Wednesday March 9, 2016
By Josh Sweetland/CHL
Both have had their ups and downs throughout the 2015-16 season, but the Seattle Thunderbirds and Victoria Royals are turning into Pacific powerhouses in the stretch drive toward the playoffs, each entering the weekend on eight game winning streaks.
While both clubs have been in the WHL playoff picture for each of the past three years, neither has found a way out of the second round as competitive Western Conference franchises in the Kelowna Rockets and Portland Winterhawks have both played a part in keeping the Thunderbirds and Royals out of the big dance.
The Kent, Washington-based Thunderbirds are in the hunt for their third U.S. Division title in franchise history and first since 2005, contending primarily with the second place Everett Silvertips throughout much of this season. Though they've won just three of their nine meetings against Everett so far, Seattle holds a two point lead over the Tips entering the weekend.
Typically team success is fuelled by star players and that old adage has been the story of Seattle's surge. A recently ended 13-game point streak from New York Islanders first round pick Mathew Barzal that netted 11 goals, 16 assists and 27 points dating back to February 8th has had the Thunderbirds flying high, scoring recent wins over their nemesis in Everett as well as other U.S. Division opponents in Portland and Tri-City.
The T-Birds wrapped up a stretch of seven games in ten days with a 4-0 win over Tri-City on Sunday, drawing the praise of fifth year head coach and former NHL forward Steve Konowalchuk.
"I'm really happy with the guys," Konowalchuk told 710Sports.com's Andy Eide, "It's a tough stretch with a lot of hockey and they stayed focused on each game and each shift. Credit to the guys for the way they've buckled down. Some very emotional wins at times and to be able to turn the page and move on is very hard to do, our guys have done a good job with that."
Seattle has received outstanding goaltending from 6'5", 208Ib overage goaltender Landon Bow who was acquired from the Swift Current Broncos in January. Bow has played to a 12-6-0-0 record with a 1.83 goals-against average, a .937 save percentage and four shutouts in 19 games since being brought in.
Barzal has been joined up front by reliable offensive options in 33-goal scorer Ryan Gropp who was a second round pick of the New York Rangers in 2015 as well as Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Keegan Kolesar who has netted 30 on the season.
On the back end, Edmonton Oilers prospect Ethan Bear is fourth among WHL defencemen with 18 goals, fuelling Seattle's second ranked powerplay with help from overage vet and fourth year Thunderbird Jerret Smith.
Up the coast, the Victoria Royals have taken sole possession of the B.C. Division lead with eight straight wins of their own under Canadian National Junior Team head coach Dave Lowry.
Russian winger Vladimir Bobylev has played a big part in his club's recent success. The 18-year-old had nine goals, eight assists and 17 points in 14 February contests and starred in Sunday's 7-3 win over Vancouver with two goals and two assists.
"I think he's played well from the beginning of the season," Lowry told Victoria Sports News' Christopher Kelsall post-game. "Sometimes the puck doesn't always go your way. Tonight and lately it obviously has and it's good to see him getting more production."
In addition to Bobylev's increased contributions, Tyler Soy became the first player in the Royals' brief five-year history to reach the 40-goal mark on Sunday with a pair of goals in the win. Victoria's first round pick in the 2012 WHL Bantam Draft, Soy got off to a slow start offensively this season, but has come on of late with 27 goals since Christmas.
"He didn't get off to a great start offensively," noted Lowry. "He had all kinds of chances and he couldn't score. I give him a lot of credit for perservering, staying with it, and he's been rewarded for it."
While 40 goals is an accomplishment, Soy doesn't take full responsibility for getting there.
"You don't score 40 goals without good linemates," he said. "I've been playing alongside great players like Bobylev all season. It was a bit of a frustrating start but sticking with it has been big for me. My linemates and I have started clicking and the powerplay has had a lot of success so the hard work is paying off."
Soy and Bobylev are a part of Victoria's offensively gifted forward corps that includes six players with over 50 points. Alex Forsberg (25-55--80) leads the team in scoring while Matthew Phillips (34-36--70) and Jack Walker (31-42--73) have been reliable sources of offence as well. 17-year-old Dante Hannoun has turned heads in his sophomore season with 26 goals, 30 assists and 56 points in 66 contests.
Veteran captain Joe Hicketts leads the Royals with charisma and flair from the back end joined by Los Angeles Kings prospect Chaz Redekopp and plus-47 fourth year veteran Ryan Gagnon.
Overage veteran Coleman Vollrath has carried the bulk of the load in the Victoria crease with a 29-13-0-2 record to go with a 2.36 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. He is joined by one of the WHL's top young goaltenders in 17-year-old Griffen Outhouse.
With the reigning WHL champion Kelowna Rockets losing veteran goaltender Jackson Whistle and offensively gifted Arizona Coyotes prospect Nick Merkley to season-ending injuries and the Portland Winterhawks transitioning from the era of Nic Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Chase De Leo, the Thunderbirds and Royals are both vying to fill the power vacuum in the Western Conference.
What's more, there's been recent playoff history between the Royals, Thunderbirds and a few of their Western foes.
The Royals met their demise at the hands of the Kelowna Rockets in the second round last spring while also being eliminated by the Kamloops Blazers in both 2012 and 2013.
In the hunt for their first B.C. title since moving to Victoria from Chilliwack in 2011, the Royals currently lead Kelowna by five points after finishing second behind the Rockets in 2014 and 2015.
The Thunderbirds have some recent scars as well having been eliminated by Portland in the 2015 WHL Playoffs following exits at the hands of Kelowna in 2013 and 2014.
The emerging Royals and Thunderbirds both have old scores they might have the chance to settle in the weeks to come as the 2016 WHL Playoffs get underway later this month.