It all feels like it’s over too soon.
The Everett Silvertips were one of the WHL’s premier teams during the regular season. They finished with the best record in the Western Conference. They headed into the postseason ranked in the top 10 in the entire Canadian Hockey League.
So packing up to return home less than two weeks after the start of the playoffs is an unexpected detour for the Tips.
“Yeah, it definitely feels too early,” Everett defenseman and co-captain Ronan Seeley said during Wednesday’s exit meetings. “It is what it is, we have to move on eventually.”
Two days after Everett was eliminated from the postseason earlier than anticipated, the Tips found themselves reflecting on a season during which the regular season went so well, but the playoffs went so poorly.
Everett finished the regular season with a 45-14-5-5 record for 100 points, won the U.S. Division championship and earned the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed to the playoffs.
But it all went south in the postseason. The Tips drew the eighth-seeded Vancouver Giants in the first round, a team that finished 47 points behind Everett in the standings. But the Tips lost the best-of-seven series in six games, falling in each of the final three while being outscored 20-9 in the process. The 47-point differential is a new league record for a playoff upset, topping the 37 points that separated top-seeded Everett and seventh-seeded Prince George in 2007’s second-round shocker.
“We didn’t really play to our fullest capabilities,” center Ryan Hofer said. “I think with our potential we could have gone a long way. It just didn’t really end up like that.”
“Obviously it’s disappointing the way it wrapped up for us,” Everett coach Dennis Williams said. “But there were a lot of positives to it. I think it’s important for our group of guys returning that we learn from the series and also from all the accomplishments we had as a team and as individuals throughout the year. I thought our guys gave a real honest effort in the playoffs, it was one of those things where we got behind in a couple games, had some untimely injuries, and couldn’t find a way.”
The injury issues actually cropped up before the series began as team co-captain and co-Most Valuable Player Jackson Berezowski was lost in the second-to-last game of the regular season to an upper-body injury that ended up requiring surgery, depriving the Tips of their leading goal-scorer. Then other top offensive performers Michal Gut and Niko Huuhtanen were lost to lower-body injuries over the course of the series.
“(Berezowski) is a huge player on our team,” Seeley said. “It was tough without him, not only on the ice because he gets big goals, but also off the ice. He’s a huge locker room guy, he’s very vocal and guys respect him. Other guys, including myself, didn’t step up to fill that role well enough. We can blame injuries, but I still think we had the group to win.”
Vancouver also proved to be a tough matchup for the Tips. The teams split their four matchups during the regular season, suggesting they were in for a competitive series. The Giants then got No. 1 goaltender Jesper Vikman back from at long-term injury for the start of the playoffs and he was a difference-maker, particularly in his 50-save shutout in Game 5. And Everett never solved Vancouver’s top line of Zack Ostapchuk, Fabian Lysell and Adam Hall, which combined for 14 goals and 27 assists in the series.
“As a group as a whole we did not rise to the occasion of the playoffs,” Seeley said. “I think Vancouver did well, they have a good team and are well coached. But you can see it in the scores, we didn’t rise to the occasion.”
As for next season, Everett’s roster will undergo big turnover. Overagers Alex Swetlikoff, Hunter Campbell and Jonny Lambos have aged out of the league. Seeley is a 19-year-old signed NHL draft pick, so he’s almost certain to play professionally in the Carolina Hurricanes’ system next season. Team co-MVP Olen Zellweger had the kind of campaign that makes it possible he’ll make the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks next season as a 19-year-old. Sniper Huuhtanen theoretically should be back as a 19-year-old, but Everett hasn’t had much luck getting Finnish players to stick around for more than one season. And the Tips will only be able to return three of the eight 2002-born players from this year’s roster as overagers.
Whether Zellweger and Huuhtanen return will be the biggest determinant of next season’s team. Having those two back along with Berezowski, two other 2002s, and a good group of rising 18-year-olds would give the Tips a solid core to work with.
“No matter who is in the lineup, there’s always going to be the work ethic and the attention to detail,” said Hofer, who’s one of the many candidates for next season’s three overage spots. “That’s the Silvertip way. Whatever lineup we have in September I think it will be the same as this season because of that work ethic and belief.”