seven tilt gets underway Friday night at the Langley Events Centre.
The two clubs met in the 2007 playoffs but have avoided each other since. This match up is technically a one versus eight clash but it has the potential to be one that goes a full seven games.
Vancouver won the B.C. Division after leading it from start to finish. The Giants went on a run down the stretch to catch, and pass, the Everett Silvertips for the top spot in the west during the season’s final weekend. Head coach Michael Dyck was this week named the Western Conference’s coach of the year and defenseman Bowen Byram, a top 2019 NHL Draft prospect, was named to the conference’s first-team all stars.
“They’re fast and top to bottom they’ve got a lot of guys that can skate,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette says about the Giants. “They win a lot of races and put a lot of pressure on teams, all over the ice. We’ll need to match their speed and be able to make reads quickly. They’re on top of you fast.”
The Thunderbirds turned their season around in the beginning of January after a series of trades from general manager Bil La Forge. They started the calendar year dead last in the Western Conference but thanks to a 20-9-2-1 second-half record, against tough competition, and a 7-1-1-1 finish down the stretch, were able to secure the second wild card spot in the Western Conference.
Here’s a look at how the two teams match up:
Vancouver Giants (48-15-3-2, 1st Place B.C. Division, Western Conference) vs Seattle Thunderbirds (31-29-6-2, 5th place U.S. Division, second wild card)
Vancouver key players: Bowen Byram, D, (26g, 45a, 71p), Milos Roman, C, (27g, 33a, 60p, 2018 Calgary Flames fourth-round pick), Trent Miner, G, (32 gp, 1.98 GAA, .924 SV%), David Tendeck, G, (38 gp, 2.48 GAA, .911 SV%, 2018 Arizona Coyotes sixth-round pick)
Seattle key players: Matthew Wedman, C, (40g, 37a, 77p), Noah Philp, C, (26g, 49a, 75p), Nolan Volcan, LW, (27g, 30a, 57p), Roddy Ross (25 gp, 2.76 GAA, .919 SV%)
Special teams: Vancouver: Power play (24.6%, 4th), Penalty Kill (84.9%, 2nd), Seattle: Power play (20.6%, 13th), Penalty Kill (75.1%, 20th)
Up front, the Giants don’t feature any superstars but have four forwards who topped the 20-goal plateau this season. Calgary Flames prospect Milos Roman leads the way along with top-line winger Davis Koch (28g, 50a, 78p). The Giants top six has speed to kill and are opportunistic in their scoring, as Seattle witnessed in its March 12th, 5-1 loss at home to Vancouver. The speed and depth up front for the Giants will be a test for Seattle’s younger defensive corps.
Seattle’s top-six forwards should match up well with Vancouver. Center Matthew Wedman will look to continue his breakout season and along with Nolan Volcan and Henrik Rybinski, form a tough top line. Noah Philp has flown under the radar this season but will log a ton of ice time in this series. He makes his linemates better and will play in all situations for the Thunderbirds. If the two top-six groups end up being a wash, whichever team can squeeze some secondary scoring from their bottom six will have an advantage.
The blue line talk starts with Bowen Byram for Vancouver. Considered to be a top-five draft prospect, the highly skilled defenseman is exciting to watch and dangerous to play against. He is second on the Giants score sheet and is aggressive in the offensive end. He’ll activate into the rush, pinch without fear and jump into open spots in the offensive zone.
“He’s always involved the play,” O’Dette says of Byram. “I think all their D have a mentality of being active so it’s not just him you have to worry about. He’s a dynamic player and a guy that we have to obviously be aware of.”
The Giants are one of the league’s top defensive clubs overall and as O’Dette says, its not just Byram. Dylan Plouffe and Washington Capitals prospect Alex Kannok Liepert are solid players who can also chip in offensively.
Seattle’s defense has relied on youngsters all year. Langley native Jarret Tyszka is the dean of the bunch and the 19-year-old Montreal Canadiens prospect has been a calming force for the Thunderbirds since he returned from injury midway through the year. This series may come down to how well younger players like Jake Lee, Simon Kubicek and Tyrel Bauer handle the pressure of the playoffs, as well as the speed that the Giants have up front.
Any team that ends up on top of a conference is going to have good goaltending. The Giants don’t just have one top goalie, they have two. David Tendeck and Trent Minor have appeared in 38 and 32 games respectively and give the Giants the league’s top tandem. Tendeck started in three of the four regular season games against Seattle and has a few more playoff games under his belt but it’s not clear how Dyck will choose to deploy the two in this series.
“I think they’re both excellent goalies,” O’Dette said. “One’s a lefty, one’s a righty so that’s going to be something to think about. Just like with any good goalies, we know that we need to get traffic. That’s the old cliché. These guys are good, and we’ll have to make it difficult for them.”
For Seattle, goalie Roddy Ross has been a sensation. After being put on Seattle’s protected list at the start of the year, Ross signed with the club on New Year’s Day. He’s taken over the Seattle crease since and backstopped the Thunderbirds to a 16-5-1-2 record. The 18-year-old will be making his WHL playoff debut but has come up big against the league’s top teams. He won in Prince Albert against the Raiders and has a couple wins over Everett on his mantle as well. His calm demeanor on and off the ice suggests that the post season grind won’t have an affect on the mental side of his game.
The Giants excel with both special teams units and have an advantage here. In the last regular season meeting between these two they scored twice on the power play while killing off five Thunderbirds attempts. Koch, Byram and Roman are the big three when Vancouver has the man advantage. Together they have scored 29 of the Giants’ 61 power-play goals.
Seattle’s power-play unit is ranked 13th overall but has been on a tear in the second half. In their last 34 games, the Thunderbirds power-play has converted at a 24.2-percent clip, which would put them at the same level as the Giants. While short-handed the Thunderbirds haven’t fared as well and are ranked near the bottom of the league’s penalty kill statistics. Discipline will be key for Seattle. The Thunderbirds will have to avoid after-the-whistle penalties and five-on-three situations, which it seems they find themselves in often. If the Thunderbirds are going to pull off the series win, they will have to limit the number of Vancouver looks on the power play.