Games in late January usually don’t mean much in the grand scheme of the Western Hockey League season, but from the Everett Silvertips’ perspective, Friday’s matchup with the U.S. Division-leading Portland Winterhawks boasts a little bit more weight.
“They’re obviously a hot team,” Silvertips head coach Dennis Williams said of Portland, which has won seven straight games and hasn’t lost in regulation since Nov. 30. “We’re definitely the underdogs going into it. They’re a club playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of weapons — good goaltending, good defense.”
The game has major implications for the U.S. Division standings. The Winterhawks lead the Silvertips by nine points, and with five regular-season matchups with Portland remaining, Everett can close the gap with head-to-head wins.
But Everett has struggled mightily against Portland thus far this season, with an 0-2-1 record in three matchups. The two teams haven’t met since the Jan. 10 WHL trade deadline, when Everett made a flurry of moves and Portland stood relatively pat.
Friday night should be a decent measuring stick for the Silvertips as the final third of the regular season approaches.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best,” Williams said. “That’s where they are. Hats off to them. They’ve been playing really good hockey for a long time. For us internally, we talk about it being another good measuring stick, just like beating Spokane or Seattle. It doesn’t matter who we play. It’s us just trying to evaluate where we’re at and what we need to do to make improvements.”
Williams will quibble with the notion that his lines have stabilized this season — there’s always room for competition for ice time, he said — but Everett’s forward lineup has had far more continuity than it did last season.
The presence of three solid centers — Gage Goncalves, Ethan Regnier and Michal Gut — is a big factor. So is the Silvertips’ relatively clean bill of health up front, as 2002-born winger Tyson Phare, who is sidelined with a week-to-week upper-body injury, is the only Everett forward on the injury report.
Williams has mixed up which center plays on the top line with Bryce Kindopp and Cole Fonstad, on the second with Ty Kolle and Jackson Berezowski, and on the third with Hunter Campbell and Justyn Gurney, but otherwise there hasn’t been much line blending.
Still, there’s no room for complacency, Williams said.
“I liked all our lines this weekend,” Williams said. “I thought (Jacob) Wright’s line with (Jalen) Price and (Brendan) Lee was big for us this weekend, and had a big timely goal in the Spokane game. … I wouldn’t say we have a top nine or anything. Guys are still competing for more ice time.”
Goncalves lighting it up
Goncalves’ production has increased at an exponential rate this season — he’s scored 26 goals this season after tallying just one as a 17-year-old rookie last year — and he’s taken it up another notch lately.
The Mission, British Columbia, native, who is ranked as the 92nd-best skater by NHL Central Scouting, has collected seven goals over his past six games, dating back to Jan. 12.
“Where are all his goals coming from? We talk about this all the time with guys in meetings, they’re coming from right in front of the net,” Williams said. “It’s those tough areas and Gage goes there. … It’s a great job by Gage. He’s not the biggest hockey player, but he plays with a chip on his shoulder and he’s fearless.”
After a lower-body injury derailed the beginning of his season, Riley Sutter has settled into the lineup with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League. Sutter has one goal and three assists in 15 games.
Ty Gibson, a Victoria, British Columbia, native who has signed with the Silvertips, has played this season with Burnaby Winter Club Prep in the Canadian School Sport Hockey League (CSSHL), after playing on Vancouver Island last season. The 2003-born defenseman has two goals and eight assists in 21 games.
Josh Horton covers the Silvertips for The Herald. Follow him on Twitter @JoshHortonEDH