Analysis: Silvertips prove they can hang with Winterhawks

Everett may not be favored to win a 7-game series with Portland, but it would have a puncher’s chance.

EVERETT — Friday night was the big test. Could the post-trade deadline Everett Silvertips match up with the WHL’s best team?

The Tips and the Portland Winterhawks met one another Friday night at Angel of the Winds Arena, the first meeting between the U.S. Division heavyweights since the Jan. 10 trade deadline. This game would provide a clue as to whether Everett general manager Garry Davidson’s trade-deadline machinations were enough to make the Tips competitive with the Winterhawks.

Everett needed to do something at the deadline, as Portland is a burgeoning juggernaut. The Winterhawks came into Friday’s game 19-0-2-0 in their previous 21 games to zoom past the Tips in the division standings, and Portland has the deepest group of forwards in the league. Winterhawks coach/general manager Mike Johnston was confident enough in his group that he stood pat at the deadline.

Everett had three cracks at the Winterhawks prior to the trade deadline and lost all three. But this was the first time the Tips faced Portland since their flurry of acquisitions during the week leading up to the deadline. Could these new-look Silvertips hang with the Winterhawks?

The fact Everett won 4-3, handing the Winterhawks their first regulation loss since Nov. 30, suggests the Tips can indeed compete with Portland. But did Everett pass the eye test? Was this game legitimately competitive or was it a one-off?

Now, I should caution against reading too much into one January game. Portland emerged from the loss still leading the Tips by seven points in the standings, and I still believe Portland would be the favorite in a seven-game playoff series against Everett. But based on what I saw Friday night, I believe the Tips would have a puncher’s chance. Here’s why:

1. The trades didn’t make Everett a different team, but it’s a deeper one.

Everett’s trades weren’t transformative. The players the Tips acquired aren’t game-changers, the way Garrett Pilon and Ondrej Vala were in 2018, or even how Cole Fonstad was at the beginning of this season. But they were what Everett needed. Ty Kolle was solid as the second-line left wing, while Ethan Regnier looked comfortable as the third-line center. The holes in the Tips’ lineup have been filled.

Everett’s defensive depth was tested Friday, with Gianni Fairbrother being out indefinitely and his replacement, Kasper Puutio, also missing the game because of injury. But 16-year-old Olen Zellweger stepped in and showed he’s capable of providing top-four minutes, something that will be all the more valuable once Puutio is back.

Filling out the lineup was absolutely necessary to compete with a Portland team that comes in waves. The Winterhawks’ forward depth is almost unfair. Portland has so many capable scorers that it’s able to spread its top players throughout the lineup, making it nearly impossible to distinguish between the first line and the fourth. A team never has a chance to catch its breath against Portland, but Everett now has enough depth to at least try and counter the Winterhawks.

2. Everett can transition the puck like the Winterhawks.

One of the things that’s been a staple of Johnston teams in Portland is how quickly the Winterhawks turn defense into offense. Portland has always been able to win the puck in its own zone, make a lightning-quick outlet pass, then begin a jailbreak into the opponent’s zone. It has to be a terrifying sight for opposing defenses.

It’s something Davidson, who played a part in building those early Johnston teams, has striven to replicate in Everett. With this team, he and coach Dennis Williams seem to have found the formula, as on Friday night Everett regularly turned neutral-zone turnovers into quick attacks the other direction. It certainly helps to have a pair of 20-year-old future-pro defensemen in Jake Christiansen and Wyatte Wylie on hand to start the process. Indeed, Christiansen is like a throwback to Winterhawks defensemen of yore like Derrick Pouliot and Seth Jones, where he sometimes seems like a fourth forward on the ice.

I don’t know that Everett is as good at transitioning the puck as Portland, particularly over a larger sample size. But on this occasion the Tips looked good in transition.

3. It’s possible for the Tips to win the goaltending battle.

The one wild card Everett has over just about every other team in the league is in net. Dustin Wolf my be the WHL’s best goaltender. He currently leads the league in goals-against average and save percentage, and this is no fluke as he won the WHL’s goaltending triple crown last year.

But if there’s an exception, it’s Portland. Joel Hofer was picked earlier in the NHL draft than Wolf, his numbers are nearly as good, and he just backstopped Canada to the gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships. If there’s a team that can nullify Everett’s one big edge, it’s the Winterhawks.

But Wolf was the better goaltender Friday night. This was particularly true in the second period. Portland had two stretches where it turned the Everett net into a shooting gallery, one in particular when the Tips’ fourth line got caught long-shifted for about 90 seconds. But Wolf was able to turn away a series of grade-A scoring chances. This is the type of goaltending the Tips would need to get to have a chance in a playoff series against Portland, and Wolf showed he’d be up for the challenge.

Again, I don’t think we can make definitive declarations based on just this game. Everett was at home, and the Tips had the luxury of playing only once this weekend, meaning they could put all their attention and energy into facing Portland. The Tips’ overagers had fantastic games — Bryce Kindopp scored two goals to go along with the defensive excellence of Christiansen and Wylie — but I’d be concerned about their ability to log the type of heavy minutes they played Friday throughout an entire seven-game series and maintain their high-level of play. And Everett, being a team where the pieces fit rather than a team with overwhelming talent, must stay healthy.

A lot would need to go right for Everett to beat Portland should the teams meet in the playoffs. But the Tips would have a shot, and that’s something most teams in the WHL couldn’t say.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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