The Seattle Thunderbirds defied all odds in the Western Hockey League playoffs.
From missing out on a divisional banner to the Everett Silvertips, to losing starting goaltender Rylan Toth due to injury and being an overwhelming underdog against the CHL’s top-ranked Regina Pats — the T-Birds have heard it all before, but none of that stopped them from avenging last season’s heartbreaking loss in the final and punching their ticket to the Memorial Cup.
The Thunderbirds were a mere honourable mention in the CHL’s final Top 10 rankings entering the postseason in March, but they sure didn’t play like one in the weeks that followed. The T-Birds made quick work of the first two rounds, sweeping the Tri-City Americans and Everett Silvertips before punching their ticket to the final by ousting the Kelowna Rockets in six games and clinching their first-ever Ed Chynoweth Cup with a six-game series win over the Pats.
Seattle’s usual suspects carried the Thunderbirds round after round. While big-bodied forward Keegan Kolesar led the WHL in scoring through the postseason with 12 goals and 19 assists in 19 games played, T-Birds co-captain and 2012 HockeyNow Minor Hockey Player of the Year Mathew Barzal earned the title of playoff MVP with a frenzied 200-foot performance throughout the final three rounds.
The 19-year-old Coquitlam, B.C. product wasn’t available for the first round, but still managed seven goals and 18 assists — with seven multiple-point games — in his 16 contests to lead his team to the title. What’s more, Barzal found the scoresheet in 15 consecutive contests before having the streak snapped in Seattle’s championship-clinching win over Regina in Game 6 of the WHL final.
But the Thunderbirds may not have found their way to the franchise’s first league title without their power play prowess and dominating defence. And Ethan Bear provided both.
The 19-year-old blueliner was imperative in his team’s success on the man advantage, leading the league with 19 power play points while helping the Thunderbirds’ unit to a 35 per cent success rate.
Bear truly stepped up his offensive game in the playoffs while proving his worth as the 2017 WHL defenceman of the year. Bear collected a staggering 26 points in his 17 playoff contests, missing out on the score sheet just twice in the campaign to finish the postseason second in team scoring and fourth in the league.
Seattle rallied for 83 playoff goals from 16 different players — with nine notching five or more — while allowing just 51 from their four opponents. But much of their success on the back end came as somewhat of a surprise after their overage goaltender, Toth, went down in early March with an injury.
The Thunderbirds added Toth in a September trade with the Red Deer Rebels with the aim of firming up their crease for the year. While it did just that for the regular season, as Toth finished ninth in the league with a 2.75 goals against average while collecting a 36-18-2-1 record, things derailed down the stretch. On March 11, Toth left a scoreless contest against the Portland Winterhawks and never returned to the WHL ice.
While the untimely injury threw Seattle’s plan into disarray, rookie goaltender Carl Stankowski turned out to be the answer they needed all along.
The 2000-born netminder played in just five WHL games before Toth went down, and just two more regular season contests before being thrown into the fires of the playoffs — but Stankowski never flinched.
The young Calgary product started all 20 of his team’s playoff tilts — collecting a .911 save percentage and a 2.50 goals against average — without ever allowing more than four goals in a game.
They may not have the national rankings of the Erie Otters or the Saint John Sea Dogs, and they certainly don’t have the overwhelming fan support of the host Windsor Spitfires, but the Western Hockey League champion Seattle Thunderbirds are anything but an underdog at this year’s Memorial Cup.
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