For the first time in nine years the Everett Silvertips enter the postseason as underdogs.
The Tips, who are seeded No. 6 in the WHL’s Western Conference, begin their best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the No. 3 Portland Winterhawks on Friday night in Portland. The last time Everett was the lower seed in the first round was in 2014, when the Tips were the conference’s No. 5 seed against the fourth-seeded Seattle Thunderbirds in a series between teams that finished even on points. This time Everett is facing a Portland team that finished 19 points clear in the standings and won six of the eight meetings during the regular season.
“We obviously know how strong (the Winterhawks) are, how good a team they have and how well coached they are, so it will be a real good challenge,” Everett coach Dennis Williams said. “We’re not going to beat this team skill to skill. We’re going to have to play a very smart, disciplined, systematic way that we feel will give us a chance. And that’s all that is, a chance. It doesn’t guarantee anything.
“But the players have done a really good job of embracing going in as the underdog.”
Here’s a breakdown of how the teams stack up against one another:
Goals: Everett 218 (3.21 per game), Portland 241 (3.54 per game)
Power play: Everett 21.2%, Portland 23.7%
The Winterhawks under coach Mike Johnston have long been renowned for their NHL-caliber offensive talent. This year’s team is short on that, but Portland does have a wealth of forwards who are capable of contributing, with seven who averaged at least 0.65 points per game during the regular season. The Winterhawks’ leading scorer, 19-year-old Gabe Klassen (35 goals, 34 assists), was named a first-team U.S. Division all-star; overager Robbie Fromm-Delorme (33 goals, 34 assists) is a major net-front presence; and 19-year-old James Stefan (22 goals, 42 assists) racked up 11 points in seven games against Everett during the regular season. They are backed by 18-year-old defenseman Luca Cagnoni (17 goals, 47 assists), who is one of the league’s top power-play quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, the Tips are like a MASH unit up front. Everett has few offensive difference makers, and two of those — 18-year-olds Austin Roest (32 goals, 46 assists) and Ben Hemmerling (21 goals, 41 assists), the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, respectively — missed the last eight games because of upper-body injuries that were listed as week-to-week. That left overager Jackson Berezowski (48 goals, 33 assists) as something of a one-man show down the stretch, though fellow overager Raphael Pelletier (six goals, 18 assists in 31 games) picked up some of the slack.
Goals allowed: Everett 244 (3.59 per game), Portland 215 (3.16 per game)
Penalty kill: Everett 78.3%, Portland 82.3%
Everett’s defense has been physically small for several seasons, and the Tips were able to get away with that because their top two, Olen Zellweger and Ronan Seeley, were so good that Everett usually controlled the puck and didn’t have to do a lot of defending. However, it’s been a different story this season as Seeley graduated to the professional ranks and Zellweger was traded to Kamloops. That left Everett with a younger group on defense, and the lack of size sometimes gets exposed. No. 1 goaltender Tyler Palmer (16-14-1-1, 3.37 goals-against average, .900 save percentage) has seen his ups and downs since being acquired in December, but overall Everett’s goaltending has improved from the first half of the season.
Portland has its own questions in goal. Overager Dante Giannuzzi (23-13-3-2, 3.37 goals-against average, .894 save percentage) was supposed to be the man in net for the Winterhawks this season. However, 18-year-old rookie Jan Spunar (17-7-2-1, 2.61 goals-against average, .908 save percentage) outplayed Giannuzzi down the stretch and appears poised to take the reins in the postseason. The Winterhawks have a pair of NHL draft picks on the blue line in 19-year-old Ryan McCleary (13 goals, 18 assists) and 18-year-old Marek Alscher (eight goals, 16 assists), while Cagnoni is expected to be an early-round pick this year. Portland’s penalty kill ranked fourth in the WHL, and with 12 short-handed goals the Winterhawks are also a threat to score themselves.
Both teams are limping into the postseason.
Portland was right with conference heavyweights Seattle and Kamloops through January, with the addition of high-scoring forward Chaz Lucius from the pro ranks providing a big boost. However, Lucius suffered a season-ending shoulder injury after just six games, and the Winterhawks haven’t been the same since. Portland won just four of their final 18, and the Winterhawks’ scoring average dropped from 4.02 goals per game to 2.22.
Meanwhile, the Tips are limping literally. Everett had nine players out because of injury during the season’s final weekend. The situation up front was particularly dire, as in addition to missing Roest and Hemmerling, Everett had four other forwards out. As a result, the Tips skated two forwards short of a full lineup, and that was despite deploying two call-ups. There’s no guarantee any of those players will recover in time for Game 1, but any returns will be welcome.
Everett has a daunting task ahead. Even if the Tips were at full strength they would be the underdogs, and Everett is nowhere close to that. If the Tips were to get Roest and Hemmerling back they might be able to make a series of it. Without them, though, it could be over quick. Portland may be reeling, but the Winterhawks’ main strength is their forward depth, and given all Everett’s injuries up front the Tips just aren’t able to match up.
Prediction: Portland in five games.
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