Season ends in Seattle
The Seattle Thunderbirds are the 2023 WHL Champions following a 3-1 victory over the Winnipeg ICE in Game 5 of the WHL Championship Series presented by Nutrien Friday in front of a sold-out crowd at accesso ShoWare Center.
Goaltender Thomas Milic (Coquitlam, B.C.), who was named 2023 WHL Playoffs MVP, turned aside 30 shots to backstop the Thunderbirds.
“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 Thunderbirds were well-aware of the opportunity to close out the festivities on home ice, the ICE were set on extending the series to a Game 6 back in the Keystone Province.
With six minutes to go in the first period, Vegas Golden Knights prospect Jordan Gustafson (Ardrossan, Alta.) 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.
It took 33:45 before fans saw the first goal of the game as Sam Popowich (Camrose, Alta.) redirected a hot point shot from defenceman Jeremy Hanzel (Coquitlam, B.C.) 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 presented by Nutrien.
But the ICE weren’t ready to call it quits just yet.
Hometown product Evan Friesen (Winnipeg, Man.) took a pass in the high slot and snapped a quick shot past Milic, pulling the ICE 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 (St. Albert, Alta.) 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 Thunderbirds 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 (Chilliwack, B.C.) awkwardly along the boards inside the Seattle zone. Try as they might, the ICE were unable to solve Milic and the Thunderbirds 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 (Chestermere, Alta.) who put it out of reach, depositing an empty-net goal to seal the 3-1 triumph for the Thunderbirds, sending 6,202 fans into a frenzy.
“It feels amazing,” said Matt O’Dette, Head Coach of the Thunderbirds. “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.”
The Thunderbirds 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 Club last raised the Ed Chynoweth Cup in 2017.
Crowned WHL Champions, the Thunderbirds advance to the 2023 Memorial Cup presented by Kia, scheduled for May 26 to June 4 in Kamloops, B.C.