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Thread: T-Birds season ends

  1. #1

    Post T-Birds season ends

    By Andrew Eide

    After one of their most successful campaigns in several years, the Seattle Thunderbirds season has come to an end.

    As has been the theme of their entire series against Kelowna, the T-Birds could not cash in on the chances they generated and fell to the Rockets 5-2 Wednesday night at the ShoWare Center. Kelowna got two points from Damon Severson and once again relied on their depth, along with 42 saves by goalie Jordon Cooke, to complete the series sweep.

    "Their goalie played well," head coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "I thought we played a fairly strong game, their guys capitalized more than ours. Congratulations to them, they were the better team."

    The T-Birds pushed hard in this game, playing desperate hockey, but struggled to find the big goal they needed to stay alive. Seattle again was given several power-play chances and once again couldn't take advantage. A big turning point, one that was the epitome of the series, was the start of the season's final twenty minutes.

    Trailing 2-1 going into the third period the T-Birds had 2:45 seconds left of a power play that carried over from the second period after Ryan Olsen was given a double minor for high sticking. This was Seattle's big chance to try and get the game even. They worked the puck around and came close a couple of times but Cooke either made a save, or the puck just bounced off a Seattle stick.

    In the end, Kelowna killed off the penalty and Seattle lost a great deal of momentum, and maybe hope.

    "That's the game," Konowalchuk said of the extended power-play chance. "You get momentum. Their special teams were a lot better than ours, that's another big part of this series."

    It was like that all series long. Seattle ended the night 1-for-7 on the power play and have to feel that they could have won this game. The contrasts in special teams was evident again on Wednesday as the Rockets converted on two of their five power play chances. For the series, Seattle was 2-for-22 with the man advantage.

    The frustrating thing for Seattle is that they were in this series. The Rockets did not dominate possession or the play territorially. Instead, Kelowna simply scored when they got a chance to and Seattle could not.

    "That makes it frustrating," Konowalchuk said. "We could have been better. We didn't have the same desperation, same passion as the first series. I talked to the guys, we've got to use this as a learning experience and there are some pretty upset guys in that locker room right now. They're young men so I hope they use it as a learning experience."

    Seattle didn't roll over in Game 4. They played hard, played like their backs were against the wall but in the end they had dug too deep of a hole against a team that had the best record in the WHL all year.

    The T-Birds did manage to get their first lead of the series after an Ethan Bear power-play goal in the first period. The 16-year-old defenseman fired a wrist shot past Cooke for his second playoff tally. The problem for Seattle is that they couldn't build on that lead.

    Not that they didn't have their chances. The T-Birds pushed and just missed on several golden opportunities -- the theme of the series.

    In the second period the Rockets struck back. First Severson scored his fourth goal of the series as he turned in the high slot and fired a shot that deflected off a Seattle player and past goalie Taran Kozun. Two minutes later Cole Linaker gave Kelowna the lead as he stuffed home a wrap around goal for his fourth goal of the post season.

    After Seattle failed on their early power-play attempt in the third period, the Rockets went in for the kill.

    Kelowna got goals from Marek Tvrdon and Tyson Baillie to build a 4-1 lead that would end up sending the T-Birds home. Seattle got the game closer when Sam McKechnie scored with just under five minutes left but when Nick Merkley slid the puck into an empty T-Birds net with under 30 seconds to go, the celebration was on for Kelowna.

    The Rockets were clearly the better team in this series but the T-Birds played with a little less intensity than they had in their first round series with Everett. They have to feel that, at the minimum, this series could have been closer than the four-game sweep indicates it was.

    Afterwards, Konowalchuk talked about this being a learning experience for his players.

    "Some are going to be back here playing juniors, some are moving on to pro hockey," he said of his players. "If they don't think, that in this series, they didn't give it everything they've got every game, this should hurt. But they can learn from it, that's what this is all about, learning from it. Because I think we could have been a better team in the second round."

    In the end the loss caps off a season that was ultimately a successful one, despite the disappointment on Wednesday. The T-Birds won 41 games, ended up with home ice advantage in the first round, and beat one of their biggest rivals in the first round of the playoffs. There will be plenty of time to reflect on that, but on Wednesday night, the loss was still too fresh, too raw.

    "I'm upset right now, I don't want to be too negative on the whole year," Konowalchuk said. "I told the guys I'm proud of our regular season, played a real good team in the first round and competed real hard. As proud as I am, I'm disappointed right now...its going to take a few days to sit back, see where we fell in and see if we're satisfied or not."


    Seattle's struggles on the power play hurt them in this series and has been a constant against Kelowna. The Rockets feature the league's best penalty kill and over the last two post seasons have only allowed Seattle to go 2-for-49 on the power play. That is as big a reason as any why they have moved on two years in a row.

    The T-Birds had several players who played their final game in a Seattle sweater on Wednesday night -- we just don't know which ones. With ten 19-year-olds on their roster, they will have to say goodbye to several players. Which three return as 20-year-olds next season will be one of the most intriguing off-season stories to watch.

    One player that the T-Birds did say goodbye to was Mitch Elliot. The tough and gritty 20-year-old was a fan favorite and played 322 games for Seattle in his WHL career.

  2. #2

    Post The Last Harrumph

    By Thom Beuning

    They say a season is not successful unless it ends with a championship. In the case of the 2013-14 Thunderbirds campaign I'd have to vehemently disagree. Juxtaposed against the last four seasons of sub .500 records and in most cases, non-playoff hockey, I'd classify this year's results as an unmitigated success.

