May 11, 2017
by Taylor Rocca
Kent, Wash. – After three one-goal games to open the 2017 WHL Championship Series, Game 4 took a wild and unexpected turn as the Seattle Thunderbirds rattled off six unanswered goals en route to a decisive 6-1 victory, tying the best-of-seven festivities.
Veteran winger Keegan Kolesar registered a goal and two assists to lead the offense, while rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski was steady, turning aside 18 of the 19 shots sent his way.
“Our guys, you could tell, were ready to play right at the start,” said Steve Konowalchuk, head coach of the Thunderbirds, following Wednesday’s win. “We had a pretty good start, then [the Pats] get the power-play goal, but our guys didn’t let up.
“They’re a good hockey team over there and they’re all tight games. You never know in any kind of game how the puck’s going to bounce at times, but I think we got a couple quick goals there that spread the gap a little bit. We know it will be tough next game.”
In the early going, as has been much the case throughout the series, special teams took centre stage.
Only 1:38 into the first period, Nick Henry was sent off for holding, giving the Thunderbirds the first power-play opportunity of the night. Seattle generated a few chances, but was unable to capitalize early.
The second power play of the night went to the Pats with 8:41 to go in the period as Ethan Bear sat down for hooking. With four seconds to go in the man advantage, Sam Steel took a pass from Dawson Leedahl, stepping out into the faceoff circle before wiring a quick wrist shot past Stankowski. Steel’s 10th of the post-season gave Regina a 1-0 lead with 6:45 to go in the period.
But that’s as much as the Pats saw – both at even strength and on special teams – as the Thunderbirds took control from there.
“We had a pretty good start,” said John Paddock, head coach and general manager of the Pats, following Wednesday’s loss. “We didn’t keep playing and they had their game going.
“It’s not very nice when you read in the paper or online that you lost 6-1, but the result is the same as 2-1… We will deal with it… That’s the strength of our team – we won a lot of games this year and we won a lot of games handily and we were ready to play the next night… We’ll have a game face on for Friday.”
Liam Schioler was the next Pat to take a trip to the penalty box as he hauled down the pesky Sami Moilanen behind the Regina cage. That gave Seattle another power play with 4:27 to go in the first period. This time around, the Thunderbirds wasted no time making the most of the opportunity.
Only 33 seconds into the advantage, Bear started the sequence with a breakout pass for Barzal, who carried in over the Regina blueline before dishing to Keegan Kolesar on the right wing. The burly forward fed Ryan Gropp on the doorstep, and the veteran product from Kamloops jammed home his fifth of the playoffs to tie the game 1-1.
“It was early in the game [when Regina scored] and obviously you can’t get discouraged by that,” Gropp said. “We needed to keep pushing and I thought we stuck our game plan the entire game.”
Only 19 seconds had passed when the Thunderbirds struck for a second time. The public address hadn’t even finished announcing Gropp’s strike when Moilanen found the back of the net, bringing another rowdy ShoWare Center crowd to its feet with his sixth of the playoffs, giving Seattle a 2-1 lead late in the first period.
With time winding down in the first period, a workmanlike shift from Scott Eansor gave the Thunderbirds a 3-1 lead heading into the dressing room. After Jarret Tyszka forced a turnover inside Seattle territory, Eansor lugged the rubber up ice and in behind the Pats net before spinning out front.
Though he missed on his first chance, Eansor stuck with it and eventually fed Bear at the point. A slap shot found its way through to Pats goaltender Tyler Brown and Nolan Volcan was there to clean up the rebound, swatting home his fourth of the post-season and sparking an eruption from the Seattle faithful.
Closing in on the midmark of the second period, the T-Birds further padded their lead. Tyszka took a drop pass from Kolesar before snapping a quick shot on net that Brown got a piece of but not enough. The defenceman’s second of the playoffs gave Seattle a 4-1 lead 6:51 into the middle period.
It took only five seconds for the Thunderbirds to make the Pats pay for yet another ill-advised penalty. With Filip Ahl serving a minor for holding the stick, Bear sent a wrist shot towards the Pats cage. The stick of Alexander True was on the spot with the redirection, just enough to sneak it through Brown and the home team was out to a 5-1 lead with 6:08 to go in the second period.
The Thunderbirds weren’t done there. After an Austin Strand point shot was blocked in the slot, Kolesar pounced on the rebound, snapping his 10th of the playoffs and first of the series to extend the lead to 6-1 with 1:09 to go in the second period.
“I was just going more to the net, playing a heavier game and taking pucks to the net,” said Kolesar, the product of Brandon and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect. “Tonight, I really thought our line showed up more than other nights and that’s why we had some success.”
After allowing six goals on 24 shots, Brown was relieved by Jordan Hollett to start the third period. The Regina backstop made 12 saves during mop-up duty.
Content with a five-goal cushion, the Thunderbirds did little more than wind down the clock over the final 20 minutes of play, while the Pats were unable to muster any sort of threat.
Seattle’s power play finished the night 2-for-7, while the Pats went 1-for-3.
“This isn’t the first adversity we’ve faced this playoffs,” Steel said. “I don’t think there’s any momentum in playoffs. We will come with a fresh start on Friday and we’ll bring our best game.”
The series now becomes a best-of-three affair, with Game 5 scheduled for Friday in Kent and Game 6 set to go Sunday back in Regina.
“That’s a pivotal game in the series,” Kolesar said. “You don’t want to be down 3-1 in the series, of course. Now that we’ve tied it up 2-2 we’re just looking to the next one.”
The two teams will take Thursday away from game action before returning to the ShoWare Center in Kent on Friday, with Game 5 of the 2017 WHL Championship Series presented by Rogers slated to get underway at 7:35 p.m. PT.