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CHL Top-10 Spotlight: Talented Thunderbirds take flight

 

After coming within a few wins of a WHL title last spring, Steve Konowalchuk’s Seattle Thunderbirds are back for another shot, entering the weekend as one of the CHL’s hottest clubs with wins in 19 of their 23 contests in the new year. The recent dominance has earned the T-Birds an honourable mention in the latest edition of the weekly CHL Top-10 Rankings.

Success has come from the contributions of a variety of different sources, with the strong play of January’s WHL Goaltender of the Month Rylan Toth providing a formidable last line of defence.

Toth, who gained valuable Mastercard Memorial Cup experience with the Red Deer Rebels last spring, plays behind a blue line led by current WHL Player of the Week Ethan Bear.

An Edmonton Oilers prospect, Bear registered 10 points including four goals and six assists over five games and sits second among WHL rearguards with 25 goals on the campaign.

Seattle’s star-studded forward group is powered by a pair of ‘Big Apple’ prospects as New York Islanders first round pick Mathew Barzal, who represented Canada at the World Juniors this past January, has 63 points (8-55–63) in just 34 games after starting the season in the NHL. Barzal, who recently earned CHL Player of the Week honours, is an outstanding playmaker who currently sits third in all-time franchise assists behind WHL scoring legend Glen Goodall (1985-90) and Victor Gervais (1985-90) with 201 to his credit.

New York Rangers second round selection Ryan Gropp leads the ‘Birds in scoring with 65 points (25-40–65) over 54 contests. The big left-winger had a 16-game point streak snapped on Sunday.

Big 6-foot-2, 223Ib. power forward Keegan Kolesar is a third round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets and is producing at just over a point-per-game clip this season with 43 points (19-24–43) in 42 outings. He’s joined by secondary scoring options in veterans Scott Eansor and Alexander True up front.

Seattle’s latest triumph came over the rival Portland Winterhawks on Sunday as they overcame a two-goal third period deficit to force a shootout where Finnish rookie Sami Moilanen secured the two points. The win was Seattle’s second win over Portland in as many nights and they pulled it off with a depleted bench, drawing strong praise from Konowalchuk for their strong play of late.

“For a regular season win, since I’ve been coaching, this was probably the most fun,” the sixth-year bench boss told 710 ESPN’s Andy Eide. “The guys played their tails off, right to the end. That’s all I can ask of them.”

Currently jostling with Everett atop the U.S. Division, The T-Birds have dealt with recent injuries to regulars in forwards Kolesar, Eansor, Nolan Volcan and Matthew Wedman in recent weeks.

“Those guys have a lot of character,” Konowalchuk said of his team. “Short bench for all those games, and you know, they don’t make excuses. Everybody in there expects to get the job done when their name is called. It’s just character. Right now, with our team, those guys in the locker room are showing a lot of character.”

Interdivisional games will be crucial for the Thunderbirds down the stretch as nine of their remaining 12 contests come against U.S. Division opponents. To this point in the season, they’re 19-9-2-1 against teams in their own division.

Seattle sits one point behind Everett to start the weekend though the Silvertips hold a pair of games in hand. The U.S. Division may well be decided by the fate of upcoming clashes between the two clubs on Sunday in Seattle, March 4th in Everett and March 10th back at the ShoWare Center.

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