Showing the way: As a player and now a coach, Steve Konowalchuk knows how to win. The coach has the Thunderbirds playing for the WHL title for the second straight season. COURTESY PHOTO, Brian Liesse, T-Birds

Thunderbirds get another crack at WHL title

Konowalchuk guides veteran squad into finals showdown against Regina

Steve Konowalchuk and the Seattle Thunderbirds have passed this way before.

This time around, they want to finish the job and raise an elusive, shiny cup.

For the second straight season, the Thunderbirds are playing in May for the Western Hockey League (WHL) title, a destination that ended in a five-game series loss to the Brandon Wheat Kings of Manitoba a year ago.

The sequel brings another beast from the East – the Regina Pats of Saskatchewan. Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-seven series are Friday and Saturday, respectively, at the Pats’ Brandt Centre, where the Thunderbirds dropped a 6-3 decision Oct. 30.

Games 3, 4 and, if necessary, 5 are on Kent ice at the ShoWare Center next week.

The Thunderbirds, who survived a six-game battle with Kelowna for the Western Conference crown on Sunday, vow to come ready.

“It’s a good feeling,” said coach Konowalchuk, a former WHL and National Hockey League left winger who has guided the Thunderbirds to the playoffs in each of the last five seasons. “It’s a big journey. It’s a goal our guys set out to start the year, and they worked hard to get there. They want to finish it out. It’s good to be here, but we don’t want to be satisfied at all.”

The championship series matches similar teams – deep, balanced, talented with lethal transition attacks backed by solid goalkeeping.

Tape of that October game offered only a glimpse of things to come, but Konowalchuk, in his review, said both teams are much different now, with restored, retooled lineups.

Forward and captain Adam Brooks led the Pats in the Eastern Conference finals with nine points. Tyler Brown was the WHL Goaltender of the Month for April.

Right winger Keegan Kolesar leads the Thunderbirds with 22 points (13 goals, nine assists) in 14 playoff games. The Thunderbirds have plenty of punch behind winger Donovan Neuls (18 points in the playoffs), forward Mathew Barzal, who has returned to the team following a lengthy bout with the mumps (16 points in 10 postseason appearances), center Alexander True (16) and star defenseman Ethan Bear (16).

Carl Stankowski has been formidable between the pipes, posting a 12-2 playoff record, with 2.48 goals-against average and 0.913 save percentage.

“I’m not surprised. I knew he was a good goalie,” Konowalchuk said. “I’m happy for Carl. … When we needed him he’s done a real nice job for us.”

Having come this far before, Konowalchuk is trying to keep his experienced veterans focused at the task at hand.

“Our guys handled (playing in the finals) well last year,” he said. “Maybe the biggest thing is just make sure you play the same way. You don’t want to over-think things. … You just got to go out and play your game as good as you can.

“You don’t get here without a whole bunch of guys, and you don’t want to put pressure on any one particular guy, that’s for sure.”

Both teams are hungry for a league title. Regina’s last appearance in the league finals was a Game 7 loss to the Kamloops Junior Oilers in 1984. Regina won WHL titles in 1974 and 1980.

The Thunderbirds, who have never won the Ed Chynoweth Cup, are back in the championship series for the third time in 20 years.

A series victory would be sweet for Konowalchuk and Co.

“It would be a great accomplishment for our team and for our organization,” Konowalchuk said. “You can talk about how many years it has taken for them to get there and for us as well, but that’s how hard it is to get here. It will be a great accomplishment to finish it off and something to be proud of as an organization.

“Seattle and Kent have the best fans in the league. It’s not even close, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s the most fun place to come and play for our players. They love the excitement and the enthusiasm in the rink every time they come.”

WHL FINALS SERIES GLANCE

Best-of-seven championship

Regina vs. Seattle

Game 1 – Seattle at Regina, Friday, May 5, 6 p.m.

Game 2 – Seattle at Regina, Saturday, May 6, 6 p.m.

Game 3 – Regina at Seattle, Tuesday, May 9, 7:05 p.m.

Game 4 – Regina at Seattle, Wednesday, May 10, 7:05 p.m.

Game 5 – Regina at Seattle, Friday, May 12, 7:35 p.m.*

Game 6 – Seattle at Regina, Sunday, May 14, 5 p.m.*

Game 7 – Seattle at Regina, Monday, May 15, 6 p.m.*

* if necessary

Single-game tickets for Games 3 and 4 are on sale online and at the ShoWare Center box office. The box office is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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