Ice, T-birds last teams standing
Battle for WHL supremacy, spot in Memorial Cup begins Friday in Winnipeg
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Premier talent will be on full display and the stakes will be at their highest when the Winnipeg Ice and Seattle Thunderbirds clash in the Western Hockey League championship series.
The Ice and Thunderbirds will duke it out in a best-of-seven series for junior hockey supremacy in Western Canada and the right to play in the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, B.C., later this month.
Game 1 goes Friday at 7 p.m. at Winnipeg’s downtown arena.
The venue change from Wayne Fleming Arena on the University of Manitoba campus was announced Monday after the Ice came to an agreement with True North Sports and Entertainment to play its home games during the series at the home of the Winnipeg Jets and Manitoba Moose.
Tickets for just shy of 9,000 lower-bowl seats went on sale Tuesday.
The Ice, who knocked off the Saskatoon Blades in the Eastern Conference final series last week, will host the first two contests before the series shifts to Seattle for games 3, 4 and 5. Games 6 and 7, if necessary, will return to the Manitoba capital.
Seattle wrapped up the Western Conference on Monday with a series-clinching win over the Kamloops Blazers.
“It’s a pretty big spectacle for us regardless of where we’re playing,” said Ice captain Carson Lambos, a 2022 first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild. “We could be playing at River Heights Community Centre and it’d feel like a big event for us, it’s something we’ve been working toward.
“There’s already a lot of pressure that comes with this, so I don’t think there’s anything like that but it’s definitely going to be exciting to play in that rink.”
Fans can sit back and enjoy the abundance of skill on display as the No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences fight for the crown.
The combatants boast 18 NHL draft picks and eight players who represented Team Canada in the 2023 World Junior Hockey Championship. Possibly none will have more eyes on him in Games 1 and 2 than Thunderbirds forward Brad Lambert, the Finnish-born first-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2022.
The crafty forward is 11th in scoring this post-season, registering three goals, 17 assists and a plus-10 rating.
Conor Geekie will have a fair share of eyes on him, as well, when the Ice are at home. The Strathclair product is one of seven Manitobans playing in the series and one of two from a rural area.
“It brings a lot of fun into things,” said the Arizona Coyotes first-rounder. “It’s a chance to showcase your skills and showcase what you’re made of. We’re not really thinking too much about the draft picks and stuff like that, we’re just trying to figure out how to get past this team.
“It’s a big thing, right? For me, being able to do something special here in Manitoba… it’s really important for us and with the team moving here not long ago, it’s pretty special how quickly we go to this point and we’re really excited to see how it goes.”
The tale of the tape reveals the teams are neck-and-neck with one another, the Ice (115 points) finishing five points ahead of the Thunderbirds (110 points) during the regular season and both teams boasting an impressive 12-2 record in the post-season.
Each swept two series and required six games to reach a decision in another. The Ice went to six games with the Moose Jaw Warriors in the second round, while the Thunderbirds just wrapped up its third-round series against the Blazers in six games.
“Health-wise, it’s been good for us,” said Ice head coach James Patrick. “We’ve played different styles. You look at the three teams we’ve played — battle-tested, I wonder about that compared to (Seattle). They’ve just come off a real hard-fought six-game series that would probably compare to our second-round series.”
One area that could cause some angst on the Ice is special teams, where the Thunderbirds have looked far better throughout the playoffs.
Seattle enters the series ranked fifth in penalty kill (84 per cent) and on the power play (31.8 per cent). Winnipeg, meanwhile, owns the eighth-ranked power play (28.3 per cent) but the third-worst penalty kill among the 16 playoff teams (65.8 per cent).
The Ice are trending in the right direction, however, killing 10 of 11 chances afforded to the Saskatoon Blades in the Eastern Conference final series.
“Ten-of-11 was really good for us,” said Lambos. “Saskatoon had a good power play, too. To be able to shut them down definitely gives us some confidence. It’s going to be an even harder task against Seattle’s gung-ho power play, they’re really good. It’s going to take even more but it’s definitely a step in the right direction from where we were before that.”
The Thunderbirds could also have the advantage of experience in this spot. The club was in the championship series a year ago, losing 4-2 to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
The Ice are entering uncharted territory in this series.
“It’s just a commitment to the team game,” Lambos said. “That’s the biggest thing — not cheating the system, not looking for Hail Mary plays, because they might work once in a while, but a team like Seattle is going to make us pay if we want to go on our own page.”
Added Geekie: “A big thing for us is leaning on each other. We have a coach in James Patrick who’s done a lot of special things in the game of hockey and, for the most part, we’re really tight and we all bond together. We all rely on each other and it is uncharted territory, but we’re really excited to see the experience and how everything goes.”
There isn’t much familiarity between the powerhouse squads. It’s been almost four months to the day since they tangled in an overtime thriller that ended 4-3 in favour of the visiting Thunderbirds.
Patrick paused when considering what might be the deciding factor in the series.
“Defending is probably a big area we look at — how well we can defend their top guys. And I’m sure they’d say the same thing,” he said. “They’re an aggressive forechecking team that plays very heavy. But ultimately, they also have their top-end skill who do most of the damage, and so how well do we defend against them.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.
Updated on Wednesday, May 10, 2023 7:37 AM CDT: Changes to seven from five