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Thunderbirds look to lean on big-game experience in run for first Memorial Cup title

Dylan Guenther of the Seattle Thunderbirds is shown in a handout photo. Guenther is among five players on the Thunderbirds squad who led Canada to a world junior championship gold medal back in January. **MANDATORY CREDIT**

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — The Seattle Thunderbirds are looking to continue using the big-game experience they possess to their advantage at the Memorial Cup.

Dylan Guenther is among six players on the Thunderbirds squad who led Canada to a world junior championship gold medal back in January — where Guenther had a two-goal outing, including the overtime winner in the final. Defencemen Nolan Allan and Kevin Korchinski, goaltender Thomas Milic and forwards Reid Schaefer and Colton Dach were the others.

Allan, Guenther and Dach were in-season trade pickups for Western Hockey League champion Seattle, which is taking aim at its first Memorial Cup title in its third tournament appearance.

"It's really important, I think it's the reason why we're here," said head coach Matt O'Dette. "It helps to have the big-game experience.

"We have guys who played world juniors, we've got guys who played gold-medal games in that tournament, which is obviously bright lights. We're going to use those experiences … for the remainder of the tournament, so we've got those guys to lean on."

Guenther started the year with the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, who drafted him ninth overall in 2021. The six-foot-two, 175-pound right-winger had six goals and nine assists in 33 games for Arizona and was loaned to Canada for the world juniors in December.

He had seven goals and three assists in seven contests, including his headlining performance against Czechia in the gold-medal final. After a short return to the Coyotes, he was re-assigned to Seattle in February, which had acquired his rights from the Edmonton Oil Kings the month prior.

Guenther had 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 20 regular-season games before adding 28 more, including a WHL- and then-CHL-high 16 goals in 19 post-season games leading into the Memorial Cup. He has two assists in three games since.

"It's been pretty good," Guenther said of his season to date. "I think, obviously, this is the time where you want to peak."

"I think just trusting yourself and your abilities," he added about the space he has to be in for big moments. "Played hockey for a long time, worked really hard to get here, so just trusting myself and trusting my teammates."

The Thunderbirds earned a berth in Friday's semifinal with a 6-1 win over the Kamloops Blazers on Wednesday. 

Seattle's next opponent is the winner of Thursday's tiebreaker between the host Blazers and Ontario Hockey League's Peterborough Petes.

Allan, a 2021 first-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks, was part of a package deal between Seattle and the Prince Albert Raiders in November. 

He had 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in the WHL playoffs and has two goals through two games at the Memorial Cup. He has played a key role on the Thunderbirds' blue line trying to stifle opponents' top lines.

The world junior experience is one Allan says has helped both individually and collectively.

"Any time you win a championship or something special like that, you create a bond with one another. (It) made us a little bit tighter of a group. 

"Especially me, I had only known a couple of the guys here for like two weeks before I went there, so I think that was a big part of … getting to know them a bit better."

"Having a lot of us with that experience, it's big going into our playoff run," he added. "Coming here to this tournament, knowing how to handle the pressure and what the games are going to be like (and) to be able to share that with our other teammates, who may not have had that much experience."

Guenther views the shared experience of being in-season additions and time at the world juniors as a positive for the team.

"I think it's good," he said. "Obviously world juniors is really hard to mimic, so when you have guys who have played there and who want to continue to get better every day, I think it develops the rest of the team. 

"The players within the team get better, which contributes to team success. I think just the drivers that we have, it starts in practice, that has allowed us to have success over the course of the season."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.

Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press

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