In looking at the Everett Silvertips a week before the Western Hockey League playoffs, it’s difficult to argue with the overall product.
After all, the Tips are 53-14-1-2 and will win their third WHL U.S. Division title, this time by about 20 points. They will have home-ice advantage throughout the postseason, having clinched their first Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the team with the league’s best record. For the first time in their four-year history, Everett cracked the 50-victory mark.
“If we’re all clicking together, it’s going to be a pretty good run,” defenseman Graham Potuer said.
Yet, in the last six weeks, the Silvertips have fallen off.
They have split their past 10 games. Since Feb. 10, Everett is 9-7, but three victories were by shootout and one came in overtime. The power play has been inconsistent, as has the defense.
Injuries have taken important players off the roster and have forced coach Kevin Constantine to be creative with his lineups. So, too, has the exit of Ondrej Fiala, who went home to his native Czech Republic to have season-ending surgery on his troublesome right knee.
“I don’t know that you can make up for a guy like Ondrej,” forward Dan Gendur said. “He’s got great speed out there and he can definitely whip the puck. Some young guy’s got to follow in his shoes.”
Is this any way to enter the playoffs?
“We’ve played average, at best,” Constantine said after Wednesday night’s 3-1 loss to Prince George. “We’ve won the games we’ve needed to win. This is the first time we’ve lost back-to-back games all year, so to say things have been not very good is not very accurate, but the bar’s been set pretty high for this team, too.”
In a way, the Silvertips have been victims of their own success. They ran away from the field in their own division early in the season. They were the first to clinch a division title. They won 20 of their first 22 games, 27 of their first 30. They didn’t lose their 10th game of the season until Feb. 24.
So a high seed in the playoffs has been a virtual certainty since November. That’s a long time for a division leader to fill without some other team making a serious move.
Along the way, general manager Doug Soetaert has pulled the trigger on a number of trades that have made the team bigger, stronger and less vulnerable to physical play.
They improved as the season went on, up until February.
The acquisitions of Gendur, Jesse Zetariuk and Dane Crowley have all worked out well, as has the off-season trade for Moises Gutierrez. The Tips also traded in October for goalie David Reekie, who has been a spectacular backup to Leland Irving.
Without exception, each move made the team better. So why the recent tail-off?
In a long regular season, having long established an untouchable burst toward the playoffs, it’s simply difficult to maintain a stratospheric level of play every time out.
“We call February the dog days,” Constantine said. “February’s when the season gets a little long and yet the playoffs aren’t really in sight yet, so you’re missing the excitement of the playoffs. We have never had a good stretch of games from games 60 to 70 in franchise history. This year was a little compounded by a little less to play for.”
That’s a pretty convincing argument that a February lull won’t necessarily extend into the playoffs.
“In a league of this quality, it’s impossible to not step up your game in the playoffs,” Constantine said. “Our choice is to step up our game or die.”
Sports columnist John Sleeper: email@example.com