The Thunderbirds came into the 2015-16 season with high expectations. But with various injuries along with international competitions often taking key players out of the lineup, we have seen only rare glimpses into exactly how good this team could be. But with everyone back in the fold & relatively healthy, we're now seeing how powerful this squad can be. With their two wins this weekend, the T-Birds enter the final week of the season riding a 10 game winning streak (5 at home, 5 on the road) and on the cusp of winning the U.S. Division title & the #2 seed in the Western Conference that comes along with it this season. Here's how it went...
Friday, March 11, 2016 vs Everett Silvertips
After having struggled so much against their rivals to the north, the Thunderbirds seem to have finally figured the Silvertips out. The only goal of the game came at the 6:41 mark of the first period when Nick Holowko buried his 6th goal of the year off a pass from winger Ryan Gropp. After that, it was a goaltending duel between Landon Bow & Everett's star netminder Carter Hart. Shots were at a premium in this game (25-21 in favor of Seattle), but Bow stopped everything Everett's popgun offense could trickle his way. The win stretched the Thunderbirds lead for the U.S. Division title out over Everett to 4 points.
Saturday, March 12, 2016 at Portland Winterhawks
For the first time in what seems like a really long time, Mathew Barzal was held off the scorer's sheet for Seattle. Ryan Gropp did post a goal for the Thunderbirds, but it was the 2nd line's night in this one as wingers Nolan Volcan and Donovan Neuls each had a goal and an assist while center Scott Eansor contributed 2 assists as the Thunderbirds defeated their long time rival Winterhawks 3-2. Landon Bow stopped 29 of the 31 shots Portland offered to him in this one. Meanwhile in Kennewick, the Tri-City Americans (fighting for their playoff lives) managed to beat Everett 4-1. This combination of events led to Seattle stretching their U.S. Division lead out to 6 points with each team having 4 games to play entering Sunday evening.
Thunderbirds Three* Stars of the Week
1. Landon Bow. The overage goaltender stopped 50 of the 52 pucks aimed at his net this weekend. One key to playoff success is having a red hot goaltender peaking at the right time. As of right now, it seems like Bow is doing just that.
2,3 & 4. Scott Eansor, Donovan Neuls & Nolan Volcan. Yeah, I know I'm handing out a non-traditional 4th Star here. But the Thunderbirds 2nd line came up huge Saturday night against Portland. They also had a few quality chances against the air-tight Everett defense on Friday night. But this line has been a real contributor to the Thunderbirds 10 game winning streak, helping prove that Seattle is deeper offensively than the Barzal/Gropp/Kolesar line. Another key to playoff success is getting contributions from more than just one line. If this trio keeps it up, it can take Seattle from being a 2nd round team to a Conference Finals and even a League Finals kind of team.
Tyszka injured again?
Defenseman Jarret Tyszka took a solid bump along the boards early in Saturday's game in Portland and did not return for the rest of the contest. Tyszka missed over a month after the Christmas break with a hand injury he suffered while at home. As always with hockey injuries, not much is really known about what ails him and we have no idea how long he'll be out.
What's coming up?
The Thunderbirds will finish the 2015-16 season with a flurry of games this week. Their four games in six nights start on Tuesday in Kent with a match-up against the Spokane Chiefs. The Chiefs are currently desperately holding onto the 8th and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
On Friday the 18th, the Thunderbirds make on final trek over Snoqualmie Pass to Kennewick to play the Tri-City Americans. The Ams are the ones furiously chasing Spokane for that final playoff spot. As of this writing. Tri is 4 points back of their eastern Washington rivals & are playing with nothing to lose.
Seattle finishes the regular season with a home-and-home series against the Portland Winterhawks. On Saturday the 19th they'll be at the ShoWare Center in Kent, followed by a Sunday evening showdown at the Moda Center in Portland to close the season out. Portland is also fighting for a playoff spot, not quite being far enough out of reach of the Americans to clinch a spot while also being only 1 point ahead (as of this writing) of Spokane for the final playoff spot.
So with division titles and playoff tickets hanging in the balance, the final week of the WHL season will be an interesting one not only for the Thunderbirds, but the entire U.S. Division.