Back on the ice?

  • By Nick Patterson / Herald Writer
  • Wednesday, April 26, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

EVERETT – When Leland Irving strode onto the ice Wednesday afternoon at the Everett Events Center, he received an impromptu cacophony of cheers from his teammates.

Elizabeth Armstrong / The Herald

Everett Silvertips goaltender Leland Irving watches his teammates practice Wednesday at the Everett Events Center.

Rarely has a player received such an ovation just for showing up to an optional practice.

But such is the Everett Silvertips’ plight that even the mere possibility of getting their No. 1 goaltender back was sufficient to inspire a little hope.

One loss away from being swept by the Vancouver Giants in the WHL’s Western Conference championship series, Everett’s chances of a miracle comeback may rest on the recovery of Irving’s pulled groin muscle.

That recovery took a step forward Wednesday.

“I think it put a smile on everyone’s face,” Everett center Peter Mueller said of Irving’s arrival midway through practice. “No disrespect to (backup Matt Esposito), but Irving’s a great guy, a great goalie, and we need him in the lineup.”

Irving practiced for about 20 minutes Wednesday, working on his lateral movement and ability to go up and down while fielding shots from Mueller, left wing John Lammers and assistant coach Jay Varady. That was long enough to test the groin injury, which kept him out the first three games of the series.

After practice both Irving and Everett coach Kevin Constantine sounded 50-50 on whether Irving would be ready to play in tonight’s Game 4.

“We really have no idea,” Constantine said. “He doesn’t really know anything until he’s out there. Walking around it doesn’t affect him, it only affects him when he gets into goaltending position. When he gets off the ice we’ll see how it feels.”

After Irving was finished with practice, he was noncommittal about his status.

“It’s still too early to tell,” Irving said. “We’ll have to re-evaluate it in the morning. It’s obviously better than it was, but it’s still too early to tell.

“I was a lot happier (Wednesday), but I still feel it a little bit,” Irving added. “I’ve got to be careful and get as much rest as I can.”

Everett appeared to falter from the shock of not having Irving, who started 66 of Everett’s 72 games during the regular season and is considered a possible first-round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft. The Tips were dominated in the first two periods of Game 1 and have yet to fully recover.

Esposito, Irving’s backup, was thrust into goaltending duties with Irving out and although Esposito has made some good saves, in all three games he’s let in shots that Irving probably would have stopped.

The original target date for Irving’s return was Saturday’s Game 5. But with it possible the series won’t even reach Game 5, it the Tips may have to roll the dice with Irving.

“He’s been our guy all year,” Constantine said. “He’s been good for us all year. It’s be nice to have him playing because he’s been our No. 1 guy and you always want your No. 1 guy playing if you can.”

Only once in WHL history has a team overcome a 3-0 deficit – Spokane defeated Portland in the first round in 1996 after falling behind 3-0. Vancouver hasn’t looked anything like a team about to become the second, controlling play throughout the first three games.

Everett also has its own history to overcome. In each of their first two seasons the Tips were swept out of the playoffs – by Medicine Hat in the WHL finals in 2004, by Kootenay in the second round last season.

With Irving also having to consider how aggravating the injury may affect his draft status, it all means Irving will have a tough decision to make today.

“I’ll know how I feel in the morning and if I feel I’m capable of helping this team get through this round, then I’m in,” Irving said. “But if it’s not ready to go, Espo’s ready and willing and capable of carrying the load.”

Irving isn’t the only player Everett might get back tonight. Left wing Ondrej Fiala, who sat out the last two games with a concussion, skated Wednesday and is questionable for tonight. However, defenseman Jonathan Harty, who suffered a concussion in Game 3, will not play.

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