Is the theme for the Thunderbirds return to the playoffs "Turn Back the Clock"? It was like deja vu' as the T-birds captured the first two games of their first round, best of seven, series on the road in Kelowna. It was like the spring of 2005 all over again. That year the T-birds did the same thing to start the Western Conference Semifinals against the Rockets.
Only this time, it wasn't Bryan Bridges in goal, it was Brandon Glover and it wasn't Scott Jackson or Ladislav Scurko with a late game winning goal, it was Luke Lockhart and Alexander Delnov. Now, the 'Birds must rewrite the rest of the script because in 2005, even though they won three road games, they failed to win a home game and lost that series in seven games.
I'd agree with the arguement that Kelowna has not played their best hockey through the first two games of this series, but please credit the T-birds for causing some of that. Meanwhile, I can also argue the T-birds haven't played their best hockey in this series yet either. There has been some poor puck management at times with too many neutral zone turnovers. We'll give Kelowna some credit for that too. Early penalty trouble in both games had them on their heels in the first period both nights as well. Stellar goaltending by Glover and excellent penalty killing kept Seattle within striking distance.
In overtime of Game 1 I thought the Rockets played tentative. Maybe it was the pressure of being expected to win and being on home ice, but I thought they played "not to lose" and the 'Birds took advantage, stormed the citadel and got the late game winner. I also thought Seattle's conditioning gave them the endurance to get stronger as that game went longer.
Overtime in Game 2 was different. The Rockets came out pushing the tempo with an air of desparation. Seattle's defense, led by Glover in goal, bent but did not break. After weathering the first couple of shifts the T-birds got their overtime legs under them and pushed back for the winning goal.
The Thunderbirds roster is made up of players with little to no WHL playoff experience. On a playoff roster consisting of 23 players, just 79 games of postseason experience spread among seven players (Seth Swenson with 26 has 1/3rd of those games). Among their defensemen, only Jesse Forsberg (4 games two years ago) had any playoff experience prior to Game 1 Friday night.
But of all the Seattle playoff teams I've been around in the past dozen seasons, this one seems to be the most mentally ready for postseason play. I think the fight down the final month of the regular season for a playoff spot and their team goal of earning the 7th seed, prepared them well. A roster full of playoff rookies might be expected to get swelled heads or even a bit overconfident after that Game 1 overtime win but I saw none of that from the T-birds. They were enthusiastic with the win but it was forgotten by Saturday morning as they began preparation for Game 2.
I sensed some handwringing and consternation among the T-bird fan base when Seattle aquired Adam Kambeitz at the trade deadline, leading to the release of Brendan Rouse. But Kambeitz has been a beast on the ice through the first two games and it's obvious from talking to head coach Steve Konowalchuk that Kambeitz has become a leader in the lockerroom. Kambeitz' ability to play in all situations, also lessens the burden on Luke Lockhart, meaning Lockhart doesn't have to log as many minutes as he had been, keeping him fresher later in games.
Small sample size, but after two playoff games the Thunderbirds points leader is...Jesse Forsberg! The 19 year old Waldheim, SK defenseman has four points (1g, 3a) and is a +2. He had the big assist on the overtime game winner Saturday night. More importantly he's staying out of the penalty box. He's only picked up one minor penalty and that was for interference in the first period of Game 1. The coaches also changed up the "D" pairings for the playoffs. During most of the regular season Forsberg was paired with Jerret Smith. So far in the playoffs he's been on the ice with Jared Hauf. Combined those two have almost 1/3rd of the T-birds postseason goals. Seatle's three big veteran acquisitions (Forsberg, Kambeitz and Glover) are paying huge dividends in the early going of the playoffs and bringing the youngsters along with them.
I think one of the reasons for the change among the "D" pairings, is the improved play of Griffin Foulk. Foulk has amped up his physical game, is confidently shooting the puck as his overall game rounds out. Foulk amd Smith, now paired up, may be rookies but so far they have played two solid postseason games.
After four seasons, Mitch Elliot is making the most of his first venture into postseason play. Elliot is giving the T-birds the physical play they need and some valuable shifts, whether on the third or fourth line. A couple of times in Game 2 he bailed the T-birds out by winning a puck battle along the halfwall in the defensive zone.
Are injuries taking a toll on the Rockets? Certainly they are missing captain Colton Sissons, winger Carter Rigby and now winger J.T. Barnett, but Kelowna is just going through what the T-birds went through for most of the regular season. The T-birds had to adjust after losing Branden Troock and Tyler Alos for almost all of 2012-13, plus a couple of stretches without Conner Honey. Troock and Alos would have been valuable cogs to the Seattle playoff roster had they been healthy. You're talking two top six forwards when the season began, out of your lineup.
In memory of Bruce McDonald, 1971-2012