In many ways, overall health and a fired-up rival in Everett appear the only things standing between the Thunderbirds and another shot at the WHL title they narrowly missed last spring. This year’s squad finished with more victories and points than last season.
Scott Eansor couldn’t help but grin as he worked to catch his postgame breath.
After missing 32 games with a lower-body injury, the Seattle Thunderbirds captain had just returned to the Western Hockey League team’s lineup last weekend with the regular season fading. Eansor knew the importance of getting some games in before the T-birds this weekend begin an attempt to replicate their near-historic postseason showing of a year ago.
The T-birds open their best-of-seven first-round matchup against the Tri-City Americans on Friday at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
Seattle vs. Tri-City
Game 1: Friday, 7:35 p.m., ShoWare Center
Game 2: Saturday, 7:05 p.m., ShoWare Center
Game 3: Wednesday, 7:05 p.m., Kennewick
Game 4: March 31, 7:05 p.m., Kennwick
Game 5*: April 1, 7:05 p.m., ShoWare Center
Game 6*: April 3, 7:05 p.m., Kennewick
Game 7*: April 5, 7:05 p.m., ShoWare Center
Health and a fired-up rival in Everett appear the only things standing between the Thunderbirds and another shot at the WHL title they narrowly missed last spring. This year’s squad finished with more victories and points than last season, while displaying greater depth behind high-scoring NHL-draftee forwards Ryan Gropp and Mathew Barzal.
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“You never know how good a team is until you get into playoffs,” Eansor said. “However, this is the strongest offensive team I’ve ever been on. We work so well together. We’re the tightest team, just as tight as last year. So, I think we have a chance not only of getting to the final but winning the whole entire thing.”
To do that, the T-birds will need to start the playoffs healthier than they finished the regular season. Despite a 46-20-4-2 record — second best in franchise history — and losing just six times since Jan. 1, the Thunderbirds battled injuries and recently lost Barzal to what’s been diagnosed as the mumps.
On the night Eansor returned, the T-birds suffered their first home loss in more than two months, falling 4-1 to the Portland Winterhawks.
The defeat occurred the night the Everett Silvertips clinched the WHL’s U.S. Division after they’d nearly blown what appeared to be an insurmountable December lead on the T-birds. Seattle started backup goalies Matt Berlin and Carl Stankowski the final two regular-season games after starter Rylan Toth suffered a lower-body injury earlier in the week.
While Toth is expected back for Friday’s playoff opener, Barzal was to be a touch-and-go decision right up until game time. And that’s a concern, given how the Thunderbirds took off once Barzal was added to their lineup following a brief stint with the Islanders.
The Thunderbirds were 7-7-0-1 and in last place in the division when Barzal, the No. 16 overall pick in the 2015 draft, returned in November. Since that time, with Gropp having already returned in October from the New York Rangers, the T-birds went 39-13-0-1 — the division’s best record during that stretch.
Gropp led the team in scoring with 35 goals and 49 assists in 66 games, while Barzal had 10 goals and 69 assists in only 41 games. Both upped their points-per-game average of a season ago, while Gropp said the defensive side of his play improved.
The Thunderbirds took the Brandon Wheat Kings to sudden death overtime the first three games of the WHL finals last spring before losing all three and falling in five. A few lucky bounces, the T-birds might have captured their first WHL title.
Everett vs. Victoria
Game 1: Friday, 7:35 p.m., Xfinity Arena
Game 2: Saturday, 7:05 p.m., Xfinity Arena
Game 3: Tuesday, 7:05 p.m., Victoria, B.C.
Game 4: Wednesday, 7:05 p.m., Victoria, B.C.
Game 5*: March 31, 7:35 p.m., Xfinity Arena
Game 6*: April 2, 2:05 p.m., Victoria, B.C.
Game 7*: April 4, 7:05 p.m., Xfinity Arena
“It helps a lot, I think,” Gropp said of the experience. “With younger guys, the older guys can kind of tell them what it’s like and prepare them for the style of play in the playoffs. It’s a little bit of a harder game.’’
In the playoffs, he added, you toss out the regular-season stats.
“I think it’s just that everything’s magnified,” he said. “Every kind of little mistake, every turnover is magnified. You’ve got to finish a lot more checks. You’ve got to be harder on pucks. It definitely doesn’t change from how we want to play, compared to the regular season, but in playoffs, there’s a lot more on the line.’’
It helps that the T-birds appear to have more depth beyond Gropp and Barzal.
Forward Keegan Kolesar missed the early part of the season due to injury, but he returned to score 26 goals and add 34 assists in just 54 games. Center Alexander True jumped to 25 goals from 14 a year ago while Finnish rookie Sami Moilanen netted 21 and added 22 assists.
Ethan Bear, another NHL draft pick, by Edmonton, added a career-best 28 goals as a defenseman and power play regular. In fact, for all its offensive firepower, the team also shored-up its defensive depth with the continued progression of Turner Ottenbriet and a couple of trade deadline moves.
Things would appear headed in the right direction for a franchise that topped the 40-win mark in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1989-90. And yet, head coach Steve Konowalchuk is aware the playoffs are a different animal.
“I believe that, yes, we are a little better than last year,” Konowalchuk said. “That being said, I believe the western (conference) side is better this year.’’
Leading that Western Conference was a Silvertips team in Everett that spent almost the entire season atop the U.S. Division. Led by high-scoring forwards Patrick Bajkov and Dominic Zwerger, the Silvertips finished 44-16-9-3 to reach the 100-point mark for the second time in franchise history.
T-birds fans will point to the nine points the Silvertips gained via overtime losses as evidence they can be upended. After all, the Thunderbirds had two more wins and got the better of Everett head-to-head down the stretch despite finishing with two fewer points overall.
But Everett will also have home ice advantage at 8,300-seat Xfinity Arena should the teams meet in the second round. Everett has already won five U.S. Division titles since its inaugural season in 2003-04, but has not been back to a WHL final since that first campaign.
Between that and losing a second-round playoff matchup 4-1 to the T-birds a year ago, the Silvertips won’t be lacking in motivation this spring. Beyond that possibly looms improved Prince George and Kelowna squads that bolstered its ranks at the trade deadline.