The Stank Eye! Carl Stankowski
Photo courtesy of Brian Liesse
For the second straight spring, Seattle has swept through their first round playoff opponent. A year ago it was Prince George vanquished in four games. This time around it was the Tri-City Americans.
No one anticipates a series sweep, especially not Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk, who, as cliché as it may sound, really believes in the one game at a time mantra. He prepares for a hard fought, lengthy playoff battle but never looks beyond the game his team is about to play. There are no tomorrows if you don't focus on today.
What is most surprising about this sweep over the Americans is that Seattle accomplished it playing the series without their best player, WHL Western Conference Player of the Year, Mat Barzal. He didn't see one minute of ice time. They got the sweep sans goalie Rylan Toth, who led all WHL goaltenders in the regular season with 36 wins. He never stepped foot on the ice. They played the last half of the series without their leading goal scorer and top point producer, Ryan Gropp, who was injured late in Game 2. The first half of the series Seattle scored nine goals. The second half of the series the T-birds scored 14 goals.
During the regular season, Tri-City finished with the league's fourth ranked power play. They averaged just slightly over one power play goal per game. Even without Michael Rasmussen, they are a dangerous team with the man advantage. When the dust settled on this series, the T-birds had clamped down on the Ams power play, allowing just one power play goal on 19 chances.
Meanwhile, the T-birds, minus two-fifths of their top power play unit most of the series, finished 8-for-20 with the man advantage. Those eight power play goals came from seven different players.
While Tri-City was getting a few key players back in the lineup from injury late in the series Seattle was, once again, never at full strength. At the end of Game 3 they had two players sitting on the bench in obvious pain, unable to take another shift. In Game 4 another player missed a couple of shifts after blocking a shot with his arm. They soldiered on.
A sweep under those conditions is not supposed to happen. You know, Seattle is just a one line team and two-thirds of that one line missed most of the series. Sayonora Seattle, right? Lose a 20 year old, playoff seasoned goalie and replace him with a, just-turned 17 year old, rookie netminder with not one minute of playoff experience and coming off a nearly season long injury? Hasta la vista, baby! Si?
It was so frustrating watching a Seattle team with no forward depth struggle so mightily to score goals in that first round. Definitely disappointing as we watched a young T-birds goalie incapable of keeping pucks out of his net. Wait, is my sarcasm font button not on? Sorry or should I say, April Fool's!
Only it's not an April Fool's joke because these are things I've heard whispered from the outside about this team. Yep, Seattle is gonna be in trouble come playoff time because they overuse that top line and they'll just tire them out. Take away Barzal and Gropp and you take away their chance to win. Hmmm, four, cough, cough, and oh, cough, cough.
Yet that no-depth team just got points from 16 of the 20 players who skated in that first round series. And they did it against a very good, 41 win team. Sure, they got the unexpected sweep, but that series was by no means a pushover. Tri-City plays a physical, punishing style. They have a high powered offense. Seattle earned every inch of ice and every one of those four "W"s against a team of up and comers.
If I had told you that after Round 1, the T-birds back up goalie would have more points then their number one center, you'd say that is a recipe for failure. Instead, Seattle is on to the second round without dropping a game. Who writes that script?
After the Game 4 series clinching win, the Thunderbirds pulled away from the Toyota Center in Kennewick Friday night and put the Americans in their rear view mirror, both literally and figuratively. It's time turn the page. A new challenge awaits in either the form of the Everett Silvertips or Victoria Royals. But the real challenge is the Seattle Thunderbirds. It's preparing themselves for the next game, no matter the opponent. It's getting their focus on playing the right way and paying attention to details. It's correcting any flaw, no matter how minor, that may have occurred in the first round. It's about being better today they you were yesterday.
When a team deals with injuries to top end players throughout the season, we often talk about the silver lining. That the unexpected, extra ice time being picked up by the players at the end of the roster will only help to serve the team well in the future.
Outside of Stankowski, no one player on the Seattle roster exemplified that more in Round 1 then Zack Andrusiak. Getting regular minutes on Seattle's third line, he played like a seasoned, playoff vet. Only he had never tasted the WHL postseason before. He didn't light up the scoresheet, registering just one assist, but he logged valuable minutes and created offensive opportunities off the forecheck.
As Seattle hopefully gets healthier going forward, Andrusiak's ice time may diminish, but he has shown the coach's he can be a reliable player in big games.
My T-birds Three Stars for Round 1:
Third Star: D Ethan Bear. Almost a quiet nine point (2g, 7a, +4) first round for the Edmonton Oilers draft pick. Maybe it's because we've just come to expect that from him. Ever since he arrived in Kent he's been pegged as an offensive minded defenseman, but his game is well-rounded. The Western Conference Defenseman of the Year plays a complete 200-foot game, providing a quiet but affective brand of leadership as well. When Seattle got in a little trouble in their own end, you let out a sigh of relief when the puck landed on his stick.
Second Star: RW Keegan Kolesar. It just seemed, in this series, he was determined to show that he is a top player in this league, and not a complimentary piece, no matter who his linemates are. With no Barzal to center his line in the series, and no Gropp on his line the last two games, it just seemed he got better with each performance. He ended the series by leading the WHL in playoff points with 11 (3g,8a, +5). That's 2.75 points per game. It often looks like Barzal, when he's in the lineup, puts the team on his back at key moments. There were times in this series where it looked like Kolesar was doing the same.
First Star. G Carl Stankowski. Up until the last week of the regular season and this playoff series, the high point of Stankowski's rookie WHL campaign may have been celebrating his 17th birthday March 9th. An injury cost him four months and probably 10-12 starts. Remember this, his low point was his first start after the four month layoff. He gave up two goals on five shots the first four minutes in a February 24th start in Kennewick against the Americans and was pulled. Well, he was still just 16 back then. Pressed into the starting role in the first round of the postseason against that same Tri-City team he goes 4-0 with a 2.00 GAA and .932 SVPCT. He looks more like an altar boy then a top prospect goalie, but on a team stocked with playoff veterans, he stole the show.