    Seattle, in its third season of stewardship from head coach Steve Konowalchuk, took another step forward with their program. After sneaking into the playoffs last spring with just 24 wins, they improved that win total this season to 41, earned home ice advantage in the first round and, for the first time since 2008, won a playoff series and advanced to the second round.

    Before the season this organization set out a list of goals and when all is said and done, they checked just about everyone of them off their list; winning record, top four finish in the conference with home ice advantage, plus a deeper playoff run then last year. When you've been playing losing hockey for four straight years, you don't all of a sudden leap the Grand Canyon to the top of the standings. Instead you take incremental steps forward. Each season with Konowalchuk behind the bench Seattle has improved. They went from a losing record and just missing the playoffs in his first season to a losing record and just making the playoffs in his second campaign (scaring the bejeezus out of Kelowna in the first round last year)and now in year three a winning record and a playoff series win. It's called progress and I expect that progress to continue in Year Four.

    Getting swept by Kelowna certainly was a disappointing result but let's remember we're talking about a team that was number one in the WHL almost from day one and spent the majority of the year ranked number one in the CHL top ten poll too. Seattle had it's moments in the series, probably should have won Games 2 and/or 3, but were just too inconsistent against the Rockets and in the end, the better team won. There isn't a lot of "if only this worked or if only that happened" from this series like the seven game series last spring. Kelowna really left no doubt. They'll have their hands full against a Portland team I think is playing the best hockey of any team in the league right now, but the Rockets deserve their spot in the Western Conference Finals.

    Let's also remember that the players from the first bantam draft since Konowalchuk was hired just completed their rookie season; players like Barzal, Bear and Kolesar. Others will join the team next season on a full time basis such as Flodell, Pederson and Neuls. There are still players from the "old regime", if you will, on the roster although over the past couple of years players that don't fit his system have been weeded out and others brought in. Still there is a bit of a transition phase going on that's not entirely complete. Players like Eansor, Yakubowski, McKechnie, Henry, Spencer and Maxwell weren't brought here this season just to fill a roster spot. They play a style that fits Konowalchuk's systems.

    While the season was a success, it was by no means perfect. They still had lapses where not everyone was on the same page. They still allowed far too many goals against. In fact, despite their winning record they gave up more goals then they scored this season. Defensive zone coverage and puck management have to improve. And special teams play was far too inconsistent. They languished near the bottom of the league most of the season on the power play, then rose to as high as 7th overall before finishing 14th in a 22 team league. The talent on the team suggests they should have been better. The same can be said for the penalty kill although it was consistently ranked in the middle of the pack, finishing 13th. It too can improve.

    It didn't help that they didn't have their second leading scorer from the previous season, Conner Honey, available most of the year. Honey was going to be a big part of this team, especially on special teams. When he got hurt in Lethbridge back on October 6th, he had accumulated six points (2g,4a) in just seven games. He was on pace to be a point a game player and his leadership and other intangibles were probably worth another 5 to 6 wins in the standings. He worked hard all season to try and get back in the lineup but never could. I don't know where he stands right now but you have to wonder if he can play again at this level. But even saying that, the T-birds probably still finish 4th in the conference and their path to the second round probably wouldn't have changed.

    I fully expect the Thunderbirds to compete for a top four spot in the conference again next season. Anything less would be a disappointment. In fact at this moment, not knowing what offseason moves teams will make, I would expect the top four teams from this year to be the top four teams next year as well; Kelowna, Portland, Victoria and Seattle but not necessarily in the same order.

    There is a bit of a misconception that, because they had ten 19 year olds on the roster, the T-birds were an old team. That is skewed because they carried only one 20 year old the second half of the season. They really aren't much different from the team that just beat them, Kelowna, which carried three 20 year olds and six 19 year olds or Victoria and Portland with their three 20s and six 19 year olds. The reality is, they are pretty much going to lose the same number of players as those other top clubs in the West.

    The advantage Seattle has is they have a tremendous group of '94 born players from which to choose their three overage players for next season. The key is for Seattle to pick the right three overage players to keep and then get value in trade for those they cannot retain. Meanwhile, they ended the year with seven rookies on the roster, including four 16 year olds, and all were seeing significant ice time in the playoffs.

    Right now I'd like to take a paragraph or two to thank Mitch Elliot for five years of service to the Thunderbirds. I think if you follow this team and Mitch over the last five years you couldn't help but smile when he scored his playoff goal against Everett in Game 5 of Round 1. And it was no cheapie either. It was great to see him finish the postseason with three points (1g, 2a) and +1. Mitch was the ultimate team player. Whatever role he was asked to play he did it. He was genuinely appreciated by his teammates both on and off the ice.

    Off the ice Mitch embraced the opportunity to be a part of the local community. Mitch is the first player in franchise history to play his entire five year T-bird career with the team based in Kent. He wasted little time getting involved in the mentoring program with the Kent School District and also led the team's Movember Campaign to raise awareness for men's health. But what I will remember most about Mitch is that in June of 2012, he drove down non-stop from his home in Prince George to be here for Bruce McDonald's memorial service. That's a 12 hour unscheduled car ride minimum, with no co-pilot. He didn't have to do it, but he wanted to. Let me tell you Mitch, Bruce's mom, Char, will never forget what you did for her and to honor her son. Thank you.

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