Four weeks ago the Everett Silvertips were entertaining visions of holding a banner-raising ceremony at their home finale.
On Feb. 20 the Tips defeated the Seattle Thunderbirds 4-3, and after topping the Spokane Chiefs 4-1 the following night the Tips found themselves with a seven-point lead over the T-birds atop the U.S. Division with 13 games remaining. A second straight division title was just a finger’s length away from Everett’s grasp.
But come Friday at the Tips’ home finale against the Victoria Royals, no cables were required to hoist another division-championship banner into the rafters at Xfinity Arena. Any chances of that were scuppered when Seattle clinched three days earlier. Instead, despite a crowd of 6,875 on hand to take in the pomp and circumstance of fan appreciation night, the mood was unusually somber, and only a fraction of the crowd stuck around for the postgame awards ceremony following the 4-2 defeat.
Seeing a division lead evaporate during the final weeks of the season and having to settle for second place has a way of doing that.
For a second straight season Everett led the division for almost the entire season, seeing that lead stretch out to nearly double-digit points. For the second straight season the Tips saw their lead shrink in the final month. Last year Everett held off the hard-charging Portland Winterhawks to claim their fourth division title since joining the WHL in 2003. But they were unable to repeat that feat against Seattle to make it five.
So what happened?
There are a number of theories being put forth about why the Tips were unable to close the season out and raise another banner.
Was it a gag job? One can certainly make that argument. Going into Saturday night’s season finale at Victoria, Everett had won just three of its 12 games since taking that seven-point lead in the division. Sure, four of those nine losses still resulted in points, and all those games were close. But the Tips weren’t able to put those close games away at a time of the season when it mattered most.
Was it fatigue and injuries? Those certainly didn’t help. Everett had a brutal schedule in January and February, having to play 27 games during a 52-day stretch. Captain Dawson Leedahl played just twice since Feb. 6, and it’s no coincidence the Tips won just six of 17 games in his absence. It also seemed the heavy workload carried by goaltender Carter Hart, still only 17 years old, finally caught up to him down the stretch.
Was it because of Seattle? The T-birds certainly played their part in the drama. While the Tips swooned, Seattle surged, winning 11 straight between the loss to Everett on Feb. 20 and clinching the division Tuesday with a 4-1 victory over Spokane — a stretch that included three head-to-head victories over Everett, all essentially one-goal games. The T-birds perfect play gave the Tips no margin for error.
But I have a different thought about why the Tips couldn’t hang onto the division lead.
I think it’s because this team hit its ceiling.
When the preseason prognostications were made, no one picked Everett to win the division. Indeed, there were those who believed the Tips’ string of making the playoffs in every season of the franchise’s history was in danger of coming to an end.
There were valid reasons for that thinking. On paper Everett doesn’t have anywhere near the talent of the other top teams in the division. The Tips began the season with a grand total of one NHL draft pick (defenseman Noah Juulsen) and just one other who’s assured of being drafted in the future (Hart). During the season they added another NHL draft pick (defenseman Brycen Martin) via trade.
Compare that to Seattle, which had four players selected in the 2015 NHL draft alone, including star center Mathew Barzal, who was taken in the first round. Or how about the Portland Winterhawks, who have eight NHL draft picks on their roster.
And where were the goals going to come from? The Tips acknowledged before the season that goal scoring was a major concern with this team. Everett was a modest-scoring team last season, then saw three of its top four offensive performers (Nikita Scherbak, Ivan Nikolishin, Kohl Bauml) depart, while also failing it its efforts to recruit elite-level talents during the offseason. The Tips went into their final game having scored just 181 goals, the fewest in the Western Conference. The last time a team won a division scoring so few goals was, well, when Everett won the U.S. Division as an expansion team in 2004 despite potting a paltry 157 goals.
All season long the Tips got the most out of their abilities, but they had no further level they could achieve. Meanwhile, Seattle was able to tap its talent and continue to improve as the season progressed.
Everett general manager Garry Davidson admitted Friday he was disappointed his team was unable to hold on to first place in the division. But he was proud of a team that squeezed out every last drop of success out of its abilities.
Last season the Tips had no business winning the division, considering the talent gap between Everett and Portland. Had the rest of the division allowed Everett to play the cat burglar again and steal a second straight title right out from under their noses, they frankly should have been embarrassed.
Yes, the Tips may have faltered when another division championship appeared attainable. And yes, Everett didn’t do what it needed down the stretch to give itself a chance.
But the Tips couldn’t expect the rest of the division to continue to be so accommodating.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.