The Everett Silvertips find themselves swimming in waters they haven’t dived into in more than a decade.
The Tips advanced to the WHL’s Western Conference finals for the first time since 2006 when they dispatched the Portland Winterhawks in five games in the second round of the playoffs over the weekend. Everett has made the playoffs in all 15 seasons of its existence, but the Tips stalled out in the second round the previous three years, and before that Everett suffered seven straight first-round exits. So the Tips broke through a barrier in advancing this far.
Everett advanced to face U.S. Division rival Tri-City in the conference finals. That best-of-seven series begins Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena, including an unusual three-day gap between Games 3 and 4 in Kennewick next week, and it should be an interesting match-up.
There’s no question that Everett belongs here. The Tips finished with the best record in the Western Conference, emerging on top of what turned out to be an ultra-competitive U.S. Division this season. Everett then routinely dispatched both Seattle and Portland in five games. The Winterhawks seemed the biggest threat to the Tips, having finished second in the conference and split their season series with Everett 5-5. However, the Tips were clearly the better team in their playoff series, outscoring a team with four first-round NHL draft picks 21-9 in the five games. Everett is not only worthy of playing for the conference title, the Tips will be the favorites to claim just the second conference championship in franchise history, hoping to join the legendary 2003-04 expansion team.
But what about the Americans? Is Tri-City for real? On the one hand the Americans are a surprise conference finalist. Tri-City finished fourth in the U.S. Division, which made the Americans the top wild-card team and switched Tri-City into the B.C. Division pod for the playoffs. By facing B.C. Division teams in the first two rounds of the playoffs instead of U.S. Division teams the Americans actually received an easier path to the conference finals — U.S. Division teams were 62-38 against the B.C. Division during the regular season, and all five U.S. teams finished ahead of all five B.C. teams in the Massey Ratings.
But Tri-City also had some extenuating circumstances as the Americans had some key contributors miss large chunks of the regular season. Despite that Tri-City only finished 14 points behind Everett in the standings, which is a minuscule amount between first- and fourth-place finishers. The Americans’ top-end talent is on par with Portland, as Tri-City sports three first-round NHL draft picks in forward Michael Rasmussen and defensemen Jake Bean and Juuso Valimaki as well as a high third rounder in forward Morgan Geekie. And the Americans have yet to lose in the playoffs, sweeping aside both Kelowna and Victoria with little difficulty.
Everett won the regular-season series against the Americans, but not by much as it was just 5-3. Valimaki played in just four of those games and Rasmussen appeared in just three. Four of the Tips’ five wins against Tri-City came with neither Valimaki or Rasmussen in the lineup. With both those two playing the Americans won two of three. As best as I can tell Tri-City is healthy, so Everett will be facing pretty much a full-strength Tri-City team.
So will the Tips hang a second conference championship banner? Make your prediction here: