The WHL’s Christmas break arrived with the Everett Silvertips sitting in first place in the U.S. Division at 20-9-3-1. Here’s how the Tips grade out:
Goals scored: 107 (3.2 per game), 12th out of 22 in WHL
Power play: 20.0 percent, 12th in WHL
Everett’s goal-scoring numbers don’t jump off the page as the Tips find themselves smack in the middle of the league scoring rankings. The number is skewed a tad because Everett is tied for the fewest games played in the league at 33, while some teams have played as many as 38. But most teams are in the 34-to-35 range, so the goal ranking is still largely representative.
However, given the situation the Tips were in before the season began, they’re happy with their offensive output. Everett lost four of its top five scorers from last season, and there was a serious concern during the preseason about whether the Tips would be able to put enough pucks in the net to compete.
The addition of Nikita Scherbak to the lineup has helped immensely. The trade acquisition from Saskatoon has been everything the Tips could have hoped after paying top dollar for the Russian playmaker, and with 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) in 27 games he’s been the perfect replacement for graduated leading scorer Joshua Winquist.
But it hasn’t just been the Scherbak show. Ivan Nikolishin, Carson Stadnyk and Kohl Bauml have all upped their production from last season, and the Tips have been getting substantially more offensive output from their defensemen than in past seasons. As a result teams can’t just focus their defensive attention on one line, and the Tips have yet to be shut out this season.
If there’s a concern it’s in the shot totals. Last season the Tips had one of the better shot differentials in the league. This season Everett has been slightly outshot by the opposition, though the Tips started to turn that back around again just before the break.
Goals against: 93 (2.8 per game), 6th in WHL
Penalty kill: 75.3, 19th in WHL
Everett’s raw number look good as the Tips are among the league leaders in fewest goals allowed. This has been accomplished despite the unexpected loss of No. 1 defenseman Mirco Mueller to the NHL. Everett has been aided by the continued development of defensemen Kevin Davis and Noah Juulsen, who have gone from being promising 16-year-old rookies to being integral parts of a quality defense at 17. When healthy the Tips have also been able to cobble together a quality checking line that’s helped keep opposing top lines contained.
But closer examination shows some cracks. Everett goaltenders Austin Lotz and Carter Hart have cruised through stretches of the season, but their goals against averages are decent rather than spectacular. Both have also experienced big-time blow ups, keeping their save percentages at a pedestrian 90 percent.
Everett has also struggled mightily on the penalty kill. Part of that can be attributed to the Tips’s discipline, as early in the season Everett rarely found itself on the kill and thus received very little experience killing penalties in game situations. However, the penalty numbers have evened out as the season has progressed and Everett’s proficiency on the kill hasn’t improved, as the Tips remain near the bottom in the league standings.
One way the Tips have helped themselves is by being stingy in shootouts, with Lotz being particularly spectacular in his ability to prevent the opposition from converting in the tiebreaker. As a result Everett is 5-1 in shootouts, and those extra points have helped the Tips hang on to first place in the division.
A season ago the talk among the Tips was about returning to respectability. Everett had finished eighth in the 10-team Western Conference for three straight seasons, leaving the Tips largely irrelevant in the race for banners. But a big turnaround last season led to a change in attitude, and this season the Tips have carried themselves with a greater confidence. That’s translated to their play on the ice and to their results.
Everett also continues to help itself with its discipline as the Tips are by far the least-penalized team in the league — Everett has 287 penalty minutes, the next fewest is Kootenay with 355, and no other team has fewer than 400.
But there’s been one aspect that’s been a plague: Everett has the unfortunate habit of wilting when holding third-period leads. The Tips have not dealt well with prosperity, regularly surrendering the initiative in the third period when leading. The result has been several devastating defeats, as well as dropped points that could prove vital in the final reckoning.
Everett was not expected to be among the contenders in the Western Conference this season, with most prognosticators projecting the Tips in either third or fourth in the U.S. Division. Therefore, being in first place in the division at the break is a substantial accomplishment. There’s some concern about the team’s results leveling off as the first half progressed as it follows the same pattern from last season, and last season the malaise lasted well into the second half before the Tips recovered. Nevertheless, one has to consider Everett’s first half a success.