KENT, Wash. – Nico Myatovic’s penalty shot goal early in the third period stood as the game winner and the Seattle Thunderbirds defeated the Winnipeg ICE, 3-1, Friday at the accesso ShoWare Center in Game Five of WHL Championship Series. With the win the Thunderbirds claim their second league title and first since 2017. The Thunderbirds win the best of seven series, four games to one. They now move on to play in the Memorial Cup Tournament which gets underway next weekend in Kamloops, B.C.
With Seattle ahead 1-0 at the start of the third period, Myatovic was hauled down from behind on a breakaway at the 2:27 mark. “My emotions were running high there,” said Myatovic as he readied for the penalty shot. “I Just tried to take a couple of deep breaths.”
“I was just trying to read the goalie, trying to get him to bite,” he said of his approach. “At the last second I saw that he didn’t bite, so I went back the other way, and it ended up going in.”
The game was scoreless through the first period and remained that way until just past the midway point of period two. That’s when Sam Popowich deflected in a point shot from Jeremy Hanzel. “It was just a really good low to high from Nico,” explained Popowich of his second goal of the postseason. “Then we go D to D and Hanzy’s been getting those through all series and all playoffs. I just went to the net and got a stick on it.”
Hanzel finished the series against Winnipeg with a team-leading seven points on three goals and four assists. As a group, Seattle’s defensemen had fourteen points in the five games against the ICE and contributed 58 points (14g, 44a) in nineteen playoff games.
“It’s an unbelievable group,” commented Hanzel of his fellow defensemen. “From the top to the bottom, everyone knows how to play. Everyone is great at what they do and just a lot of trust among us.”
T-Birds goalie Thomas Milic was named the 2023 WHL Playoffs Most Valuable Player, capped by a thirty save effort in Game Five. Milic has started every one of Seattle’s forty-four playoff games in the last two years, compiling a 30-14 record. He ended the 2023 WHL playoffs with a 1.95 goals-against average and a save percentage of .933.
“It’s a team award,” said Milic of his MVP honors. “I wouldn’t have gotten it without the incredible group in front of me. I’m so pumped to win it with this group and to do it at home. Super special.”
Even after building their 2-0 lead, Seattle couldn’t shake the ICE, who came back to within a goal when Evan Freisen scored two and a half minutes after the Myatovic goal. Seattle was able to weather the storm even killing off a Winnipeg power play with just under five minute remaining.
Seattle finally put the game away when Kyle Crnkovic scored into an empty net with ninety-six seconds remaining.
“It really was an unbelievable hockey game,” said Thunderbirds head coach Matt O’Dette. “Back and forth, really tight. Obviously, it was nerve wracking, but we found a way to get it done. It definitely wasn’t easy.”
O’Dette said the team was focused all season on getting another chance at the Championship after losing in last spring’s final series to Edmonton. “That was the goal,” he said. “We fell short last year. It was our goal from day one. We wanted to mimic what happened in 2016, 2017. I’m proud of the group. It took every single player, staff member, to get this job done. It feels amazing.”
Lucas Ciona becomes the third captain in Thunderbirds history to hoist the Ed Chynoweth Cup. When Seattle won in 2017, Scott Eansor and Mat Barzal were co-captains. Ciona is the first to do it on home ice. “No better feeling, when you win it with this group of guys,” said the Calgary Flames prospect. “The management, the fans. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”
The T-Birds finished the 2023 WHL Playoffs with a 9-1 home record.
Winnipeg had not lost three straight games all season. After losing game one of the series to the ICE, Seattle reeled off four straight wins.
The T-Birds open the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, Saturday May 27th against the Ontario Hockey League Champions. That will be either Peterborough or London.