The NHL draftee hasn’t been around all season, but when he has the T-birds have been among the best in the WHL. Seattle goes for a playoff sweep of Everett on Friday night in Kent.
There’s little doubt the reason the Seattle Thunderbirds are poised for another run at a Western Hockey League title is the team captain that hasn’t always been around.
Mathew Barzal spent the season’s first six weeks with the New York Islanders, had a winter stint with Team Canada’s juniors and missed the opening round of the WHL playoffs following a bout with the mumps. But the 19-year-old center from Coquitlam, B.C., returned for Round 2 against the Everett Silvertips and — as he has all season when actually in a Thunderbirds uniform — lifted his team when most needed.
Barzal’s two goals last Tuesday, including the overtime winner, helped last year’s WHL finalist T-birds avoid an epic collapse that would have let a plucky Everett side right back in the series. Instead, the Thunderbirds lead the best-of-7 round 3-0 and can advance to the WHL’s Western Conference final with a win in Game 4 on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
“We could have just hung our heads,’’ Barzal said. “But I think we’ve been in this position before. We have some good leaders on this team.’’
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His early goal on a wrister at 4:23 of the third period tied the score and upped his team’s confidence level.
The T-birds laid the body on heavily in the game’s closing minutes and had a few near-misses that could have ended things in regulation.
Then, in overtime, Barzal quickly put the rebound away before Everett could ever really get going.
“He likes the puck on his stick in big games,’’ Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “I remember when he was 16, he scored a really big playoff goal. He wants to be able to have those moments.’’
The Thunderbirds were stumbling along at .500 before Barzal was returned by the Islanders in November. Teamed with New York Rangers draft pick Ryan Gropp, 20, a late cut in training camp, they replicated their 1-2 scoring feats of a year ago.
The T-birds shot up the standings, losing only once at home the season’s final two months. Barzal appeared in only 41 of 72 games, but finished with 10 goals and 69 assists — trailing only scoring leader Gropp.
And in games he didn’t play, like when sidelined with the mumps late in the regular season, players such as Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Keegan Kolesar and Edmonton Oilers prospect Ethan Bear stepped up.
The Thunderbirds’ depth is what makes them so dangerous this postseason. Their ability to throw out practically an entire first line of NHL draftees is why Silvertips coach Kevin Constantine said his smaller, younger team needed near-perfect hockey to win.
“I think hockey is mostly a compete game,’’ Constantine said. “That’s never questioned with them. And you’ve got to bring skill to your compete and I think Barzal is the best player in the league in terms of skill. And it’s not just him. He’s got some complementary players alongside him that are pretty good.’’
Gropp had missed the T-birds’ last four playoff games due to injury before his game-winning assist in Tuesday’s return. Barzal now has six points in three games this series and hasn’t missed a beat physically despite skipping the entire first round.
“I feel good,’’ Barzal said. “I probably could have played in the Tri-City series. I got a lot of skates in. I was out on the ice with Steve (Konowalchuk) and a little bit by myself. I got back in shape. Once you get back in the game it comes back pretty quick.’’
And with Barzal, Gropp and others fully healthy and playing as expected, the only thing that might slow the T-birds now is themselves. Barzal agreed the Game 3 wake-up call delivered a message just in time.
“We picked up our heads and didn’t let them stop us.’’