By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips complete the first half of the WHL season tonight.
And though the Tips are limping to the halfway point, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s been a positive first half for Everett.
“Obviously we’re going through a tough stretch right now, but it’s hard to say it hasn’t been an unbelievable first half,” Everett goaltender Austin Lotz said. “We exceeded all expectations and went against all the odds.”
Everett heads into tonight’s game at Portland with a 21-10-4-0 record and tied for third place in the Western Conference. That’s a dramatic improvement upon the previous three seasons, when the Tips finished eighth in the conference each season and topped out at 28 victories.
“I thought we played really well throughout (the first half),” Tips captain Matt Pufahl said. “We were lacking a little bit of consistency in the game we want to play, that’s something we’ve been harping on. But for the most part I thought we played pretty solid.”
However, the Tips hit a rough patch heading into the Christmas break, which lasts nine days before the team resumes play Dec. 27 at home against Seattle. Everett has lost four straight and six of its past seven, a stretch that knocked the Tips out of first place in the entire WHL.
The rough patch hasn’t been disastrous. The losses came when Everett started facing better competition, and all the games have been competitive — the Tips outshot their opponents in four of the six defeats. However, it just hasn’t been happening for Everett in front of goal, as the Tips scored just 10 goals in the six losses.
“It’s been lots of things,” Lotz said about the skid. “I think our effort has to be better. Everyone from our goalie out is not playing their best hockey right now. But that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to fight through it. We have a lot of guys in the dressing room who really care this year. There’s been a couple bounces that didn’t’ go our way, but you can’t really make excuses when you’ve lost six of your last seven. We’re just taking it shift by shift and looking forward to getting out of this slump.”
Said Pufahl: “Every team goes through a little down spell like we’re going through right now. It’s good to go through it now, better than really close to the playoffs or even in the playoffs. Every team goes through a little adversity. We can get through it as a team and we can get back on track with a win (tonight).”
Therefore, tonight’s game takes on even more importance for the Tips. Teams always want to head into the Christmas break on a winning note, so they don’t have to stew over a defeat over the holidays. But Everett is particularly motivated to staunch the bleeding and avoid going into the break on a five-game skid.
“I think it’s huge,” Lotz said. “It’s huge for our organization and our confidence and pride as a team. We’re going to be worried the process, not the result. Our coach has been preaching that all year and I think it will help us be successful.”
Ending the losing streak will be no easy task, as the Tips must find a way to defeat Portland, the defending league champion, on the road. Everett has lost 16 straight regular season road games in Portland, though the Tips did win twice in Portland during last season’s first-round playoff series, which the Winterhawks won 4-2.
However, Portland will be minus almost all of its big guns. No. 1 defenseman Derrick Pouliot, as well as top three scorers Nicolas Petan, Oliver Bjorkstrand and Taylor Leier, are all away at the World Junior Hockey Championships. In addition, star winger/pest Brendan Leipsic is facing a possible suspension for his checking-to-the-head major penalty taken in Saturday’s 5-3 victory over Seattle.
But the Tips aren’t banking on Portland’s player losses being the ticket to ending the losing streak and heading home happy.
“That doesn’t affect us at all,” Pufahl said. “We’re going to play the same way. Even if (Portland’s top players) were there, we’d play hard an be hard to play against. We just have to get the offensive side of our game back and start putting pucks in the net again.”
Everett will be missing its share of players, too. Defenseman Mirco Mueller (Switzerland) is also at World Juniors, while forwards Manraj Hayer (concussion) and Patrick Bajkov (upper body) are out injured. The Tips may also be without defenseman Noah Juulsen because of an upper-body ailment. Juulsen did not play in the third period of Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Spokane, and he did not take part in practice Monday.
The Tips will also be without at least three players when play resumes on Dec. 27. Mueller will still be at World Juniors, while Juulsen and defenseman Kevin Davis will be playing for Team Pacific at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.