Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse
It takes 16 "W's" to win the WHL's Ed Chynoweth Cup. Sixteen teams are participating in the league's playoffs all with the goal of raising that Cup. Within two weeks that number of postseason participants will be down to eight teams. By early May, only one team will be left standing.
Seattle started out the postseason this weekend trying to make sure they are one of those eight teams advancing to the second round. The T-Birds played two solid home games and as a result won the first two games of the postseason, defeating the Tri-City Americans 4-2 and 5-2. The series will now shift to Kennewick's Toyota Center for Games 3 and 4 this coming week.
The hope was Seattle would have both first line center Mathew Barzal, dealing with an illness, and number one goalie Rylan Toth, working through a lower body injury, back in the lineup for the start of the playoffs. But why break with precedence? Seattle has dealt with injuries to key players all season long, so why should the playoffs be any different?
Fortunately for Seattle, it would seem these injuries have not affected their ability to win games. They finished the season with 46 wins, most in the Western Conference, and without Barzal and Toth the last five games of the regular season, they went 4-1. Make that now 6-1 after these two wins to open the postseason with Barzal and Toth both still unavailable.
Through the first two games against the Americans, depth was the key. Seattle scored a combined nine goals in the two wins and those goals came from eight different players. A third pairing defenseman, Austin Strand, scored the game winner opening night and third line winger Matthew Wedman broke the 2-2 tie Saturday. If you had Seattle winning Game 2 without a goal from their top line or top D pairing, pat yourself on the back 'cause that's what happened.
The Thunderbirds still need to be more disciplined going forward. They've given the Ams 12 power plays in the first two games and while Tri-City converted on just one, it's a recipe for disaster if Seattle keeps up that pace. The good news for Seattle is their own power play, even without Barzal, is clicking at 40 percent so far in this series (4 of 10).
So far in this series against Tri-City depth has been the difference. I don' t think there are two teams in the Western Conference, heck the WHL, affected more by key injuries this season then Seattle and Tri-City. The difference has been Seattle's ability to consistently overcome those injuries. Seattle has four players who can center their top line if needed in Barzal, Alexander True, Scott Eansor and Donovan Neuls. That helps keep Seattle playing at an optimal level. Tri-City, probably because of a younger roster, was streakier when those injuries hit. So far it's clear that the loss of Michael Rasmussen and Nolan Yaremko is affecting the Americans.
Another factor early in the series is probably playoff experience. Seattle's roster features a large number of players who were with the team on their long playoff run to the league final last spring. Many of them have been to the postseason four years in a row. The loss to Brandon in the final series a year ago is motivating them to get back to the final again. Tri-City missed the 2016 postseason and very few player on their roster have been in the WHL playoffs before.
That experience may have paid off for Seattle in Game 2. After Tri-City erased the T-Birds two-goal lead early in the third period, they didn't panic. They just kept coming. Seattle ended the third period with 22 shots on goal and scored three times in the last five minutes to pull out the win.
Now Seattle has to use that veteran playoff experience to realize they've won nothing yet. It takes four wins to advance, not two. Tri-City will be desperate to win and will look to use their home ice to their advantage. Playoff experience or not, the Americans will be in desperation mode to get back in this series. The T-Birds will need to match, if not exceed, the desperation level Tri-City will play with.
Both Barzal and Toth were in the lockerroom post Game 2. Not sure if that means they'll be available for the upcoming games in this series but it is a sign they are closer to a return to the lineup.
Until last Sunday, on the final day of the regular season, Carl Stankowski had not played in a game at the ShoWare Center since an October 14th 3-2 shootout loss to Prince George. That was over six months ago. He's now won three straight on home ice in a week's time, including his first two playoff starts. Stankowski, who turned 17 years old back on March 9th, has played 271 minutes of hockey at the ShoWare Center and has surrendered just nine goals on 120 shots. That's a 2.43 GAA and .908 SVPCT on home ice with those numbers improving with each game played.
Remember, Stankowski was the first goalie taken in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft and has represented Canada on the world stage at the U-17 Hockey Challenge. The bright lights of the WHL Playoffs shouldn't phase him.
Which brings me to, my T-Birds Three Stars for the opening weekend of the 2017 postseason:
Third Star: D Austin Strand. Before coming over to Seattle in a late December trade with Red Deer, Strand had potted just one goal in 38 games. In 36 regular season games with the T-Birds he registered eight goals. He's now added one game winning playoff goal to that number. He is currently tied for second in team playoff scoring with three points (1g, 2a). A Wally Cleaver, aw shucks attitude off the ice, he doesn't mind being a little nasty on it.
Second Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. Whether scoring or not, through the first two postseason games Kolesar has been putting his stamp on this series. He's really brought his game to an even higher level in the absence of Barzal. Very physical effort the last two weeks. He's the team's early playoff scoring leader with four points (2g, 2a).
First Star: G Carl Stankowski. Out most of the season with an injury, there was a time back in November and December when Seattle didn't know whether they would have to shut down their prized future netminder and wait until next season. Stankowski put in the rehab to get back sooner than later. Pressed into the starting role at the beginning of the postseason, he is 2-0 with 2.00 GAA and SVPCT of .938. His stopping of three breakaways and a penalty shot in a span of four minutes of the third period in Game 1, with Seattle clinging to a 3-2 lead, is the stuff that will have fans in three years saying "I was there when it all started for him". It was the night the Stank Eye was born, when Stan the Man first flashed on the scene.