Silvertips-Thunderbirds playoff series has makings of a classic

EVERETT — In the sports world, when making comparisons, people like to talk about margins. Wide margins, narrow margins — even razor-thin margins.

Then there’s comparing the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds, where the whole concept of a margin doesn’t seem to exist.

The Tips and T-birds begin their first-round best-of-seven, Western Hockey League playoff series when they face off Saturday at ShoWare Center in Kent, and the margin that separates the teams amounts to nil.

“We’re excited,” Everett captain Matt Pufahl said. “Our games are always like playoff games, even if they’re in the regular season. Every game we play against them is so physical and tight.

“Every time we’re on the ice against them you want to work the guy across from you,” Pufahl added. “You want him laying on his back and you to be standing over him. That’s how it’s going to be all series. It’s going to be competitive and hard and there’s going to be a lot of bumps and bruises. But that’s the fun part of hockey, and it’s going to be one heck of a series.”

Just how close are Everett and Seattle?

The term “dead heat” doesn’t even begin to do it justice. The teams tied in the standings with 88 points each. They split the 10-game series 5-5, with each team winning once in overtime, meaning they both took 11 points from the other. Six of the 10 games were decided by a single goal. The results on the ice make the close geographic proximity — the 45-mile separation between Everett and Kent is easily the shortest in the WHL’s Western Conference — seem as wide as the Pacific Ocean.

This is no new phenomenon, either. For four consecutive years, the Tips and T-birds have split their season series 5-5, and in those four seasons the teams were never separated by more than three points. The teams are only getting closer together as each season the gap narrowed by a point.

Therefore, it doesn’t get any more competitive than Everett versus Seattle.

“Ever since I’ve been here it’s been that way,” third-year Seattle coach Steve Konowalchuk said. “Two years ago they beat us by (two) points, last year we finished ahead by a point, this year we finished tied, and the games are always tight to the end. I expect the same thing in the playoffs.”

Said Everett coach Kevin Constantine: “In the playoffs anything can happen and I’ve seen where the obvious may not happen, so you don’t know that just because the teams were 5-5 and finished with the same number of points that the series will be a 4-3, seven-game, overtime thriller. But it could be, because based on the regular season the teams are pretty competitive. On paper, it looks like two fairly evenly matched teams.”

But while the season series finished in a dead heat, the pendulum was swinging Everett’s way at the end of the season. The Tips finished the campaign with wins in 11 of their final 13 games, with both losses coming in shootouts against U.S. Division champion Portland. Everett also won its final three meetings against Seattle, two of those on the road.

Meanwhile, Seattle struggled to the finish line, needing a 6-1 victory at Tri-City on the season’s final day to hold off the charging Tips and hang onto the fourth seed, thus maintaining home-ice advantage over fifth-seeded Everett. Before that the T-birds dropped six of their previous seven.

Everett allowed just 24 goals during its 13-game, season-ending stretch, meaning the T-birds will have to find a way through a sturdy Tips defense to prevail in the series.

“They play a smart hockey game,” Konowalchuk said of the Tips. “They play a defense-first game and make you grind it out. We have to be willing to grind against them.

“We’ve got to establish our forecheck a little more,” Konowalchuk added. “When we’ve had success against them we’ve had good forechecking. Our last game against them (a 5-2 Everett victory on March 8 in Kent), we didn’t have our energy or forechecking. We have to make sure we play with energy, play physical and are a good forechecking team.”

The attributes that make Seattle’s forecheck effective are the T-birds’ advantage in the series, as Seattle has the edge in size and experience. Seattle has eight forwards who measure in 6-feet or taller, along with five who weigh 200 pounds or more, and those players like to use their size to create a physical dominance. The T-birds also have 12 players aged 19 or older, meaning even their smaller players are more physically mature. Seattle will try to use those physical attributes to wear Everett down, and the Tips’ biggest challenge in the series will be withstanding that physical barrage.

“They’re very experienced, so that gives them some size and experience with a good crop of 19-year-olds,” Constantine said. “You don’t really look at them and go, ‘Well, here’s where they’re weak.’ So they have a nice blend of everything.

“They are big and physical,” Constantine added. “But the playoffs is a special time of year, and it’s a time of year in hockey that brings out the best in players. It wouldn’t matter who we’re playing, it’s a time where we have to compete. Our challenge is to show up at the rink ready to compete every night.”

And if history is an indicator, there may not be a more competitive first-round playoff series in the WHL than Everett versus Seattle.

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

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