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Thunderbirds blaze past Kamloops for opening night win

Seattle goalie Roddy Ross made a career-best 50 saves to lead the Thunderbirds to an opening night win. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

KENT – New faces, new lines, no problem for the Seattle Thunderbirds Saturday night as they opened the 2019-2020 season in fine fashion.

Playing with a lineup featuring five rookies and four other players making their regular-season debut with the Thunderbirds, Seattle blitzed the visiting Kamloops Blazers in the first period for three scores and would hold on to pick up a 4-1 win at the accesso ShoWare Center.

After going up 3-0 in the first and outshooting Kamloops 18-6, it looked like it was going to be an easy night for Seattle (1-0-0-0). However, Kamloops (0-2-0-0) would push the pace for large portions of the remaining time and the Thunderbirds relied on a career-high 50 saves from goalie Roddy Ross.

“Roddy was great,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said. “Every game is a learning experience. Loved the first and there are some teaching points that can be made the rest of the way on how to protect the lead, keep the momentum on your side. We’ll tackle that this week.”

Ross wasn’t challenged much in the first as Seattle unofficially out-chanced Kamloops 12-2. In the second, Ross, who was playing his first game since returning from Philadelphia Flyers camp, kicked out 21 Blazers attempts.

He would have to stop 22 more in the third and as usual, Ross wasn’t fazed.

“Throughout the whole third period I didn’t look at the thing,” Ross said about the shot clock. “When I came (in the room) I heard one of the guys say ’50 saves’. Awesome. I don’t really worry about that stuff too much, as long as we get the W.”

O’Dette deployed new lines and it was one of those lines that came up big to start.

Henrik Rybinski centered a line with Andrej Kukuca and Conner Bruggen-Cate.

Rybinski would pick up an assist while Kukuca scored a goal and had an assist, all in the first period. But the line did more than contribute to goals. They controlled the puck.

At even strength, with Rybinski on the ice, the Thunderbirds had 18 shot attempts compared to 12 from Kamloops. The three were dangerous, despite never having played in a game together and only practicing for a week.

“We bonded pretty good,” Rybinski said. “Me and Andrej had some chemistry last year and Bruggy fit in with our line pretty good.”

Jared Davidson started the Thunderbirds goal-scoring 10:15 into the game when he beat Kamloops goalie Dylan Garand from a short angle. That gave Seattle momentum and they’d add two more goals – off the sticks of Kukuca and newcomer Alex Morozoff.

The Thunderbirds would start the second by taking penalties and end up short-handed three times and the Blazers began the third by scoring a goal on a carry-over power play when Zane Franklin got one past Ross.

Despite being outshot 23-9 in the third, Seattle would get a big insurance goal from Payton Mount.

The 2017 first-round pick got the puck from Michael Horon at center ice and broke in one a two-on-one. He snapped a shot past Garand for his first of the year, continuing the strong preseason he had.

“I saw the puck go up the wall to Mikey and saw the D-Man was pinching down,” Mount said of the goal. “I just called for it, he made a really nice pass. Davidson was on my left, but the D was playing him, so I took the shot. It worked out.”

The set up would be the second of two assists for Horon on the night, the first two points in his WHL career.

As he did all preseason, Mount played center on Saturday, after playing exclusively on the wing last year. He wasn’t the only one, as Rybinski also moved to center for the first time since joining the Thunderbirds.

“They were good,” O’Dette said. “Both good players who can adapt to different positions. There’s some fine-tuning to be done. They’re relatively new to the position…there’s some details defensively that can be cleaned up but with (Matthew Wedman) missing we needed someone to step up, and they did.”

Mount ended the night with the goal, was plus-one, and was 6-for-15 on faceoffs. Rybinski, who played center before last season, would pick up the assist, get two shots off, and won 7 of the 13 faceoffs he took.

He only played once in the preseason before heading to Florida for his first NHL camp, but showed that he can play in the middle.

“I touched the puck a lot more and made some plays,” Rybinski said of playing center. “D-Zone needs some work but that will come with conditioning. Some stuff I had forgotten, and I just need to get back into the routine. It’s a lot more skating.”

With its first win in the books, Seattle will now have a week off before its next game, Friday night, when the Tri-City Americans come to the ShoWare Center.

Game Notes

• Saturday was the season debut of two of Seattle’s highly regarded 16-year-old rookies. Conner Roulette and Lucas Ciona both played on a line centered by Davidson and were noticeable. They were active on the forecheck and created three good scoring chances, including Ciona sending Roulette in on a breakaway where only the post kept him from scoring.

“They were good,” O’Dette said of his rookies. “I felt comfortable putting them on the ice at any time. They were buzzing, winning their matchups when they were out there and creating scoring opportunities.”

• Seattle defenseman Simon Kubicek ended the night with two assists.

• Kamloops was 1-for-5 on the power play while the Thunderbirds failed on their only attempt in the game.

• Playing in his fifth WHL game, defenseman Luke Bateman had a strong game and O’Dette showed confidence in him by using him on the penalty kill.

“That’s going to be one of his fortes,” O’Dette said of the 6-foot-6 rookie. “Big body, big reach. He can read plays pretty well and block shots when he needs to. That will be a good way for him to get some ice time and get some momentum going.”