Putting the Focus on Game Three!
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse
Two games into the Western Conference Final and Seattle and Kelowna are tied at a game a piece in the best of seven series. These teams are very evenly matched. They were separated by just one win and a mere three points in the final regular season Western Conference standings. both possess depth among their forward lines, a solid defensive group and are among the best in the league with their special teams. Add it all up and you have two one goal games, games that in both instances were won in the final seconds.
The chances of running the table in the postseason are pretty slim. The fact that the T-birds started the postseason 9-0 is remarkable. In a couple of instances they were the beneficiary of a good bounce going their way. Sure that loss in Game 2 is disappointing, especially the way it ended, with a Seattle defensive zone turnover leading to the game winner. But this isn't the NFL where you play one game a week and it's one and done. In the NFL you have to run the table in the postseason to become champion. Not so in hockey where you play a best-of-seven series. This loss stings but the T-birds get a chance to shake it off and bounce back Tuesday in Kelowna.
Oddly, I though Kelowna had the better of play in the series opener, yet Seattle ended up winning, 5-4, on the late Ethan Bear power play goal. I thought Seattle carried more of the play in Game 2 yet the Rockets pull it out on Reid Gardiner's overtime winner. Of course it is splitting hairs here because the edge either team may be enjoying has been fairly miniscule.
Seattle did a better job in Game 2 on the penalty kill, limiting the Rockets to just one goal, but they still need to clean things up in the discipline department. After giving up seven power play chances to Kelowna in Game 1, they allowed six more in Game 2. Power play chances through two games favor the Rockets, 13-7 but power play goals are just 4-3 in favor of Kelowna. Seattle needs to stay out of the box. Elbowing, high sticking and checking from behind are all avoidable infractions.
You can't have casual moments in the playoffs, especially not in Round Three when the two teams are so evenly matched. A momentary lapse can be the difference in a tightly contested game. It certainly was in Game 2. Seattle took their foot off the gas pedal and coasted back to a loose puck while on the power play late in the first period. Not so Kelowna. Shorthanded they came hard after the T-birds and the puck. Calvin Thurkauf forced a turnover and found Gardiner all by his lonesome in the slot. Gardiner blasted it past Carl Stankowski with less then a second remaining in the period. Every second, every fraction of a second, counts.
I don't think Seattle's top line has played up to their best yet through the first two games of the series. It speaks to their talent that the Gropp-Barzal-Kolesar trio have combined for eight points (2g, 8a) but I expect more from them going forward. Credit the Rockets for keeping them in check.
This conference championship series is a good argument to keep imports as part of the makeup of WHL rosters. Kelowna's Thurkauf (Switzerland) and the T-birds Sami Moilanen (Finland) have been two of the best players for their respective teams through the first two games. Meanwhile both Seattle's Alexander True (Denmark) and the Rockets Tomas Soustal (Czech Republic) have cashed in with goals by putting their big bodies around the net. A few years back the CHL eliminated import goalies from the picture. I hope that is a far as it goes. A lot of times these import players become fan favorites because the fans appreciate the sacrifice these young men are making to leave their families and come overseas to North America to follow their hockey dreams.
Speaking of goalies, there have been a combined 16 goals scored in the first two games of this series, eight for each team. Yet those goal numbers belie how good the goaltending has been between 21 year old Michael Herringer of the Rockets and Seattle's rookie, Stankowski. The reason for the large amount of goals isn't because of these two. Instead it is the elite talent level on these teams which is leading to a high number of quality scoring chances at both ends. Herringer and Stankowski are earning their accolades.
Ironically, it was an injury last year to Kelowna's number one goalie, Jackson Whistle, that thrust Herringer into the starting role. A year later, the shoe...er skate, is on the T-birds foot.
Thunderbirds management, understanding the level of talent they had on this year's team, knew they had a team that could make another deep playoff run. With that in mind they traded for veteran goalie Rylan Toth from Red Deer just before the start of the season. The 20 year old Toth has both WHL playoff and Memorial Cup experience from his time with the Rebels. He led all WHL goalies this season with 36 wins. Yet a late season injury has put him on the shelf.
