EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips have been suffering a crisis on defense, and Tuesday night they face the best the WHL has to offer.
However, it’s possible the crisis is abating just in the nick of time.
Everett welcomes league-leading Kelowna to Xfinity Arena on Tuesday, and the Tips may be in better shape defensively for that game than originally feared.
The crisis on defense reached its apex in Saturday’s home game against Prince George. Overager Ben Betker was serving a one-game suspension handed down by the WHL for a checking-to-the-head major penalty assessed during Friday’s 7-2 victory over Calgary. Meanwhile, Kevin Davis and Tristen Pfeifer were ruled out because of upper-body injuries. That left Everett without three of its top five defensmen.
With those three out, the Tips were left with just three regulars available: Noah Juulsen, Cole MacDonald and Lucas Skrumeda. Jordan Wharrie, a defenseman by trade who’s spent most of the season playing forward, was drafted into substantial minutes on defense. Everett even conscripted winger Dawson Leedahl into emergency defensive duty.
Everett ended up losing that game 5-1, though the defense held up well given the circumstances.
“We were missing some guys, so obviously some guys had to step up and play more minutes than they’re used to,” said Skrumeda, who as much as anyone was charged with increasing his role to fill the void. “I thought we played pretty well, but we gave up too many chances and we didn’t get the job done.”
If the Tips, minus three defensemen, lose by four goals to a Prince George team that’s merely fighting for it’s playoff life, imagine the possibilities against a Kelowna team that’s already surpassed the 100-point mark.
But there may be light on the horizon for the Tips. Everett will have Betker back against Kelowna. The 6-foot-6 veteran will be a vital piece of Everett’s defensive game plan against the Rockets. With Betker back for certain, Constantine said the Tips plan on returning Leedahl to his forward duties Tuesday.
There’s also a chance Davis may be able to play. Davis missed both of Everett’s games over the weekend. However, he took part in practice Tuesday, and there’s a chance he could play against Kelowna. Pfeifer is definitely out against the Rockets.
“Davis, depending on how he feels (Tuesday), is a possibility,” Everett coach Kevin Constantine said. “If you count Wharrie as a D we’ll be at five or six, depending on how things go (Tuesday) morning.
“In the last year-and-a-half we haven’t really ever been able to compete when we’re injured,” Constantine added. “If you look at our record, if we have two or less injuries our record in the last two years is very good. If we have three or more it’s not very good at all. Unlike Kelowna which goes pretty deep in its roster, I don’t think we go that deep. So health to us I think is more important than it is to other teams. It doesn’t matter who we play (Tuesday) — Kelowna or anybody else — having a healthy roster is very critical to our team.”
Kelowna has its own issues with regards to player availability. Leading goal scorer Rourke Chartier has missed three straight games because of an undisclosed injury, key defenseman Josh Morrissey had to be helped off the ice with an apparent leg injury during Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Calgary, and the Rockets have several support players also questionable for the game. However, Kelowna learned Monday that star center Leon Draisaitl wouldn’t be suspended by the league for his goaltender-interference major penalty from Saturday’s game.
But despite the possible missing bodies, the Tips know they have their hands full, especially if Davis doesn’t play and the Tips find themselves short on defense again. Everett has lost all three of its previous meetings with the Rockets.
“It would be nice to beat them once during the year, we haven’t done that,” Constantine said. “We took them to overtime in our building. I think they’re the class of the league, for sure. There’s other good teams, but if you look at the depth of their team and the entire season as a whole, they’re the class of the league. It’s another opportunity for us. In this league, if you’re really serious about winning championships and the Memorial Cup, the road I think is going to go through Kelowna.
“We’re going to eventually have to figure out how to beat them.”
Having their defensemen back would help.
Around the WHL
Former Everett defenseman Rasmus Rissanen received the call to the show. Rissanen, who played two seasons for Everett from 2009-11, was called up Monday by the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes. Rissanen, a native of Finland, was a sixth-round pick by the Hurricanes in the 2009 NHL draft. If Rissanen gets into a game, he’ll become the 13th former Silvertip to appear in the NHL. … Swift Current defenseman Dillon Heatherington signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. The 19-year-old was a second-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft. … Portland forward Oliver Bjorkstrand tied a franchise record when he scored a goal in his 11th straight game during Saturday’s 5-2 victory at Seattle. The 19-year-old tied the record set by Tony Currie in 1976-77. … Prince George’s Jansen Harkins was named the WHL Player of the Week. The 17-year-old forward had one goal and six assists as the Cougars went 2-0. That included three assists in Prince George’s 5-1 victory over Everett on Saturday.
Points — Trevor Cox (Medicine Hat) 97; goals — Oliver Bjorkstrand (Portland) 48; assists — Cox 74; penalty minutes — Keegan Kanzig (Calgary) 144; wins — Jordan Papirny (Brandon) 39; goals against average — Taran Kozun (Seattle) 2.41; save percentage — Adin Hill (Portland) .925.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.