By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips are about to step into the gauntlet.
Four games. Four different cities. Three title-contending opponents. Five days.
Life in the Western Hockey League’s U.S. Division has been challenging this season, but it’s hard to imagine a more brutal week than the one Everett is facing.
Everett gets a heavy dose of the best the WHL’s Western Conference has to offer this week, beginning tonight when the Tips travel to Kelowna to face the league’s best team.
“It’s going to be tough,” admitted Tips center Jujhar Khaira, who has nine points in his past six games. “But the more games, the more hockey we play, it’s a lot more fun for us. We’re looking forward to it.”
The week begins tonight at Kelowna. The Rockets are way out in front in the race for the Scotty Munro Trophy for the league’s best record. Kelowna is 37-6-0-2, and the Rockets’ 76 points are nine more than the nearest chaser. Everett is 0-2 against Kelowna this season.
“Every time you play the No. 1 team, it’s a good measuring stick to see where we’re at as a group right now,” Everett center Kohl Bauml said. “The first game against them they kind of walked over us, but the last game in Kelowna we were right there with them, so it will be a good test again.
“They just have so much depth,” Bauml added about the challenge the Rockets present. “Their (defense is) probably one of the best puck-moving (defenses) I’ve seen in a long time. They probably match Portland’s from last year. Their goaltending is unbelievable. They just have a lot of depth up and down their lineup; there’s no real weak spots on their team.”
After traveling north to take on the B.C. Division’s best team tonight, the Tips turn around and head south to face the U.S. Division’s best team Friday, traveling to Portland to play the defending league champion Winterhawks. Everett split its previous four games against Portland, but one of those came when the Winterhawks were missing six key players because of international tournaments and suspension.
After playing in Portland, the Tips travel to Kent on Saturday to face the Seattle Thunderbirds, the team with the third-best winning percentage in the Western Conference, behind Kelowna and Portland. In addition, the T-birds, who the Tips are 2-1 against this season, went into Tuesday night’s game against Moose Jaw having won six straight.
The week concludes at home Sunday when the Tips have a rematch with Portland. So Everett gets no chance to catch its breath this week.
“It’s tough,” Bauml said. “We knew we had to get all the points in the first half that we could, and we did a great job of that. We knew the second half was going to be tough on us, almost every game is a divisional game for every team right now. So it’s a tough stretch because all the teams are good in our division, but at the same time it’s anyone’s game and anyone’s division to win right now.”
Since the beginning of December the Silvertips have been in a bit of a swoon, posting a 5-10-2-1 record in their past 18 games. This week’s schedule isn’t exactly the easiest way to turn that momentum around.
However, while this stretch presents a challenge, it also presents opportunity. If Everett comes away with something from this week, the Tips can re-establish themselves as a factor in the conference race. At one point during the first half of the season, Everett climbed all the way to the top of the entire WHL. The swoon, caused in part by of the unavailability of key personnel because of injuries and international tournaments, knocked the Tips back into sixth place in the conference.
“We have a lot to prove here,” Khaira said. “We started out real well, we’ve been in a little bit of a slump here, and I think it’s about time we get back to the way we usually play.”
It doesn’t really get any easier for Everett following this week. During their next 10 games the Tips don’t face a team with a current winning percentage below Spokane’s .630. Indeed, Everett has 26 games remaining in the regular season, and not a single one is against an opponent that currently has a winning percentage below .500.
At least Everett gets its leading scorer back this week. Overage winger Joshua Winquist’s suspension for his kneeing major penalty Friday against Spokane was set at one game, meaning he served the suspension in its entirety Saturday against Moose Jaw. That’s 27 goals and 35 assists back in the lineup tonight.
However, captain Matt Pufahl remains on the injury list because of his rib ailment. Pufahl did not practice Tuesday and is listed as day-to-day.
Two other players showed up on Everett’s injury report — they just happen to be the two newest members of the team. Winger Zane Jones (upper body) and center Remi Laurencelle (lower body) are both listed as day to day.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.