Sunday, March 17, 2013

Okanogan Bound

The Thunderbirds finally know their first round playoff opponent. Seattle will meet the Kelowna Rockets in the best of seven series beginning this Friday at Prospera Place in Kelowna. The T-birds sewed up a meeting with the Rockets, and the seventh seed, by earning a point in the regular season finale, an exciting 6-5 shootout loss to Portland before an edge-of-your-seat crowd at the nearly sold out ShoWare Center. That, coupled with Everett's 4-3 overtime loss to Victoria, earned Seattle their first round match up with the B.C. Division Champions.

Interesting fact; over the past decade Seattle and Kelowna have met in the postseason twice and each time the series has gone the full seven games. Fourteen playoff games and the home team's record in that span? 4-10. That's right, the home team has won just four games over those two seven game series. Now, guess which key games the home team won? Both times it was game seven. In 2003 the Rockets won Game 7, to win that series, and then in 2008 Seattle turned the tables winning Game 7 at KeyArena. Should we expect another epic series? Why not.

The Thunderbirds showed true grit down the stretch of the 2012-13 regular season. It seemed every time they would have to rely on outside help to get into the playoffs or to secure their playoff position, they rose to the occassion and took matters into their own hands. They had two big road wins in the final couple of weeks. One in Kennewick and a second in Spokane. After a frustrating weekend, when they lost at home to Prince George and Everett and appeared to lose their stranglehold over control of their own destiny, they responded with a big win over Tri-City that clinched a playoff spot.

Then, last night, down a goal late against Portland, and after Everett earned a point at home against Victoria, the 'Birds stepped it up in the final minutes and got the tying goal, earning that single point that cemented them as the 7th seed. They thus avoided a waiting game until the results of Everett's final game Sunday. Now that game between the 'Tips and Tri-City is rendered moot. In their final 27 games (post 15 game losing streak), the Thunderbirds earned 24 points. That's why they're headed to the postseason.

Who would have thought, last June, when the T-birds made Latvian Roberts Lipsbergs the 60th pick of the CHL Import Draft, that nine months late he would be crowned the T-birds scoring champion of the 2012-13 season? Afterall, he was the second of Seattle's two import selections. Alexander Delnov, an NHL drafted player was chosen much higher. He capped a very solid rookie campaign with a four goal night. He's the first T-bird to register a 30 goal season since Burke Gallimore ended the 2010-11 campaign with 34. He's been a bit of a streaky goal scorer, but he is starting to heat up again, just in time for the playoffs, scoring six goals in this last three games.

A season ago just one Thunderbird player reached the 40-point mark and it was Gallimore with exactly 40 points on 22 goals and 18 assists. This season seven T-birds hit the 40 point mark (eight if you count Adam Kambeitz who got most of his points with Saskatoon before Seattle acquired him at the January trade deadline). Three players (Lipsbergs, Connor Honey and Shea Theodore) reached the 50 point plateau. The better news is that eight of Seattle's top ten scorers are eligible to return next season.

But we can put off wondering about next season for a while. The T-birds have a playoff series to prepare for. Seattle went 1-2-1-0 against the Rockets this season. They were seemingly on their way to finishing 2-2 against Kelowna but couldn't hold a 2-goal lead on home ice back on January 25th and lost, 4-3 in overtime, giving up the game tying goal with just two and a half minutes left in regulation. The 'Birds did defeat Kelowna, 4-2, at the ShoWare Center in early December and dropped a pair of road games at Prospera Place. With the exception of an 8-0 drubbing in Kelowna in late January, it was a competitive regular season series. In late February the T-birds lost in Kelowna, 4-1, but the Rockets last goal in that game was an empty netter and scoring chances in their game were fairly equal.

Nice finish to his regular season WHL and T-bird career for captain Luke Lockhart. With three assists last night (on Luke Lockhart Day in Kent, no less!), Lockhart put up 14 pts (7g,7a) and was +2 in his last ten games. Though he played over 150 of his home games at the ShoWare Center, when Luke leaves at the end of the T-birds playoff run, he will be the last T-bird player to have played a game at KeyArena, closing the book on that chapter of this franchise's history.

If you are wondering, now that the regular season is complete, The Thunderbirds will have the 8th, 22nd (from Portland in the Marcel Noebels trade last year) and 27th picks in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft. If they can repeat the haul they had with their top three picks last spring (Barzal, Kolesar and Bear), then they really are building something.

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