(1090 The Fan) — After concluding a 72-game regular season, the Seattle Thunderbirds roll into the Western Hockey League playoffs as the No. 4 seed with a first round matchup against U.S. division rival Everett.
It is the first time the two teams have ever faced off in a playoff series since Everett joined the WHL in the 2003-04 season as an expansion team. It should be a good one considering the two teams split their 10-game regular season series while finishing in the top half of the Western Conference standings.
The T-Birds will be taking on an Everett squad that enters the playoffs as the hottest team in the league. After an up-and-down season, Everett finished strong when it mattered most, carrying an 11-0-0-2 record over its final 13 games. The streak includes three straight wins over Seattle in which the Silvertips have outscored the T-Birds 10-4.
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The Tips are streaking thanks to a stifling defensive effort led by Mirco Mueller, Matt Pufahl, Cole MacDonald and goalie Austin Lotz. Lotz boasts a 2.53 goals against average and .905 save percentage through 57 appearances in net so far this season.
The offense has also been clicking for the Tips during that span, averaging 3.6 goals per game. Forward Josh Winquist is Everett’s leading scorer with 93 points in 67 games played. Centers Ivan Nikolishin and Jujhar Khaira have been providing the support with 59 and 43 points respectively.
So while Seattle got the edge after the final game of the season, earning that coveted fourth home game in the 7-game series, it’s Everett that enters the series with a decided edge. And if Seattle isn’t able to find a way to crack the Silvertips’ stingy defense, it might not be able to capitalize on its home-ice advantage.
It will be important for the T-Birds to start well, not just in period one of the first game, but with an early advantage in the series as a whole. Thunderbirds’ captain Justin Hickman understands this.
“I think it just kind of comes hand-in-hand with the game,” Hickman said. “You come out hard and try to put the other team on their heels, rather than you being on your heels. Our starts the last couple of games have been a lot better and definitely that’s something we have to keep (up) going into the playoffs.”
Seattle will also be looking for a big series from its leading scorers — defenseman Shea Theodore and forwards Alexander Delnov and Roberts Lipsbergs. Its top lines have been inconsistent of late so production from those three as well as rookies Ryan Gropp and Mathew Barzal will be key to determining whether Seattle will move on to a likely rematch with Kelowna in the second round.
As will the play of goaltender Taran Kozun. Acquired from Kamloops at the January 10th trading deadline, Kozun started out gangbusters with an 13-4-0-1 record and a .944 save percentage. It’s been a struggle of late for the Seattle starter. As the team struggled down the stretch to hold onto the fourth seed, Kozun’s play did as well. The 19-year-old goalie posted a 3.76 goals against average and .900 save percentage in going 2-5 in March.
Dispatching Everett will be a tough task for Seattle, but one that Hickman and company are ready to take on.
“We’re all excited for the playoffs,” added Hickman. “We’re very confident…I think we are built for the playoffs. It’s an exciting time of the year.”
-Anthony Dion, 1090 The Fan
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