Ryan Gropp scored two goals Wednesday night at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena to lead the Seattle Thunderbirds to a 4-2 win over the Spokane Chiefs.
Seattle improves to 45-19-4-2 and tops the U.S. Division and Western Conference standings with 96 points. The T-Birds are one point ahead of the second-place Everett Silvertips, who beat the Kelowna Rockets 4-1 Wednesday night. The Prince George Cougars lead the B.C. Division with a 44-21-3-2 record and 93 points.
The T-Birds finish out the season with back-to-back home games on Saturday, March 18, and Sunday, March 19. They play the Winterhawks at 7:05pm on Saturday and the Vancouver Giants on Sunday at 5:05pm. Everett (42-16-8-3) has three games remaining in the regular season.
The T-Birds have clinched home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Games 1 and 2 of the first round against a to be determined opponent at ShoWare Center will be Friday, March 24, at 7:35pm and Saturday, March 25, at 7:05pm.
Seattle goalie Carl Stankowski stopped 15 of 17 shots to get his second win of the season.
The T-Birds have tied the number of wins, 45, they had in 2015-16 season when they won the U.S Division Championship and Western Conference Championship. They were 45-23-4-0 last season.
Spokane (26-33-7-3) took a 1-0 lead at the 11-minute mark of the first period on a goal from Taylor Ross. Ondrej Najman and Ty Smith had the assists.
Seattle tied the game 1-1 at 17:27 of the first on a power-play goal from Ryan Gropp. Keegan Kolesar had the puck at the bottom of the right circle. Kolesar passed the puck to Donovan Neuls on the right-wing wall. Neuls crossed the puck to Gropp in the left circle. Gropp put a wrist shot on goal that beat Spokane goalie Donovan Buskey high as the goalie lunged to make the save.
Seattle outshot Spokane 18-9 in the first period.
The T-Birds had a 25-13 advantage in shots after outshooting the Chiefs 7-4 in the second period.
The T-Birds took a 3-1 lead with two goals in 1:07 early in the third period. Matthew Wedman took a shot from the right circle that Buskey stopped. Zack Andrusiak was on top of the crease to bang the rebound in at 2:08 of the period.
Then Gropp made it a two-goal lead at 3:15 of the third when he tipped a point shot from Turner Ottenbreit past Buskey. Kolesar moved the puck from a battle along the left boards to Ottenbreit at the left point.
Spokane cut the T-Birds lead to one goal at 5:29 of the third on a goal from Jaret Anderson-Dolan. Kailer Yamamoto had the only assist.
Austin Strand got the T-Birds the two-goal lead back at 9:02 of the third. The Chiefs sent the puck up the center of the ice from the right corner of their zone. Strand intercepted the pass in the high slot, skated forward and beat Buskey with a wrist shot over the goalie’s glove.
The Chiefs pulled Buskey for an extra attacker with 2:24 left in the third period. Their best chance came with just under 10 seconds left in the game on a scramble in front of Stankowski. The T-Birds goalie was able to cover the puck and keep the Chiefs from getting a third goal.
Seattle outshot Spokane 11-4 in the third period and 36-17 in the game.
Buskey had 32 saves on 36 shots.