The Seattle Thunderbirds just completed a four game sweep of their first round playoff opponent, the Prince George Cougars, with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 4 up at the CN Centre Wednesday. Seattle could not have traveled any further for a first round matchup than the over 1,100 miles they bused back and forth to face PG in Games 3 and 4.
The payoff? Seattle could not ask to travel any less then the 90 miles they'll navigate back and forth in Round Two to face their U.S. Division rivals, the Everett Silvertips. Talk about going from one extreme bus ride to another; as in extremely long to extremely short.
Going into their first round match up with Prince George, on paper, the T-Birds had to be considered the favorites. They had the better regular season record, they were the higher seed and they finished the regular season on a 13-0-1-0 run while the Cougars finished on a five-game losing streak (0-4-0-1). But as you know, the games aren't played on a sheet of paper but rather a sheet of ice. For Seattle to win the series they had to ignore the press clippings and focus on playing their game and that's what they did. Very solid effort from all players for four games. There was a little lapse in Game 4 after grabbing the early two-goal lead, but they got it going again in the third period and overtime to complete the comeback after falling behind, 3-2.
Especially in the first two games, Seattle played a puck possession game. They outshot PG in Games 1 and 2, 94-41. While shot totals don't always give you a complete picture of the game, this disparity certainly indicates Seattle had the puck on their sticks a lot the first half of the series. While the shots weren't as lopsided the final two games up in Prince George, the T-Birds still outshot the Cougars both nights at the CN Centre, particularly in the third periods. This wasn't the result of some newly instituted playoff game plan; it was the same blue print followed during the final month and a half of the regular season.
Despite missing Ryan Gropp, their leading regular season goal scorer, for all four games of the first round, Seattle still found a way to average four goals per game. And the T-Birds spread the wealth around. 12 of the 19 skaters who played in at least one game against PG earned at least one point in the series. Eleven of those twelve picked up at least two points. Their leading point producer in the series, Mathew Barzal, didn't even score a goal instead earning seven assists. Their third line of Cavin Leth, Alexander True and Andreas Schumacher earned as many points (5g, 5a, 10 pts.) as Prince George's first line. Their four game-winning goals came from four different players. Their first goal each night came from four different players.
If you break down each game it was a team effort but a different line or set of players stepped up to provide the big goals each night. Without their two best goal scorers, Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, available for Game 4 it was Nolan Volcan who picked up the slack scoring twice, including the game winning, series clincher in overtime. In Game 3 Nick Holowko sparked the offense early with a goal and an assist. In Game 2 it was a pair of goals from Keegan Kolesar, while in Game 1 third line teammates Leth and True combined for a pair of key goals. The T-Birds found different ways to win each game; overtime, shutout, home or road, scoring first, coming from behind or playing an entire game with the lead. You have to have every weapon in your arsenal ready come playoffs.
Before the series began it was believed by some in the Prince George locker room that they had the edge in depth among the forward lines. When the series was over, Seattle forward line depth proved to be the difference. Seattle's 2nd and 3rd lines combined for 19 points (10g, 9a). And this wasn't at the expense of first line scoring as that line added 14 points of their own (4g, 10a).
There was a thought by some going into that series that the physical element to Prince George's game would wear down the T-Birds, if not in that series then for subsequent rounds in the postseason. Truth be told, the T-Brds were just as physical as the Cougars and Seattle came out relatively unscathed. And with their playoff lives on the line in Game 4, the Cougars seemed to back off the physical play a bit in order to stay out of the penalty box.
The one area Seattle got away with not being at their best was their power play which was just 2 of 16. Prince George's very good, very aggressive penalty kill was responsible for some of that but Seattle knows they can do better. It doesn't help when a key component of the power play, Gropp, is out of the lineup. Despite the lack of success with the man advantage in the series, with Game 4 on the line the T-Birds used a third period power-play goal from Ethan Bear to tie the game and force the game into overtime where Volcan ended it with his early OT heroics. So, when it needed to Seattle's power play rose to the occasion.
Great to see all the fan support from the T-Bird faithful who made the trek up north for the final two games. Nice to see them get rewarded by witnessing that series clinching win in person. Next up? What should be a classic series with the Silvertips with a trip to the Western Conference Finals on the line. More on that next week.
My Three Stars for the First Round:
3rd Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Certainly not tested as much as his Prince George counterpart, Ty Edmonds, but he came up with key saves at key moments in just about every game. He posted the first shutout of his WHL career in Game 3. In Game 4 a couple of timely saves kept Seattle within striking distance, setting up their come-from-behind series clinching win. After going winless in his only other playoff appearance last season with Swift Current, he's 4-0 so far this go 'round.
2nd Star: Center Scott Eansor. He's been Seattle's leading goal scorer in each of their last two playoff runs and he's got two so far this spring plus an assist. He was a pest, a thorn in the side of the Cougars top offensive players all series. His speed and puck handling gave them fits, especially in Game 3. With Kolesar unavailable for Game 4 he moved up to the top line to start the game and promptly scored a goal.
1st Star: Center Mathew Barzal. It sure seemed PG made a concerted effort to shutdown Barzal. They were physical with him to the point it cost them one of their better offensive players for Game 4 when Jesse Gabrielle tried to goad Barzal into a fight but instead drew a one game suspension for himself. You may contain Barzal for a shift or two, but long term he still put his stamp on this series with seven assists. His effort with the puck in overtime of Game 4 set up the Volcan series winner. By concentrating some of their effort on shutting down Barzal, Prince George opened up opportunity for other T-Birds to step up.