Everything was going to plan.
The first-round WHL Western Conference playoff series between the top-seeded Everett Silvertips and eighth-seeded Vancouver Giants was pretty much on script. Everett held a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, with the Tips losing a game they should have won, then winning two comfortably. They led 3-1 late in the first period of Game 4 and appeared in control of the proceedings.
From that moment? Vancouver outscored Everett 19-6 to win the final three games and pulled off the biggest playoff upset in league history.
So what the heck happened?
“There were so many different things,” Everett co-captain Ronan Seeley said. “I wouldn’t say there was one thing specifically that made us lose.”
So I decided I’d examine things myself. I wasn’t able to see any of the games beyond Game 1 because our household got stuck in COVID protocols, and being the healthy one meant I was on full-time solo parenting duty of the 22-month-old who was restricted from going to daycare. Therefore on Thursday, once things calmed down, I plumped down the $19.99 Canadian for the WHL Live replays, watching Games 4, 5 and 6 in succession.
Upon review, here are the reasons — in order of importance — why I think the Tips were on the wrong end of the first one-versus-eight upset in WHL history:
1) Everett got hit by player unavailability at the wrong time.
A team never wants to use injuries as an excuse, but boy did Everett lose a large number of key players in a short amount of time.
Let’s take a look at Game 5, which Vancouver won 3-0 to take a 3-2 series lead. Everett was without leading goal-scorer Jackson Berezowski, who missed the entire series because of an upper-body injury suffered just before the playoffs began. Playmaking center Michal Gut sat out his second straight game because of a lower-body injury. Then within minutes of the start of the second period the Tips lost center Ryan Hofer when he took a puck to the mouth, then lost sniper Niko Huuhtanen when a Giant accidentally rolled up on his leg. That’s four of Everett’s top five forwards.
The other two weren’t any better. In Game 4 Everett was without center Alex Swetlikoff, the team’s leading scorer, because of suspension. In Game 6 the Tips were without Berezowski, Gut and Huuhtanen, and while Hofer valiantly returned wearing a full cage he wasn’t his full self.
It’s one thing to lose your top scorers, it’s another when they’re concentrated at the center position. Everett had three excellent centers in Swetlikoff, Gut and Hofer, but there was a big dropoff after that. Being without two of their top three centers for much of Games 4, 5 and 6 was a tremendous issue for the Tips.
That was particularly evident in the defensive zone. Centers have the greatest defensive responsibilities among forwards because they have to help out down low. With the top centers unavailable, the burden fell upon the defensemen, and Everett’s defense wore down over the course of those games, demonstrated by d-men losing puck battles and getting beat for speed to the outside. The centers who were available were overworked and struggled to keep up on the backcheck.
Everett had it’s best offensive team in its 19-year history this season, not because it had a lot of NHL-caliber talent — Huuhtanen is the only NHL draft pick among the team’s forwards, and he was literally the last player taken in his draft — but because it had three lines other teams had to account for. Take one of those lines away and suddenly life is a lot easier for the opposition.
2) Everett didn’t maintain its discipline, and Vancouver took full advantage.
One observation I’ve made over the years is that teams that rely on one line for offense don’t fare well in the playoffs. That’s because over the course of a seven-game series teams can focus on the opponent at hand and design schemes to slow down one particular line. Vancouver very much is a one-line team, dependent upon Fabian Lysell, Zack Ostapchuk and Adam Hall for scoring.
But a one-line team becomes much harder to stop when those players are on the power play, and Everett gave Vancouver too many chances with the advantage. During the regular season the Tips allowed 3.9 power plays per game. Against the Giants they allowed 5.3. And with key penalty killers like Berezowski, Swetlikoff and Hofer unavailable at various times, Everett couldn’t stop Vancouver as the Giants converted an obscene 37.5% of their power plays into goals. And to be fair, Lysell, Ostapchuk and Hall were brilliant in the series as a whole, combining for 14 goals and 27 assists for 2.28 points per player per game.
Discipline was a topic of conversation before the series began. Vancouver, with a bigger and heavier team, was going to try to play physical and get under Everett’s skin. The Tips weren’t able to maintain their cool as much as they needed.
And the timing of the penalties Everett took was unfortunate. It’s admirable that Aidan Sutter came to his teammate’s defense after a hard hit in Game 4, but it came at the exact wrong time as Everett had just scored twice to tie the score at 6-6 and gain the momentum. Vancouver scored on the ensuing instigator penalty to regain the lead en route to a shocking 11-6 victory. And the too-many-men penalty taken just 48 seconds into Game 6, which Vancouver also converted, was the worst possible start to an elimination game, which the Giants led throughout and won 6-3.
3) Vancouver won the goaltending battle decisively.
The goaltending could have gone either way in the series, but it all broke Vancouver’s direction.
Vancouver’s season fell apart during the second half when No. 1 goaltender Jesper Vikman missed nearly two months because of a lower-body injury, and the Giants entered the playoffs having won just one of their final 12 games. A big part of that was because of inadequate goaltending. But Vikman recovered just in time for the postseason and the Giants were a different team. This was particularly evident in Games 5 and 6. Vikman posted a 50-save shutout in Game 5, and he was excellent in the decider as he didn’t give Everett a single inviting rebound to work with.
Conversely, Everett’s goaltending faltered at key junctures. This was the big question for the Tips entering the postseason, as there was no certainty on whether Braden Holt or Koen MacInnes would be the one to carry the mail. Both saw time in the playoffs, and both had a rough time in Game 4, as Vancouver scored on way too many shots from distance when the goaltender had a good view of the shot. A lot of that was during the second period, when the Tips saw a 3-2 lead turn into a 6-4 deficit. If Everett gets the saves it should, the Tips could very well have won Game 4, taken a 3-1 lead in the series and had a chance to come home and finish it off.
Instead an opening was left for the Giants, and they stepped through to pull off the biggest upset in WHL playoff history.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.