EVERETT — If there’s been one constant over the past three seasons for the Everett Silvertips, it’s been the image of them eating the Portland Winterhawks’ dust.
Tonight the Silvertips attempt to prove those days are over when they face the Winterhawks for the first time this season in a game at Comcast Arena.
“This is a big game for us, a big test to see where we stand in the league and with them,” said fourth-year Tips center Manraj Hayer, who’s endured many a beating at the hands of the Winterhawks over the years. “Ever since they kicked us out of the playoffs last year, we’ve had this circled on our calendars, for sure. So we’ll be ready (tonight).”
Everett and Portland found themselves at opposite ends of the standings the past three seasons. The Winterhawks were the league’s best team over that stretch, winning the Western Conference all three times and claiming the Western Hockey League championship last May.
Meanwhile, the Silvertips had losing records all three seasons, squeezed into the conference’s eighth-and-final playoff spot all three times, then were bounced in the first round on each occasion.
The head-to-head results emphasized the gap between the two franchises. Everett’s regular-season record against Portland the past three seasons was a pitiful 4-23-1-2. The Winterhawks outscored the Tips 126-68 in those 30 games.
Last season, Everett won just one of the teams’ 10 regular-season meetings. Of Everett’s first-round playoff losses the past three years, two came at the hands of Portland, including a 4-2 series defeat last season.
However, the early returns this season suggest times could be changing.
Portland retains its lofty position in the standings as the Winterhawks are 16-4-1-1 and lead the league with 34 points. The difference is with the Tips, who have improved considerably under head coach Kevin Constantine. Everett is right behind Portland at 14-3-4-0, and if the Tips win in regulation tonight they’ll catch the Winterhawks at 34 points.
That makes the Tips highly motivated to prove tonight they belong in the race with Portland.
“I’ve had enough of going home and talking to my buddy Taylor Leier and having him be able to rub it in my face all summer,” third-year Everett center Kohl Bauml quipped, referring to his former midget teammate who’s one of Portland’s many offensive stars.
“So I’m looking for a little bit different results this year, for sure. Hopefully I can get a little bit of bragging rights on him over Christmas and the summer. We don’t want any more of that 1-9 stuff again.”
Portland is the same type of team it’s been the past three seasons. The Winterhawks possess a high-flying offensive team with an abundance of forwards who have a lethal combination of speed and skill. Portland’s 109 goals lead the league and are 17 more than second-place Swift Current.
Everett has allowed 56 goals this season, making the Tips one of the top defensive teams in the league. However, Everett’s defense has its hands full trying to slow the Winterhawks down.
“They’ve been the class of the league the last few years, and it’s always fun to go against teams with that reputation and that success,” Constantine said of the Winterhawks. “If you’re going to compete for the division, we’re going to have to find a way to compete with them.
One of the keys to competing with Portland is “we’re going to have to be detailed in what we’re doing,” Constantine added. “If we take our plan and do it detailed and focused and crisp, it will take some of their ability to create offense away. Ultimately, we have to expend energy playing our game to be successful.”
One thing that may help the Tips keep Portland’s offense in check is the presence of No. 1 goaltender Austin Lotz. Lotz missed six games after twisting an ankle Oct. 26 at Kamloops. However, he was back in uniform for Wednesday’s 6-5 overtime loss to Regina, though he didn’t play as Daniel Cotton received the nod in goal. Constantine said Lotz was the likely starter tonight.
But whoever gets the start in goal for Everett, the Tips are determined to prove, after three seasons of being outclassed, they belong on the same ice with the Winterhawks.
“It’s exciting,” Hayer said. “Playing the best team in the league is always fun. We just have to play our game and focus on what we’re doing, competing hard and battling hard. Obviously, they have skilled players you have to watch and be aware of, but I think if we play our game and be physical, we’ll be fine.”
Everett had four among the 38 WHL players listed in the NHL Central Scouting Service’s November rankings for the 2014 NHL draft, which were released Thursday. Lotz was listed as a B goalie, while forwards Dawson Leedahl, Ivan Nikolishin and Tyler Sandhu were listed as C skaters. For Leedahl it was the first time being mentioned by Central Scouting. … Tips defensemen Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen were among the 22 players named Thursday to Team Pacific (B.C. and Alberta) for the U-17 World Hockey Challenge. This year’s tournament takes place Dec. 29-Jan. 4 in Nova Scotia.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.