EVERETT — There was a lot of open space on the ice at Comcast Arena on Thursday afternoon.
The Everett Silvertips returned to town Thursday following their Christmas break and began preparing to open the second half of the Western Hockey League season tonight. However, the Tips operated with a skeleton crew in their one and only full practice before games resume.
Everett had just 16 players on the ice Thursday, four fewer than a team dresses for games. Part of that was because of late arrivals, but most of it was because of player unavailability that will last into the new year.
Short-handed or not, the Tips get back into action tonight against the Seattle Thunderbirds following a nine-day layoff.
“The break was good, it’s always good to get away for that week, both mentally and physically,” Everett captain Matt Pufahl said. “But a week is long enough. We were all talking today and we were all eager to get back.”
Everett is coming off its best first half since 2006-07, when the team finished with the best record in the WHL. The Tips head into the second half at 22-10-4-0 and in second place in the U.S. Division, just two points behind division-leading Portland.
But Everett finds itself short-handed to start the second half, and the biggest concern is on defense, where the Tips are desperately thin. Everett has three players attending international tournaments, and they all just happen to play the same position.
Mirco Mueller, a first-round NHL draft pick and the team’s defensive linchpin, missed the final four games of the first half to join Switzerland’s preparations for the World Junior Hockey Championships. The tournament, which began Thursday in Malmo, Sweden, continues though Jan. 5, meaning Mueller will miss at least five more contests.
Everett also is without rookie blue-liners Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen. Davis and Juulsen are both representing Team Pacific at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge in Nova Scotia. That tournament opens Sunday and runs through Jan. 4, meaning Everett will be without two other top-six defensemen for five games.
Therefore, Everett begins the second half without half its regular defense.
“It’s not something we want, but obviously (playing in international tournaments) is a really good accomplishment for the three of them,” Pufahl said of his fellow defensemen. “We’re happy for them and we hope they excel in their tournaments.
“It’s just some adversity, like we went through missing Mirco for the last four games before the break. But we have the depth on our back end that we’ll be able to hold our own out there.”
The Tips carried eight defensemen on their roster, which will help weather the absences. Cole MacDonald and Micheal Zipp both will see regular time on defense while Mueller, Davis and Juulsen are gone. MacDonald and Zipp both have experience as regulars from last season. And although both saw time at forward during the first half, both got into games on defense right before the break. Therefore, they should be ready to hit the ground running.
“Mac and Zipper have played the game a long time,” Pufahl said. “They have experience in the league, and we have confidence in them that they’ll do their part.”
However, that still leaves Everett one body short at the back. To fill that void the Tips called up 16-year-old defenseman Jordan Wharrie. Wharrie, a fifth-round pick in the 2012 bantam draft, plays for the Port Moody Panthers of the junior B Pacific Junior Hockey League. In 31 games with the Panthers, Wharrie has five goals and 14 assists, ranking fourth on the team in scoring.
Everett has some issues up front, too, though the situation isn’t quite as problematic at forward. Overage center Manraj Hayer missed the final four games of the first half because of a concussion, and rookie winger Patrick Bajkov hasn’t played since Dec. 3 because of an upper-body ailment. Both sat out practice Thursday and won’t play this weekend. Therefore, the Tips may not be able to field a full lineup of 20 for the start of the second half.
Everett gets the second half of the season started with a home-and-home set with I-5 rival Seattle. The teams play tonight in Everett, then face one another Saturday in Kent. The Tips and T-birds have nine of their 10 meetings in the second half.
Seattle is on a roll. The T-birds won nine of 10 to end the first half and improved to 21-10-1-3, just two points behind the Tips. Therefore, Everett will be tested right off the bat.
“These games are huge,” Pufahl said. “Seattle’s a huge rival for us, and we’ve only played them once and they’re going to be coming out flying (tonight). So are we, and it’s just going to be a really good game. It’s going to be loud and hopefully it’s a good crowd.”
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at NickHPatterson.