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Thread: Early exit shouldn't overshadow accomplishments

  1. #1

    Post Early exit shouldn't overshadow accomplishments

    By Tim Pigulski

    When this season began, most experts pegged the Thunderbirds to finish somewhere in the bottom half of the U.S. Division, usually behind Portland and Everett, sometimes Spokane.

    Entering the year, it was clear Seattle had some upper-echelon talents – Shea Theodore, Mathew Barzal, Ryan Gropp, Justin Hickman and Taran Kozun – and a strong group of veterans on the blue line that included Jared Hauf, Jerret Smith and Evan Wardley.

    Outside of those established players, Seattle's roster was riddled with question marks.

    Would Keegan Kolesar develop into an impact power forward after registering just eight points as a rookie? After an offensive explosion in the playoffs last year, could Scott Eansor carry that momentum into and through the following regular season? Could a team that began the season with an astonishing eight rookies on the depth chart really contend for anything more than a low seed in the playoffs?

    There were these questions and many more, and despite an early playoff exit, the Thunderbirds exceeded the expectations of many, finishing the season fourth in the Western Conference with 85 points and getting within inches of taking the favored Portland Winterhawks to Game 7 in the first round.

    Had it been known that Theodore wouldn't even suit up until November, and that as soon as he was close to returning Barzal would suffer an injury of his own, the expectations for this team likely would have dropped a great deal. That is, by everyone except them.

    Not once throughout this season did anyone on the Seattle bench, from the coaching staff all the way down through the backup goalie, ever once blame anyone but themselves for a loss. They expected the most out of the guys they had each and every night, and constantly referred to the need for some of those younger guys, including the eight rookies, to step up and play a bigger role to fill whatever enormous shoes were currently out of the lineup.

    This team dealt with a huge amount of adversity, from significant injuries to Theodore, Barzal, Alexander True and Kolesar, to their captain and backup goalie both retiring midseason, and still managed to challenge Portland for second in the U.S. Division up until the regular season's final days.

    Over the past seven-plus months, head coach Steve Konowalchuk has constantly praised his team's resolve, battling back from difficult losses and deficits in games to remain competitive. That determination was never more evident than in their Game 6 defeat against Portland, when they battled back from a two-goal deficit in the second period then scored with just one minute and 40 seconds left in regulation to force overtime and prolong their season for another 19 minutes.

    The veterans on this team faced an extraordinary challenge, not only losing Hickman – the unquestioned leader in the locker room – before the second half of the season began, but also in keeping a young roster focused and never letting them get too high or low.

    Those young players all made contributions in some way and, because of the hardships that they faced this year, will be even better prepared for a greater challenge next season. One of the team's three overage players, Wardley, may have summed it up best as he fought back tears following his final WHL game when he said, "Moving forward, it's a really special group in there. To be the team we were and the team they will be, I'm excited for this organization."

    Heading into the series with the rival Winterhawks, it was clearly going to be an uphill battle. Matched up against the best line in the WHL would be Eansor and two rookies in 16-year-old Nolan Volcan and 17-year-old Donovan Neuls. The trio performed admirably throughout the series, even if the final stat lines may not show it. This Portland team has enjoyed deep runs in the playoffs for the past few years and possesses a great deal of postseason experience, a valuable asset that the youthful Thunderbirds couldn't call on in the end.

    Emotions ran high as individuals said their goodbyes on Tuesday night, some for the last time. Theodore, who will now move on to the professional ranks, was still wearing his Thunderbirds jersey emblazoned with the "C" over half an hour after Nic Petan's series-clinching goal, cautious to remove it and put the past four years permanently in his rearview mirror.

    "It'll be tough to sleep tonight," said the 19-year-old Theodore, an Anaheim Ducks draft pick, following the game. "I don't want to take this jersey off. It's an honor and I'm very proud to have been a T-Bird."

    Without a doubt, the playoff defeat was a disappointment for the players and coaches in the home locker room at the ShoWare Center two nights ago. For a team that expected so much of themselves, even when others didn't, you would expect nothing less.

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    How about a 2019 preseason thread getting started?? I will be at a few of the scrimmages but would be nice to see some life on the T-Bird forum!!

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