(1090 The Fan) — His eyes tinged red as he emerged from an emotional locker room, Evan Wardley continued to fight off tears while he faced the media one final time as a junior hockey player Tuesday night.
Wardley and the Thunderbirds saw their season come to an end in front of 5,088 at the ShoWare Center with a 5-4 overtime loss to Portland in Game 6. Nic Petan took a Miles Koules feed from the corner and beat Taran Kozun over the shoulder to the near side at 19:01, lifting the Winterhawks to the first-round series win.
Seattle, which fought back to tie on three separate occasions, looked on from its bench gutted, both emotionally and physically, as Portland celebrated. Two goals from Scott Eansor weren’t enough, nor were the three-point night of defenseman Shea Theodore (one goal and two assists) or the two-way play of Wardley. To a man, Seattle’s roster left every ounce of will they had on the ShoWare Center ice.
Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk said it was all he could ask for.
“Great effort. That’s all you can hang your hats on right now is every single guy left it out there,” said Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk. “To be down early in that game, guys could’ve let it slip away, they picked it up and really got back into it. It was a good team to coach I know that. I know they worked hard all year, they finished strong and it just sucks to lose.”
Wardley and Theodore, two Thunderbirds playing their final Western Hockey League game, sparked a second-period rally that gave Seattle a chance.
With the score tied 1-1 entering the second period, Dominic Turgeon and Oliver Bjorkstrand quickly gave Portland what appeared to be a commanding advantage barely three minutes in. Turgeon put a rebound past Kozun at 2:17 and Bjorkstrand followed a minute later when he beat Kozun from a tough angle for his second goal of the game. Suddenly trailing 3-1 with their season on the line, the T-Birds made a lineup change moving Wardley up to wing from the blue line. The position switch, coupled with the determination of Theodore, gave the T-Birds the lift they needed.
“I was just trying to bring energy to the team. That was clearly by being physical and hard in the corners to create room for the forwards to make plays,” Wardley said.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Wardley immediately began flying around with bad intentions, looking to administer as much pain as possible during his short shifts. Theodore, seemingly feeding off Wardley’s energy, made two great plays to bring Seattle back into a tie, 3-3 at 11:37.
The first goal came at 6:37 as Theodore skated into the Portland zone from south of the blue line with little deterrence from the Portland defense. With one quick deke on goaltender Adin Hill, Theodore scored. He assisted on the tying goal, a deflection from in front of the net by Cory Millette.
Seattle appeared to have lost the new-found momentum it created early in the third period when Ryan Gropp took a holding penalty at 1:07. Despite getting the kill, the T-Birds struggled. They missed several opportune looks against Hill before Kozun failed to completely block the far post as Koules circled the net for a wrap-around goal at 11:25.
The game was Kozun’s last in the Western Hockey League as well. He stopped 36 shots in nearly 80 minutes of work Tuesday. The 20-year-old Thunderbirds’ Most Valuable Player enters an uncertain summer as a free agent.
With the time winding down, the desperation mounted. Once again the Thunderbirds recovered, tying the game at 4-4 when Eansor scored the second of his two goals, and fifth of the series, when he roofed a slap shot from in tight against Hill at 18:20. Eansor played a brilliant series, saving Tuesday for perhaps his best effort.
“Competitive kid,” Konowalchuk said. “He leaves it on the ice all the time. He’s another one of those guys you want better for.”
Neither team had many good chances in a defensive overtime period. Hill posted a solid save against a Barzal re-directed shot while Kozun gloved a Bjorkstrand one-timer. Ultimately, Portland capitalized with the puck in Seattle’s zone late. Hill finished with 46 saves to lead the Winterhawks who will see Everett in the second round.
Wardley wished his rival well even as he struggled to comprehend what the loss meant to his career. The 20-year-old defenseman completed a four-year Thunderbirds campaign as one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
“It’s hit me pretty hard,” Wardley acknowledged. “I can’t say enough good things about this place. From day one Steve has took me under his wing and changed me into a player that can really see the game and be a good player. I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for me over the four years.
“It didn’t quite go the way we wanted and (we) tip our hats to Portland, they’re a heck of a hockey club and best of luck to them the rest of the way.”
1. POR Oliver Bjorkstrand (4) (Bittner, De Leo), 8:53
2. SEA Scott Eansor (4), 14:48
3. POR Dominic Turgeon (4) (Henry, Weinger), 2:17
4. POR Oliver Bjorkstrand (5), 3:23
5. SEA Shea Theodore (3) (Smith, Wardley), 6:37
6. SEA Cory Millette (2) (Theodore, Barzal), 11:37
7. POR Miles Koules (1), 11:25
8. SEA Scott Eansor (5) (Theodore, Barzal), 18:20
9. POR Nic Petan (5) (Koules, Viveiros), 19:01
Eansor has eight goals in 11 playoff games over the last two seasons against U.S. Division squads (played Everett last season) . . . Remaining out of the lineup for the Thunderbirds Tuesday were forwards Keegan Kolesar (arm) and Luke Osterman along with D/F Sahvan Khaira. Neither have played a game this series.
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