Usually when a team enters the playoffs with the best record in the league, that team can count on an additional factor to aid its cause:
Not so with the Everett Silvertips.
Everett finished the regular season a whopping 31 points ahead of its first-round opponent, the Spokane Chiefs. But when it comes to the Silvertips, the Chiefs have no fear.
“We’re not intimidated at all,” Spokane captain Adam Hobson said. “Their overall record doesn’t matter to us. Head-to-head is what’s most important, and that was a battle all the way.”
Spokane has good reason to feel confident about its chances in the best-of-seven series against Everett, which begins Friday at the Everett Events Center. The Chiefs won four of the eight regular season meetings, and the series was a virtual dead heat. The Tips outscored the Chiefs 19-15 in those games, but the entire goal difference can be accounted for in the final meeting, when Everett turned a close game into a 6-2 rout with a string of late goals.
“We’re a confident group no matter who we play,” Spokane coach Bill Peters said. “We believe in the way we play and we believe in our players. I think it’s going to be a long, hard-fought series.”
Spokane’s primary identity comes from the collective speed of its forwards. That speed is personified in Michael Grabner. The 19-year-old right wing from Austria scored 39 goals in 55 games this season and is perhaps the fastest skater in the league. He’s a breakaway threat every time he touches the puck.
“They’ve always been a team that plays us well,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “They have really quick forwards, their defense is steady, they’ve got a veteran team, and Grabner is win-the-game-on-his-own type of guy. Those are all things that make them very capable.”
But while the Chiefs were one of just two teams who won as many games as they lost against Everett, the Tips do have the advantage of having prevailed the past three meetings. That includes that 6-2 victory on March 6, Everett’s only victory in Spokane this season. Winning on the Chiefs’ home ice was an important hurdle for the Tips to overcome.
“I think that was good,” Everett right wing Moises Gutierrez said about finding the breakthrough in Spokane. “I think we just needed to get over that mental block we had with them, to know that we can go in there and win hockey games if we play well.”
Spokane might be confident heading into the series, but there are still two mysteries regarding Chiefs. The first: Who will start in goal? Eighteen-year-old Kevin Armstrong and 17-year-old Dustin Tokarski received similar amounts of playing time during the regular season, finished with nearly identical statistics and both had their moments against Everett. When asked Tuesday, Peters was mum on who would be the starter.
However, the mystery may have sorted itself out, at least for the first part of the series. The Spokane Spokesman-Review reported that Armstrong missed the past two practices with the flu and that Tokarski will start Game 1. Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz said Armstrong might not make the trip to Everett for the first two games, and that third-stringer Darcy Kuemper will travel with the team regardless of whether Armstrong goes.
The second mystery is how the Chiefs will react to the playoffs.
Spokane missed the playoffs each of the past two years, so most of the players have never experienced playoff hockey. Only three players remain from the team that was swept in the first round in 2004 – Hobson, center Derek Ryan and defenseman Sean Zimmerman. The entire roster has totaled just 61 career playoff games, and more than half of those are tied to defenseman Stephane Lenoski.
So, will the Chiefs’ lack of playoff experience prove costly, or will their pent up desire to finally taste the playoffs be unleashed in an overwhelming show of force?
“It’s been two years for most of the players, so everyone is real excited and focused,” Hobson said. “We’re real pumped for it, everyone in the locker room has an extra little hop in their step.”
Like Everett, Spokane also used the past couple weeks of the regular season to rest key players in an effort to get healthy. As a result, the Chiefs are nearly at full strength. The only player who’s a definite no-go for the first round is center Seth Compton. He’s still recovering from a broken leg.
Friday also will be Everett’s first look at defenseman Jared Cowen. The 1991-born Cowen was the first overall pick in the 2006 bantam draft and is expected to be in the lineup.