Hockey town Seattle: On the same night that the Seattle Kraken’s American Hockey League affiliate advanced to the AHL western conference final, the Seattle Thunderbirds won the Western Hockey League final in five games with a 3-1 win over the Winnipeg Ice.
Given the fact that the 2020 and 2021 WHL playoffs were cancelled due to the Covid pandemic, it’s the fourth time in the last six active postseasons that the Thunderbirds have been to the final and the second time they’ve won it.
They’ll be returning to the Memorial Cup as WHL champions for the first time since 2017 and just the second time in their history.
This year’s club featured ten NHL Draft picks, including winger Dylan Guenther, the 9th-overall choice of the Arizona Coyotes in 2021. Guenther was a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings last year when that club beat Seattle in the WHL final.
“This is special, seeing this building, just erupt like that on that last goal, I’ll tell you this feeling doesn’t get old and it’s pretty special to do this with this team,” Guenther told WHL TV postgame. “It’s unbelievable.”
Believe it. The Thunderbirds dominated on home ice at the Showare Center in Kent, wrapping up the series in game-5 with goals from Sam Popowich in the 2nd period, Niko Myatovic on a penalty shot early in the 3rd period, and Kyle Cynkovic with an empty-netter.
“It wasn’t easy to get it done tonight, it was a hard fought battle and unbelievable feeling,” Seattle head coach Matt O’Dette said. “I thought we learned big lessons last year in our run to the finals. We started out the (this) year with a target on our backs, we weren’t sneaking up on anyone this year and I think we used that experience to get it done this year.”
Thunderbirds To Kamloops
The next stop for the Thunderbirds is Kamloops, host city for the 2023 Memorial Cup beginning at the end of May. The Blazers will participate as the host team, along with the champions of the Ontario Hockey League and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Peterborough Petes presently have a 3-2 edge in games over the London Knights in the best-of-7 OHL final that continues on Sunday. Same story in the QMJHL, where the Quebec Remparts lead 3-2 on the Halifax Mooseheads with their game-6 also happening tomorrow.
Whoever prevails, those teams will be faced with the task of beating Thunderbirds netminder Thomas Milic, who was named WHL playoff Most Valuable Player. The undrafted 20-year-old from Coquitlam, British Columbia finished the postseason with a goals against average of 1.95 and a .933 save percentage. He made 30 saves in Friday night’s win.
“Of course it’s a pretty great honor,” Milic said postgame. “When they first said my name I couldn’t even hear what they were talking about, so I just got pushed up to the front. Of course it’s a team effort, this team’s been incredible all year for me, blocking shots, just couldn’t ask for a better group to get it done with.”
Milic was the WHL goalie-of-the-year during the regular season. Along the way he backstopped Team Canada to a Gold Medal at the 2023 World Junior Championship. By the way, it was Seattle teammate Guenther who scored the “Golden Goal” in overtime of that final to give Canada the win over Czechia in early January.
The postseason honor could bode well for the 6-foot, 180-pound backstop. The last Thunderbirds player to win WHL playoff MVP was some guy named Mathew Barzal (2017), the NHL’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie-of-the-year in 2018 and nearly a point-a-game player over six seasons with the New York Islanders.
— The Seattle Kraken fell one goal short of forcing overtime in Game-7 of the Western Conference semi-final of the Stanley Cup playoffs while their top affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds of the American Hockey League, just advanced to the Calder Cup western conference final with an overtime win over the Calgary Wranglers on Friday night.
The hockey season for fans in the Emerald City moves on.