Everett’s Aidan Sutter (44) and Portland’s Marcus Nguyen battle for the puck during the second period of a game at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett on Oct. 8, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Everett’s Aidan Sutter (44) and Portland’s Marcus Nguyen battle for the puck during the second period of a game at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett on Oct. 8, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Short-handed Tips hanging on to division lead as WHL starts 2nd half

Everett was prolific on offense during a hot start but has cooled off while missing key players.

At the WHL’s midpoint, the Everett Silvertips find themselves perched atop the Western Conference. The Tips, who resume play Tuesday night at Prince George following an eight-day holiday break, are 21-6-2-1, which is good for 45 points and first place in both the conference and the U.S. Division. However, after a dominating 18-1-1-1 start Everett had a lull heading into the break, and after holding a double-digit point lead in the division the Tips now lead second-place Seattle by just six points, with the Thunderbirds having two games in hand.

Here’s a look back at Everett’s first half:

Scoring goals

In 2017-18 Everett set a franchise record for goals in a full season when it scored 244 in 72 games, good for 3.4 per contest.

Through 30 games this season the Tips are averaging 4.1.

Everett is well on its way to the highest-scoring season in the franchise’s 19-season history, and the Tips are doing it in an unconventional way. This is not a team blessed with a wealth of NHL-caliber talent at forward, as winger Niko Huuhtanen is the team’s only NHL draft pick, and he was taken with the last pick in the 2021 draft.

Two factors are driving the offense. The first is a pair of elite puck-moving defensemen. In Olen Zellweger and Ronan Seeley the Tips have two players capable of dictating play from the blue line, and they have a chance to be just the second defensive duo in franchise history in which both players average more than a point per game.

The second factor is forward depth. While Everett may be short on sure-fire NHL offensive talent, the Tips have the deepest pool of forwards the franchise has ever seen, with seven averaging at least 0.83 points per game. When fully healthy, Everett can ice three full lines of players capable of putting the puck in the back of the net, and all three are equally dangerous, meaning opposing defenses are unable to focus on shutting down one particular line.

Everett hasn’t been living off its power play, either, as the Tips have converted on 22.1% of its advantages, which is a solid number but ranks just ninth in the 22-team league.

Preventing goals

Ever since Dennis Williams arrived as head coach in 2017, Everett has been historically good at preventing goals, leading the league in fewest goals allowed in three of the past four seasons and finishing second in the other. But while Everett continues to have solid goals-against numbers (2.6 per game), the Tips are only fifth in the league in scoring defense.

A big reason for the excellent defensive numbers in the past was the elite goaltending provided by Carter Hart and Dustin Wolf. With both now playing professionally, goaltending was Everett’s biggest question mark heading into this season. For much of the first half the duo of Braden Holt and Koen MacInnes answered the bell, as both produced impressive numbers while splitting goaltending duties down the middle. However, in early December both began to struggle, and the problem was exacerbated when Zellweger and Seeley left to join Canada’s team for the World Junior Hockey Championships. Everett went from allowing 1.9 goals per game in its first 21 games to 5.3 during a seven-game stretch in December when the Tips went 1-5-0-1.

The good news for Everett is Holt rebounded just before the break, allowing three goals on 82 shots over two games as the Tips finished the first half with back-to-back wins.

As long as Everett gets solid goaltending and penalty killing (currently a middling 11th in the league at 78.7%), the Tips should be fine, as Everett is allowing just 27.0 shots on goal per game, which trails only Winnipeg in the entire WHL.

Three stars of the first half

Third star: Jackson Berezowski. The 19-year-old winger and co-captain leads the team in both points (36) and goals (21), and he did his best to carry the offense after Zellweger and Seeley departed.

Second star: Seeley. The 19-year-old defenseman and Everett’s other co-captain has six goals and 16 assists in 22 games, as he’s taken the offensive part of his game to a new level this season.

First star: Zellweger. The 18-year-old defenseman has seven goals and 20 assists in 22 games as he stakes his claim as the league’s best offensive D-man. He’s playing so well that the Tips now have to consider whether he might not return next season because he makes the NHL at 19.

The week ahead

Everett begins the second half with its longest bus ride of the season, as the Tips travel to Prince George (13-15-0-0) for games Tuesday and Wednesday. Everett then finishes off the week with a New Year’s Day game at home, as the Tips host Portland (13-11-3-1) on Saturday at Angel of the Winds Arena.

Everett is still without many of its biggest stars, as Zellweger and Seeley are still with Canada’s team at World Juniors, while center Michal Gut is skating for the Czech Republic at the tournament. Everett was also dealing with an injury crisis when the first half ended, and associate coach Louis Mass said forwards Berezowski, Hunter Campbell, Ben Hemmerling and Matthew Ng remain out. The Tips added two prospects, 16-year-old forward Kyan Grouette and 15-year-old defenseman Tarin Smith, for the trip to Prince George to help fill out the numbers.

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