EVERETT — This past weekend saw the Everett Silvertips step out of U.S. Division play with a pair of home victories over Eastern Conference powerhouses Brandon and Swift Current.
Now, as the 2017-18 Western Hockey League season enters its final third, the first-place Tips return to division play with a chance to create separation from the teams chasing them.
“This time of year the schedule gets harder and harder, and the games get harder and harder,” Everett head coach Dennis Williams said. “I wouldn’t say there’s more compete, but there is a lot more on the line this time of year.”
The Tips (30-16-1-1, 62 points) play a home-and-home with rival Seattle on Friday and Saturday. The puck drops at Angel of the Winds Arena at 7:35 p.m. Friday and at ShoWare Center at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.
Everett follows that by playing host to Spokane at 4:05 p.m. Sunday in yet another stretch of three games in the three days.
Next Wednesday brings a mid-week trip to Portland.
“Every game matters, but they matter that much more when they’re divisional games,” Everett co-captain Matt Fonteyne said. “It’s a tight race right now and all the U.S. Division teams are playing really well. It’s going to be an all-out battle this weekend. We’re excited for it.”
Fonteyne is the reigning WHL Player of the Week and teammate Carter Hart is the reigning Goaltender of the Week. The Tips have won seven in a row and lead the division with Portland (28-15-1-3, 58 points) and Seattle (25-16-4-2, 56 points) right on their heels. Both the Winterhawks and Thunderbirds have a game in hand.
Former Silvertips goalie Dorrin Luding, who was traded to the T-birds earlier this season, has backstopped Seattle to five straight wins, though starter Liam Hughes is expected back soon.
On paper, Seattle appeared destined for a rebuilding campaign. But the T-birds remain in the thick of the hunt with five players averaging a point or more per game. Forwards Donovan Neuls (18 goals, 36 assists), Nolan Volcan (24 goals, 29 assists), Zack Andrusiak (22 goals, 30 assists) and Sami Moilanen (19 goals, 18 assists) join defensemen Austin Strand (15 goals, 29 assists) who is tied for the league lead among defensemen with 10 power-play goals.
“Seattle is always tough to play against,” Fonteyne said. “They’re hard-hitting, hard-working, they play their systems really well and they’ve got skill.”
The Tips are 1-2 against Seattle, but haven’t seen the T-birds since the teams split a home-and-home the week prior to Thanksgiving. This weekend’s games are the first of seven meetings between the two teams between now and the end of the regular season.
Everett’s roster has undergone significant changes since it last took on Seattle. Most notable among the new additions are forward Garret Pilon and defenseman Ondrej Vala, who both came over in a trade with Kamloops two weeks ago.
Pilon is looking forward to his first taste of the Everett-Seattle rivalry — one he said he suspects is similar to the Kamloops-Kelowna rivalry.
“Since I went into the Kamloops Blazers organization, there’s always a bit of a hate for the Kelowna Rockets and I always felt that for them,” said Pilon, who has five goals and two assists in six games with Everett. “It’s going to be pretty neat to see how that is with these two teams.”
Spokane (26-19-1-2, 55 points) currently holds down the first wild-card spot. Yet the Chiefs have given Everett perhaps the most trouble of any division foe so far. The Tips are just 3-2 against Spokane and the teams will square off five more times. Everett holds a 5-3 record against Portland with two games remaining, and the Tips are 5-1-1 against Tri-City with one game to play.
With 15 of their 24 remaining games against division opponents, the Tips control their own destiny as they pursue a second-straight U.S. Division banner and their third in four seasons.
“I always try to preface our guys that Game 2 is just as important as Game 50 — they all mean two points,” Williams said. “But what I have liked right now is our progression and how we’ve been playing and it’s going to be a tough challenge again this weekend.”
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