Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lucky Number Seven

While it has been nine years, there is some compelling playoff history between the Thunderbirds and Portland Winterhawks from the new millenium. Twice since 2001 the teams have battled in the postseason and each time the series went the full compliment of seven games and each time, the lower seeded team prevailed meaning the Game 7 winner was the road team.

In each situation it was a first round playoff matchup. Back in the spring of 2002, my first season with the team, they met in the postseason. Portland, which had captured the U.S. Division that season with a record of 36-25-5-6, and dominated the regular season series between the two rivals, was the prohibitive favorite. In fact, with only nine teams in the conference at that time, Seattle made the playoffs that year, with a record 19 games below .500 (21-40-6-5), only because the expansion Vancouver Giants were just marginally worse.

This was also back when the first round of the playoffs were similar to this season, and stayed within the division. So despite having the worst record of all playoff qualifiers from the Western Conference, the T-birds didn't face Kamloops,the conference #1 seed in round one, but rather the U.S. Division #1 seed, which happened to be Portland. An interesting tidbit from that season that may have helped Seattle. They were the only U.S. Division team to enter the playoffs off a win. The other three teams, Portland, Spokane and Tri-City lost their final regular season game while the T-birds were riding a modest two game winning streak which started with a 5-4 overtime victory over the 'Hawks.

The playoff series started out as though it would follow the the proper script, with the heavily favored Winterhawks taking the first game down at the Rose Garden, 4-3. The series took an unexpected turn though in Game 2 when Seattle's Brooks Laich scored an unassisted power play goal late in the 2nd period to break a 2-2 tie. The T-birds would add three more in the third, including two from Greg Black, to earn a 6-2 win and even the series at 1-1.

Seattle carried the momentum from that win into Game 3 at KeyArena. Once again Laich provided the game winner, scoring with just three and a half minutes left in the game to secure a 3-2 T-birds victory and forge a 2-1 series lead. But the T-birds couldn't hold onto home ice advantage as Portland came back to the Key two nights later and earned their own 3-2 win when Josh Olson scored midway through the final frame to break another 2-2 tie.

The series shifted back to Portland for Game 5. Seattle got an early goal from Jake Riddle but Portland peppered the Seattle net with 45 shots. T-birds goalie Nick Pannoni stood tall though and earned the shutout in the 1-0 win, putting Seattle one win from a big playoff upset, and knowing Game 6 would be back on home ice the next night. Instead of celebrating a series win back home though, the T-birds could muster little in the way of offense, creating only 20 shots on goal. Winterhawks netminder Lanny Ramage stopped them all and, led by two more Josh Hanson goals, Portland forced a decisive 7th game back down in the Rose City with a 4-0 victory to even the series at 3-3.

Game 7 was, like the series, a back and forth affair. The Winterhawks struck first, a John Togiai goal at 13:13 of the first. Seattle scored twice in the second, courtesy of Laich and Tyler Metcalfe, and headed into the second intermission up by a goal. The lead held up until 14:29 of the third period when Portland tied it on a Craig Vallette goal. 17-seconds after the Vallette goal though, Winterhawk Brad Priestlay took a slashing minor that put Seattle on the power play. One minute into the power play the T-birds scored to regain the lead on a Trevor Johnson blast.

That Johnson goal turned out to be the game winner but the final few minutes of the contest were not without their drama as Seattle's Eric Benke was assessed a holding minor at 17:29. So Seattle spent a good chunk of the last two minutes of the game shorthanded. Once again Pannoni was one of the heroes for the T-birds making 48 saves as Seattle was outshot on the night 50-31.

So Seattle pulled off the big upset but it would be their last hurrah that season. They were swept in the second round by the eventual WHL Champion Kootenay Ice (yes Kootenay was in the Western Conference back then). The Thunderbirds did use it as a springboard into the next season though, going 44-22-3-3, capturing the U.S. Division title and made it to the Western Conference Finals where they fell to Kelowna.

The two rivals would not meet again in the postseason until the spring of 2006. This time around Seattle had home ice advantage after finishing four points ahead of the Winterhawks in the U.S. Division. Seattle finished second to Everett that year but their 35-31-1-5 record was just marginally better then Portland which finished with a 32-32-3-5 mark. the series started off at KeyArena with fireworks as Seattle beat Portland in Game 1, 8-5. The T-birds actually trailed 5-3 midway through the second period before potting the game's last five goals. Chris Durand had a hat trick and Bud Holloway added two of his own in the win.

Game 2 at the Key the following night was the complete opposite. Durand took a high sticking penalty 52-seconds into the game, Kyle Bailey scored a power play goal for Portland twenty seconds later and that was it in a 1-0 Portland win. The Winterhawks left Seattle with a split of the first two game thanks to Kurtis Mucha's 18 save shutout.

The T-birds were able to return the favor down in Portland. After dropping Game 3, 2-1, to the Winterhawks on a pair of Brian Woolger third period goals, Seattle came back to win Game 4, 6-3, thanks to two goals each from Durand and Tyler Johnson. The series shifted back to KeyArena for Game 5 but a Brandon Dubinsky hat trick earned Portland the 3-2 win and a chance to close out the series at home in Game 6 at the Rose Garden. Once again though, the road team prevailed. Aaron Gagnon scored the game winner midway through the second period, Ryan Gibbons chipped in with two assist and Bryan Bridges turned aside 36 shot in a 5-2 T-birds win that sent the series back to Seattle for a deciding Game 7.

That 7th and deciding game started out like it would be a runaway win for Seattle and smooth sailing into the second round. The T-birds got off to a three goal lead thanks to Gagnon, who scored thrice, completing the natural hat trick with a shorthanded goal at 14:48 of the first period. The complexion of the game changed though, early in the second period. No-touch icing had not yet made its way to the WHL and on a race for a puck the Winterhawks Bailey, flying down the ice at full speed, slammed his skate blade into the bottom of the end boards where it got caught resulting in a horrific leg injury. It also created a long delay while medical staff tended to Bailey and took all necessary precautions to stretcher him off the ice.

The boisterous crowd at KeyArena fell silent and when play resumed the T-birds were flat. They couldn't recapture the momentum they had through the first 25 minutes of the game. Seattle wasted two second period power play chances. Then they took three penalties of their own. The Winterhawks took advantage, scoring twice with the man advantage with Dubinsky scoring one and assisting on the other. The second of those two was scored with just 22 seconds left in the second period to cut the 'Birds lead to 3-2. Once again in the third period Seattle's power play failed them and shortly after they couldn't convert on the man advantage Portland's Jannik Hanson would pot the tying goal at the 14 minute mark.

The game ended up going to overtime and halfway through the first extra period, on the only shot of overtime, Jonathan Bubnick ended it giving the 'Hawks the win and the series. Like Seattle back in 2002, that would be Portland's last hurrah. Vancouver, who would go on to win the league title, eliminated them in the second round, winning that series in five games. In fact it would be another four years before Portland would taste the playoffs again.

So two playoff series between these two longtime rivals over the past 14 seasons and each went seven games with the underdog winning both times. What does 2015 have in store? More of the same?

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