By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — One of the constant quandaries for the Everett Silvertips during the 2011-12 WHL season was player unavailability.
Everett was struck by a little bit of everything. Injuries kept some players out half the season or more. International duty claimed others for brief periods. The Tips even had two players receive 10-game suspensions.
Through it all, Everett coach Mark Ferner had to navigate the waters, cobbling together a lineup as his first-choice 20 was available a grand total of once during Everett’s 72 regular season contests.
But perhaps fate is smiling upon Ferner at just the right moment.
All of Everett’s players have rejoined practice this week, and it’s possible the Tips will be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.
“We’ll know better by Friday,” Ferner said following Wednesday’s practice at Comcast Arena.
“It’s been a long time,” Ferner added about the last time he had a full roster to choose from. “It’s a good thing getting healthy at the right time of year. But do we know if we’re going to have a full lineup yet? No.”
Hockey is a sport in which injuries are inevitable, and teams have to expect to lose players for stretches of the season. But this season has been particularly difficult for Everett as the Tips seemed to have three or more players on the injury report since before the season began.
Captain Ryan Murray missed two months because of a sprained ankle. Winger JT Barnett, acquired to be a key offensive contributor, managed just 20 games before suffering a knee injury that’s kept him out since January. Forwards Manraj Hayer and Zach McPhee both missed more than half the season because of multiple injuries.
More recently, Everett’s defense fell victim. Evan Morden only returned recently after sitting out a month with an ankle injury. And just as Morden returned, fellow defensemen Nick Walters and Austin Adam both went down with lower-body injuries.
Barnett, Walters and Adam watched the dramatic final week of the season from the stands as the Tips just squeezed into the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. But the three have returned to practice and could be available for Friday’s Game 1 of the first-round playoff series between eighth-seeded Everett and top-seeded Tri-City, a game that takes place in Kennewick.
“Obviously trying to be healthy at the right time of year is key,” Ferner said. “Are we going to be there? We’re not sure yet.”
But the Tips are as close as they’ve been at any point this season. Even Barnett, who was originally diagnosed with a season-ending injury, is on the verge of returning.
“Everything’s feeling pretty good,” Barnett said. “I’m just happy to be back in the mix, back in actual practices and not just doing my own thing.”
Barnett suffered a torn lateral collateral ligament in his knee while warming up for Everett’s game at Kamloops on Jan. 14. He played in that game, but his knee swelled up afterward and an MRI revealed the damage.
Barnett was originally told he’d need surgery on the knee and be out six months. However, the doctors also gave him the option of seeing if the injury healed on its own. It did, surgery was averted, and now Barnett may be in position to aid the Tips during the playoffs.
And Barnett was thrilled the Tips came through in the final week to reach the playoffs, thus giving him the opportunity to play again this season.
“Toward the end of the season when my leg started to kind of get back into better shape and our team started to pick it up, it made me pretty happy to see that there was still a shot at playing if we made the playoffs,” Barnett said. “The timing’s been pretty good.”
With Walters and Adam also on the mend, the Tips could be at their strongest as the playoffs begin. And the Tips will need it being heavy underdogs against the Americans, who finished the regular season with nearly twice as many points as Everett.
“This is one of the first times we’ve had everyone healthy,” Barnett said. “It’s crazy having every guy out there, no one with a white jersey with a red cross on it. This is exactly where we want to be heading into the playoffs, and I think the guys have peaked at the perfect time.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.