Winnipeg Ice eliminated from WHL playoffs following 4-1 defeat to the Thunderbirds
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
The Winnipeg Ice had their sights on extending their season and bringing the series back home.
Instead, the junior club was stoned by a red-hot goaltender in a season-ending defeat.
The Ice fell 3-1 to the Seattle Thunderbirds in Game 5 of the Western Hockey League championship in Kent, Wash. on Friday, ending their bid for a league title just three wins short.
The Thunderbirds won the best-of-seven series 4-1 to capture their second league title in franchise history and advanced to the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, B.C., which begins May 26.
“It’s heartbreaking in our room right now,” said head coach James Patrick after the game.
“It was as close as it gets. Four of the five games were as close as you can imagine. We threw everything we could at them. Their goalie was outstanding and he was the best player in this series when it’s all said and done.”
As was the story for most of the series, the defeat wasn’t for lack of effort. Rather, a buzzsaw in the opposing crease left the Ice with little margin for error against a team that matched them in firepower.
Thomas Milic was the brightest star once again, making 30 saves to cap a remarkable playoff run that saw him lead the league in wins (16), save percentage (.933) and goals against average (1.95).
The Ice were the highest-scoring team during the regular season, yet failed to register more than three goals in a single game during the championship series.
Milic, who is projected to be selected in this summer’s NHL draft, was awarded most valuable player for the playoffs.
“I thought we had chances,” Patrick said.
“Not for lack of trying, I’m real proud of my team and how they played. Every guy to a man tried his hardest.”
Ice goaltender Daniel Hauser staged an outstanding performance in defeat, stopping 34 of 37 shots.
The two net-minders stole the show in the early goings. A scoreless first period saw 20 shots (11 for Winnipeg) turned aside between the two undersized goalies. It looked as though it would take a stroke of luck to solve either of them.
That came for the Thunderbirds after more than 33 minutes had passed in the contest, as an unlikely star in Sam Popowich deflected a shot from Jeremy Hanzel past Hauser to open the scoring. Hauser was left attempting to guess where the shot might end up, as the puck navigated through four bodies before being tipped at the last second.
The deciding goal came on a penalty shot early in the third period, the first of the series, as Nico Myatovic showcased his slick hands before sliding the puck past Hauser to give the hosts a 2-0 lead at the 2:27 mark.
Evan Friesen replied for the Ice less than three minutes later with a hard wrist shot that bested Milic, who was screened.
The desperation continued to rise from the visiting club with a little more than 12 minutes separating them from the end of their season. Despite a full-court press, the Ice couldn’t muster another marker.
A power play opportunity with a little more than four minutes remaining offered a chance for late heroics, but that yielded zero shots. It would have been a great time for the power play unit to finally strike. Winnipeg finished the championship with just two goals on 18 chances with the man advantage.
Now leaves the toughest pill for the club to swallow. The Ice pushed their chips to the middle this season, trading first-round picks in 2024, 2025 and 2026, in hopes of capturing the franchise’s first WHL title since relocating to the Manitoba capital.
It wasn’t meant to be, and now the club will await to see which of their NHL-calibre talent will return to the club before deciding if they can make another run at a championship or begin the development cycle over again.
“Our goal from the end of last season was to win a championship, and it’s pretty painful when you don’t,” Patrick said. “We’ve come a long way — a fantastic group of kids on and off the ice. So coachable, and respectful to everyone. They’re fantastic in the community. I’m so proud of how they behave and it starts with our leadership group.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.
Updated on Saturday, May 20, 2023 9:27 AM CDT: Adds writethru