Mekai Sanders has scored in two consecutive WHL playoff games for the Seattle Thunderbirds. Sanders missed all 25 playoff games last season due to injury. COURTESY PHOTO, Brian Liesse, Seattle Thunderbirds

Mekai Sanders has scored in two consecutive WHL playoff games for the Seattle Thunderbirds. Sanders missed all 25 playoff games last season due to injury. COURTESY PHOTO, Brian Liesse, Seattle Thunderbirds

Playoff perfect: Kent-based Thunderbirds advance to Western Conference finals

Seattle sweeps Prince George to improve to 8-0 in playoffs; open next round April 29 at ShoWare Center

The Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds are back in the Western Hockey League’s Western Conference finals for the second consecutive season.

Seattle pounded the Prince George Cougars 8-2 on Wednesday, April 19 in British Columbia to sweep the second-round, best-of-seven series in four games. The T-Birds have won all eight of their playoff games after sweeping the Kelowna Rockets in the first round.

The T-Birds open the best-of-seven Western Conference Championship series at 6:05 p.m. Saturday, April 29 at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent. The second game is at 5:05 p.m. Sunday, April 30 at the ShoWare Center. Seattle will play the winner of the Kamloops Blazers vs. Portland Winterhawks series. Kamloops leads that series 3-0 heading into an April 20 game in Portland.

“Being efficient is important,” said T-Birds coach Matt O’Dette about the perfect playoff record. “The less games, the less wear and tear throughout the process. We’ve earned some rest and will use the time to get ready for the next round.”

Eight players scored for the T-Birds in the 8-2 victory. Seattle scored twice in the first period and never looked back.

“It was important to get the lead again tonight,” O’Dette said. “The fourth game is always the hardest to win. It took everybody chipping in, everyone contributing.”

Bryce Pickford assisted on Sam Popowich’s opening goal. He would also score Seattle’s fourth goal midway through the second period. It was his first two points of the playoffs. In both instances he was looking to get a shot on net.

“There was a little scrum on the boards,” Pickford said about the assist. “I got the puck when it popped out, I got middle access and shot it. Poppy (Popowich) had a great tip.”

On Pickford’s second period goal he said he put it through the legs of the defenseman, and it went high blocker on the goalie.

“Yeah, it feels good helping my teammates put numbers on the board,” Pickford said.

Colton Dach scored for a second straight game and finished the night with three points by adding two assists. Each of his two goals have stood as game winners. He credited his linemates.

“The chemistry is coming together,” Dach said. “Part of that is having fun and as a line we’re having a lot of fun out there and we just want to play the game the right way.”

The T-Birds entered the third period with a five-goal lead. Prince George scored an early power play, but Seattle answered with three more of their own.

The first of the three came off the stick of Mekai Sanders who, like Dach, scored for a second straight game.

Sanders missed all 25 of the Thunderbirds playoff games last spring due to injury. He’s glad to get an opportunity to play in the postseason this time around.

“I’ve been looking forward to the playoffs for the past two years actually, even more than that,” Sanders said. “Being able to get some postseason games and battle with my brothers is awesome.”

Sanders, of Gig Harbor, is the only American born player on the roster. Brad Lambert is from Finland and the rest are from Canada.

Playoff dominance

Through eight playoff games, Seattle, which had a club-record 54 victories in the regular season, has outscored its opponents 39-9, with a pair of first-round NHL Draft selections leading the way offensively.

Winnipeg Jets prospect Brad Lambert sits atop the team leaderboard with 16 points (2 goals, 14 assists), while Arizona Coyotes first-rounder Dylan Guenther leads the team with 10 goals, totalling 15 points through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Seattle outscored Prince George in the four games 25-5, including 16-3 in the two games at the CN Centre in British Columbia after winning the first two games at the ShoWare Center.

In goal, 2023 NHL Draft prospect Thomas Milic has been brilliant, posting a minuscule 1.13 goals-against average to go along with a .953 save percentage through eight starts. He’s earned one of his eight playoff victories this spring via the shutout.

T-Birds extras

• It’s the fourth time Seattle has reached the third round since 2016, and in each of their three prior visits over that span, the T-Birds have advanced to the WHL Championship Series including a memorable postseason run last spring. The Edmonton Oil Kings beat the T-Birds four games to two in the 2022 WHL finals after Seattle beat Kamloops four games to three in the 2022 Western Conference finals; beat Portland in seven games in the second round; and defeated the Kelowna Rockets 4-1 in the opening round.

• Sixteen Seattle players have scored a goal through the first eight games of the 2023 playoffs.

• Tickets for the opening two Western Conference Championship games at the ShoWare Center go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday, April 21 on the T-Bird website.

• The winner of the Western Conference title will advance to the WHL Championship Series against the winner of the Eastern Conference series. The winner of that round moves on to the Memorial Cup, a four-team, round-robin format, May 26 to June 4 in Kamloops, British Columbia.

Thom Beuning, of the Seattle Thunderbirds, and Chris Wahl, of the Western Hockey League, contributed to this article.

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