SWIFT CURRENT, Saskatchewan — Three seasons come to mind as the best in Everett Silvertips franchise history, and one could argue the merits of all three.
The organization captured its lone Scotty Munro Trophy for the best regular-season record with a team-best 54 victories in 2006-07. However, that team was upset in the second round of the playoffs by Prince George in convincing fashion.
There was the inaugural team in 2003-04 that stunned the WHL by reaching the league championship as an expansion team. That team was a huge underdog that had no business beating Kelowna in the conference finals, and was clearly overmatched by eventual champion Medicine Hat as the Tigers swept them in four straight.
That leaves the 2017-18 season as the other contender. Everett won the U.S. Division and earned the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, and backed it up by winning the conference. The Tips went on to win twice in the finals before falling is six games to Swift Current Sunday night.
Both this year’s team and the inaugural team defied expectations. Neither was expected to do anything substantial, yet the teams claimed the two conference titles in franchise history.
“No one gave us a chance — no one picked us to be in the playoffs,” head coach Dennis Williams said. “Everyone was talking about ‘sell, sell, sell’ and ‘Everett for the first time in 15 years isn’t going to make the playoffs’… (The players) bought in, they came together and they proved a lot of people wrong.”
Everett was 4-9-1 when it went to Kamloops on Oct. 27. Rookie goaltender Dustin Wolf debuted that night, and Carter Hart returned from mononucleosis two games later. The Tips lost just 11 games in regulation the rest of the regular season.
Hart turned in a historically good regular season in net and thoughts of trading the three-time WHL goaltender of the year were quickly squashed.
“This group right here is the tightest group I ever played on (and) it’s the most fun year I’ve had,” Hart said. “Just going to the rink every day with these guys makes it so much fun and so much easier. The grind can be hard coming to the rink every day and working out and skating can be a lot, especially in a long season. But with the group of guys we had coming to the rink was so much fun and these are memories that I’ll cherish with me the rest of my life.”
Hart no doubt benefited from a number of players in front him who had career years. Patrick Bajkov became the first 100-point scorer in franchise history and earned a deal with the Florida Panthers. Matt Fonteyne added 88 points to pick up an AHL deal with the San Jose Barracuda, and Kevin Davis replicated his breakout 19-year-old season with 65 points in his final year. Connor Dewar led the team with 38 goals while midseason pickup Garrett Pilon also crossed the 30-goal threshold.
“I’m sure we’ll look back in a few days and pull a lot of great things our group did, which I know they did,” Williams said. “It’s hard right now and when you see these guys walk out and they’re hurting. They were right there, they saw how close they were. But hopefully the guys come back hungrier and we can learn from our veterans who will be coming back.”
The three overagers — Fonteyne, Davis and Bajkov — will not be back. Nor will Hart, Pilon or defenseman Ondrej Vala as all three have signed NHL deals. However, Dewar, and 20-goal scorers Bryce Kindopp, Riley Sutter and Sean Richards are all eligible to return.
Wolf looks promising in net while defenseman Wyatte Wylie is an NHL draft prospect, and fellow blueliners Jake Christiansen, Ian Walker, Kyle Walker and Gianni Fairbrother each have a year or more of experience.
“Looking big-picture we accomplished a lot this year,” Fonteyne said. “It’s not the way we wanted to end it, but I couldn’t be more proud of the guys in there. We’re a family and we always will be, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what everybody does in the future.”
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