When does playoff experience matter? Does it even matter at all? In the end is it not skill, work ethic and attention to detail that wins the game? Some times fortune or good luck factors in but that is usually a byproduct of hard work. You get a bounce to go your way because you are playing the right way.
Friday night in Langley, in Game One of their opening round playoff series versus Vancouver, any previous playoff experience Seattle had didn't matter at all. They got outworked, outhustled and outplayed in a 7-1 loss. Vancouver was ready to go, the T-birds, save a few players, were not. Vancouver didn't win because of experience, they won because of superior effort.
But here's one situation where I think playoff experience can matter. When your career has taken you through the grind of a couple long playoff runs, and along the way you've experienced that bitter taste of losing in the postseason, that's when experience begins to play a role. Former T-bird head coach Steve Konowalchuk often talked about how he hated losing more then he loved winning, and it wasn't even close. He said you remember the missed goal you failed to score, more then the ones you put in the back of the net. Your job is to win and when you don't, you haven't done your job. You start asking yourself what could you have done better?
So after that 7-1 loss Friday, Seattle's captain, the player with the most playoff experience on the Seattle roster, was embarrassed. Nolan Volcan didn't like that feeling of losing. He'd tasted it before and it was a bite he didn't enjoy swallowing. Sure he had enjoyed the sweet taste of success when Seattle won it all in 2017, but he remembered that sour, empty feeling of losing a championship, when it was there for the taking, back in 2016. The experience of losing can be a great motivator. Losing 7-1 is a wake up call.
So Volcan was determined to do all he could Saturday in Game Two to make sure the team was playing playoff hockey. He didn't want to be asking those "what if" questions when that final horn sounded. He put his playoff experience to work and used it to his benefit. He finished every check he could, blocked every shot he was able to get in front of, hustled from one end of the ice to the other and set the example for the rest of his team.
In the end he compiled two assists and a goal and the T-birds earned a 4-1 victory to even the series at a game apiece.
Which brings us to the second area where playoff experience can matter, don't get too low with the loss, don't get too high from the win. After that drubbing Friday, Volcan wasn't happy but he also knew it was just one game in a best-of-seven-series. Losing 7-1 was the same as losing 2-1 in triple overtime. Put it behind you and move on to the next game. And now he and the T-bird must do the same after their win. Game Two is done, put it in the past and move on to Game Three. Seattle's goal isn't to win one game in the series, it's to win four. Don't dwell on the loss, don't savor the win. Again, as Konowalchuk used to remind me, if you're too busy looking behind and admiring past successes, you're gonna miss the obstacles that lay directly in your path and crash, head on. Right now the Vancouver Giants are still in Seattle's way. They are a formidable obstacle, trying to steer the T-birds into the ditch. The T-birds need to keep their eyes on the road.
Sean Richards is another WHL veteran with lots of playoff experience, including a trip to the WHL Championship Series last season with Everett. He too knows what it takes to make a long postseason run. Game One wasn't his best as he finished with a -3 rating. Richards put that opening game behind him and rebounded with a strong effort in Game Two. he opened the scoring with a sneaky good goal, then assisted on what turned out to be the game winner, Simon Kubicek's power play goal. he finished the night with two points and a +1 rating. The T-birds need that version of Richards to win the series.
Jaxan Kaluski almost quietly was one of Seattle's best players in Game Two. He ended the night with one assist but was +2. By going hard to the net on the T-birds first and third goals, he grabbed some of the goalie's attention, helping open up space for Richards and Andrej Kukuca to score.
The T-birds did a better job with their discipline in the second game, but still surrendered four power play chances to the Giants. Vancouver's power play, which finished the regular season fourth best in the league at nearly 25-percent success, is a dangerous weapon. They are 3-for-11 so far in the series. Seattle has to try and stay out of the box. Giving Vancouver an average of five and a half power plays per game is a recipe for disaster. Once the Giants get the man advantage, they spend an awful lot of time in the attacking zone. They move the puck well, led by highly touted defenseman Bowen Byram. Any time the puck is on his stick, it seems like a scoring chance.
Heroes don't always wear capes. With defenseman Jake Lee suspended for Game Two, Seattle inserted Zach Ashton into the lineup to fill his spot. Playing on a third pairing with rookie Cade McNelly, Ashton came up big, breaking up a Vancouver 4-on-1 rush by sliding into a pass, either getting just enough of the puck or forcing a bad pass to spoil a Giants chance to tie the game at two in the third period. He did it again on another shift later in the game. But what he and McNelly did was give the coach's quality minutes on the back end. They didn't overextend themselves. They kept it simple and played smart hockey. That saved Seattle's top two pairings for extra shifts at the end while Seattle protected a two goal lead.
Roddy Ross' stat line after Game One didn't look good with a goals against average over eight and a save percentage barely at 80. But Ross was not the problem in Game One. He wasn't pulled early in the third for playing poorly. he was lifted because his team was not playing well in front of him. Like pitchers in baseball and quarterbacks in football, goalies often are saddled with too much of the blame in a loss. Hockey is a team game. You win as a team, you lose as a team. Ross was just as calm, cool and collected in the Game One loss as he was in making 39 saves in the Game Two win. The difference in winning and losing was how his team played in front of him.
If there was a silver lining to that first game defeat it may have been that back up goalie Cole Schwebius got a chance to experience postseason play early on. Schwebius acquitted himself well, stopping nine of ten shots in just under 16-minutes of playing time.