Last spring, the Seattle Thunderbirds very nearly pulled off the upset of the Western Hockey League playoffs against the Kelowna Rockets.
When all was said and done, the Rockets—coming off a 52-win regular season—scrapped their way back from a 3-0 series deficit to take down the ‘Birds in seven games in the opening round.
A year later, the two teams will renew their postseason rivalry, this time in the Western Conference semifinal beginning Thursday night at Prospera Place.
An older and more experienced group than last season, the Thunderbirds won 41 games in 2013-14, then disposed of the Everett Silvertips in five games in the opening round of the playoffs.
“They’re similar in many ways in regards to their style, but their key players are a year older and I think they’ve made some good additions to make them a better team,” Rockets’ head coach Ryan Huska said of the Thunderbirds. “At the beginning of the year, a lot of people considered (Seattle) a contender as the top team in the conference. They play in a very tough conference and won more than 40 games, so you know how good they are.”
As much as surrendering a 3-0 lead in last year’s opening round to Kelowna was a disappointment, Thunderbirds head coach Steve Konowalchuk said it was an important part of the growth process for what was a relatively young team.
“I think what the guys learned about in the big picture last year was the changing of the culture and the expectations that we have here now,” Konowalchuk said. “This year, the guys are coming off a series win and are feeling more confident about their game. But we also know how good Kelowna is, their style of play and what kinds of challenges we’re going to face playing them.”
On the whole the Thunderdbirds are bigger, more physical team than the Rockets’ first-round opponent, the Tri-City Americans.
In that regard, Huska expects a considerably different style of series for his team in round two.
“You’ll see that (Seattle) is more physical, they have a lot of big boys and they finish their checks,” he said. “We’ll have to finish off our checks, too, and do a good job of playing physical in our own right. We’ll need to remain patient and, if things don’t go our way, just stick to our game plan.”
As for the Rockets, Konowalchuk said weaknesses are hard to find on the Canadian Hockey League’s No. 1 team.
“They’re a very quick transition team led by a very strong defense,” said Konowalchuk. “They move the puck up the ice well, they have strong forechecking and can roll four lines…and of course (Jordon Cooke) their goaltending is very good.”
The T’Birds feature defenceman Shea Theodore, a first-round draft choice of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, who led his team in scoring this season with 79 points.
Unlike last year’s playoff meeting, Seattle will have veteran forward Branden Troock in the lineup. Troock, 20, who was injured last spring, had 24 goals in 58 games during the regular season and four more in the first round vs Everett.
Meanwhile, as of Monday morning, the Rockets hadn’t yet disclosed the exact nature of the injury to forward Myles Bell.
Huska said the 20-year-old Bell was in the process of being re-evaluated to determine the severity of a lower body injury. The Calgary native left Game 4 of the Tri-City series in the second period and didn’t return.