EVERETT — It happens at least once a week.
Someone heads over to the bench to collect the mesh bag containing the soft, orange pucks — the kind used by the fans for the chuck-a-puck contest between periods — and dumps them on the ice. Then the Silvertips coaches fire the pucks at Tips players to practice blocking shots.
“My first year in the league, I think only a few teams were really in the mentality of blocking shots, but now you see every team is blocking shots,” Silvertips center Matt Fonteyne said. “For our team, it’s always been that way with KC (head coach Kevin Constantine).”
While Everett looks to block shots at every opportunity, doing so is of utmost importance when the Tips are trying to kill off a penalty. Last season, penalty killing, and its offensive counterpart, the power play, were weak areas for the Silvertips.
This year both special-teams units are strengths.
“It’s pretty much all in your head,” Fonteyne said. “If you want to block a shot, you’ll find a way to block a shot. And then (it’s) just working to make sure you’re in the right position, working to eliminate times when you’re exposed. So I think it comes down to work and mentality.”
Hard work and proper positioning is the cornerstone of the ethos preached by Constantine and his staff. The coaches evaluate the team’s progress by how well it executes what it is asked to do rather than the result on the scoreboard.
“They’re a very tight-knit team with good leadership that enjoys doing well and enjoys getting better and enjoys our culture, which is probably the biggest thing,” Everett assistant coach Brennan Sonne said. “They have taken our culture and have applied it and led the way.”
Perhaps nothing better illustrates that culture than the willingness to absorb some pain by blocking a shot. Of course, the scoreboard results have been pretty good, too,. The Tips (22-4-5-0, 49 points) enter tonight’s game against Tri-City atop the U.S. Division and second in the Western Conference.
A season ago, the Tips ranked 16th on the penalty kill at 77.2 percent. This year they’re third at 84.7 percent. In fact, in the 16 games since the beginning of November the Tips are killing penalties at a rate of of 89.6 percent, having allowed just five power play-goals in that span. Perhaps not coincidentally they are 11-2-3-0 in that stretch.
But what about the power play? A year ago that was a black hole for Everett. The Silvertips’ conversion rate of 17.0 percent was 21st among the 22 WHL teams. This year the Tips are eighth at 23.4 percent.
Constantine ceded control of the power play to Sonne midway through last season, but Sonne gives credit to the Everett players for the stark improvement.
“It’s really the players that get the job done,” Sonne said. “They’re the ones who take the teaching and coaching and apply it and work on it and discuss it among themselves. So it’s really a collaboration of the coaches and the players getting the job done.”
The improvement is the result of both new personnel and the maturation of several returning players.
The trade with Spokane for overager Dominic Zwerger and the continued development of second-year forward Riley Sutter have been the most notable changes on the man advantage. Zwerger is tied with Patrick Bajkov for the team lead with five power-play goals, and Zwerger’s 13 power-play points are second only to Bajkov’s 14.
Sutter scored his 10th goal of the season in Sunday’s win over Spokane. It came on the power play. He has four goals and six assists with the man advantage.
“Riley has always kind of had that skill set,” Sonne said. “He’s got a great shot, great hockey sense and he’s a really good passer. So his skill set is really what you’re seeing right now. He’s always kind of had that, so it’s nice he’s gotten the chance and done what he has done on the power play.”
Veteran defenseman Kevin Davis also has also been key as he now quarterbacks the top power-play unit. All three of Davis’s goals and 12 of his 19 assists have come via the power play.
“Power play is interesting because you can get fortunate bounces, you can get unfortunate bounces — it can go post-and-out three times or it can go post-and-in three times,” Sonne said. “Then the continued growth of the other guys has been helpful. They have just done a really good job of taking the teaching and applying it to the games.”
Tonight could be a special teams bonanza. The Americans (19-13-3-0, 41 points) rank third in the power play at 28.8 percent and fifth in the penalty kill at 83.2 percent.
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