Then things changed. It wasn't immediate. The turnaround didn't begin in earnest until Jan. 13, when the Tips staged a stunning third-period comeback before beating Spokane 4-3 in overtime. From that game on Everett was an above-.500 team, going 15-14-1-1, and suddenly I found myself writing playoff previews instead.
So what happened? Why did this seemingly-hopeless team transform into a worthy playoff squad?
Part of the answer is ethereal. Teams like to talk about coming together and buying into the coach's concepts, and I don't discount that. I'm sure those intangible factors played a significant role in Everett's turnaround.
However, I also think there are a number of tangible reasons why Everett spent March 18 preparing for the playoffs instead of the offseason. Here's what I think led to the turnaround:
1) Ryan Murray returned. Everett's captain and star defenseman suffered a sprained ankle on Oct. 19 against Brandon. That injury kept him out until Dec. 9, but he returned for just one game before departing to join Team Canada for the World Junior Hockey Championships, taking him away from the Tips for another four weeks. Murray missed 26 games during that stretch, and the Tips went 5-15-1-5 in those games. Needless to say, getting a player like Murray back in the lineup makes a big difference, and his presence stabilized Everett's defense.
However, it wasn't just the fact Murray returned, it was also the timing of that return. Murray came back just before the trade deadline. Meanwhile, at the trade deadline the Western Conference's other three strugglers, Victoria (Kevin Sundher), Seattle (Marcel Noebels) and Prince George (Martin Marincin), all traded away their best skater. So just as Everett was getting its best player back, the three teams the Tips were chasing were bidding their best skaters farewell. That dramatically shifted the balance of talent in Everett's favor in the race for the final two playoff berths. Everett wouldn't have gotten back into the playoff race without the other teams backing up a bit, and that sequence made it possible.
2) Kent Simpson's play improved. Simpson was supposed to be Everett's wild card in the rebuilding process, a 19-year-old goaltender and second-round NHL draft pick who had the ability to steal games. During the first half that didn't materialize. But right around Everett's trip to Prince George at the end of January Simpson finally began to find his game, and the soft goals that plagued him during the first half disappeared. I think Simpson's improved play also helped settle down Everett's defense as it became less scrambly.
3) Ryan Harrison and Kohl Bauml found chemistry. This actually began in December, but carried over through the end of the season. Harrison spent much of the first half being less productive than the Tips hoped. In the first half Bauml was a rookie still trying to find his way in the WHL. But when they were put on a line together they started scoring, and suddenly Everett had a second line opponents needed to account for.
4) Reid Petryk was acquired. The story for Everett at the trade deadline was that the team didn't deal away Murray or Simpson. Petryk was the footnote. The Tips acquired Petryk for peanuts from Medicine Hat, where he was a role player. He came to Everett and immediately became the team's No. 1 center (what does that say about the team's talent level?), stabilizing that position.
The rest of the roster also generally picked up its play, so everyone deserves some of the credit for the turnaround. But those four factors seemed to me to make the most visible difference.
Next: 2011-12 review: Management change
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