On Sunday, the Silvertips clinched the U.S. Division regular season championship for the third consecutive season after Portland fell 4-3 in regulation to Kelowna. In the cyclical world of major junior hockey, staying on top for that long is no easy task.
The Silvertips’ consistent excellence is especially noteworthy, given how much Everett lost off the squad that reached the WHL finals last season. Prolific 20-year-olds Matt Fonteyne, Kevin Davis and Patrick Bajkov aged out of the WHL, trade deadline acquisitions Ondrej Vala and Garrett Pilon turned pro, and two-time Central Hockey League goalie of the year Carter Hart is now with the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.
Nonetheless, the Silvertips have maintained their success.
“I’m very proud and pleased with the effort of our staff and players to win our third consecutive (division title),” Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson said.
The Silvertips’ 1999-born class have made significant jumps from their 18-year-old to 19-year-old seasons, a main component in the team’s continued success. Most notably out of that group is forward Bryce Kindopp, who has 68 points (38 goals, 30 assists) in 62 games this year after posting 36 last year.
Additionally, draft-eligible goaltender Dustin Wolf has been a more than capable successor to Hart, as the 17-year-old leads the league in all four major statistical categories: goals against average (1.72); save percentage (.935); wins (39) and shutouts (7). Wolf was named the league’s goaltender of the week for the fifth time this season — which leads the WHL — after stopping 53-of-54 shots and allowing just one goal in two wins over Tri-City and Seattle, respectively.
“I don’t know if mine (expectations) were lower, but I think a lot of people thought we’d have a considerable falloff,” Davidson said. “I thought Mr. Wolf would come in and give us good goaltending, and he’s done probably better than that, he’s been very good. And we knew our back end would be reasonably good because we didn’t lose a lot back there and we were able to shore it up with the addition of two 20-year-old defensemen (Artyom Minulin and Sahvan Khaira).
“Am I shocked? Not a bit. Surprised, maybe slightly, but I thought we’d be a good team and would be tough to play against. And we have been. But the fact that we’re in a position to be first overall in the West, that’s probably a little higher than my expectations, but we’ll take those.”
With six games remaining, Everett and Vancouver are deadlocked with 92 points — with each team boasting a 44-14-2-2 record — for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Everett possesses the edge in the fourth tiebreaker with a +89 goal differential to the Giants’ +59, which, as it stands, would be the deciding factor with an identical amount of wins between the two teams and an even head-to-head records — the Silvertips are 2-2-0 against Vancouver this season.
But the Silvertips are at a greater disadvantage with a much more difficult schedule. According to independent statistician Geoffrey Brandow on Twitter, the Silvertips are faced with the ninth most difficult remaining schedule, with a .577 point percentage among remaining opponents, while the Giants own the 16th-most challenging slate, with a .511 schedule remaining.
#WHL Average point percentage of remaining opponents (ranked by least difficult): (3/3)
22) @PARaidersHockey – .417
21) @MJWARRIORS – .432
20) @bdnwheatkings – .466
19) @pdxwinterhawks – .471
18) @Rebelshockey – .487
17) @blazerhockey – .505
16) @WHLGiants – .511
— Geoffrey Brandow (@GeoffreyBrandow) March 4, 2019
Regardless, Everett is ensured home-ice in the U.S. Division bracket of the playoffs after the Winterhawks’ 4-3 loss to Kelowna on Sunday, which sealed the top seed by virtue of a tiebreaker because Portland can’t surpass Everett’s 44 wins and the Silvertips hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Winterhawks this season.
“That’s obviously a great feat, but we always want to make sure we’re peaking at the right time before the playoffs,” said Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams, who has won the U.S. Division regular season title in both of his two seasons at the helm in Everett.
“We’re going to make sure we’re focused and set. We’re going to enjoy it today (Monday), but tomorrow we’re going to wake up and it’s all business-like. We’re going to Spokane and we got to go get two points.”
Everett and Spokane drop the puck at 7:05 p.m. on Tuesday at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
This season marks the seventh time in Everett’s franchise history it will hang a U.S. Division championship banner.
The Silvertips are the first team to hang divisional championship banners for three consecutive seasons since Kelowna accomplished the feat in the B.C division from 2012-2013 to 2014-2015.
Everett is also the seventh team since the WHL pivoted to a four-division format in 2001-2002 to win three consecutive regular season division titles. Only two teams, Medicine Hat (2003-2006) and Vancouver (2005-2010) have won more than three consecutive in that span.