Seattle Thunderbirds seek end to two-year playoff drought | Western Hockey League

Right wing Burke Gallimore wants playoff fever to start now for the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team.

Seattle Thunderbird defenseman Dave Sutter takes a shot against goalie Michael Salmon during a practice drill Tuesday at the ShoWare Center in Kent. The T-Birds open the season Saturday

Seattle Thunderbird defenseman Dave Sutter takes a shot against goalie Michael Salmon during a practice drill Tuesday at the ShoWare Center in Kent. The T-Birds open the season Saturday

Right wing Burke Gallimore wants playoff fever to start now for the Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds junior hockey team.

Seattle has missed the Western Hockey League playoffs the past two years. That helped lead to the firing of coach Rob Sumner after last season and the June hiring of Steve Konowalchuk, a former NHL player and Colorado Avalanche assistant coach.

“Everyone has to believe we can do it,” Gallimore said about making the playoffs. “I know the last couple of years not being very successful there’s always doubt. But this year, having a new coaching staff, a couple of new faces in the room and a different leadership group, we are gelling together pretty well so far.”

The T-Birds open the 2011-12 season against the rival Portland Winterhawks at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24 at the ShoWare Center. Portland won the Western Conference and the U.S. Division titles last year before losing to the Kootenay Ice in the WHL Finals. The Winterhawks are the top-ranked WHL team this season.

“We expect to make the playoffs,” said Konowalchuk, who started his junior hockey career with Portland. “We have a good core coming back. We have four of our leading scorers and brought in a couple of more defensemen. We expect to make the playoffs and I know the players do. Obviously, it’s a tough division. There are very good teams in this division but we have high expectations and players who can achieve that.”

Gallimore led the T-Birds with 34 goals and 70 points last season. They also return Marcel Noebels (54 points), Luke Lockhart (48) and Colin Jacobs (44). Second-leading points man Brenden Dillon, who played four years with the T-Birds, is now with the Texas Stars of the American Hockey League after signing a three-year contract in March with the Dallas Stars.

Seattle features nine new players, including four rookies, on its 25-man roster. Rookie defenseman Jared Hauf looms as one of the rookies to keep an eye on.

“He’s competitive and he seems to be a smart player and has the skills to go with that,” Konowalchuk said about the 6-foot-5 Hauf. “He’s a young kid who still has to learn how to play a little bit in different situations and still work on his speed and get stronger to play with 19 and 20 year olds. But for 16 years old, he’s a very good player and should have a good future.”

The T-Birds finished with a record of 27-35-5-5 last season. They placed ninth out of 10 teams in the Western Conference. The top eight teams advanced to the playoffs.

“The U.S. Division is the toughest so it’s harder for us to make it,” Noebels said. “We were a young team last year and we’re still young this year.”

Noebels just returned Tuesday from two weeks at the Philadelphia Flyers training camp. As of Tuesday, goalie Calvin Pickard, Jacobs and Lockhart remained at NHL training camps and their availability for Saturday’s opener remained uncertain, although all are expected to eventually return to the T-Birds.

Konowalchuk likes his mix of veteran and young players. He noticed during the second half of training camp that the players are working hard but still having fun, something he wants them to continue to experience all season.

“You’re going to see a team that’s passionate and playing with a purpose and determined to get the results,” Konowalchuk said.

Players have been inspired by the new coaching staff.

“Those guys bring fresh air in here,” Noebels said. “We keep almost everyone from last year. We know how we play. The guys learned a lot from last year after we lost eight or nine in a row after Christmas. We have to find a playoff spot right away from the first game to the last game.”

Playoffs definitely dominate conversations among the T-Birds because of the two-year drought.

“We’re trying to tell the young guys that it’s not fun losing,” Gallimore said. “You might miss home and stuff but you don’t want to go home when the (regular) season ends. You want to be here playing after that in the playoffs. We’ve got to get that in everyone’s heads earlier and we shouldn’t have any problems this year.”

That playoff drive starts Saturday against the Winterhawks.

“It’s going to be tough playing them all year,” Konowalchuk said. “They are one of the best teams. They have built that reputation up the last few years. We have to come out and be on top of our game and make them work for everything they get. It gets back to puck management, wear them out and stick to the game plan.”

A game plan the T-Birds expect to lead them to the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season.

“You want to be in the Super Bowl in football and you want to be in the playoffs in hockey,” Noebels said.

Hockey opening night

What: Portland Winterhawks at Seattle Thunderbirds

When: 7:05 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24

Where: ShoWare Center


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