The Silvertips’ Garrett Pilon (rear) flies over Swift Current goalie Stuart Skinner during Game 3 of the WHL finals on May 8, 2018, at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The Silvertips’ Garrett Pilon (rear) flies over Swift Current goalie Stuart Skinner during Game 3 of the WHL finals on May 8, 2018, at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

WHL series is so tight that every little thing matters

Game 3 was the second that went to overtime, and all three games have been decided by a single goal.

Here’s three observations following the Everett Silvertips’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Swift Current Broncos on Tuesday night at Angel of the Winds Arena, which gave Swift Current a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. These observations take into account what I’ve seen through the first three games of the series:

1) This series is so tight that every little thing matters.

Game 3 was the second straight game that went to overtime. All three of the games have been decided by a single goal. These games have been competitive, too. It’s not like one team is controlling play and the other is relying on goaltending, these teams seem to be evenly matched. Swift Current had the shot advantage in Game 1, but lost. Everett had the shot advantage in Games 2 and 3, but lost. Broncos coach Manny Viveiros summed it up after Tuesday’s game in saying, “It’s a fine line right now as far as winning or losing.”

As such it was a little thing that was the key moment Tuesday. Everett led 2-1 late in the third period when Swift Current’s Matteo Gennaro was whistled for high sticking with 4:36 remaining. The resulting power play gave the Tips the ideal chance to put the game away, or at least burn half the remaining time off the clock. But Everett’s power play was more like the ice follies. It began with an elaborate set-up that resulted in a bad-angle shot from the perimeter that didn’t get past the defender. Then the Tips made two dangerous cross-ice passes on the breakout which were nearly intercepted to lead to odd-man breaks the other way. Finally, Everett let Swift Current break two-on-two, and when Tips goaltender Carter Hart could only block Glenn Gawdin’s shot into the slot, Gawdin made an unbelievable diving swipe with his stick to bat the rebound into the top corner to tie it at 2-2 with a short-handed goal and force overtime.

All Everett had to do in that situation was be sensible with the puck, but the Tips weren’t.

The game winner was also the result of an Everett mistake, as Gawdin was left unmarked in the slot to score past Hart, completing his hat trick to end the game just 2 minutes, 40 seconds into overtime.

With the series so evenly balanced, any little mistake could be enough to tip the scales.

2) The teams’ best players will decide the series.

Don’t expect an unlikely hero to emerge as the difference maker. These two coaches — Viveiros and Everett’s Dennis Williams — are leaning hard on their top guys.

What we’ve seen through the first three games is that both teams are running an extremely short bench. Both are basically playing two-and-a-half lines, with their top two lines logging heavy ice time (Sean-Richards-Matt Fonteyne-Patrick Bajkov and Connor Dewar-Riley Sutter-Garrett Pilon for Everett, Aleksi Heponiemi-Glenn Gawdin-Tyler Steenbergen and Beck Malenstyn-Giorgio Estephan-Matteo Gennaro for Swift Current) while the third line (Bryce Kindopp-Reece Vitelli-Martin Fasko-Rudas for Everett, Kaden Elder-Andrew Fyten-Tanner Nagel for Swift Current) is sprinkled into the mix, but not at the same frequency as the top two. It’s been the same situation on defense. Everett is riding its top four (Ondrej Vala-Kevin Davis and Jake Christensen-Wyatte Wylie), with the third pairing (Gianni Fairbrother-Ian Walker) getting the occasional shift, while Swift Current is going with its top four (Colby Sissons-Artyom Minulin, Josh Anderson-Sahvan Khaira) with the occasional shift from Noah King.

That means the series could come down to a matter of attrition, with it being decided by whichever team’s top players are able to keep that little extra fuel in the tank. It also means that matching lines/pairing against the opposition is less important, as the top players are out there all the time anyway.

This all makes the situation with Bajkov all the more important. Bajkov, Everett’s leading scorer during the regular season, left the bench late in the second period. He returned in the third, left again, then was back for the end of the third. He came out onto the bench in overtime, but didn’t take a shift as Luke Ormsby took his place on the line with Fonteyne and Richards. Williams had no comment on Bajkov’s situation after the game, and Bajkov’s availability/effectiveness could be a crucial plot line the rest of the way.

3) Swift Current made the better adjustment for Game 3.

The first two games made it seem that the series was going to be a classic confrontation of speed versus strength. Swift Current’s defense is big and strong, but Everett’s forwards are quicker and seemed to have the beating of the Broncos D-corps in Games 1 and 2 in Swift Current. One of the reasons why Swift Current was able to come back from its 3-0 deficit to win Game 2 4-3 in overtime is that the Broncos upped their physical play in the third period and used it to keep the puck in the offensive zone, which is a sure way to prevent Everett’s forwards from causing problems with their speed.

Everett’s forwards didn’t look like they had the beating of Swift’s defense the same way in Game 2. The Broncos did a much better job of preventing the Tips forwards from beating them for speed to the outside, or from getting away from them with quick moves along the boards in the offensive zone. As a result Everett, despite outshooting Swift Current, didn’t create the same volume of grade-A scoring chances as it did previously, particularly in Game 2.

Can Everett now counter Swift Currrent’s adjustments? The Tips are going to have to, because if the rest of the series becomes about grinding it out, that favors the Broncos.

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