Thunderbirds on the brink of history following Game 5 win over Pats

Brian Liesse


Kent, Wash. – A powerful performance in Game 5 of the WHL Championship Series has the Seattle Thunderbirds on the brink of history.

A dominant display from Mathew Barzal – in what is likely to be his final game at the ShoWare Center – fueled the Thunderbirds to a 7-4 victory in the pivotal contest Friday night, giving Seattle a 3-2 series lead and a shot at claiming the first WHL Championship in the franchise’s 40-year history.

“To go out with a nice night like that, I couldn’t ask for more,” said the 19-year-old product of Coquitlam and signed prospect of the NHL’s New York Islanders following Friday’s victory. “Now, we’re just chasing that next one.”

Barzal finished the night with two goals and an assist to pace the Seattle offense.

Once again, the Thunderbirds were lethal with the man advantage, converting on three of five opportunities to control the contest. Over the course of Games 4 and 5 of the best-of-seven championship run, Seattle has gone 5-for-12 with the power play to push the Pats to the brink of elimination.

“The big thing is we have to stay out of the penalty box,” said John Paddock, head coach and general manager of the Pats, following Friday’s loss. “It’s really simple.

“The game was 3-3 if nobody had any power-play goals. I don’t really have anything much other than that. I think there are some things we can do better, but that’s the starting point – you can’t beat yourself.”

Early in the contest, it looked as though the Pats were off to the races, setting the tone over the opening 3:30 of the night.

Much like Game 4, Regina got the early jump in Game 5. Only 1:05 into the proceedings, a long point shot from Josh Mahura made its way through a maze of bodies, finding a clean path through Carl Stankowski to the back of the net, giving Regina a 1-0 lead.

Unlike Game 4, the Pats kept coming in Game 5. Only 2:12 elapsed after Mahura’s opener when Jeff de Wit wriggled his way past a check along the left wall in Seattle territory before making his way through the left faceoff circle and firing a quick wrist shot over the shoulder of Stankowski to give the visitors a 2-0 lead.

“There were a couple guys that stepped up and said not to worry,” Barzal said. “There was still 55 minutes left in the game. I really liked the way we responded and we just kept pushing after that.”

The scoring kept coming, fast and furious, as the third strike went to Seattle, eliciting a raucous response from the record, sellout crowd of 6,223 at ShoWare Center only 1:52 after the Pats had taken a 2-0 lead. Scott Eansor put a puck on net off the rush from the left faceoff circle, the rebound fell dangerously in the blue paint where a driving Donovan Neuls pushed it across the goal line for his eighth of the playoffs to get the hosts back within a goal. The marker came with defenceman Sergey Zborovskiy in the penalty box after taking a high-sticking minor. That served as the first power-play goal of the night for the hosts.

“I thought our guys did a good job of just sticking with it from the start to the finish,” said Steve Konowalchuk, head coach of the Thunderbirds, following Friday’s win. “Just kept playing, not really worrying about the scoreboard too much, just playing the game the right way.

“It’s good to get right back in the game. The guys just kept playing and it’s so important you try not to get too up or too down within the game and after the game. You just try to keep everything even.”

On the ensuing shift, Pats rookie Robbie Holmes was sent to the sin bin for closing his hand on the puck, giving the Thunderbirds a second consecutive man advantage. This time around, it was Barzal pouncing on a rebound, banging home his first goal of the 2017 WHL Championship Series and sixth of the playoffs to pull the score even only 52 seconds after Neuls got Seattle on the scoreboard.

Midway through the second period, Dawson Leedahl restored the Regina lead on a power play. With Austin Strand serving an interference minor after knocking Austin Wagner to the ice in front of the crease, the Pats went to work. Hobbs dropped a cheeky pass behind his back to Leedahl in the left circle, who eluded a defender with a nifty little toe drag before snapping his 12th of the post-season past the high glove of Stankowski, putting the Pats back in the driver’s seat by a 3-2 margin.

The Pats’ lead didn’t make it to the second intermission as veteran Keegan Kolesar skated into Regina territory and unloaded a heavy wrist shot that beat Pats goaltender Tyler Brown high glove, tying the game 3-3 with 3:20 to go. At the end of the play, Wagner dumped Neuls into the Regina cage, earning himself a roughing minor in the process. That set up the go-ahead goal for the Thunderbirds and ultimately served as the turning point in the outing.

On the power play that followed, Barzal took a feed from defenceman Ethan Bear and unleashed an absolute cannon that burned past Brown for a 4-3 Seattle lead. Barzal’s seventh of the playoffs and second of the evening came only 57 seconds after Kolesar had knotted the game.

“John [Paddock] already said it – we took too many penalties,” Hobbs said. “They’ve got a killer power play and we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot. We’ve got to regroup and come out more disciplined.”

Seattle kept it coming after the intermission.

The Thunderbirds padded the advantage in the early stages of the third period as Sami Moilanen collected a loose puck below the Regina goal line, wheeling a pass out front from behind the net to veteran Nolan Volcan, who was left completely alone at the backdoor. The Edmonton product shoveled the pass past Brown, giving his team a 5-3 lead only 2:21 into the third period.

But Seattle wasn’t finished.

On the following shift, a long shot from over forward Ryan Gropp caught Brown off guard. The puck found its way into the Regina cage, giving the Thunderbirds a commanding 6-3 lead only 3:55 into the final period of regulation.

The Pats got a much-needed boost with 8:38 to go in the period, momentarily bringing a hush over the ShoWare Center crowd. From the left circle, Wagner stepped into a heavy blast, beating Stankowski high once again to pull the Pats within a pair, making it a 6-4 game.

Paddock chose to pull Brown for the extra attacker with more than three minutes to play and while the Pats threw everything in at Stankowski, the rookie netminder stood tall – like a veteran much his senior – and kept the attack at bay.

For good measure, Turner Ottenbreit dumped one last dagger into an empty net with two seconds remaining.

Between the pipes, Stankowski finished the night with 33 saves, while Brown turned aside 32 of 38 pucks in defeat.

“[Stankowski made] huge saves in the second half of that game,” Konowalchuk said. “When the other team is making a push, you get the timely save and it’s so important. He’s just a confident kid and a good goaltender.”

With the win, the Thunderbirds own a 3-2 series lead and can claim the 2017 WHL Championship title on Sunday, May 14, when Game 6 of the WHL Championship Series presented by Rogers gets underway from the Brandt Centre in Regina.

“We’ve been in this position before,” Hobbs said. “Obviously, it’s a little bit different being the final round, but with home ice, that gives you confidence. It’s back in Regina. We have to use that for some momentum.

“It’s tough. It’s not easy. It’s hockey. Things happen and we have no choice but to come back and keep trying. That’s the way we’re built and that’s what we’re going to do.”

As for the Pats, they face a do-or-die scenario but will approach it from the friendlier confines of their home facility where Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7 will play out.

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