By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
EVERETT — The 2011-12 Western Hockey League season was a roller-coaster ride for the Everett Silvertips.
But at least by the end of the season the ride was trending in the upward direction.
A tumultuous season came to an end Wednesday when the Silvertips were swept out of the playoffs by the Tri-City Americans. However, in contrast to the previous season — which ended under near identical circumstances — the arc of Everett’s campaign gives the team hope for the future.
“Obviously we struggled in the first half,” team captain Ryan Murray said. “But I think we made a lot of strides and really came together as a team in the second half. Everyone learned a lot, especially the first-year guys. They really stepped up for us in the second half.”
The 2011-12 season was punctuated with some historical lows. Everett finished 22-40-2-8, the worst record in franchise history, and the Tips needed a loss by Seattle on the last day of the regular season to squeeze into the playoffs. Forward Tyler Maxwell became disgruntled and was dispatched just weeks after becoming the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer. And it all culminated with longtime general manager Doug Soetaert being dismissed in February.
The on-ice results were similar to the previous season, when the Tips also squeaked into the Western Conference’s final playoff spot and were swept in the first round of the playoffs, that time by Portland.
Though the Tips acknowledged from the beginning that 2011-12 was a rebuilding season — the team was young, had a limited amount of talent and had a new head coach in Mark Ferner — no one anticipated how bad it would be during the first half. When the season reached its midpoint, Everett had won just six of 36 games, and was in last place in the WHL by 10 points.
“We faced a lot of adversity, whether it was injuries or guys getting suspended,” Tips leading scorer Josh Birkholz said. “At times it didn’t seem there was a lot of hope. But toward the end of the season we really came together and everyone bought into the same goal of trying to make the playoffs. It really revealed our character and the resiliency we have in the locker room.”
The turnaround began in January, right about the time Murray returned from a lengthy absence because of injury and international duty. Everett won 12 of its final 23 games, including a dramatic 6-4 victory at Seattle in its regular-season finale that essentially gave the Tips their ninth playoff berth in their nine seasons of existence.
“The way it ended, I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” Ferner said. “Even though we finished eighth and didn’t get a playoff win. I thought our kids continued to grow as a group and get better, and the last three months I think they really turned a corner and understood what we were trying to ask of them as a coaching staff. They really came together and played their best hockey at the end of the season.”
Murray’s return wasn’t the only factor that led to the turnaround. Goaltender Kent Simpson improved his play dramatically, and during the second half was one of the best netminders in the league. The acquisition of center Reid Petryk at the trade deadline, little more of an afterthought at the time, turned out to have a significant impact. And the team began to jell as the younger players began making more significant contributions.
“I think we just understood what it takes to win in this league, got everyone on board at the right time and started playing the way we had to play,” Murray said. “We weren’t a very skilled team, so we had to get it done the hard way. It took us a while to learn that, but when we did, it worked out for us.
“The losing was tough, it’s not a lot of fun,” Murray added. “But I think the coaches did a good job keeping everyone positive and keeping everyone on track. The team never gave up, even though we were pretty far out of it in the first half. We always kept pushing and that’s a tribute to the effort the players put in all year.”
Wednesday’s playoff finale was something of a microcosm of Everett’s season. The Tips trailed the top-seeded Americans 3-0 in the series and 3-0 in the third period, and they could have packed it in. Instead they mounted a stirring rally to tie the game in the final minute and force overtime. When Tri-City scored the winner late in the first overtime period, the fans at Comcast Arena showed their appreciation by giving the Silvertips a lengthy standing ovation.
Apparently the fans believed Everett’s turnaround was an indication of things to come.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.