EVERETT — The Everett Silvertips are in new territory as they have reached the WHL Western Conference finals for the first time in 12 years. It is Everett’s third trip to the finals in the franchise’s 15-year history, but its first two appearances came in its first three seasons.
Everett reached the conference finals by dispatching eighth-seeded Seattle and third-seeded Portland in five games each.
The Tips will take on a red-hot Tri-City Americans team that is making its first appearance in the conference finals since 2012. Tri-City was the first wild-card team into the 2018 postseason and as such was placed in the B.C. Division bracket where it swept B.C. Division champion Kelowna and runner-up Victoria in eight straight games.
The Americans have won 14 of 15 going back to the end of the regular season. Though Everett won five of eight in the regular-season series, the Americans appear to be peaking at the right time.
What follows is a breakdown of the two teams:
Regular-season goals scored: Everett 246, 3.42 per game (11th in WHL); Tri-City 255, 3.54 per game (ninth)
Postseason goals scored: Everett 43 (4.3 per game), Tri-City 46 (5.75 per game)
Regular-season power play: Everett 23.5 percent (ninth), Tri-City 25.4 percent (fifth)
Postseason power play: Everett 18.2 percent, Tri-City 47.8 percent
The Americans were in the top half of the league in scoring during the regular season, but have reached another level in the playoffs. They are averaging nearly six goals per game in eight postseason games including a 9-7 victory over Kelowna in Game 2 of that first-round series.
This offensive outburst comes after Tri-City averaged 3.52 goals per game during the regular season — not much more than Everett’s 3.42 per-game effort.
Carolina Hurricanes prospect Morgan Geekie (eight goals, 15 assists) and Detroit Red Wings prospect Michael Rasmussen (10 goals, 14 assists) are each averaging three points per game in the postseason. They are particularly effective on the power play as they have combined for 14 power-play points.
Speaking of that power play: Tri-City is converting at nearly a 50 percent clip on the man advantage after its regular-season power play of 25.4 percent ranked fifth in the WHL.
But it is not just Geekie and Rasmussen who are doing all the damage. Defenseman Jake Bean has a goal and 13 assists in the postseason while forwards Nolan Yaremko (six goals, six assists), Isaac Johnson (four goals, six assists) and Jordan Topping (two goals, nine assists), and defenseman Dylan Coghlan (three goals, eight assists) are all offensive threats.
The Americans resemble the Winterhawks in terms of their size and speed and desire to push the pace, but Tri-City also boasts greater size and depth.
Defenseman Juuso Valimaki, a Calgary Flames prospect, missed the final two games of the Victoria series while forward and Anaheim draftee Kyle Olson did not play at all in the second round. Tri-City head coach Mike Williamson indicated to Tri-City media that both could return Friday, but was not definitive.
The Tips counter with less-gaudy offensive numbers, but still have four players averaging better than a point per game. Patrick Bajkov (seven goals, eight assists), Garrett Pilon (six goals, eight assists), Connor Dewar and Matt Fonteyne (four goals, nine assists each) have been Everett’s offensive backbone.
Forward Riley Sutter (five goals, three assists) and defenseman Kevin Davis (one goal, seven assists) add a scoring touch while Everett has gotten some timely goals from third- and fourth-liners during the first two playoff rounds.
Everett was 12-for-32 on the power play in eight regular-season games against the Americans, and converted at a 23.5 percent rate overall during the regular season. The Tips will look to improve on their power play in the conference finals after seeing it slip to 18.2 percent in the playoffs.
Regular-season goals allowed: Everett 167 (first), Tri-City 249 (eighth)
Postseason goals allowed: Everett 19 (1.9 per game), Tri-City 22 (2.75)
Regular-season penalty kill: Everett 84.5 percent (first), Tri-City 77.1 percent (15th)
Postseason penalty kill: Everett 77.3 percent, Tri-City 77.4 percent
Remember in January when the Americans dealt two skaters, a first-round bantam pick and two second-round picks to Calgary for Bean, and many around the league wondered what the Ams were doing?
Turns out Tri-City knew exactly what it was doing. Bean, a first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, was the top defenseman available at the deadline and he scored seven goals with 14 assists in 32 regular-season games after coming to Kennewick.
Bean is the reigning WHL and CHL Player of the Week after tallying eight assists in Tri-City’s final two victories over Victoria.
The Tri-City defensemen mirror Portland in how they like to jump into the rush and create offensively. Valimaki, another NHL first-round pick, and Coghlan, a Vegas signee, are very dangerous threats from the blue line.
Americans overage goaltender Patrick Dea quietly had a strong regular season with a 22-14-7-0 record, a .913 save percentage and a 3.17 goals-against average. He is 8-0 in the playoffs with a 2.77 GAA and a .905 save percentage.
The lone prolific scorer on Everett’s blue line is Davis, but the team has had timely scoring from players like Jake Christiansen and Wyatte Wylie. Davis was paired with Vala during the Portland series while Christiansen and Wylie skated together.
The Silvertips have the ultimate defensive weapon in goaltender Carter Hart. The two-time WHL goaltender of the year and this year’s Western Conference player of the year is having a postseason that mirrors the record-setting regular season he turned in.
Hart is 8-1-1 with a .944 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA, has two shutouts and combined with Dustin Wolf for a third blanking in Everett’s Game 5 clincher over Portland. Hart has had two bad games in which he allowed a combined 10 goals, but has been essentially untouchable in his eight victories.
Everett led the WHL in penalty killing during the regular season at 84.5 percent, but that has slipped to 77.3 percent in the postseason. The Tips will need a better penalty kill effort in this series to stave off Tri-City’s potent power play.
Everett’s Luke Ormsby and Tri-City’s Anthony Bishop are the only players who have made it this far before as both skated for Seattle’s WHL championship squad last year. Ormsby has not seen the ice since leaving with an upper-body injury in Everett’s Game 1 victory over the Thunderbirds in the opening round, while Bishop has an assist in eight postseason games for Tri-City.
This is a new experience for all the other players involved, so there is no advantage from a “having been there before” perspective for either side.
As the top seed Everett was more or less expected to be here. In fact, after hanging on to several valuable trade chips and adding Pilon and Vala at the deadline, anything less would have been a disappointment. In that sense the pressure is on the Tips.
Tri-City was a great enigma during the regular season. The Americans began the season with all kinds of future NHL talent and added more by acquiring Bean. Yet Tri-City never seemed to be able to put it together until the final two weeks of the regular season. That carried over into the postseason and the Americans have won 14 of 15 heading into Game 1.
Tri-City no doubt benefited from joining the B.C. postseason bracket as it cleaned up against Kelowna and Victoria — two teams against which Everett fashioned a 7-1 regular-season record. Everett dispatched the conference’s second-best regular-season team when it defeated Portland in Round 2.
Once again, the Americans have more individual talent. But so did the Winterhawks in Round 2, and the talent gap is not so vast that the Tips cannot overcome it.
Everett has two NHL-signed forwards in Bajkov and Pilon, an NHL-signed defenseman in Vala, and draft-eligible prospects in forwards Sutter and Dewar, and defenseman Wylie.
The Tips are generally the hardest-working team on the ice. That was true in the final four games of the Portland series — with the possible exception of Game 4 when Hart stole a victory and the offense came up with some late-game heroics.
It cannot be overstated the impact Hart makes. He is arguably the best 19-year-old goaltender in the world and he will propel the Tips to the WHL finals for the first time since their inaugural season.
Prediction: Silvertips in six
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