Thunderbirds douse Blazers 3-1
KENT – The Western Hockey League schedule has reached the point where every game has a playoff feel to it.
That was the case Wednesday night as the Thunderbirds hosted the Kamloops Blazers in a tight-checking game where room on the ice was at a premium.
Seattle (28-19-3-0) grinded out a solid performance to beat the Blazers 3-1 behind 28 Landon Bow saves and two goals from Keegan Kolesar. It was the T-Birds’ second win in a row as they kept pace with Everett in the U.S. Division race.
Head coach Steve Konowalchuk has been looking for his team to play consistent and desperate hockey. He got that Wednesday and this time of the season demands it.
“We have to (play that way),” Kolesar said after Wednesday’s win. “We have division-rival games coming up. We’ve got a lot of Everett and a lot of Portland and we’re all fighting for playoff spots … it’s time for everyone to step up.”
Kolesar has been one of the guys stepping it up of late. The two markers on Wednesday give him seven over his last seven games and a team-best 26 on the year.
He got Seattle on the board in the first period when Ethan Bear found him the high slot for a power-play tally.
“It’s a confidence kind of thing,” Kolesar of his scoring of late. “In hockey, sometimes you go through ups and downs. I don’t think I was scoring a lot in December and into January and now it’s clicking. I think its just my mindset of just putting pucks on net.”
The T-Birds have also been looking to crash the net more and Wednesday their fourth line did that for the second straight game.
With a one-goal lead in the second period, the line of Matthew Wedman, Andreas Schumacher and Josh Uhrich scored a “greasy” goal for the second straight game. They crashed the net and caused havoc in front of Kamloops goalie Connor Ingram.
With bodies everywhere, Wedman picked up a loose puck and potted it for his sixth goal of the season.
“They’re winning their shift,” Konowalchuk said. “They’re playing with a lot of energy, tilting the ice in our favor. That’s huge. They’re doing a good job and any time the fourth line gets a goal, there’s a good chance you’re going to win the game.”
With a two-goal lead, the T-Birds relied on Bow, their defense and a penalty-kill unit that is the best in the league.
Seattle has only allowed three power-play goals against in its last 53 penalty kills over a 12-game period. The T-Birds killed off all four Kamloops chances Wednesday night.
“Just being aggressive when you’re out there,” defenseman Turner Ottenbreit said of the key to the penalty kill. “If you see a chance to jump, jump. If it’s your turn to block a big shot, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
The T-Birds’ penalty kill is clicking at an 85.6 percent rate and is giving the team a ton of confidence.
“It’s nice to know you can get it done when you need to,” Konowalchuk said. “There’s more to it than just killing the penalties. You want to limit it to one or two or three. If you’re killing, you’re not on the attack.”
Overall, the T-Birds’ defense played another solid game. They gave up 29 shots but most were to the outside and the Blazers didn’t have too many dangerous chances.
There are only two teams in the Western Conference – Everett and Victoria – that have allowed fewer goals as Seattle continues to play strong defense.
Even with the loss of Jerret Smith to injury Saturday night, the T-Birds have only allowed one goal in their last two contests. Wednesday night they deployed a mix of defensive pairings that included the newly-signed Jared Pelechaty.
“Just keeping it simple,” Ottenbreit said of the defense. “With Smitty going down there other guys need to step up, like Schuldhaus and Allbee. They’re stepping up and filling those shoes and we’re just working together and winning battles.”
Kamloops (23-20-5-3) cut the Seattle lead to one 20 seconds into the third period when Matt Needham wheeled around the Seattle net and and fired a tough shot that Bow could not get to.
“I think they pushed back a bit,” Konowalchuk said. “You’re down 2-0 they had to get something going. Then they score right away in the third, but I thought we buckled down after that to make sure we got the job done.”
That gave the Blazers a bit of life and they pushed hard for the equalizer, but the T-Birds held them off. Kolesar hit the empty net late to seal the deal for the T-Birds.
Things don’t get easier for Seattle as Wednesday was the first of five games in seven nights. The T-Birds have a big weekend as they will travel to Portland Friday and then host Everett in a big matchup Saturday at the ShoWare Center.
“Huge weekend,” Konowalchuk said. “We talk about every game being big the rest of the year, the way this whole side is.”
• Gropp had an assist on each of Kolesar’s goals to extend his point streak to seven games and he has points in 11 of his last 12 contests.
• The team did not disclose any diagnosis to Smith’s injury. He was listed on the WHL Weekly report as “TBD” so it’s still unknown how long he is expected to be out of the lineup. Smith was injured this past Saturday after being hit from behind by Everett Remi Laurencelle. The WHL suspended Laurencelle three games and his first game back will be Saturday against the T-Birds.
• How good has the T-Birds’ penalty kill been? Over their current 12-game stretch, they’ve allowed three power-play goals and have scored three short-handed goals. Essentially, their penalty kill is even over the last 12.
• While Seattle kept pace with Everett, it did gain some ground on Portland. The Winterhawks fell to Everett Wednesday night and trail Seattle by seven points and Spokane by three. Tri-City is putting pressure on Portland and is within four points for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Follow Andy Eide on Twitter @andyeide.