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Down three goals, Thunderbirds come back to earn point in shootout loss

Cade McNelly celebrates his second period goal that sparked a comeback for the Seattle Thunderbirds Saturday night. (Brian Liesse/T-Birds)

KENT – For about 48 minutes of Saturday’s game against the Portland Winterhawks, the Seattle Thunderbirds controlled the play.

Over that time frame, the Thunderbirds scored five goals and had the better of the play at five-on-five. The problem for the Thunderbirds is that in the other 12 minutes Portland blitzed them for five goals of its own to build a 5-2 lead. Seattle fought back to force overtime but Portland would go on to prevail 6-5 in a shootout.

“We dug deep, scratched and clawed our way back which definitely is not easy to do against that team,” Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette said. “It shows our character and I think the last couple games, dating back to last Sunday, we’ve got our formula for a big chunk of the game and then we stray from it for maybe about 10 to 15 percent of the game and against good teams that’s enough to not get the job done.”

Payton Mount led the Thunderbirds with a pair of goals and an assist while Matthew Rempe and Cade McNelly each chipped in with a goal and assist. Portland (34-6-2-3) got a big night from Seth Jarvis, who scored twice with a couple of assists as the Winterhawks converted for two power-play goals and a short-handed goal in the win.

For the Winterhawks, the win extended their streak of games with a point to 21 and they moved to 11 points ahead of Everett for first place in the U.S. Division.

The point Seattle earned moved it to eight points ahead of the Tri-City Americans for the final wild-card spot in the West.

Seattle (18-22-3-2) lost its second straight game in overtime but Saturday felt different than Friday’s loss in Kelowna. Saturday, the Thunderbirds erased a three-goal deficit to earn the point. It was the first time all season that they had come back from that many goals.

“Disappointing that we didn’t finish the deal both nights,” O’Dette said. “At this time of the season, scraping together any kind of points is big. And especially against good teams. Kelowna got some guys back and that wasn’t an easy game and then a team with a 20-game point streak…we’ll take that as a positive.”

The Thunderbirds built a first-period lead with a heavy forecheck on goals by Matthew Rempe – his sixth of the year – and Mount’s first of the night. Seattle was up 2-1 and earned a power-play with a chance to extend its lead in the first.

Andrej Kukuca would beat Portland goalie Joel Hofer with a shot from the slot but the puck rang off the post and out. Moments later, Portland would steal the puck and Jaydon Dureau would streak down the ice and beat Roddy Ross for a short-handed goal to tie it.

The momentum swung and the Winterhawks would add three more scores, two from Jarvis – the latter of which was a spectacular highlight-reel goal – to give him 26 on the season.

“We turned some pucks over and turned into the track meet for a while,” O’Dette said. “One of our keys was keeping it five-on-five and we gave up a shortie, which you don’t want to do, and then took a penalty that they cashed in on. In the blink of an eye, we were down two goals. It’s part of the process for a young team when things aren’t going our way we can’t veer from the plan.”

Portland extended its lead with another blink of an eye to start the second period on a power-play goal from New York Islanders prospect Reece Newkirk.

Down 5-2 the Thunderbirds got back to their formula.

They started getting the puck deep, forechecking and creating turnovers and chances in the Portland end.

McNelly would spark Seattle with his second goal of the year on a wrist shot from the high slot at 6:50 of the period. The Thunderbirds would follow that up with a power-play goal from Mount, his second of the night and 10th on the year.

Hofer would then misplay a dump in during the waning seconds of the period and Simon Kubicek would poke the loose puck in to tie the game, ignite the crowd, and send the teams to the intermission tied at 5-5.

The two clubs would play to a standstill in the third, although both goaltenders had to make big saves. Seattle killed off two Portland power plays in the third, including one late in the game.

“When you take (a penalty) with 2:46 left, all that hard work and battling to get back in the game can slip away which would have left a pretty bad taste in the mouth,” O’Dette said. “I think the guys dug in there, we bent but didn’t break.”

Neither team scored in the overtime, despite a Seattle power-play chance, and the Winterhawks would convert on two of their shootout attempts while all three Thunderbirds shooters were stopped by Hofer to give the visitors the win.

It was a game that counts as a fourth straight loss for the Thunderbirds but one that showed the young team has grown. Earlier in the year, momentum swings like the one in the first period would end up being too much to overcome.

Saturday they not only overcame it but fought back against the best team in the WHL.

“I think over the course of the year we’ve learned to hold our composure a lot better,” O’Dette said. “We’re never out of the fight and keep chipping away. Give Roddy some credit, he made some big saves there to not let that sixth one in. It’s junior hockey and anything can happen so you keep yourself in the fight.”

Game Notes

• The two points picked up by McNelly Saturday was the first multi-point game of his career. The 17-year-old defenseman played a strong game at both ends of the ice.

• Kubicek was the third Seattle shooter in the shootout and was stopped. It was the first time he had failed to convert this season. Coming into Saturday, the Czech defenseman was 2-for-2 with scores against Portland and Red Deer.

• After being on their heels in the first period, the Thunderbirds would end the night with 53-percent of the shot attempts while playing five-on-five.

• Saturday was the third time that Seattle and Portland decided a game via the shootout. The Thunderbirds had won the previous two.