"I'm focused on the next round, are you?"
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse
At some point it will happen, just not now. Because of the cyclical nature of junior hockey, the constant roster turnover and the reloads and the rebuilds, it will happen, just not now. Because of the playoff format currently in place in the WHL, where you are more likely to face a division opponent in round one, and if you get there, round two, it will happen, just not now. At some point it will happen just because the odds say it will, just not now.
At some point Everett will win a playoff series against the T-birds. Just. Not. Now.
The T-birds won their third postseason series, third in the last four years, against their division rival with a four game sweep in round two of the 2017 Western Conference playoffs. For the first decade of this rivalry these teams didn't meet once in the second season. Now, over the past 48 months they've met three times and Seattle is 12-2 against the Silvertips.
It means Seattle moves on to the Western Conference Final for a second straight year. Once again they will face the Kelowna Rockets, just as they did last spring. The irony here is that to get to this point two years in a row Seattle had to defeat their current closest geographical rival, Everett, in order to play their former closest geographic rival, the Rockets. Kelowna began life in the WHL 26 year ago down in Tacoma.
It also means what we've suspected most of the season. That Seattle was and is the best team in the U.S. Division for 2016-17. They won the season series from Everett, 6-4. They won six of the last eight head-to-head regular season games and then swept the 'Tips from the postseason. Seattle ended the regular seasons with two more wins, 46-44. Just two more points and Seattle would have finished atop the division.
Mat Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Keegan Kolesar, Ethan Bear, Scott Eansor, Alexander True, Sami Moilanen, Jarret Tyszka, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman combined for 503 points this season (191g, 312a). They also combined to miss 156 regular season games. I don't think it would be going out on a limb to say Seattle could have found two more points or one more win during the regular season with any combination of that group available for just three or four more games.
But missing players is part of the game. Injuries, illness and other scenarios caused player absences. So Seattle didn't repeat as U.S. Division Champions and Everett claimed it fair and square. So, the T-birds settled the argument in the playoffs instead. 4-0.
And once again we reach that point where it is time for Seattle to put the Everett series behind them. Less then 24 hours after their series victory, it's time to turn the page and ready for the next chapter.
It's time to put all the focus on this coming Friday night and the first game of a new series against Kelowna.
This should be a battle. There is plenty of incentive on both sides. Kelowna looking to avenge last spring's series loss. Seattle trying to get back to the league final and another crack at the Chynoweth Cup. These were the two best teams in the Western Conference the second half of the season, especially after the trade deadline, and now they get a chance to decide on the ice who's number one and who will represent the conference in the championship series against the champions of the East.
I love the game that occurs off the scoresheet. The line of Sami Moilanen, Scott Eansor and Nolan Volcan did not register one point in Game Four versus Everett. Yet every time the 'Tips started to get a little bit of momentum, T-birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk sent out his attack dogs, a trio of pitbulls, and they shut it down. They effectively turned the tide back in Seattle's favor. The average size of that line? 5' 8.6", 186 lbs. It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but rather the size of the fight in the dog.
One other thing I like? The under-the-radar trade. Seattle GM Russ Farwell is becoming a master at these. Back on December 27th He picked up 18 year old defenseman Aaron Hyman from Calgary for a third round bantam pick. Hyman has been at the top of his game in the postseason. In eight playoff games he's registered five points (1g, 4a) and is tied with Turner Ottenbreit for the team lead in +/- at +9. Just as important, Hyman is eligible to play two more seasons with Seattle. Did you know Calgary drafted Hyman back in 2013 with a pick they got from Seattle in the Brandon Glover deal?
My T-bird Three Stars for the Second Round:
Third Star: C/W Donovan Neuls. Neuls has now recorded a point in all eight playoff games. He's second in the postseason in goal scoring for Seattle with five. Against Everett he had the huge, late game winner in Game One. In Game Four he opened the scoring with the breakaway goal. He started the postseason on the first line and now is back on the third line but it hasn't changed his approach. Playing center or playing on the wing, on the power play or the penalty kill, he's playing the best hockey of his T-birds career at the right time.
Second Star: G Carl Stankowski. I think it is time we stop being in awe of the young man. His 24 save effort in Game Four versus the Silvertips was probably his best game to date, rivaling what he did in the playoff opener against Tri-City. 4-0 in the series, 8-0 in the postseason. Even in Game Three, when he allowed four second period goals, he still made big saves that prevented Everett from extending their lead, giving Seattle the chance for the comeback. He's not a wide-eyed rookie, he's an outstanding goaltender.
First Stars: C Mat Barzal and RW Keegan Kolesar. The dynamic duo, the combo platter. Everett had no answer for these two. In the four game sweep they registered 13 points (7g, 6a). 'Tips goalie Carter Hart will be seeing Kolesar's backside in his sleep for a few days. The big winger made himself at home in front of the Everett net all series long. The playmaking Barzal, who had just 10 goals in 41 regular season games, now has four in four playoff games including a Game Three overtime winner. Meanwhile Kolesar had the game winner in Game Four.