By Anthony Dion
The Thunderbirds departed for the road again after Saturday’s home defeat to Portland (4-3 in overtime) with an eye on finding some cohesion within their four lines.
It has been a month of roster upheaval for Seattle (23-19-3-3) since the second half of the Western Hockey League season commenced in late December. Injuries, trades and special events like the World Junior Championship served to disrupt Seattle’s offensive consistency. The T-Birds weren’t alone in this regard across the WHL landscape, but their roster turnover affected an inexperienced team learning to play with one another.
In a matter of 30 days, Seattle lost key forwards Alexander True, Justin Hickman and Ryan Gropp. In that same span it also acquired veteran forwards Cory Millette and Roberts Lipsbergs, while welcoming the return of leaders Mathew Barzal and defenseman Shea Theodore.
Gropp returned to the lineup Saturday after missing one game to compete in the 20th annual Top Prospects Game in Ontario last Thursday. While it was a short absence, it has been those occasional departures that have disrupted the T-Birds consistency.
Seattle was shutout by Tri-City Friday 4-0. Gropp scored two goals only to miss a potential game-winning third in the overtime loss to the rival Winterhawks the following night.
On that note, the T-Birds began a four-game road trip in Spokane on the tail end of a three-games in three-nights stretch with a boring 2-0 shutout. Donovan Neuls and Shea Theodore scored the goals for the Thunderbirds as goaltender Taran Kozun saved all 20 shots he faced from the Chiefs.
The win snapped Seattle’s three-game slide and asserted itself as the third place team in the U.S. division, creating a two-point separation between it and the Chiefs as both teams hunt a home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs (each team likely needs a top-two finish in the division for such an outcome).
Three nights later, though, the Thunderbirds fell in a back-and-forth tussle with Kamloops, 4-3. The T-Birds surrendered three power-play goals as well as a 3-2 third-period lead to the Blazers. With that, the T-Birds traveled up the province for consecutive weekend matchups with Prince George, a team currently bringing up the rear in the Western Conference.
It’s a pair of important games for the Thunderbirds, a team searching for consistency and hunting a playoff spot.
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