The Everett Silvertips versus the Seattle Thunderbirds. It's been a long time coming, but it's finally arrived.
For the first time since Everett joined the Western Hockey League in 2003, the geographical rivals are facing one another in the postseason. The first-round, best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series between the fourth-seeded T-birds and fifth-seeded Tips kicks off tonight when the teams square off in Game 1 at ShoWare Center in Kent.
And there's one sentiment that rings out about Everett and Seattle finally meeting in the playoffs:
It's about time.
"I think its great for both organizations," said Everett assistant general manager Zoran Rajcic, who's been with the team since day one. "People get into it during the regular season, but it doesn't become a real rivalry until the heat of a playoff series. So this is a great opportunity for both organizations. How much better does it get than having a 45-minute drive down the freeway to play a playoff series?"
The two teams' history goes right back to the Silvertips' beginning when Bill Yuill, then Seattle's owner, decided to sell to T-birds in favor of starting an expansion franchise in Everett. The location of the teams 25 miles apart, the shortest distance between teams in the WHL, made for a natural rivalry.
In the 11 years since Everett joined the league in 2003, there have been many dramatic moments between the teams. The T-birds have since moved to Kent, doubling the distance between the teams and thus putting Everett-Seattle behind Regina-Moose Jaw for the nearest geographic rivalry. But they are still just a short drive down I-5 from one another, and they still occupy the same Puget Sound region.
However, there's never been a playoff series between Everett and Seattle to solidify the rivalry and galvanize the fanbases. Until now.
"We've talked about it a few times, how the teams are so near, but that the rivalry is not very developed at this point," said Russ Farwell, who's been Seattle's general manager since Everett entered the league. "Both teams draw well against one another, but we're both hoping this helps develop the rivalry."
How unlikely is it that the teams have never met in the postseason?
In their previous 10 seasons, the Tips played 17 playoff series. During that stretch Everett has faced every other team in the U.S. Division three times. The Tips have played a playoff series against Kootenay, which hasn't been in the Western Conference since 2006. But not only has Everett never before faced the T-birds in postseason play, only once was it even in the realm of possibility — in 2008 when a possible first-round meeting was thwarted on the final weekend of the regular season.
"It's strange," said Everett coach Kevin Constantine, who presided over the Tips during the first 11 of those 17 playoff series when he guided the team from 2003-07. "It's not real logical that you wouldn't match up in 11 years, but it just hasn't happened for whatever reason. It was going to happen eventually, the odds certainly said it was going to happen, and here we are.
"It's an opportunity for the fans from each team to go to the away games, which should end up putting a few more people in the building than would normally be the case," Constantine added. "The more people in the building, the more atmosphere in the building. Not that the two teams need more atmosphere, they're good rivals and it's always a pretty spirited game anyhow. But you get to add some fans and I think that's what makes it more fun, that the fans can be more involved."
While Everett and Seattle have never met in the playoffs, they did play what amounted to a Game 7. At the end of the 2011-12 season, the teams played what was essentially a do-or-die game, with the winner earning the conference's final playoff berth and the loser going home. Everett prevailed 6-4 in a thrilling encounter in Kent.
"That atmosphere was nuts," said Everett leading scorer Josh Winquist, who is one of 10 players on the current rosters — six for Seattle, four for Everett — who dressed for that game. "Both teams wanted it. It was a playoff game in my opinion, because both teams just wanted it really badly. It was a cool environment and we got lucky and came out with a W.
"(This series) is going to be like that game. Every game is going to be hard hitting and grinding out."
One of the characteristics of the series that's generated discussion is the unusual schedule. Most seven-game series in the WHL see the higher seed host the first two games, the lower seed host the second two games, then the final three games alternate between the two. However, because the teams are so close geographically, they're alternating every game, with Game 2 Sunday in Everett.
Seattle, as the higher seed, had control of the scheduling and requested the format.
"It gives good dates to both buildings," explained Farwell, who wanted a Tuesday home date for the team's popular 2-for-Tuesday promotion. "It gives you time to sell the games. Sometimes when you have back-to-back games it doesn't sell all that well. These are unique circumstances, when the teams are this close together. We thought it made sense from a business standpoint."
But Constantine said he didn't expect the schedule will play a role in the outcome.
"It's interesting, because in Switzerland where I've been the last couple years, they do the same thing," Constantine explained. "It's a small country and the teams are all within a couple hours drive of each other. I think it's meaningless. I don't think there's any advantage in any particular schedule. Both teams are reasonably comfortable in the other team's building. It's a short drive, so there isn't a travel issue. While it's unusual, I don't think there's a story there because I don't think it will have a bearing on the series."
Regardless, the teams are looking at an exciting series that's been waiting to happen.
"It's taken 11 years for this series to come to a head," Rajcic said. "If the fans are looking at it from the perspective of a great rivalry, well this is going to be it. Unlike the regular season, either Everett or Seattle is going to win the series, so bragging rights are there for both communities. This is probably as big as we've seen it for both teams."
Everett is not discussing player health issues during the postseason, including that of goaltender Austin Lotz and center Jujhar Khaira, neither of whom finished last Sunday's season finale in Portland. However, both Lotz and Khaira practiced fully Friday and appear ready to go for tonight's Game 1. Winger Tyler Sandhu, who was scratched last Sunday, did not practice Friday. Center Kohl Bauml remains laid up with a fractured leg. … The Tips are cooking up some special events for the start of the playoffs. First, they're hoping to create a "Sea of Green" for Everett's home games, encouraging fans to dress in green. They're also holding a block party prior to Sunday's Game 2, beginning at 2 p.m. at the southeast entrance to Comcast Arena.
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