Thunderbirds beat Tri-City in overtime, head into holiday break hot
Throwing rookie Conner Roulette on the ice in clutch moments is paying off for the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Tuesday night in Kennewick, Roulette hopped over the boards in overtime and broke down the ice with Henrik Rybinski on a two-on-one rush. The rookie flipped the puck to Rybinski who buried it for his sixth of the year to give Seattle a 4-3 road win over the Tri-City Americans at the Toyota Center.
“He’s calm and cool,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said of Roulette. “I think he does get nervous, but he channels it the right way and you’d never tell from the outside he’s nervous. He’s in the zone right now, he’s got some elite hockey sense. I think getting more games under his belt in the league has made him more comfortable and he’s having success.”
With the win, Seattle (12-17-2-1) pulled to within one point of Tri-City (12-14-3-1) for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings and head into the holiday break winning three of its last four games.
After scoring twice in Sunday’s win at Portland, including a shootout winner, Roulette scored his ninth goal in the first period Tuesday while adding two assists.
The 16-year-old started the year hot, recording a hat trick in his fifth game of the year. He then went nine games without recording a point but since returning from playing for Team Canada at the U17’s and being put on a line with Rybinski, he’s caught fire.
In the last nine games, he’s scored five times and recorded seven assists.
“He’s not satisfied and wants to improve his game,” O’Dette added. “He knows there are some areas he can improve and he’s always doing things like video and other things to improve. He just loves to play hockey and it’s refreshing to have kids like that, we have a bunch of them.”
Playing with Rybinski has helped.
The Florida Panthers prospect scored the game-winner Tuesday and added an assist. He, along with Keltie Jeri-Leon, have meshed well with Roulette and given the Thunderbirds the top line they’d been searching for since the start of the season.
O’Dette started the overtime with Rybinski and Roulette and finished it with them.
“They’ve got chemistry,” O’Dette said. “They’ve got similar vision where they can read where each other is on the ice. They’re feeling it right now and it’s good for our team.”
It was that top trio that opened the scoring 6:34 into the first period Tuesday.
Rybinski got it low to Roulette who found Jeri-Leon in the slot for his 10th of the season – the first Thunderbird to reach double digits in goals. That same line would be out in the ice seven minutes later and strike again as Roulette tipped in a point shot.
The three each had a goal and added four assists while firing 16 of Seattle’s 44 shots at Americans goalie Beck Warm.
With a 2-0 lead, the Thunderbirds let Tri-City crawl back in the game. The home team tied it up with a late first-period goal from Sasha Mutala and a late second-period goal from Mark Lajole.
It had the chance to be a frustrating night.
The Thunderbirds dominated puck possession and outshot the Americans 17-7 in the second period and 14-6 in the third. They missed chances, hit posts, or were stopped by Warm and despite the heavy disparity in the shot clock, couldn’t shake the Americans.
“It would have been nice to cash in on our chances, I think we had a ton of them,” O’Dette said. “Would have made it less hairy but it definitely feels good to get the win.
“Just stick to it, eventually you’re going to get a bounce or a break. The goalie can’t save everything if you keep putting chances on him. ‘Rybie cashing in at the end, he had a lot of chances himself but stuck to it and got rewarded.”
Seattle didn’t flinch after Tri-City tied it. The Thunderbirds went ahead midway through the third on a goal from Jared Davidson from the half wall. But, Tri-City would equal that goal with a marker from Paycen Bjorklund to set up overtime.
Earlier in the year the young Thunderbirds struggled with momentum shifts but managed the swings Tuesday, kept pushing and got a big win.
“We kept pushing,” O’Dette said. “Something we’ve been working on is staying more composed, focusing on your next shift, there’s nothing you can do about the past. I think that’s been improving over the last several games.”
The last several games have been good, and the Thunderbirds ended the unofficial first half of the season playing their best hockey.
After Tuesday the team will disperse home throughout Western Canada for the holidays. They’ll return after Christmas to prepare for a second-half playoff push, starting Dec. 27th with a home game against the Spokane Chiefs.
“I think it feels good to be playing well going into the break, it makes for a nicer break,” O’Dette said. “For our young team, we’ve played a lot of hockey here and it’s good for the young guys to get some rest, see their families and recharge. They’ll come back with more juice in their tanks and feel rejuvenated.”
• Tuesday was Seattle’s first overtime win this season after losing the previous two.
• Roddy Ross picked up his 10th win of the season on 19 saves.
• Luke Bateman had two assists on Tuesday for his first multi-point game in the WHL.
• Seattle was 0-for-4 on the power play, dropping their league-worst road power play to 1-for-67. That number is confounding considering the Thunderbirds have the fifth-best power play at home.