With the 2017 Western Hockey League Playoffs set to begin Friday, March 24, WHL.ca provides a look in at each of the eight head-to-head matchups across the league.
What fans can expect is a general introduction to the two teams, coupled with vital statistics and keys to the series. In our player-specific sections, we will highlight Players to Watch that do not serve as the usual suspects – the best of the supporting cast or perhaps the darkhorse playoff warrior.
Finally, we close each of our series previews with a quick look to the past for a brief historical take on the rivalry that exists – or stands to develop.
In our seventh of eight opening round playoff previews, we examine the Seattle Thunderbirds and Tri-City Americans.
It’s what struck the Seattle Thunderbirds back in May 2016 as they fell in five games in the Ed Chynoweth Cup to the Brandon Wheat Kings.
Fast-forward to 2017.
Mathew Barzal is back in the Emerald City. Having been named the Western Conference Player of the Year, he has made his case to be the winner of the WHL’s Four Broncos Memorial Trophy as Player of the Year. Yes, the prospect of the New York Islanders is a difference-maker and a motivated one at that.
Upon being returned to the WHL after starting the campaign with the NHL’s Islanders, Barzal set lofty goals, which included claiming a gold medal at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship. Having fallen short in that pursuit after suffering a heart-breaking loss at the hands of Team USA in the gold-medal game, you can guarantee Barzal isn’t even considering coming up short as he chases the Ed Chynoweth Cup one more time.
The first opponent to stand in the path of Barzal and the Thunderbirds comes in the form of the Tri-City Americans – a club that has overcome its own set of adversity in 2016-17.
For starters, the Americans finished the campaign without star forward Michael Rasmussen as he recovers from a fractured wrist. The 6-foot-5, 200-pound product of Surrey, B.C., is a projected first-round pick at the summer’s 2017 NHL Draft and his brutal combination of size and skill often is too much to handle for even the best of defencemen. He scored 32 goals and 55 points in 50 games before being knocked out of action.
Despite being without the services of the their hulking star centre, the Americans forged ahead and won the final three games on their regular season schedule, executing a dramatic finish to the campaign that allowed them to leapfrog the Portland Winterhawks in order to claim third place in the U.S. Division.
The most dramatic of moments came in the dying seconds of the Americans’ regular season. Trailing the U.S. Division-champion Everett Silvertips by a pair of goals, Tri-City tied the game in the final 90 seconds of play before utilizing overtime to win it. That bonus point put them one ahead of Portland, setting up this first-round series with Seattle.
Let’s take a deeper look at the lone all-U.S. festivities to grace the first round of the 2017 WHL Playoffs.
Game 1 – Friday, March 24 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:35 p.m. PT
Game 2 – Saturday, March 25 – ShoWare Center – Kent., Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT
Game 3 – Wednesday, March 29 – Toyota Center – Kennewick, Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT
Game 4 – Friday, March 31 – Toyota Center – Kennewick, Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT
*Game 5 – Saturday, April 1 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT
*Game 6 – Monday, April 3 – Toyota Center – Kennewick, Wash. – 7:050 p.m. PT
*Game 7 – Wednesday, April 5 – ShoWare Center – Kent, Wash. – 7:05 p.m. PT
Nov. 25 – Seattle (5) at Tri-City (2)
Dec. 17 – Tri-City (0) at Seattle (3)
Jan. 27 – Seattle (4) at Tri-City (3)
Jan. 29 – Tri-City (1) at Seattle (5)
Feb. 10 – Tri-City (2) at Seattle (6)
Feb. 17 – Seattle (2) at Tri-City (4)
Feb. 24 – Seattle (3) at Tri-City (7)
March 3 – Tri-City (2) at Seattle (3)
|46-20-4-2 (98 points)
||41-28-3-0 (85 points)
|Second – U.S.
||Third – U.S.
|Lost WHL Championship
||Did not qualify
|Ryan Gropp – 35-49—84
||Morgan Geekie – 35-55—90
|Mathew Barzal – 10-69—79
||Second Leading Scorer
||Tyler Sandhu – 23-60—83
|Ethan Bear – 28-42—70
||Third Leading Scorer
||Parker Wotherspoon – 10-56—66
|Ryan Gropp – 35 goals
||Top Goal Scorer
||Morgan Geekie – 35 goals
|Ethan Bear – 28-42—70
||Top Scoring Defenceman
||Parker Wotherspoon – 10-56—66
(36-18-2-1, 2.75, .902, 1 SO)
(26-15-1-0, 3.28, .900, 1 SO)
Key to the Series – Seattle Thunderbirds
Beware the Bear: All season long, Ethan Bear has done nothing outside of establish himself as one of the most effective and dangerous defencemen in the WHL – and we aren’t just talking about his end of the rink. The Edmonton Oilers prospect (2015 – fifth, 124th) has an absolute cannon of a shot – evidenced by his 28 goals this season. When he is on the ice, there is little breathing room for the opponent’s top line and if you give him an opportunity to unleash his shot from the blueline, chances are pretty good he’s going to blow it by your goaltender.
Key to the Series – Tri-City Americans
Make good on the power play: If the Americans’ fourth-ranked man advantage can outplay the third-ranked penalty kill of the Thunderbirds… well, this could be a lengthy and interesting series. Sure, the Americans don’t expect to have Michael Rasmussen and his 15 power-play goals, but don’t look past Morgan Geekie, who emerged as an elite scorer, finding the back of the net 14 times on the man advantage. Pesky captain Tyler Sandhu makes things happen, having collected 29 power-play assists in this his final WHL regular season.
