Everett Silvertips’ Austin Roest draws a tripping penalty behind the net against the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Everett Silvertips’ Austin Roest draws a tripping penalty behind the net against the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Tips firmly in U.S. Division driver’s seat as season winds down

Everett’s victory over Portland extended its lead over the Winterhawks to seven points.

No, the Everett Silvertips’ 7-3 victory over the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday at Angel of the Winds Arena didn’t assure the Tips first place in the WHL’s U.S. Division. However, it made Portland’s task in catching Everett extremely difficult.

Everett’s victory over Portland, combined with the Tips’ 7-2 triumph at home over Spokane on Friday, gave Everett a commanding position in the race for the U.S. Division title.

Not that the Tips are celebrating yet.

“I don’t think we’re looking at that too much,” Everett captain Jackson Berezowski said when asked about the team’s position in the standings. “We’re just kind of focusing game by game, and the points will take care of themselves when you play the right way. So I think that’s what we’re going to focus on.”

Nevertheless, the Tips are now firmly in the driver’s seat. Everett holds a seven-point lead over Portland for first place in the division, with the Tips having seven games remaining while the Winterhawks have six.

Portland still has opportunities to make up ground head-to-head, as two games remain between the two teams. But while Portland could have closed most of the gap by sweeping the final three head-to-head matchups, Saturday’s result means the Winterhawks will now need to not only win the remaining head-to-heads, but also get friendly results in other games to have a shot at passing Everett.

The schedule also favors Everett. In their remaining games against teams other than Portland, the Tips face opponents with a combined .404 winning percentage. Meanwhile, Portland’s remaining opponents other than Everett have a combined winning percentage of .541. Both the Tips and Winterahawks have two home games remaining.

“We feel good, but we’re never satisfied,” Winger Jacob Wright said about the state or the title race. “We want to keep this ball rolling and take it all the way to the end of the season.”

If Everett claims the division championship, it will be the team’s sixth division title in the past eight seasons.

The Tips also saw their lead atop the Western Conference increase. Kamloops lost 5-3 at Kelowna on Saturday, meaning Everett now leads the Blazers by four points for the No. 1 seed to the playoffs, with both teams having played the same number of games. If the season ended now, the Tips would earn the No. 1 seed and face eighth-seeded Prince George in the first round of the postseason.

Despite the four-point lead, Everett may have a difficult time holding off the Blazers. Kamloops has just one game remaining against a team with a winning record, and six of the Blazers’ final seven games are at home.

Three stars of the week

Third star: Koen MacInnes. The goaltender in his 19-year-old season earned the win in both of Everett’s games, compiling a 1.09 goals against average and .963 save percentage. Most importantly he rescued the Tips against Portland, coming on in relief during the first period and stopping all 37 shots he faced.

Second star: Michal Gut. The 19-year-old center had a goal and two assists in each game. He scored a highlight-reel goal against Spokane, and his goal against Portland, coming just 43 seconds after goaltender Braden Holt was pulled, was so important as it tied the score at 3-3 and quickly settled the Tips down.

First star: Niko Huuhtanen. The 18-year-old winger, following eight two-goal games, finally recorded his first WHL hat trick in the victory against Spokane. He finished the weekend with four goals and two assists across the two games, including the opener against Portland which came just 1:07 into the contest.

The week ahead

Two games are on tap this week, and it starts off with another doozy on Friday when the Tips once again host the Winterhawks at Angel of the Winds Arena — it’ll be both teams’ first game since Saturday’s result. Saturday’s victory may have ended Everett’s four-game losing streak against the Winterhawks and given the Tips a commanding seven-point lead in the division, but the teams remain deadlocked in the season series at 5-5. Everett outscored Portland 35-31 in those 10 contests.

Everett caps off the weekend with a game at Tri-City (18-39-5-0) on Saturday, the first of three remaining between the two teams. The Americans’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread as Tri-City is in last place in the Western Conference, six points out of a playoff spot with just six games remaining.

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