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Thunderbirds come back to win preseason opener against Vancouver

2019 first-round pick, Jordan Gustafson got into his first WHL preseason action Friday. (Brian Liesse)

EVERETT – The Seattle Thunderbirds opened their preseason schedule Friday morning against the Vancouver Giants with a young lineup and it would be one of those young players who came through in the end.

Rookie Lucas Ciona broke a 2-2 tie early in the third period with a highlight-reel goal to send Seattle to a 4-2 win at the Delta Hotels Preseason Classic. Ciona raced down the wing 1:33 into the third on a two-on-one. He looked off the defender, cut hard in front of the net, deked, and scored on the short side.

“Just a little backhand-forehand tap in, fell over the goalie after,” Ciona said. “It was kind of funny.”

Ciona was assessed a two-minute goalie interference penalty for hitting the goalie and it was one of three he took on the day.

“He’s a big powerful kid and when he’s playing at his best, there may be some penalties,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said of Ciona. “We understand that he’s a physical player. Hell of a goal on that play.”

Penalties were the theme of the day.

The teams combined for 16 minor penalties and power plays. Vancouver went 1-for-10 with the man advantage while the Thunderbirds were 1-for-6. The lack of production on the power play is not a cause for concern this early in the preseason as teams normally don’t spend much time in training camp on special teams.

With the parade to the penalty box, the game lacked any real flow.

“At this time of year that’s sometimes how the games go,” O’Dette said. “Not every team has their systems down and you have a lot of young kids playing.”

Seattle iced a young lineup Friday, including playing its two first-round draft picks, Jordan Gustofson, and Kevin Korchinski.

For both, it was their first feel for a WHL game.

Gustofson got a taste early on, in the first period. One that he says woke him up.

“I went out second shift and got rocked twice,” he said. “I kind of had to adjust from there. Definitely an eye-opener for me. It’s always good to get rocked in your first game, getting it out of the way and out of your system.”

Both players saw limited ice time with all the penalties as they didn’t see much time on either special teams.

Korchinski, a defenseman, was on the ice for one of Seattle’s goals and unofficially for three scoring chances for compared to two against. While he didn’t suffer a big hit like his counterpart, he noticed the uptick in hitting and enjoyed the action.

“It was fast-paced and a lot of fun,” he said. “Good to get my first game under my belt. It’s way more physical, they’re hitting.”

Vancouver took a 2-0 lead in the first period behind a power-play goal from Justin Sourdif and an unassisted tally from rookie John Little, who would end the game with two points.

Seattle fought back in the second.

First, it was Michael Horon on the power play. He slashed into the slot for a score, thanks to a good pass from Tyrel Bauer. Just over a minute later, Jared Davidson, who had a strong training camp, fired a wrist shot from a tight angle that beat Vancouver goalie Drew Sim.

That set up Ciona’s game-winner and an empty net, insurance goal from Brecon Wood.

“A big part of our focus today was to show our identity,” O’Dette said. “Do some of those little things, those gritty things that we appreciate. I thought a lot our guys did that. It’s nice to get a win, regardless.”

Thomas Milic got the start in net for the Thunderbirds and went the distance, stopping 29 of the 31 Giants shots that he saw. Seattle will be back in action Saturday afternoon, at 3 pm, against the Tri-City Americans.

Game Notes

• Seattle has more forwards on its roster than it has room for. O’Dette is using practice and the preseason to evaluate who will make the roster. He says the lack of five-on-five play made it somewhat tougher to judge but did mention a couple of guys who stood out.

“I thought Wood had a really good game,” he said. “I really liked the way (Sam) Popowich played. I felt comfortable putting him on the ice in important situations in the game. I thought all our guys did well and it’s nice to see that in the first game.”

• With it being the preseason, some guys were wearing numbers that they won’t wear during the regular season. That includes Ciona, who wore number 21 on Friday. It’s the number that Matthew Wedman has worn during his career in Seattle. He wants number 47 once the season starts, and was apprehensive to wear 21 on Friday.

“It was a little weird,” the big winger said. “I got there and saw the name sheet and I went to (Skill Development and Video Coach Jared Crooks) and (Equipment Manager Jorge Lopez) and said ‘can you change the number?’.”

• Seattle scratched a healthy amount of players Friday. The list included Reid Schaefer, Henrik Rybinski, Tyler Carpendale, Mekai Sanders, Andrej Kukuca, Payton Mount, Conner Roulette, Matthew Wedman, Brendan Williamson, Matthew Rempe, Simon Kubicek, Cade McNelly, Hunter Donohoe, and Blake Lyda.