Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Saturday Night Special

That's how you finish off a series. Like they said in "Remember the Titans", leave no doubt! After getting robbed by some excellent saves from Everett goaltender Austin Lotz the first half of the game, the determined T-birds broke free the last 30 minutes and won Game 5 going away, 5-0. In this battle of two teams who haven't enjoyed a lot of playoff success recently, Everett suffers its 7th straight first round playoff exit while Seattle advances past the first round for the first time since 2008.

It was as complete a 60 minutes of hockey as they've had in the playoffs to date. It was similar to Game 3's overtime win but on this occasion, Seattle stayed out of the penalty box and their 200 foot game really put the clamps on the Silvertips, rarely allowing them a scoring chance. It was the complete opposite of what happened in Game 4 up in Everett the previous night when it seemed the T-birds could do no right. This bounce back effort was a testament to their leadership, both behind the bench and on the ice.

I was asked after the game if T-birds goaltender Taran Kozun was the MVP of the series? He certainly was a key piece of the winning puzzle, but in a team sport, and at the most important time of the season, I hate singling out one individual player as the definitive reason a team won. Would the Thunderbirds have won the series had not Kozun played the way he did? Probably not. He was at his best in all but one game, brilliant with his glove and as always handled the puck behind the net with great ease. You might say he stole Game 1 for Seattle with his play in the second period that night alone. But where might the T-birds be today without the efforts of their shutdown line of Sam McKechnie-Scott Eansor and Jaimen Yakubowski? We saw what happened Friday night in Everett with Yakubowski out of the lineup.

Mathew Barzal didn't register a goal in the entire series but tell me his contributions weren't a big reason for Seattle moving on. Do the T-birds win Game 3 in overtime without him? How strong was he on the back check most of this series? Defenseman Jerret Smith never jumps off the stat page with gaudy offensive numbers but he once again was his steady, reliable self back on the blue line. I could go on but the biggest take from this series is how much hockey is a team sport and it takes 23 players to win, especially in the postseason. The MVP of this series for me was the T-birds focus, in all but one game, to play 60 minutes of hockey, stick to the game plan and make every shift count.

That's the funny thing about the playoffs. Most prognosticators had this series going the distance, if not at least six games, but Seattle put it away in five. The series was closer then that final margin but in the end, the Thunderbirds were the better team and deserved to move on. It makes you rethink that theory that you just can't flip a switch come playoff time. Maybe you can. After all, the Silvertips entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the WHL at 11-0-0-2 over their last 13 games. Meanwhile, Seattle was 4-8-0-1 over that same stretch with three of their eight losses at the hands of the 'Tips. Yet here we are after the first ever postseason series between these two U.S. Division and geographic rivals; the Silvertips season is over and the T-birds are off to Kelowna to face the Rockets in the second round.

And that quirky format of alternating venues for each game of the series that upset so many T-birds fans who thought they were giving away home ice advantage? In the end it had little impact, in fact it may have benefited the T-birds who won Game 2 in Everett 3-1, the only team to win a road game in the series. Seattle still got three of the first five games on home ice and won all three. A lot was made on how tough Everett is to come back on once they have a lead but Seattle was the only team in the series to come from behind and win a game and they did it twice, the most important of those the 4-3 overtime win at the ShoWare Center in Game 3.

As mentioned, up next up for Seattle are the WHL's regular season champs, the Kelowna Rockets. It is, of course, a rematch of last season's epic seven game first round playoff series that featured five overtime games, including Game 7. The two teams split the four game regular season series, both going 2-1-0-1. Will this be the fourth time in the last decade or so that these two teams meet in the postseason and take it to a decisive 7th game? I don't make predictions. It is really a silly exercise. I mean, no one had Seattle's 24 win team last year taking the Rockets 52 win 2012-13 team the distance, and overtime at that, to decide the winner last April. Let's just enjoy the ride!

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