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Thunderbirds still have work to do for playoff spot as stretch drive is here

With 17 games left on the schedule, the Seattle Thunderbirds need to finish strong to maintain their playoff position. (Brian Liesse/ Thunderbirds)

With 17 games left in the regular season the Seattle Thunderbirds are starting the busiest stretch of their schedule.

Starting Friday night in Everett the Thunderbirds will play four games in the next five days and seven over the next 10 days. They do so with what appears to be good positioning in the Western Conference playoff race.

Seattle stands nine points over the Prince George Cougars for the last wild card slot and three points behind the Kelowna Rockets for the top wild-card slot. The Thunderbirds have one game in hand with the Rockets.

The Thunderbirds still get to play Prince George – Feb. 23rd at the accesso ShoWare Center – and at the Rockets on March 7th. Those games will be four-point affairs but won’t be easy.

Head-to-head against Prince George, Seattle is 1-1-0-1 and has found scoring goals against Taylor Gauthier to be somewhat difficult. In three games, the Thunderbirds have scored seven goals, and just three in the last two meetings, despite outshooting the Cougars in each contest.

Things have been tougher against Kelowna.

Seattle is 0-2-1-0 against the Rockets and has been outscored 14-7. Those numbers may be misleading however as the two regulation losses against Kelowna were earlier in the season when the Thunderbirds young roster was still finding it’s footing in the WHL.

Looking at the Thunderbirds remaining schedule, it won’t be easy.

With five more games left against the U.S. Division and Western Conference leading Portland Winterhawks and three against the Everett Silvertips, the Thunderbirds are going to have to find a way to scrape out some points. Seattle has played Portland tough, with a 3-3-0-1 record – all three wins via the shootout — but Everett has been a tougher matchup. The Thunderbirds are 2-4-1-0 against the Silvertips and have been shut out three times while being outscored 24-10.

Seattle still has four matchups with the Vancouver Giants this season starting with a home-and-home series Saturday and Monday. The defending Western Conference Champions started the season inconsistently, but they’ve found their footing and have not lost in regulation over their last eight games.

The team trailing, Prince George, doesn’t have it much easier. The Cougars still have ten games left between the Kamloops Blazers, Victoria Royals, Kelowna, and Vancouver – all teams ahead of them in the B.C. Division standings.

Making the journey tougher for Seattle is the injury bug.

The Thunderbirds will be without top center Henrik Rybinski over the next week at least. The Florida Panthers prospect was injured Saturday night against Everett and is listed as out two-to-three weeks with a lower-body injury.

That will be a big loss for Seattle.

His 30 points will be missed of course but Rybinski plays heavy minutes for head coach Matt O’Dette and provides more than just scoring. He is the pivot on the top line, plays on both the power play and penalty kill and is a ferocious forechecker who can set the tone for what the Thunderbirds want to do.

Someone will have to step up.

Sunday against Prince George, Jared Davidson played between Conner Roulette and Keltie Jeri-Leon in Rybinski’s place. Davidson, 17, has been playing well of late and O’Dette may tap him to fill in the Rybinski role. He has scored a pair of goals in his last five games while winning 58-percent of his faceoffs playing center the last two games.

Along with Davidson, Seattle will need its veteran players like Andrej Kukuca, Conner Bruggen-Cate, Max Patterson and Jeri-Leon to raise their games a notch and lead the way.

The Thunderbirds offense has been inconsistent this season. However, it has improved as the season has progressed. Over the last seven games, they’ve averaged 3.14 games per game which is above their season-long average of 2.86. Seattle has given up nearly the same number of goals as it’s scored of late and that tightening their own end could be the key to making the playoffs.

With the stretch drive here, Seattle is in a good position, but a playoff spot is far from a guarantee. Every night will have a playoff feel as the Thunderbirds need points any way they can find them.