The Seattle Thunderbirds improved their playoff record to 8-1 and advanced to the Western Conference Championship with a 3-2 win over Everett Saturday night before a raucous crowd at the ShoWare Center. The T-Birds win the second round match up four games to one, winning the last four after dropping Game 1. It was the second time in the past three years that the T-Birds have eliminated their closest geographic rival from postseason play. Seattle also knocked out the Silvertips in the first round of the 2014 postseason, winning that series four games to one as well.
One of the keys for the Thunderbirds in this series was finding ways to get pucks past Everett goalie Carter Hart. During the regular season series against the 'Tips Seattle could only muster 15 goals in 10 games, an average of just 1.5 goals per contest. Hart then blanked the T-Birds, 3-0, in Game 1 of this series. It didn't help that Seattle played the game without their top two goal scorers in Ryan Gropp and Keegan Kolesar, as well as their best defenseman in Jerret Smith. Seattle compounded the issue by giving Everett nine power plays. Hard to generate offense when you're shorthanded for one-third of the game.
The answer? Really quite simple. Just put pucks on net and get scoring by committee. Over the final four games of the series Seattle scored 12 times on Hart, or 3.0 goals per game, doubling their season average. Nine different players scored those 12 goals. Each of Seattle's four lines had at least one goal in those final four games. Seattle won the series despite not getting a point from their top line the last three games. And getting Gropp back in the lineup for Games 3 and 4 didn't hurt. Gropp led Seattle in scoring versus Everett in the regular season with 10 points in 10 games. But the big winger missed the first three games of the series with injury. Once back in the lineup, even though he was playing primarily on the 4th line, he picked up where he left off against the 'Tips, scoring two game winning goals and adding an assist.
Everett, which allowed just 172 goals against during the regular season (second best in the WHL to Victoria's 166) is known as a defensive hockey team. They don't score a lot, potting just 182 this season, but they keep the score low, their opponents close, and finish the chances they get. But in hockey the best defense is puck possession and in this series Seattle dominated that category. In their four wins Seattle outshot the Silvertips 143-82 and outshot them 169-111 in the series.
Seattle was at their best at the start and finish of games. The T-Birds outshot Everett 48-24 in the first period through the five games. In their Game 4 win up at Xfinity Arena the T-Birds allowed Everett just one first period shot on goal and that came with 29 seconds left in the period. In the clinching fifth game at home Seattle held the 'Tips to just three first period shots. This allowed Seattle to get the lead both nights; leads they would never relinquish. In the final two games of the series the 'Birds outshot the Silvertips by a whopping 25-4 margin in the first periods.
Start strong, finish strong. Seattle was just as good in the third period putting 55 shots on goal in the final frame in the series while allowing jut 21 shots against. In Games 3 and 4, protecting one goal leads each night, the Thunderbirds limited Everett to four and five third period shots respectively, outshooting them in the third period the final two nights 31-9.
When you dominate the shots-on-goal department like that your own goaltending can get lost in the shuffle. Landon Bow may have only faced an average of 22 shots per game versus Everett but he still was a big factor in Seattle advancing. When most of the play is at the other end of the ice, it can be hard to stay mentally involved in the game. But Bow was focused. In the second period of Game 5 he made an acrobatic save to clear a puck that seemed destined for the back of the net. Had it gone in Everett would have tied the game and had all the momentum on their side. Twice in the postseason he has posted road shutouts in critical Game 3's.
Through nine playoff games 16 of the 21 skaters who have suited up for at least one postseason game have registered a point. You win in the playoffs with everyone contributing. Nowhere is that more evident then when your fourth line rookie center, in this case Matthew Wedman, assists on back-to-back game winning goals including the series clincher.
It's been a remarkable last two months for Seattle, posting a 21-1-1-0 record in their last 23 games to advance to the Western Conference Finals for just the third time in franchise history. Will the third time be the charm? The first time they played in the conference finals, in the spring of 1997, they defeated Prince George in six games and made it to the WHL Finals only to be swept by Lethbridge. The last time they got this far, in the spring of 2003 they lost in the Conference Finals to Kelowna in five games.
My Three Stars for the Second Round:
Third Star: Goalie Landon Bow. Bow may not have been as busy as his Everett counterpart in this series but he did what he's supposed to do; stop pucks and win games. His GAA in the series versus Everett was a paltry 1.40 and he recorded his second shutout of the postseason with a 5-0 road win in Game 3 that restored home ice advantage for the T-Birds.
Second Star: Defenseman Jerett Smith. The captain showed his value to this team. He missed the first game after an emergency appendectomy and the T-Birds lost that game. A few days later, with Smitty back in the lineup, Seattle evened the series at 1-1 with a 3-1 home win and Smith was +2. He finished the series at +4 in the four games he played. Even after the surgery he probably was one of the leaders in ice time for the team.
First Star: Center Scott Eansor. Eansor just has a good habit of ratcheting up his play in the postseason. For the third straight year he has scored at least four playoff goals. His speed, quickness and relentless motor are a big reason why Everett spent much of the series in their own end and why the 'Tips top scoring line was held in check most of the series. His wrap around goal in Game 5 that opened the scoring was a prime example of never giving up on a play as just moments before he had a scoring chance denied.