A week that should have been one of celebration for the Everett Silvertips instead ended with concern for the well-being of arguably their best player.
Defenseman Olen Zellweger had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher during Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Seattle Thunderbirds in Kent.
Everett had just clinched its ninth U.S. Division championship in the franchise’s 19 seasons with a 5-2 victory over the Tri-City Americans on Friday night in the final home game of the regular season. Following the game the Tips held their season-ending awards ceremony, and the 18-year-old Zellweger was named the team’s co-Most Valuable Player along with winger Jackson Berezowski.
But midway through the first period of Sunday’s game Everett was on the power play when Zellweger skated the puck to the Seattle blue line, passed to a teammate while continuing into the offensive zone, received the return pass, then was plastered along the back boards by T-birds defenseman Samuel Knazko. Zellweger remained motionless on the ice for several moments and had to be attended to by athletic trainers from both teams before he was placed on a stretcher. Zellweger gave the crowd the thumbs up as he was being carted off following a 13-minute delay. Knazko was not penalized on the play.
The good news, according to Tips coach Dennis Williams, was that Zellweger was released from the hospital and rejoined the team just prior to leaving ShoWare Center following Sunday’s game. Williams declined to elaborate on the nature of the injury and said Zellweger had no timetable for a return, beyond being unavailable for the final two games of the regular season.
“He took a hit behind the net on an entry on the power play and obviously we were very worried about it,” Williams said Monday. “He won’t play this weekend and we’ll have to evaluate things as the week goes by.”
Zellweger is in the midst of perhaps the greatest season by a defenseman in Everett history. His 78 points (14 goals, 64 assists) is a single-season franchise record for a d-man, and he currently leads Portland’s Clay Hanus by six points for the league lead in scoring by a blueliner, despite having played 11 fewer games (66-55). Zellweger is likely a leading candidate for the Bill Hunter Memorial Trophy as the league’s Defenseman of the Year, an honor never won by an Everett player.
Everett had been playing without its other elite defenseman, Ronan Seeley, who was out with an upper-body injury sustained March 18 against Vancouver. Seeley just returned to the lineup Friday, and the Tips looked like they were approaching full strength heading into the playoffs, which begin in less than two weeks. However, now Everett may have to survive at least some of the postseason without a player who does so much for the team at both ends of the ice.
Three stars of the week
Third star: Michal Gut. The 19-year-old center had a goal and two assists across the three games, he was a presence on Everett’s power play.
Second star: Zellweger. He was in the midst of a tremendous stretch (two goals and 17 assists during a nine-game points streak), including a goal and three assists this week, when the injury occurred.
First star: Alex Swetlikoff. The overage center was the star of the show when Everett clinched the division title, racking up four points against Tri-City, including his second hat trick of the season.
The week ahead
Everett (45-11-5-5) heads into the final week of the regular season with only one thing left at stake, that being the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed to the playoffs. The Tips have 100 points with two games remaining, while B.C. Division leader Kamloops is three points back, also with two games remaining. So the Tips are in poll position, but the lead isn’t quite as sturdy as it appears as the Blazers would hold the tiebreaker should the teams finished tied on points because Kamloops would have more wins.
Everett has a tough test Friday when it travels to face Portland (45-16-3-2) in the Winterhawks’ season finale. Not only is Portland a quality team, the Winterhawks may still have a chance to catch Kamloops for the conference’s second-best record. The Tips conclude the season Saturday at Tri-City (18-42-5-0), which has already been eliminated from playoff contention.
Kamloops finishes the season with home games against Prince George on Friday and Vancouver on Saturday. The Blazers will be heavy favorites in both, but the Cougars and Giants will likely be battling for their playoff lives and will have plenty of incentive to get results.
Everett can still match up against Vancouver, Spokane, Prince George or Victoria in the first round of the playoffs.