Wednesday, May 24, 2017
The Best T-birds Loss Ever
Don't let the headline fool you. I'm not going to write about the Thunderbirds disappointing results from the Memorial Cup. While the coaches and players will never make excuses, it's my personal belief that this team was emotionally and mentally spent after beating Regina in the WHL Championship series.
It was another learning experience for this franchise, getting to the Memorial Cup Tournament for the first time in franchise history as WHL champions. Less then 48 hours after returning from Regina, the T-birds were on a plane to Windsor. The tournament came up on them so quickly after that Cup clinching, Game 6 road game against the Pats, they were never able to re-focus and flip that switch back to "on".
Add to that Seattle was probably the underdog in the tournament. A quick peek of the rosters of the other three teams shows that all had an average of ten NHL drafted and/or signed players. The T-birds had four.
No, the loss I'm going to write about happened on the final weekend of the 2011-12 regular season, in their final home game that season and it was the best loss this franchise ever suffered. It's a case of winning by losing because without that loss the T-birds would not be where they are today, 2017 WHL Champions.
Going into the final weekend that season, Seattle was battling Everett for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The prize for either team would be a first round playoff matchup with the Western Conference's top seed, the 50 win Tri-City Americans. The loser would be out of the playoffs and fall into the draft lottery.
Both Seattle and Everett entered that final weekend with 52 points. The T-birds actually had four more wins then did the Silvertips (25-21) going into that game, but because of eight shootout losses, Everett had the same number of points as the Thunderbirds.
The T-birds final weekend consisted of that Saturday night home game against Everett, on St. Patrick's Day no less, followed by a Sunday afternoon road game down in Portland. For Everett, the Saturday game in Kent was the 72nd and last one on their regular season schedule. It would be their last chance to control their own destiny. Meanwhile, all Seattle needed on the weekend was to win the March 17th showdown with the Silvertips at the ShoWare Center and they would claim the last spot into the postseason.
Now, they could still lose at home to Everett and force a play-in game for the final spot if they won versus the Winterhawks the next day, but the chances of that happening were slim and none. Up to that point that season Seattle was a mere 1-10 against Portland including eight straight losses by a combined score of 57-14. So the battle for the last playoff spot would come down to that home game against the 'Tips.
The T-birds opened the scoring with a Conner Honey goal with just over 90 seconds left in the first period. Seattle took that lead into the intermission, but early in period two Everett tied the game on a goal from Manraj Hayer. The game stayed tied until Branden Troock potted his 14th of the season at the 7:16 mark of the period. Hayer's second of the night evened the score at 2-2 at 15:46. A minute later with Burke Gallimore in the penalty box, Seattle's Luke Lockhart was awarded a penalty shot and converted to put the T-birds back on top, 3-2.
The wild second period continued when the 'Tips Josh Birkholz tied the game at 3-3 on the power play at 18:04. But with 28 seconds left in period two, Seattle regained the advantage when Honey potted his second of the night with Seattle on the man advantage. The second period ended with Seattle on top, 4-3. The T-birds were 20 minute away from a playoff spot after missing the postseason the year before by a mere three points. A one goal lead with a full house in the building to spur them on. Twenty minutes away from a date with Tri-City in Round One.
The third period started well enough for Seattle. They held their one-goal lead through most of the first half of the period, but at 8:31 Everett found the equalizer off the stick of Zach McPhee. Just over 11 minutes left and it was tied at 4-4. Anyone's game. Then, with just under five minutes remaining, the Silvertips took the lead. Cody Fowlie scored his 14th of the season and it was now 5-4 'Tips.
With time running down and looking for a tying goal, first year head coach Steve Konowalchuk pulled goalie Calvin Pickard for the extra attacker. But with 19 seconds left Everett's Ryan Harrision scored into the empty net. Final score: Everett 6 Seattle 4. The next day Seattle would fall, 8-2 down in Portland and be officially eliminated from postseason play, but it was that loss to Everett that really doomed them. It put the Silvertips up two points in the standings, despite having three fewer wins then the T-birds. Everett's reward for that win was a four game sweep at the hands of the Americans.
Think about that, Seattle had a 4-3 lead on home ice with 11:29 left in the game. They were that close to a "W" and a postseason berth. Thank goodness they couldn't hold onto that lead! What you say? You wanted them to lose? Well, not at the time I didn't. You are always pulling for your team to win. And Seattle played that night to win. But that loss changed the course of the franchise.
How so? Well, by losing that game (and the next day in Portland) Seattle missed the playoffs. By missing the postseason Seattle finished with the third worst record in the WHL and they were relegated to the draft lottery. By finishing with the third worst record, when Seattle won the draft lottery that April, they moved up two spots from the third overall pick in the first round to the first overall pick. With the first overall pick, the T-birds selected Mat Barzal.
Had Seattle won that mid-March night in 2012, instead of picking first that draft they would have been picking 7th. Prince George used the 7th overall pick that year, one they acquired from Everett, to select Brad Morrison. Morrison has had a solid WHL career with the Cougars, even selected in the 4th round of the 2015 NHL draft by the new York Rangers. But he's no Mat Barzal. Interestingly, Everett had traded that pick to PG in exchange for the rights to Jujar Kharia. That swap occurred on draft day though. Had Everett lost to Seattle in that March 17th game, it might have been the 'Tips who won the draft lottery and thus the right to draft Barzal. I doubt they are moving that pick to PG. Did one game between two rivals change both club's fortunes?
If the T-birds win that March 17th, 2012 game against Everett they don't get Barzal and with no Barzal I doubt Seattle is hanging a 2016 U.S. Division Champions banner. I doubt they are putting up 2016 and 2017 Western Conference Champions banners and they are probably not hoisting the Ed Chynoweth Cup as 2017 WHL Champions and there's no trip to Windsor to play in the Memorial Cup. It takes a team of 25 players to win a championship but make no mistake, Barzal was the catalyst. He ends his Seattle career as one of, if not the best player in franchise history. He came to the team with a lot of hype and he lived up to it. When he was drafted, fans saw him as a savior who could take them to the promised land. Others in similar situations have crumbled under the weight of those expectations. He thrived under it.
One game, one loss that changed the course of the franchise. The best loss ever!