Silvertips have become legitimate title contenders

EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips returned from their road trip through the Western Hockey League’s Central Division with several things in tow:

The maximum eight points after sweeping the four-games-in-five-nights road trip.

The top spot in the WHL standings, claiming it outright on the first game of the trip and maintaining it the rest of the way.

A belief they are legitimate WHL title contenders.

“Absolutely,” answered goaltender Austin Lotz, who earned the win in all four games. “In our eyes we knew were knew we were a contender going into the season, we always believed we were. It’s our goal every year to make it to the Memorial Cup.

“After that trip, now that we’re in first place by a couple points, the other teams around the league are seeing we’re a legitimate contender.”

Everett spent the past three seasons as a WHL non-factor, finishing eighth in the 10-team Western Conference all three years. The Tips were hoping to return to some form of significance this year, even issuing a guarantee to season ticket holders that the team would finish no worse than sixth in the conference.

But Everett has risen further than anyone could have imagined. The perfect 4-0 road trip improved Everett’s record to 19-4-4-0. The Tips’ 42 points are the most of any team in the WHL, three ahead of second-place Portland. With more than a third of the schedule completed, Everett is looking like a real threat.

“It’s still early to tell, but I think we have a chance to be a contender this year,” Everett leading scorer Joshua Winquist said. “Our division is the best in the league, so we’re going to have tough games all year. It’s tough to say right now.”

Everett knocked off Kootenay, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Calgary in succession during the trip. The four victories gave the Tips a clean sweep of the Central Division, as Everett beat Red Deer and Edmonton during a previous road trip.

However, Everett didn’t steamroll the competition during the trip, the margin in each of the four victories being a single goal.

“It was a different formula every night,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “It was barely winning every game. Still, it’s hard to do.

“We won them all by one goal, which is kind of telling of our team,” Constantine added. “We will never win games the way Portland does, getting the 8-1s and 9-2s and 7-3s. That’s not us. We have to follow our script pretty close because if we do things right we can win games, but there isn’t a lot of margin for error. That’s kind of our team.”

In addition to the team spoils, Winquist returned from the trip with an individual honor in his clutches. He had at least one point in each of Everett’s four games during the trip. That gave him points in 16 consecutive games, setting a franchise record. The team’s previous top points streak was 15 games by Zach Hamill seven years earlier.

“It’s pretty cool,” Winquist said about about setting the record. His streak is still active. “It has a lot to do with how well the team is playing. Everything I seem to shoot right now is going in or coming close to going in, and my linemates are bearing down. So that’s been pretty good.”

Despite the road trip sweep and lofty perch in the standings, the Tips aren’t ready to anoint themselves as league favorites just yet.

“Kelowna has the best record in my opinion, because they’ve won the highest percent of the games they’ve played,” Constantine said. Kelowna’s winning percentage is .818 versus .778 for Everett, but the Rockets have played five fewer games. “So I don’t see us as the best team, I see Kelowna as the best team based on winning percentage.

“But you can ask this question over and over all year long, it’s not very important right now. Hockey is built around what you do in the postseason. Were we legit when we went 7-0 in the preseason? People wondered. We had a decent start and people wondered. Any time a Kelowna or Brandon beat us up pretty good, people wondered. When Prince George beat us after we beat Portland, people wondered.

“All that’s fine, it’s for people to speculate, but it’s not something to get wrapped up in too much over the course of the season. You just have to figure out a way to play every day and practice hard every day.

“Would we like to win a division title? Of course. One of our goals is to figure out how to hang some banners, which hasn’t happened for six years. But we spend little time talking about that. Our focus is going to be very short term.”

Slaps shots

One player who did not make the bus trip home with the team at the end of the road trip was center Jujhar Khaira. Khaira remained in Alberta to join up with Team WHL for this week’s Canada-Russia Super Series. Khaira will play for Team WHL tonight in Red Deer and Thursday in Lethbridge. ? A pair of local 15-year-olds joined the Tips at practice Tuesday at Comcast Arena. Defenseman Connor Nobach, a fifth-round pick in this year’s bantam draft, and forward Brendan Weir, who attended training camp, skated with the team. Nobach, who plays for the Los Angeles Junior Kings, and Weir, who plays for the Anaheim Junior Ducks, are home for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.

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