The Seattle Thunderbirds stormed the ice to celebrate winning the Western Hockey League (WHL) Championship Series over the Winnipeg Ice in front of a sellout crowd of 6,202 at the accesso ShoWare Center in Kent.
Fans stood and cheered to join the celebration after the T-Birds defeated Winnipeg 3-1 on Friday night, May 18. After losing the first game at Winnipeg, Seattle won the next four games to take the best-of-seven series 4-1, including three consecutive wins at home.
“There’s no better feeling,” said Lucas Ciona, captain of the T-Birds and prospect of the Calgary Flames, according to the WHL website. “We did it with the best group of guys there possibly is. I love every single one of these guys. This crowd is just amazing, the building – they were our team tonight. They were amazing.”
Seattle, which also won the WHL title in 2017, advances to the four-team, round-robin Memorial Cup May 26-June 4 in Kamloops, British Columbia.
Nico Myatovic, a 2023 NHL Draft prospect, scored the clinching goal 2 minutes, 27 seconds into the third period. He beat goaltender Daniel Hauser on a penalty shot.
Goaltender Thomas Milic, who was named 2023 WHL Playoffs MVP, turned aside 30 shots to backstop the T-Birds.
“It’s incredible, [the fans] have been loud all year and for them to bring it like that in the final game of playoffs and for us to be able to do it at home, we owe it all to them,” Milic said. “It’s a pretty great honour to be named [MVP]. When they first said my name, I couldn’t even hear what they were talking about… But it’s a team effort. This team has been incredible all year for me, blocking shots, and I couldn’t ask for a better group to get it done with.”
Friday’s Game 5 was a nail-biter from start to finish. While the T-Birds were well-aware of the opportunity to close out the festivities on home ice, Winnipeg was set on extending the series to a Game 6 back in Winnipeg.
With six minutes to go in the first period, Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jordan Gustafson made his impact felt immediately upon his return to the lineup, having been absent since last appearing in Game 2 of the Western Conference Championship. On the WHL Championship stage, the reliable two-way forward undressed a defender, breaking in alone on Hauser before ringing a shot off the post. The puck came to a dead stop on the goal line before being scooped up by Hauser, according to the WHL website.
It took 33:45 before fans saw the first goal of the game as Sam Popowich redirected a hot point shot from defenceman Jeremy Hanzel to open the scoring and give Seattle a 1-0 lead with 6:15 to go in the second period. For Popowich, it was his first goal of the 2023 WHL Championship Series and his second goal of the 2023 WHL playoffs.
Seattle doubled its lead 2:27 into the third period.
Myatovic broke in alone on Hauser but was hauled down before he could get an attempt in on net, drawing a penalty shot in the process.
With a nifty deke going left to right then back to the left, Myatovic slid the puck past the outstretched leg of Hauser, giving the home side a 2-0 advantage.
But the Ice weren’t ready to call it quits just yet, according to the WHL website.
Hometown product Evan Friesen (Winnipeg, Man.) took a pass in the high slot and snapped a quick shot past Milic, pulling the ICce back within one with 14:58 to go in regulation.
The Ice continued to press for the equalizer.
With 8:35 to go in the third period, Buffalo Sabres prospect Matthew Savoie got in one-on-one against Milic, but once again, the reigning WHL Goaltender of the Year was there to slam the door and preserve the lead.
Savoie had yet another opportunity with 5:32 remaining in regulation, but once again Milic was up to the task.
With less than five minutes to play, the Ice were afforded a power-play opportunity after Ciona flattened Zach Benson awkwardly along the boards inside the Seattle zone, according to the WHL website. Try as they might, the Ice were unable to solve Milic and the T-Birds killed off the penalty.
The Ice put forth one final push, but with Hauser at the bench for the extra attacker, it was veteran forward Kyle Crnkovic who put it out of reach, depositing an empty-net goal to seal the 3-1 triumph for the T-Birds, sending 6,202 fans into a frenzy.
“It feels amazing,” said Seattle coach Matt O’Dette. “The atmosphere, the scene here – it’s something that we’ve dreamed about. It wasn’t easy to get it done tonight, it was a hard-fought battle. It’s an unbelievable feeling.
“It’s key in the playoffs to be able to respond to different situations. We learned big lessons last year in our run to the finals. We started out the year with a target on our backs. We weren’t sneaking up on anybody this year and we used that experience to get it done this year.”
Seattle outshot the Ice 38-31 on the night, including 10-7 in the final 20 minutes of regulation.
This marks the second WHL Championship in Seattle Thunderbirds franchise history. The team last raised the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2017 on a squad led by Mathew Barzal, now with the New York Islanders.
• The T-Birds were among the class of the WHL all season, finishing the 2022-23 WHL regular season atop the Western Conference with a record of 54-11-1-2. The 111 points represents the best regular season in T-Birds franchise history.
• Seattle compiled an impressive record of 29-3-1-1 on home ice at the ShoWare Center.
• The T-Birds completed the 2023 WHL playoffs with a record of 16-3. Seattle was once again dominant at home going 9-1 including clinching the Ed Chynoweth Cup at the accesso ShoWare Center.
• No team scored more during the 2023 WHL playoffs, as the T-Birds racked up 82 goals (4.32 goals per game) for while only allowing 38 goals against (2.00 goals against per game).
The Western Hockey League contributed to this article.