Thunderbirds score early, often in 6-3 win over Ice
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The damage came early enough to leave some hope, but the hole was too deep for the Winnipeg Ice to escape against the defensively-sound Seattle Thunderbirds.
The Ice were dominated in a 6-3 losing effort on the road against the Thunderbirds in Game 3 of the Western Hockey League championship on Tuesday.
The Thunderbirds lead the best-of-seven series 2-1 and sit firmly in the driver’s seat with Games 4 and 5 also taking place at their home in Kent, WA.
Carson Latimer, Zach Benson and Zack Ostapchuk scored for the Ice on a night they outshot the hosts 38-33. Meanwhile, five different players scored for the T-Birds, including Brad Lambert, the Winnipeg Jets’ first-round pick in 2022, who has bulged the twine three times in the last two contests.
Ice goaltender Daniel Hauser weathered the storm, making 27 saves on the night. In the opposing crease, Thomas Milic staged a rock-solid performance, stopping 35 shots to record his 14th win of the postseason.
“It was a tough hill to climb,” said head coach James Patrick. “I look at the first two games and how we defended the rush, defended in the d-zone, and we didn’t do those things good enough today.
“As a group, we need to be better. I think we all had a hand in what happened tonight, so, just as a group, we can all play better.”
The story of this one lies in the first period. What started as a back-and-forth contest quickly turned into a runaway for the hosts on the strength of a four-goal opening frame and a three-goal advantage after 20 minutes.
For the first time in the series, the Western Conference champs drew first blood. And this one came rather quickly, as Lucas Ciona took advantage of a false step by Ice captain Carson Lambos and found Kyle Crnkovic in the slot, from where the over-ager beat Hauser just 25 seconds into the contest.
The Ice pushed back 62 seconds later, however.
Conor Geekie stripped a Thunderbirds defenceman on a breakout attempt, immediately creating a short two-on-one, and found Latimer with a cross-ice feed that left Milic no chance, as Latimer buried his second goal of the series to even an electric opening sequence.
“It’s one thing our team does really well, we’re really good at handling adversity,” Geekie said. “So being able to get that one and settle us down a little bit was huge. It’s just one of those games where you got to look back at it and adjust for the next one.”
The tug-of-war first period continued past the midpoint, but, in a blink, turned into an onslaught. The damage began with the Thunderbirds on the power play when defenceman Jeremy Hanzel picked the short-side corner with a hard wrist shot that went unseen by Hauser, who was screened by a pair of bodies.
The Ice, who, despite owning a league-worst 53.8 per cent on the penalty kill on the road entering the contest, had been playing with confidence on special teams, killing 17 of their last 18 chances dating back to the Eastern Conference finals against the Saskatoon Blades, and seven in a row to open the series against the Thunderbirds.
The hosts’ high-octane attack could only be contained for so long, though. The T-Birds finished the night 2-for-3 on the man advantage, with Dylan Guenther registering the other marker.
Then the Ice showed shades of their effort in Game 2, which saw them give up a pair of crucial third-period goals within eight seconds of each other.
On this night, the T-Birds dogpiled with a pair of goals in the ensuing 45 seconds, the first by Lambert, then by Montreal Canadiens prospect Jared Davidson, opening a three-goal advantage for the high-flying Birds.
“When we got down 2-1, it’s like we wanted to make it up in one shift,” said Patrick. We started gambling, our (defence) pinched on a play you shouldn’t pinch, we had a forward cover for him and he didn’t play it properly. I like the way we played the rush in the two previous games, but we didn’t do a good enough job today.”
A pretty tic-tac-toe passing play from Lambos and Matthew Savoie set up Benson with an easy tap-in to register his third goal of the series and get the Ice within three.
That’s as close as the Ice would get, though. After Hanzel added his second goal of the game, the Ice would register their lone conversion on the power play off the stick of Ostapchuk in garbage time. The Ice finished 1-for-4 with the man advantage.
The path to a WHL championship appears ever more daunting now than it did before for the Ice, a long way from home with the boisterous Seattle faithful adding to the challenge and little room for error as two losses separate them from the end of their season.
The Ice will look to even the series in Game 4 tonight. Puck drops at 9 p.m. CT.
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.
Updated on Wednesday, May 17, 2023 1:03 AM CDT: Adds post-game quotes