KENT — Friday’s 7:35 p.m. puck drop at ShoWare Center needs little set-up.
Both the Seattle Thunderbirds and Everett Silvertips know the importance of their final regular-season meeting of the year. It’s a chance for the T-birds to leap-frog the Tips once again for the top spot in the WHL’s U.S. Division and the Western Conference. It’s also a chance for the Tips to move three points ahead of their nearest rival with just a handful of games remaining.
“You just have to play your best hockey this time every year,” Tips overage defenseman Lucas Skrumeda said. “Every game is so important every game is so contested, so physical, so tough. You just gotta know that the stakes are high, so accept pressure as a privilege and just play well.”
Everett (40-14-8-3, 91 points) topped Spokane 4-0 on Wednesday. Perhaps just as crucial was the Tips’ convincing 4-2 win over the T-birds last Saturday before a sold-out crowd at Xfinity Arena.
It was just Everett’s second win over Seattle in seven meetings and only the second time this year the Tips have beaten the T-birds without a Carter Hart shutout.
“It’s huge and it does a lot for our confidence as a team, I think, knowing we can beat them,” overage defenseman Aaron Irving said. “We had a stretch of games where we couldn’t beat Seattle and nothing was going our way. And I think having that confidence in that game and knowing that we have what it takes to beat them and we just have to translate that into their building.”
Everett hasn’t won at ShoWare Center this season and has struggled getting off to good starts against the T-birds on the road. That wasn’t the case last week in Everett when the Tips built a 3-0 lead in the opening period and finished with a 40-17 shot advantage.
Hart allowed two goals, but the Tips showed they could beat Seattle even when the reigning WHL and CHL Goaltender of the Year isn’t perfect.
“It’s a tough weight to have on Carter’s shoulders knowing that he has to play perfect for us to win a game and it’s kind of unrealistic to ask of anyone in any position,” Irving said. “I think even him having that confidence that if a puck goes in, bad bounce or anything like that, knowing that we can come back and get that offense against a good team like Seattle.”
Hart incidentally turned in his league-best ninth shutout of the season Wednesday though he faced just 17 shots. The Tips outshot Seattle and Spokane by a combined tally of 76-34 over the past two games. Hart shut out the T-birds 3-0 in a 37-save effort the night prior to Thanksgiving and stopped 33 saves in a 1-0 blanking of Seattle on Jan. 20 when the Tips were outshot 33-14.
Then there was the 6-1 debacle on Feb. 26 at ShoWare when Hart was pulled after allowing three goals on a dozen shots in Everett’s worst loss of the season.
“He’s a giant part of our team, but we have to put something in front of him or else we’re not going to win,” Everett forward Brian King said. “It showed in the game (against) Seattle (three) games ago. Having him there we have to be there for him. We can’t be having him (always) carry the team on his shoulders.”
Hart has indeed shouldered the load for much of the season. Following Wednesday’s shutout he boasts a 27-9-6-2 record with a league-best goals-against average of 1.94 and a league-best save percentage of .928. That’s a big reason the Tips are atop the Western Conference despite averaging the fewest goals per game among the 13 WHL teams that have qualified for the playoff so far.
Following Friday’s game the Tips play at Tri-City Saturday before heading to Portland Sunday. Then comes yet another stretch of four games in five nights next week to conclude the regular season.
For the latest Silvertips news follow Jesse Geleynse on Twitter.