EVERETT — Each season the WHL’s U.S. Division teams make one long road trip out east, and that trip is wrought with potential pitfalls.
There’s the inevitable fatigue that accompanies a team when it’s playing several games in a short period of time, particularly when paired with long bus rides.
There’s the natural disadvantage of playing on the road, where the home team has a tactical advantage by being able to make the final line change during stoppages in play.
And then there’s the risk of catching the flu at just the wrong time, a danger that’s heightened this season with the H1N1 virus currently making its way through western Canada.
As a result, teams often happy if they’re able to stay afloat during the trip out east and make it back home in one piece.
So when the Everett Silvertips returned from their six-game swing through the Central Division with nine of a possible 12 points, the Tips were satisfied with their haul.
“You can’t complain about that,” Everett goaltender Thomas Heemskerk said. “It’s definitely a good amount of points when you’re going to other rinks on such long road trips.”
Everett finished 4-1-1-0 on the road trip, which saw the Tips play six games in 10 days against five teams in Alberta and one in eastern British Columbia. Everett began the trip with four straight victories — against Kootenay, Red Deer, Edmonton and Medicine Hat — before finishing up with a loss at Lethbridge and an overtime defeat at the hands of Calgary.
Everett didn’t do anything fancy to pick up its points. Instead, the Tips’ success was predicated on playing good “road games,” which are characterized by a no-nonsense approach designed to take the air out of the home team’s attack and limit scoring opportunities.
“I thought in a lot of areas we were pretty solid,” was Everett coach Craig Hartsburg evaluation of the road trip. “We had a good mindset going into every game. You’re never going to play a perfect 60 minutes, especially when you’re on the road — the other teams usually come out hard at home. But I thought we were pretty solid.”
The biggest reason for Everett’s success was the play of its goaltenders. Thomas Heemskerk and Kent Simpson combined to allow just nine goals in the six games, turning away 185 of 194 shots faced, an astounding save percentage of .954.
“I felt good,” said Heemskerk, who played four of the six games and went 3-1, allowing one goal or fewer in each of his three victories. “It’s always good when you can keep a team to one goal a game. Every game felt good.”
Another major factor was the performance of Everett’s penalty-killing unit. Going into the trip Everett was near the bottom of the league’s penalty-killing rankings, having killed off just of 56 opposing power plays for a 73.2-percent rate. However, on the trip the Tips killed off the first 23 penalties faced and finished the trip 26-for-28, a 92.6-percent clip. As a result Everett zoomed all the way up to ninth in the league in penalty killing at 79.8 percent.
The goaltenders deserve much of the credit for the improved penalty killing, but Everett’s skaters also did a better job providing a defensive screen.
“Before we left the coaches were working really hard with us and we got it back on track before we went on the road trip,” center Chris Langkow explained. “Just game by game we kept going and it’s been working well for us now.
“We just talked about our end zone play and what our responsibilities were,” added Langkow, who said the Tips didn’t make any tweaks to their penalty kill. “Guys who want to do it for the team are going to be the ones out there doing, so it kind of pushed guys to play harder.”
During the trip the Tips also picked up a new forward as 18-year-old left wing Scott MacDonald was added from the Westside Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League. MacDonald had a useful first four games with the team, posting a goal and an assist while holding his own on a line with overagers Langkow and Shane Harper.
“He’s fit in pretty good,” Hartsburg said. “He’s a very smart player and has pretty good puck skills. The more he plays and the more he works with us, we’ll see more and more from him.”
Nick Patterson’s Silvertips blog: http://www.heraldnet.com/silvertipsblog