By Anthony Dion
In the Seattle Thunderbirds locker room moments after a lackluster second period Tuesday, head coach Steve Konowalchuk implored his team to show the intensity this critical January divisional matchup required. Whatever specific words Konowalchuk used in his harsh diatribe certainly got the message home.
Shortly after surrendering three goals and the lead in the second period, the T-Birds responded by out-shooting Spokane 14-3 in the third period to force overtime. Each goalie held strong in the five-minute overtime frame, leaving it up to T-Birds forward Keegan Kolesar to send 4,627 in attendance at the ShoWare Center home happy with the lone goal as the ninth shooter in the shootout. Seattle’s 5-4 shootout victory over the Chiefs, helped it gain a vital point in the standings on a team directly in its way of a divisional title.
“The message was we need to play the way we need to play. That’s not good enough,” said Konowalchuk. “Veteran guys need to step up and I think we saw that . . . with some veteran guys in the third period. Our guys know it’s not good enough. That’s a big game there to be playing a second period like that.”
Ethan Bear and Shea Theodore led Seattle (21-16-2-3) with two assists, Kolesar had an early goal and Nolan Volcan scored the tying goal at 5:30 of the third period to force overtime. Starting goaltender Taran Kozun had 22 saves on top of an additional five timely denials in the shootout.
The key play in a dominant third period came from Bear, the T-Birds’ second-year defenseman. With Spokane leading 4-3 and pushing the puck up the ice into the Seattle (21-16-2-3) zone, Bear intercepted a pass, took two strides up the ice before sliding a pass to Lane Pederson as he crossed the blue line. Pederson immediately found Volcan on the left wing and Volcan’s shot found its way through Spokane goaltender Garret Hughson for the tie.
An improved defensive effort led by the recently returned Theodore killed off the remaining 14 minutes and change to force overtime with the second place team in the U.S. Division. Spokane’s 49 points entering Tuesday’s contest leading fourth-place Seattle by four and trailed first-place Everett by seven.
“The second period was one of our worst we’ve had in a long time,” Konowalchuk said. “Just everybody on their own page. We weren’t working, we weren’t physical. Guys responded in the third, though. (They) came out and they played hard in the third to find a way to get a win against a tough team.
“It’s a big, big game. No doubt,” Konowalchuk added. “We didn’t win in regulation, but we gained a point on (Spokane) and we’re still right there in the hunt with them.
“Why not acknowledge that they’re big division games and it’s not just a regular night?”
Three second-period goals enabled Spokane (23-15-3-1) to take control of Tuesday’s game after it initially trailed 2-0. The biggest came early, 22 seconds in, as Liam Stewart capitalized on a nifty sequence of passing during a 3-on-2 break. Stewart’s goal tied the score 2-2 and asserted the Chiefs’ determined presence in the game.
Seattle regained the lead at 5:28 when Cory Millette cleaned up a loose puck in front of the Spokane goal crease. It was Millette’s second goal in as many games with the T-Birds. But the Chiefs were not dismayed. Don Nachbaur’s team kept attacking, dominated puck possession and forced the T-Birds into a couple of untimely penalties.
At 9:23, Keanu Yamamoto slipped a slap shot from the left face-off circle past Kozun to tie the game 3-3. Then, as the period drew to a close, the torrid Adam Helewka put the Chiefs ahead with his 25th goal, extending his current WHL-leading goal streak to eight games. Konowalchuk’s second-intermission speech swung the momentum a third time.
“(We) just (needed) to put that period behind us and go to work. There were two big points up for grabs and we responded well after that,” said Kolesar.
The Thunderbirds opened a 2-0 lead midway through the first period when Ryan Gropp and Kolesar scored less than a minute apart at 12:42 and 13:40. The latter goal coming on Seattle’s second power-play chance and both assisted by Theodore.
1. SEA Ryan Gropp (16) (Smith, Theodore), 12:42
2. SEA Keegan Kolesar (14) (Bear, Theodore), 13:40 (PP)
3. SPO Riley Whittingham (8) (McAndrews, Bechtold), 14:49
4. SPO Liam Stewart (16) (Ka. Yamamoto, Helewka), 0:22
5. SEA Cory Millette (10) (Lipsbergs, Neuls), 5:28
6. SPO Keanu Yamamoto (8) (Zwerger, Playfair), 9:23 (PP)
7. SPO Adam Helewka (25) (Fram, Helgesen), 16:46
8. SEA Nolan Volcan (6) (Pederson, Bear), 5:30
Seattle center Alexander True left Tuesday’s game in the second period with an apparent upper-body injury and did not return . . . With his two assists, Theodore (179 points) moved past former Thunderbirds defender Thomas Hickey for second on Seattle’s all-time scoring list for defenders. He now trails only Craig Channell (187 points) . . . The Thunderbirds’ next game against Kelowna Friday is set to be featured on Sportsnet nationally across Canada.
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