High-scoring Latvian winger Roberts Lipsbergs leads T-birds into WHL playoffs
Seattle faces Kelowna and Everett will challenge Portland in the Western Hockey League playoffs, beginning Friday.
Special to The Seattle Times
KENT — He's known as Lippy, but not because he's brash or because he speaks three different languages when he's playing ice hockey.
Roberts Lipsbergs acquired his nickname simply because of his last name, although the Latvian winger might need a more appropriate handle after a big rookie season with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
Lipsbergs led the T-birds with 30 goals, second among all rookies in the Western Hockey League. He added 28 assists and is a big reason Seattle is back in the playoffs after a three-year absence.
"I am very happy," Lipsbergs said through a thick Latvian accent acquired from his native city of Riga. "Overall, I was able to do what I wanted. We've played pretty good hockey and are getting better day by day."
Lipsbergs speaks Russian to linemate Alexander Delnov of Moscow and English when he's on the ice with Connor Honey, who's from Edmonton, Alberta. When he's angry, it's pure Latvian.
"My English is much better. It was really bad when I started," Lipsbergs said. "There's some Canadian in there, but it's almost totally American."
Despite missing several games while playing for Latvia in the World Junior tournament, Lipsbergs finished with a four-goal flurry against top-seeded Portland to help Seattle earn a key point and finish 24-38-7-3 for the Western Conference's seventh seed.
The T-birds will play second-seeded Kelowna, 52-16-3-1 in the regular season. The Rockets are deep, led by Myles Bell, who had 93 points on a team that featured six players with at least 24 goals.
The Rockets, however, will be without team MVP Colton Sissons, who suffered a shoulder injury and is out for 12 weeks.
"We're just going to go out and have fun and compete," Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said. "There's no pressure on our team. They're probably the second-best team in the league and they have to back up what they did in the regular season. We have a bunch of young guys excited to taste the playoffs."
Lipsbergs, 18, is undrafted, but wants to play in the NHL. Although his name will be called when the NHL draft is held in Newark, N.J., on June 30, the question is how early he will go.
"He definitely has an NHL shot, one that's accurate and hard," Konowalchuk said. "He's strong on the puck and has a strong trunk. The determining factor for him is whether he is willing to do all the little things more than scoring goals, like blocking shots and finishing checks. I had to remind him a couple of times this season, but he has shown he is willing to be a complete player. There will be a lot of eyes on him."
Lipsbergs is one of six Seattle players who could see their careers take off with a good showing in the playoffs. Defenseman Shea Theodore leads the way, ranked 17th in the NHL Central Scouting midterm rankings. Others ranked are Lipsbergs (61), Jared Hauf (70), Honey (144), Jerrett Smith (153) and Riley Sheen (158).
"Players from winning teams get chances, sometimes unfairly," Konowalchuk said. "They want winners and we have a lot of players with a lot to gain in the playoffs."
Others who could get offers are captain Luke Lockhart, who led the WHL in short-handed goals with seven and who Konowalchuk said is playing his best hockey of the season over the final month; center Justin Hickman, center Adam Kambeitz and goaltender Brandon Glover.
Everett faces Portland
Everett has made it to the playoffs for the 10th straight season, but the No. 8 Silvertips seem to be outmatched by No. 1 Portland.
Portland won a league-best 57 games, Everett won 25. Portland scored a league-high 334 goals, Everett scored a league-low 172. Portland allowed a league-low 169 goals, Everett gave up 268.
And, Portland won nine of 10 meetings between the teams this season, outscoring the Silvertips 50-22.
The Winterhawks feature the top three scorers in the WHL. Brandon Leipsic and Nicolas Petan each scored 120 points and Ty Rattie added 110. Six players on Portland's roster scored more than Everett leading scorer, Josh Winquist, who had 61 points.
One question mark is Portland goaltender Mac Carruth, who sat out the final weekend of the season but is expected to be ready to start the series.
Everett's one win over Portland was a 4-2 decision on March 2. The Silvertips edged Prince George to keep alive their streak of making the playoffs every season.
• The last time Seattle was in the playoffs was 2009, when it lost in five games to the Spokane Chiefs.
• The last time Seattle met Kelowna in the playoffs was 2008, when Seattle won a seven-game series.
• Seattle and Kelowna met four times in the regular season, Kelowna winning three times, once in overtime, while outscoring Seattle 10-8.Western Hockey League playoffs
No. 7 Seattle vs. No. 2 Kelowna
Best of seven
Friday: Seattle at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Seattle at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m.
Tuesday: Kelowna at Seattle, 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday: Kelowna at Seattle, 7:05 p.m.
March 30: Seattle at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m., if nec.
April 2: Kelowna at Seattle, 7:05 p.m., if nec.
April 3: Seattle at Kelowna, 7:05 p.m., if nec.
No. 8 Everett vs. No. 1 Portland
Best of seven
Friday: Everett at Portland, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Everett at Portland, 7 p.m.
Wednesday: Portland at Everett, 7:05 p.m.
Friday: Portland at Everett, 7:05 p.m.
March 30: Everett at Portland, 7 p.m., if nec.
April 1: Portland at Everett, 7:05 p.m., if nec.
April 3: Everett at Portland, 7 p.m., if nec.