EVERETT — When the Everett Silvertips returned from their most-grueling road trip of the season — a six-game, 10-day trip that included a three-game swing through Alberta — they came home with more than just seven points. The Silvertips also returned to Everett with a healthy dose of respect from the rest of the Western Hockey League.
"To be honest, I think some teams have taken us lightly," Everett goalie Jeff Harvey said. "But now they’re starting to realize we’re a .500 hockey team and getting better, so if they don’t respect us we’re going to go in there and get a victory."
Conventional wisdom throughout the league before the season started was that the expansion Silvertips would be nothing more than a doormat. Twenty wins in the 72-game season was considered a pipe dream.
But after going 3-2-0-1 on the road trip, which ended with a 2-0 win at Spokane on Friday, Everett’s success can no longer be considered a fluke. More than a quarter of the way through the season the Tips find themselves at .500 (8-8-3-1), and with 20 points Everett finds itself right in the thick of the U.S. Division race. Tri-City leads the division with 28 points, but the Americans have played six more games than the Silvertips.
"I imagine as teams stare at your record and compete against you and find out that you’re competitive, they’re obviously going to take you more seriously than they may have in September and October," Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. "So I think teams will approach us fairly seriously from now on."
Not everyone in the league has been completely won over. Teams continue to bleed their backup goaltenders by giving them starts against Everett, and opposing coaches tend to fault their own team rather than credit the Silvertips after Everett wins. But positive words are beginning to surface.
"I thought they played well and frustrated us early," Vancouver coach Dean Evason said after the Giants beat the Tips 5-2. "In the first period all we could do was turn over the puck."
"They block a lot of shots and a lot of passes going through the middle," Spokane coach Al Conroy told the Spokane Spokesman-Review after the Tips defeated the Chiefs. "Typically a team will get impatient and start doing things they normally don’t do."
The Tips recorded the first two shutouts in franchise history during the road trip, beating Lethbridge 5-0 in addition to the 2-0 win over Spokane. Everett also beat a red-hot Medicine Hat team 3-1 and came back from a two-goal deficit to force overtime against Kelowna, ranked second in the WHL at the time, before falling 3-2.
"I’d say we passed the test," Everett captain Bryan Nathe said. "We could have maybe done a little better at times, but I think overall we should be pleased with our performance on the road, especially for a 10-day road trip."
Right wing Barry Horman (two goals, three assists) and left wing John Dahl (one goal, four assists) led Everett in scoring on the trip with five points apiece. Forward Chad Bassen was the top goal scorer with four — two shorthanded. Ivan Baranka was the top scorer among defensemen with three assists.
"I think we learned our systems really well and we played hard," Horman said about the trip. "We continued to stay disciplined and let the special teams win some of the games.
"It’s always nice to come home and sleep in your own bed, but road trips are fun," Horman added. "You get to jell as a team and get to know all the guys on the team a little better."
Now the Silvertips want more than their opponents’ respect. They want their fear.
"We keep wanting to make sure that as soon as we can that we’re a competitive team in the league," Constantine said. "I think we’re at that stage where based on our record and our ability to go on the road, we can say we’re competitive.
"Now the bar has to be raised a little bit," Constantine continued. "We’ve got to become a top-half-of-the-league team. Five-hundred is right smack in the middle and we don’t want to be a middle-of-the-road team."