Saturday, March 21, 2009

WHL Playoffs: T-Birds lose a close one in Spokane, 2-1

The Seattle Thunderbirds opened playoff action last night in Spokane. I could not make the drive to Spokane, so I watched the game live online at the WHL website. It’s not the same experience as being inside an arena surrounding by thousands of crazy fans, but in this case, it’ll do. The radio commentary was provided by Spokane’s play by play man Mike Boyle. His commentary was a few seconds behind the actual action, but it wasn’t too distracting.

The first period featured lots of back and forth action and some great saves by both goaltenders. Seattle’s Calvin Pickard withstood a flurry of shots around the 6 minute mark before making a giant save a minute later. The T-Birds picked up on this momentum and capitalized on a great steal at 9:32, when Brendan Dillon, coming out of the box after serving 2:00 for hooking, stole the puck away from a Chiefs defenseman and shoveled it to Greg Scott. Scott drove the puck right up to Spokane’s net and took his shot. Chiefs goalie Dustin Tokarski slapped it away, but Charles Wells was right there to poke the rebound in and put Seattle up 1-0.

The rest of the first period featured more action swinging from one end to the other, and some great saves by both goalies. There were some tense moments at the T-Birds end when Captain Thomas Hickey skated up to stop Chiefs center Tyler Johnson from running into goalie Calvin Pickard. Hickey checked Johnson, who retaliated by giving Hickey a forearm to the face. Hickey hit him back, but referees stepped in before this could evolve into a full-fledged fight. Spokane fans erupted in anger seconds later, when the refs only gave Johnson a roughing penalty. Radio guy Mike Boyle erupted in anger too, but as I watched the play unfold again in slow motion, I think the refs were correct. Hickey was protecting the net and his move, while a little aggressive, did not cross the line. Johnson’s response did. The penalty resulted in some four-on-four play for about 17 seconds, as Seattle’s David Richard worked off a kneeing penalty. But neither team could score.

As the period wound down, there was more pushing and shoving, especially around Seattle’s net, as T-Birds got physical to keep any Chiefs from running into Pickard. Spokane kept the pressure on, firing several key shots, but Pickard held them off, making one spectacular save after falling flat onto his back! I’m still scratching my head over that one. I was sure the Chiefs were about to get a lucky goal, but the kid they call “Picks” knocked it away with one flailing arm.

The period ended with Seattle up 1-0, and both teams tied for shots on goal at 13 apiece. Charles Wells’ goal and Calvin Pickard’s tremendous play between the pipes were definitely the keys to this period.

The second period began with a huge burst of energy by the Spokane Chiefs. They drove hard into Seattle’s zone and put Calvin Pickard on his heels from the minute the puck dropped. He deflected shot after shot, but the Chiefs did not let up on their attack. It was only a matter of time before they scored, and it happened 4:21 into the period. WHL scoring leader Drayson Bowman found a chink in Pickard’s armor and snuck the puck through, tying things up at 1-1.

Play intensified after the Chiefs scored. Several T-Birds made some great plays, including one by Jeremy Boyer, who intercepted a pass and took it straight to Spokane’s net. Tokarski was ready, though, and turned it away. Greg Scott had a scoring chance a minute later, but was also denied. Spokane’s Brett Bartman was hit with a high sticking penalty with 3 minutes left in the period. This sparked a renewed burst of energy by both teams, as the T-Birds drove to the Chiefs net and Spokane worked to hold them off. The second period ended with things all tied up at 1-1, and the T-Birds outshooting the Chiefs, 13-7.

The third period started with some fireworks by the T-Birds. 24 seconds in, Jim O’Brien went on a breakaway and from my vantage point, it looked as though he would score. But Dustin Tokarski made a monster save, and as much as I hate to say it, I think the momentum turned at that moment to Spokane’s side. They certainly turned on the jets after that and attacked the T-Birds net again and again. As I refer to my notes for this story, I realize I wrote the following: “Good save by Picks @ 1:30.” “Picks gloves a shot @ 2:00.” “Picks glove save @ 3:00.” “Great save by Picks @3:44.” This gives some idea of just how aggressive the Chiefs had become. One frightening moment came at the 5:00 mark when Drayson Bowman went on a breakaway, but at the last second, his shot deflected off T-Bird d-man Stefan Warg’s stick! Warg went a little wild here, hitting everyone who came near the net, and working to hit the puck away.

At this point, the T-Birds had only made 3 shots on Spokane’s goal, and they worked hard to take action back into the Chiefs’ zone. Jonathan Parker had a great scoring chance, but Dustin Tokarski came up with an even greater save and the Chiefs took things back to Seattle’s net.

Again, my notes are peppered with save after save by Calvin Pickard. At 11:44, though, Spokane’s top line scored again. Drayson Bowman got past Pickard to put the Chiefs up 2-1. The lead seemed to give Spokane even more energy and they turned away drive after drive by the T-Birds. As the clock wound down, Seattle yanked Pickard to send an extra attacker on the ice. It looked as though the T-Birds would tie things up with about a minute left, but the Chiefs cleared it and missed an empty net goal by about a foot. The Chiefs clearly rallied, though, and came away with a hard-fought, Game 1 victory.

Game 2 takes place tonight at 7pm tonight at Spokane’s Veterans Arena. The action then comes to ShoWare Center in Kent for Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday, March 24 and Wednesday, March 25. Game time for both games is 7:05pm. For more information on the games and tickets, click here.

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