SEATTLE – If nothing else, Matt Esposito is making a strong case for one thing: He may very well be the best once-a-month goaltender in the Western Hockey League.
Making just his second start of the season, Esposito turned in a poised performance in goal, and the Everett Silvertips headed into the Christmas break on a high after beating the Seattle Thunderbirds 3-2 Sunday night.
“I love it,” Esposito said. “I’m just glad to get a start, and right before Christmas too. This is a great gift.”
John Lammers had two goals and an assist, including the tie-breaking goal early in the third period for Everett. Then it was Esposito, the happy-go-lucky 16-year-old, who made Everett’s lead stand up.
With Leland Irving proving a workhorse as the No. 1 goaltender, Esposito has seen as little time as any player in the league. But Sunday he showed few signs of rust, and he just got better the more pressure the T-birds applied. Though frustrated early by a bad-bounce goal and a bad rebound that led to another goal, Esposito was unflappable down the stretch, making three big saves off draws in the final 10.9 seconds. He finished with 27 saves.
“I think he actually enjoys (the pressure),” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said of Esposito. “He’s not one I’m afraid of playing because it’s too much pressure. I actually think it brings the best out of him.”
Shane Harper also scored for Everett (21-14-1-0), which heads into the Christmas break with a four-game winning streak and a 10-point lead on second-place Portland in the U.S. Division. The Tips resume play Dec. 29 at home against Tri-City.
The victory also broke Everett’s long slump in Seattle. The only other time the Tips won at KeyArena was on Nov. 22, 2003. Everett is now 2-7-3 all time in Seattle.
Bretton Stamler and Aaron Gagnon scored goals and Gavin McHale made 21 saves in net for Seattle (14-17-1-3), which lost its sixth straight.
For the second straight night Everett decisively won the special-teams battle. Everett was 2-for-7 on its power play Sunday and held Seattle to 0-for-4. In Saturday’s 5-0 victory in Everett, the Tips were 3-for-7 on the power play and the T-birds were 0-for-5.
“Once again it was the special teams,” Seattle center Chris Durand said. “They had a couple power-play goals on us again and we weren’t able to convert on our chances. That was the difference again.”
But it was an even-strength goal that proved the difference. At 1:48 of the third period with the score tied 2-2, Everett defenseman Cody Thoring fired a shot on McHale from outside the blue line. The puck rebounded into a group of bodies out front. Lammers collected the puck from the scrum and put the puck in with McHale down, giving the Tips the lead.
“Cody made a nice, hard shot on net,” Lammers said. “On the rebound (Brady) Calla went hard to the net, and I just picked up the garbage.”
Everett took an early lead with a power-play goal 6:49 into the game. Lammers took the puck off a faceoff, skated to the right circle and beat McHale with a shot to McHale’s stick side, giving the Tips a 1-0 lead.
Seattle tied the game with 1:53 remaining in the first, thanks to a fortunate bounce. Esposito made a save on Stamler’s shot from the right circle, but the rebound hit off Everett defenseman Taylor Ellington standing in front and looped back into the net, tying it at 1-1.
Everett regained the lead with another power-play goal 5:38 into the second period. Harper parked himself in front of the goal and when Lammers fired a shot from the right circle, Harper tipped the puck between his legs and over McHale’s shoulder, making it 2-1.
But Seattle again tied it up. A T-birds power play had just expired when Gagnon collected his own rebound and roofed a back-handed shot from a tight angle, making it 2-2.
Slap shots: Everett played without leading scorer Peter Mueller, who left following Saturday’s game to join Team USA for the World Junior Hockey Championships. Right wing Jesse Smyke also sat out Sunday because of illness. However, center Jonathan Milhouse returned to the lineup after missing the previous seven games because of a concussion. … Seattle again played without No. 1 goaltender Bryan Bridges because of an ankle injury and key defenseman Scott Jackson because of a knee injury.