It would appear that injury would put Seattle's deep playoff aspirations in jeopardy, but enter the just-turned-17 year old Stankowski who has been nothing short of brilliant in posting a 9-0-1 playoff record. In seven regular season games he went 3-0-0-1. So in 17 game in his young WHL career, he has still not lost a game in regulation. The overtime loss in Game 2 was definitely not on the shoulders of the young goalie. Three Seattle turnovers left him all alone against some pretty top end offensive talent in Gardiner (twice) and Nick Merkley.
Don't forget his big stop in Game 1 on a late Devonte Stephens breakaway. Without it Bear doesn't get the chance to be the last second hero. And he added three or four point blank stops late in Game 2 that helped Seattle get that game to overtime.
I know a lot of people out there are asking Carl who? As though he just popped up on the scene out of nowhere. Again, Stankowski was the first goalie selected in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft. He participated in the U-17 Challenge for Hockey Canada. He was slated to get 15-18 starts this season for the T-birds but an injury at the U-17s cost him four months of service. He's not playing over his head, nor is he out of his element on this big playoff stage. This is exactly why the T-birds drafted him.
Seattle brass knew what they had in the young Calgarian. The coaching staff has all the confidence in the world in him and he is delivering. Toth was Plan A, but sometimes fate throws a monkey wrench into the works (this season there have been a lot of monkey wrenches tossed at the T-birds best laid plans). If Carl Stankowski is the fall back, that is one heck of a Plan B.
Stankowski's rise reminds me a bit of Carter Hart in Everett, who took over the show for the Silvertips as a 16 year old (from an older, quality starter in Austin Lotz) and never looked back. It's my opinion that if, at some point, Toth gets healthy, I think you go back to him. Seattle traded a valuable commodity, a third round bantam pick, to acquire him for exactly this purpose, a long playoff run with a more seasoned roster. Ultimately, if it comes to a decision, the coaches and not me, will have to choose. I'm just of the mindset that you don't sit a healthy 20 year old in the postseason. But if that never happens, the T-birds are in good hands with the Stank Eye.
In their last six playoff games, going back to the 2016 Western Conference Final, Seattle and Kelowna have played in five one goal games. The sixth game was decided by two goals with that extra goal being scored in the final 90 seconds. Two of those five games were decided in overtime. So essentially, that's nearly six straight playoff games between these two combatants with one goal providing the margin of victory most every night.
My T-birds Three Stars for Games 1 and 2 of Round 3:
Third Star: G Carl Stankowski. He did enough both nights to give his team a chance for a win in both games. Was far too often put on an island by his teammates in Game 2 because of poor puck management in the defensive zone. Big saves late both nights. Was really flashing the trapper in the third period of Game 2, making 12 saves. In order for Seattle to mount their two goal comeback, he couldn't afford to surrender a goal and he didn't.
Second Star: W Sami Moilanen. Kelowna is doing a very good job of containing Seattle's top line. But Seattle's second line is playing extremely well and Moilanen is a big reason. He had a huge three point night in Game 1, including an assist on the game winner. He continues to go into battles along the wall against bigger players and win a good number of 50/50 pucks. In the first period of Game 2, he beat Kelowna's big d-man, Cal Foote, to the front of the net, ready to take a pass from Mat Barzal. Foote dragged him down to prevent a scoring chance. Moilanen has that ability to get into tight spaces with speed and agility, and most importantly, no fear.
First Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. What a postseason coming out party for the Grenfell, Saskatchewan native. The 19 year old has at least one point in all ten Seattle playoff games and has three points (1g, 2a) and is +2 in this series. Assisted on one and scored the other goal as Seattle came from two goals down in the third period to force overtime in Game 2. Got the puck on net in the dying seconds of the second period of Game 1 to set up Alexander True's goal.