EVERETT — The series-turning goal of the Everett Silvertips’ first-round playoff defeat of the Seattle Thunderbirds did not come from Patrick Bajkov, Connor Dewar or any of the other likely candidates.
Instead it came from 16-year-old rookie center Reece Vitelli at 8:56 of the opening period of Game 3 at ShoWare Center in Kent when Vitelli tipped in Gianni Fairbrother’s point shot.
“Coach (Dennis Williams) has been on us to go to the net all the time and be the high tip guy,” Vitelli said. “I went there and got a stick on and it went in.”
Vitelli’s goal tied the game 1-1, but more importantly staunched a blistering T-birds attack as Seattle fired off 24 first-period shots. Everett goalie Carter Hart saved 23 of them and Vitelli’s goal ensured the Tips were even after 20 minutes of play. Everett went to hold the T-birds to just 10 shots the rest of the way in a 3-1 win and won the next two to claim the series in five games.
“(We had) a slow start, they scored right off the bat,” Vitelli said. “We got a goal there, kind of silenced the crowd a little bit and came out hard in the second and third and got the win.”
Vitelli is far from a household name for this Silvertips team that begins second-round play at home against the Portland Winterhawks at 7:35 p.m. on Friday at Angel of the Winds Arena. In fact, the Winnipeg native was not even a sure bet to make the Tips roster this season.
But Vitelli, whom the Tips chose in the fourth round of the 2016 bantam draft, impressed the organization at training camp and essentially forced the team to keep him when the regular season began.
“(He was) a player who just went through camp and had a really solid camp,” Williams said. “He just took his opportunities and ran with them. He was able to just keep going about his way … He’s been a steady third-line center for 90 percent of the season and I think he’s only getting better and better each game.”
The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Vitelli scored in his WHL debut in Everett’s season-opener against Portland in September. Vitelli found himself playing far more minutes than he envisioned after fellow 16-year-olds Mark Liwiski and Ethan Browne were suspended by the team, leaving Everett with a dearth of centermen.
He wound up playing 70 of Everett’s 72 regular-season games and finished with two goals and eight assists.
“(I didn’t plan on) playing 70 games this year,” Vitelli said. “I thought I’d get my 40, maybe, and see about next year.”
The organization later acquired centers Ethan O’Rourke and Garrett Pilon prior to the trade deadline. But Vitelli has engendered so much trust from the coaching staff that he has remained as Everett’s third-line center while O’Rourke centers the Tips’ fourth line and Pilon moved to wing on Everett’s second line.
“We kept going back to (Vitelli) and I think we’re going to reap the benefits of it in regards to the experience he’s been able to gain from it,” Williams said.
“The game has slowed down for him a little bit in the sense that he’s been able to adapt to the pace of it.” Williams later added. “I think with him getting thrown in there right in the deep end, he did a great job.”
While Vitelli shares a billet home with Bajkov, he rooms with Matt Fonteyne on the road. Like Vitelli, the 20-year-old Fonteyne was once a taciturn, undersized 16-year-old center from the Canadian prairie playing big minutes for a playoff-bound Everett team.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Fonteyne said. “I can see a really long career and a really great career for him as well in the league.”
In terms of confidence and play-making, Vitelli has made tremendous strides since the beginning of the season. That only figures to increase as he grows and improves his strength. He does not even turn 17 until July.
“I think I’ve been developing all year and getting on that third line position since the start of the year has helped me,” Vitelli said. “I think my faceoffs need to get way better and that will come with strength.”
Heroes come from unlikely places during postseason play and Vitelli has done his part.
The Tips hope to continue that trend against Portland as they seek to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2006.
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