By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — There was an unusual scene when the Everett Silvertips began practice Tuesday afternoon at Comcast Arena:
Twenty-three players on the ice.
Everett has struggled mightily with injuries throughout the season’s second half. However, everyone was on the ice for practice Tuesday, and as the Western Hockey League enters its final stretch the Tips are close to regaining their health.
Practices often have been sparse for Everett since the turn of the new year as injuries plagued the team. But on Tuesday, the Tips had their full complement of players on the ice for practice for the first time since the Christmas break.
“Well, I wouldn’t it consider it a full practice because (Tyler) Sandhu and (Zane) Jones didn’t do the actual team drills, so it’s a little early to say we had everybody out there,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “But we hope it’s coming. If we can get through another week without an injury, then by next week we might actually have every single guy available.”
The one constant for Everett during the second half has been missing bodies. Of the 23 players on Everett’s roster, 11 have appeared on the weekly injury report at some point since Jan. 1. As many as seven of those were on the list simultaneously.
And those injuries deprived Everett of its most important players at one point, as the wounded included all three overagers (forwards Joshua Winquist and Manraj Hayer and defenseman Matt Pufahl), two of the team’s three NHL draft picks (center Jujhar Khaira and defenseman Ben Betker) and the team’s primary trade deadline acquisition (Jones).
The absent players subsequently had a profound affect on Everett’s results. The Tips were 22-10-4-0 at the season’s midpoint as they were largely healthy during the first half, but Everett is just 8-13-3-2 since.
However, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the Tips. Everett has gradually added players back into the lineup, and the results have picked up. The Silvertips won four of their past seven, and the defeats include Sunday’s dramatic 2-1 shootout loss to a Portland team in the midst of a 20-game winning streak.
Jones and Sandhu, who have been unavailable because of upper-body injuries, returned to practice Tuesday, giving Everett its full roster on the ice simultaneously for the first time since before the the team broke for the Christmas holiday. Both wore no-contact jerseys, and Constantine said neither would be ready to play tonight when the Tips play host to Prince Albert. But with 10 games remaining in the regular season, Everett is as close as it’s been in the second half to being able to field a full-strength lineup.
“I can’t remember the last time we had everyone at practice,” Pufahl, Everett’s captain, said. “It’s good to get everybody back, get flowing with our whole team back in practice again. It was good to see Jones and Sandhu out there practicing again it and was good to have everybody out there.”
Jones and Sandhu are the final pieces Everett is awaiting. The big-bodied Jones appeared in just three games with the Tips following his arrival at the trade deadline before going down, meaning he’s missed 16 games. The skillful Sandhu sat out the past 13 games because of his ailment. Their returns would provide welcome additional depth up front.
“Tyler has scored a lot of goals for us when he’s been in the lineup this year,” Constantine said. “Zane can add an element of size to our lineup — we’re not a real big team. He’s a bigger body and has found his goals during the year. So both guys I think can make contributions. We’re trying to work as quick as we can to get them in shape and make sure they’re healthy and get them available for us.”
Neither, however, will be available for tonight’s game againstthe Raiders, Everett’s final Eastern Conference opponent of the season. Prince Albert is playing the final game of its five-game swing through the U.S. Division, having won at Spokane and Tri-City and led at Portland.
“They’re a hard-working team,” said Pufahl, who as a member of the Saskatoon Blades saw plenty of the Raiders last season. “They made a lot of trades this offseason and this year, so they’re a lot different from what I saw. But they’re a hard-working team and it’s not going to be easy. We can’t take them lightly.”
One emphasis of Tuesday’s practice was avoiding a letdown. Everett is coming off an excellent weekend in which the Tips took five of a possible six points, including coming a whisker away from ending Portland’s winning streak. But the coaching staff wants to make sure the team doesn’t squander some of the ground gained over the weekend because of a lackluster effort tonight.
“It was good to get five out of six, it was a good weekend,” Pufahl said. “But (tonight) is a huge game. Every game is a big game from here on out. We still have Tri-City behind us chasing us. We’re still chasing Vancouver and Spokane and maybe even Seattle. So we’re just taking it day by day and focusing on (the Raiders).”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.