Seattle Thunderbirds’ wing Lucas Ciona celebrates during a 4-1 win over the Kelowna Rockets in Game 2 of the WHL playoffs April 1 at the ShoWare Center in Kent. COURTESY PHOTO, Brian Liesse, Seattle Thunderbirds

Seattle Thunderbirds’ wing Lucas Ciona celebrates during a 4-1 win over the Kelowna Rockets in Game 2 of the WHL playoffs April 1 at the ShoWare Center in Kent. COURTESY PHOTO, Brian Liesse, Seattle Thunderbirds

Kent-based T-Birds advance to WHL playoffs second round with series sweep

Seattle wins all four games against Kelowna Rockets; next round starts April 14 at ShoWare Center

The Kent-based Seattle Thunderbirds blanked the Kelowna Rockets 3-0 for a four-game sweep in the opening round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.

Goalie Thomas Milic turned aside all 19 shots he faced in the victory Wednesday, April 5 at Kelowna, British Columbia. The T-Birds also won April 4 at Kelowna after winning their first two games at the accesso ShoWare Center.

Seattle advances to the second round against a still-to-be determined opponent. The series will begin Friday, April 14 at the ShoWare Center.

“Our team was excellent, especially on the PK (penalty kill),” Milic said. “We won the special team battle.”

Milic didn’t face a lot of shots, having to make just one save in the third period. He said he’s learned to stay sharp in low-shot games.

“It something I’ve learned this season, in those lower-shot games, just staying focused and consistent throughout,” he said.

It was a scoreless game through the first period. Kelowna began period two with 67 seconds of 5-on-3 power play time. The T-Birds killed it off, limiting the Rockets to just two shots. Thunderbirds coach Matt O’Dette called it a pivotal moment in the game.

“Taking penalties there was not ideal,” he said. “If you want to give a team some life, some belief, that would be the way to do it. Not ideal for us but that kill was big. It gave us a boost for the rest of the game.”

Not long after the penalty kill, Seattle was awarded its first power play of the night and it converted when Lucas Ciona tipped in a shot from Reid Schaefer at 8 minutes, 42 seconds. Ciona scored three times in the series and two of them were game winners.

“You just try to bear down when you get chances like that,” said Ciona, a Calgary Flames prospect. “They don’t always go in so it was nice to get a couple and nice to get the series done.”

The T-Birds put the game away with goals from Dylan Guenther and Jordan Gustafson four minutes apart, midway through the third period. Guenther’s goal was his team-leading fifth of the playoffs.

O’Dette said despite the sweep, it was a tough series and Kelowna gave the T-Birds their best effort.

“It’s never easy.” he said. “All the teams that get in the playoffs are good. Those guys played us tough each and every game. At no point did it ever feel comfortable. A lot of credit to the Kelowna Rockets and their staff.”

T-birds extras

• Seattle outscored the Rockets 11-0 in the third period in the four-game series, outshooting them in the process 69-24. The T-Birds allowed just four goals in the series.

• Seattle once again played without Brad Lambert, who missed his second straight game to a non-Covid illness.

• Jordan Gustafson missed 29 of 31 games to injury before re-entering the lineup in Game 3. He promptly picked up three points in two games (2 goals, 1 assist).

O’Dette said the team will use the week and a half ahead of round two to rest and prepare for the next opponent.

“Rest is huge,” he said. “You want to advance through the playoffs as efficiently as possible. We’ve had some illness going around the team. We’ll have some time to get over that.”

He added it will finally be nice to have everyone healthy for the first time since the January trade deadline.

“It’s something I’ve been saying throughout the second half of the season,” he said. “We want to get some continuity with our group and see what everyone looks like in the lineup at the same time.”

• Guenther, an Arizona Coyotes prospect, who won a WHL Championship against Seattle with the Edmonton Oil Kings a season ago, was the T-Birds’ scoring leader in the first round, totalling seven points (5 goals, 2 assists).

• Milic, a 2023 NHL Draft prospect, posted a 1.00 goals-against average and .958 save percentage over the four-game set.

Thom Beuning, of the Seattle Thunderbirds, contributed to this article.

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