Here’s a breakdown of the first-round best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series between the third-seeded Everett Silvertips and sixth-seeded Kelowna Rockets:
These are two teams that are similar offensively, with Everett scoring 232 goals during the regular season to Kelowna’s 224. Both teams have one star forward who averaged more than a point per game — Shane Harper for Everett, Brandon McMillan for Kelowna. Both teams have four other forwards who tallied at least 40 points.
From there the offenses begin to diverge. Everett, particularly during the second half, showed a little more depth up front as the Tips’ third line began producing offensively. Meanwhile, Kelowna receives more offensive help from the blue line as defensemen Tyson Barrie and Dallas Jackson each put up big numbers. Add it all up and its seems to even out.
Everett rebuilt its defense during the offseason and the final results were impressive. The additions of Radko Gudas, Rasmus Rissanen and Ryan Murray transformed defense from a weakness into a strength, and as a result Everett allowed the fewest goals in the league (175) during the regular season.
Kelowna was an average team defensively during the regular season — the 225 goals the Rockets allowed ranked fifth in the Western Conference. While Barrie and Jackson are excellent at the offensive end, they don’t have the same reputation in their own end, and Kelowna’s supporting defensive cast has yet to distinguish itself.
Everett has arguably the best one-two goaltending punch in the WHL. Thomas Heemskerk and Kent Simpson were the league’s top two goalies in terms of save percentage, and they were both in the top three in goals against average. As of Wednesday the Tips had yet to decide on a starter for Game 1, and it’s possible both will see time during the playoffs.
Kelowna has an overage goalie who led the team the WHL championship last year. However, Mark Guggenberger suffered through an injury year and lost his job to Adam Brown. Brown had a solid season for the Rockets, but he had the occasional shaky moments during games against Everett.
Special teams were the bane of Everett’s existence during the regular season. Everett’s power play was middle-of-the-pack at 19.0 percent, but the Tips’ penalty kill was the real problem, ranking near the league basement at 75.9 percent. Everett’s struggles on the penalty kill are arguably the reason why the Tips were unable to secure the conference’s top seed.
Meanwhile, Kelowna ranked among the league’s top eight on both the power play (eighth at 22.5 percent) and penalty kill (sixth at 81.7 percent). The Rockets are also dangerous while short-handed, scoring 12 short-handed goals, while the Tips tallied a league-low three goals on the penalty kill.
Few major-junior hockey coaches sport as strong a resume as Everett’s Craig Hartsburg. Hartsburg has seven years of NHL head coaching experience to draw upon, as well as six seasons coaching major-junior in Ontario and two gold medals for guiding Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships. In his first season in Everett he’s demonstrated an ability to get a team to play as a unit.
But while Kelowna’s Ryan Huska may not have the same experience as Hartsburg, he has accomplished something Hartsburg hasn’t: winning a major-junior title as his Rockets claimed the WHL championship last season.
Kelowna is not a typical No. 6 seed. The Rockets suffered through all kinds of injuries during the regular season and their record suffered as a result. Everett may have won the season series 4-1, but in all of those games Kelowna was unable to field a first-choice lineup. The Rockets got healthier as the season wound down, and they demonstrated that by winning six of their final eight games.
But Everett wasn’t half bad down the stretch, either, going 27-5-1-1 in 2010. The Tips will receive a stiff challenge, but they’ll win their first playoff series since 2007.
Prediction: Everett in seven games.