EVERETT — Mere months after it all but became official that Seattle will soon have an NHL team, the region’s two junior franchises, the Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds, will square off in the first round of the Western Hockey League playoffs.
It is a series rich in recent history with the T-birds eliminating the Tips three times in the past four seasons. The past two seasons the T-birds needed all of nine games to twice eliminate Everett in the second round en route to back-to-back Western Conference titles. Last season Seattle swept Everett on its way to the first WHL championship and Memorial Cup in franchise history.
The T-birds were the division champion two years ago, and last year were considered by most to be the superior team despite finishing second in the division to Everett. However, this year top-seeded Everett (47-20-2-3, 99 points) enters the best-of-seven series as the clear favorite over eighth-seeded and supposedly rebuilding Seattle (34-28-8-2, 78 points).
The Tips finished the season with a 6-2-0-2 mark against the T-birds, who fashioned a 4-4-2-0 record against Everett. Four of the final five regular-season matchups were decided in overtime or a shootout, and eight of the 10 were one-goal games.
What follows is a breakdown of the two teams:
Goals scored: Everett 246 (11th in WHL), Seattle 250 (10th)
Power play: Everett 23.5 percent (ninth), Seattle 22.9 percent (11th)
The Silvertips were the lowest-scoring team in the U.S. Division despite setting a team record with 246 goals to break the previous record of 242 set during the 2014-15 season. That says a lot about the the caliber of teams in the division as Everett finished in the top half in the league and just four goals behind Seattle.
Under first-year head coach Dennis Williams the Silvertips sought to play a more up-tempo, risk-reward type of offensive game. It had mixed success early as players sought to adjust to it, but it worked well for stretches of the season.
A number of players had breakout offensive seasons including Patrick Bajkov (33 goals, 67 assists) who rewrote Everett’s offensive record book en route to the first 100-point season in franchise history while leading the conference in assists and inking a deal with the Florida Panthers.
Linemate Matt Fonteyne (35 goals, 53 assists), second-liner Connor Dewar (38 goals) and midseason pickup Garrett Pilon (34 goals, 46 assists) all piled up career years, while defenseman Kevin Davis (10 goals, 55 assists) maintained his offensive contributions. But the Tips also had three 20-goal scorers in Sean Richards (20 goals, 29 assists), Riley Sutter (25 goals, 28 assists) and Bryce Kindopp (24 goals, 12 assists) to give them legitimate scoring depth.
Seattle did not have the prodigious individual totals of Everett, but had a number of players with strong seasons to balance out its attack. Nolan Volcan (32 goals, 44 assists) and Donovan Neuls (22 goals, 54 assists) led the team in points with Zack Andruziak (36 goals, 38 assists) right behind. The T-birds also boast one of the league’s top-scoring blueliners in power-play specialist Austin Strand (25 goals, 39 assists). From there the scoring drops off precipitously, though Noah Philp, Matthew Wedman, Turner Ottenbreit, Sami Moilanen and Jarret Tyszka all tallied 40 or more points.
One issue could be the fact Everett relies so heavily on the power play, and penalties tend to be called less during the postseason. The Tips scored 31 percent of their goals on the man advantage this season, the highest percentage in the league. Meanwhile, the T-birds scored 25 percent of their goals on the power play.
In games between the two teams Everett averaged 2.4 goals per game while the T-birds averaged 2.2 goals per game. That marked a significant decrease from both teams’ per-game averages. In 62 games against non-Seattle opponents Everett averaged 3.58 goals while Seattle averaged 3.68 against non-Everett opponents.
Seattle scored four more regular-season goals, but Everett has more high-end offensive talent. It remains to be seen if the Tips can carry over that success after what was a 10-game slugfest during the regular season.
Goals allowed: Everett 167 (first in WHL), Seattle 258 (15th)
Penalty kill: Everett 84.5 percent (first), Seattle 78.1 percent (10th)
Former head coach Kevin Constantine was frequently labeled a “defense-first” coach — much to his chagrin. Regardless, the Tips defense has not missed a beat during Williams’ first year at the helm. The Tips maintained their characteristic defensive intensity while rolling a number of different players through the rotation.
Stalwart Davis and Jake Christiansen formed one consistent duo, while midseason pickup Ondrej Vala joined Snohomish County native Wyatte Wylie for another partnership. Gianni Fairbrother missed half the season with a shoulder injury before returning two weeks ago at Vancouver, while Ian and Kyle Walker filled out Everett’s blue line. Jameson Murray was a midseason pickup and adds depth when needed.
Everett again led the league in fewest goals allowed and allowed two fewer goals than last season — a total that would have been much lower had either Carter Hart or Dustin Wolf been healthy the whole the year.
Hart was named the conference goalie of the year for the third straight year while also being named the conference player of the year. Hart had a truly historic season with a 31-6-1-3 record, a 1.60 goals-against average with seven shutouts, and a record-setting .947 save percentage.
Wolf was no slouch himself as he fashioned a 13-6-0-0 record with a 2.25 GAA and a .928 save percentage with four shutouts.
Seattle has an unheralded, yet formidable goaltender in Liam Hughes. The Kelowna native finished the year 16-12-5-1, 3.15, .909. But Hughes had a .930 save percentage in seven games against Everett.
The T-birds also boast Strand’s 64 points and captain Ottenbreit’s 47 points from the blue line. Moreover, Seattle’s defensemen are bigger and more physical than Everett’s. That can be a factor during the postseason as fewer penalties are called.
But Hart was the conference goalie and player of the year for a reason and is the difference-maker.
The Silvertips are the more talented team. They have more playmakers and goal-scorers. They also boast the league’s top goalie.
But Seattle has history on its side. The Thunderbirds are the defending WHL champions, the two-time defending conference champions, and they have needed just 14 postseason games to defeat Everett three times in the postseason.
The T-birds have nothing to lose. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Seattle and the T-birds got the matchup they wanted.
Everett is the better team, but it has to prove it.
The difference between the teams was just 21 points in the standings.
That is the second-smallest gap between the Nos. 1 and 8 seeds in Everett’s 15 WHL seasons. The smallest gap was last year’s matchup between Everett and Victoria.
Seattle remains a tough matchup for Everett particularly because of its size and physicality. That can come into play during the postseason when power plays are at a premium.
The T-birds also retain the psychological edge, particularly if they can steal one of the first two games at Angel of the Winds Arena.
But the Tips have won three straight at ShoWare Center, slaying a mental dragon of 11 consecutive previous defeats in Kent.
The Tips are coming at the king. They best not miss.
Prediction: Silvertips in five.