Forward to Watch – Seattle Thunderbirds
C Scott Eansor (18-20—38): The 21-year-old product of Engelwood, Col., missed extended time due to injury this season, skating in only 40 games. He was back in the lineup late in the campaign and motivated to make the most of his final WHL days. A 5-foot-9 pitbull who hounds opposing forwards as hard as any other player in the WHL, Eansor provides the sort of gutsy, gritty approach that puts teams over the top in the post-season. He’s racked up 23 points (16G-7A) in 33 career WHL playoff contests, including 13 points (7G-6A) during last year’s 18-game run.
Forward to Watch – Tri-City Americans
LW Jordan Topping (28-25—53): Speaking of guys whom missed time, Jordan Topping falls into that category as he only managed to dress for 43 games this season. The 19-year-old product of Salt Spring Island, B.C., still stacked up 53 points in the process, including 19 points (10G-9A) in his final 11 outings. Without Rasmussen in the lineup, Topping will be relied upon to provide vital support for the likes of Morgan Geekie, Tyler Sandhu, Vladislav Lukin and Kyle Olson.
Defenceman to Watch – Seattle Thunderbirds
Austin Strand (9-23—32): He only scored once in 38 contests as a member of the Red Deer Rebels, but boy did a trade to the Pacific Northwest ever spark the 20-year-old product of Calgary. Austin Strand tallied eight goals in 36 games as a member of the Thunderbirds and he proved durable as well, achieving the rare feat of dressing in 74 games – two more than a standard WHL regular season. The 6-foot-3, 190-pound blueliner knows the pressure of the big-game stage, having represented the Rebels at the 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Defenceman to Watch – Tri-City Americans
Dylan Coghlan (15-38—53): Boasting the likes of Parker Wotherspoon and Juuso Valimaki, the Americans received plenty of offense from their blueline in 2016-17. While much of the focus lies on the intrigue of Valimaki, who is expected to be a first-round pick at the 2017 NHL Draft, Coghlan should not be overlooked. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound rearguard from Nanaimo, B.C., was ranked 84th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in its midterm rankings and provided steady play in this his third WHL season.
Goaltender to Watch – Seattle Thunderbirds
Rylan Toth (58 GP, 36-18-2-1, 2.75 GAA, .902 SV%, 1 SO): Shipped south from the Red Deer Rebels prior to the start of the 2016-17, Toth landed in Seattle and went on to prove any doubters wrong by getting into a career-high 58 games while leading all WHL goaltenders in wins. In his final crack at winning a WHL Championship, you know Toth will want to go further than the conference finals after experiencing that bitter defeat as a member of the Rebels in 2016. Over 14 career post-season contests, the 20-year-old product of Saskatoon is 4-10 with a 2.87 GAA and .916 SV%.
Goaltender to Watch – Tri-City Americans
Evan Sarthou (25 GP, 11-8-2-0, 3.56 GAA, .901 SV%): Yes, Rylan Parenteau is the workhorse veteran and the blue paint should be his to lose. But if he does falter, don’t be surprised if Sarthou gets an opportunity to salvage the situation. After all, this crease did belong to the 19-year-old product of Black Diamond, Wash., before he suffered an injury during U.S. national team development camp in the off-season.
Playoff History – Seattle Thunderbirds
As previously mentioned, the Thunderbirds suffered bitter defeat at the hands of the Brandon Wheat Kings in the 2016 WHL Championship, rendering the franchise still in search of its first Ed Chynoweth Cup. Prior to 2016, the Thunderbirds hadn’t seen a Western Conference final since being on the wrong end of a five-game set with the Kelowna Rockets back in 2003. The last WHL Championship appearance prior to 2016? It came back in 1997 when Patrick Marleau was a member of the Thunderbirds. Could Mathew Barzal be the man to help bring the Ed Chynoweth Cup to the Emerald City for the first time?
Playoff History – Tri-City Americans
The Tri-City Americans return to the big dance after making a strong push that fell short late in 2016. The last time the Americans made an appearance in the WHL Playoffs, they fell in four straight games to the Kelowna Rockets in 2015. Of course, that Rockets team went on to win the 2015 WHL Championship. Like the Thunderbirds, the Americans are also still in search of the franchise’s first WHL title. Bob Tory’s Americans took on the Portland Winterhawks during the 2012 Western Conference final, but also fell victim to the sweep. Prior to that, they contested the Calgary Hitmen in the 2010 WHL Championship, falling in six games.
Head-to-Head Playoff History – Seattle Thunderbirds and Tri-City Americans
2007-08: Tri-City Americans defeat Seattle Thunderbirds 4-1 in Western Conference semifinal
2006-07: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Tri-City Americans 4-2 in Western Conference first round
2004-05: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Tri-City Americans 4-1 in Western Conference first round
1998-99: Tri-City Americans defeat Seattle Thunderbirds 3-1 in Western Conference semifinal
1994-95: Tri-City Americans (2-2-0) advance as Seattle Thunderbirds (0-4-0) are eliminated in West Division round-robin
1991-92: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Tri-City Americans 4-1 in West Division first round
1989-90: Seattle Thunderbirds defeat Tri-City Americans 5-2 in West Division semifinal