The best-of-seven WHL championship series between the Western Conference’s Everett Silvertips and the Eastern Conference’s Swift Current Broncos commences Friday night in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Here’s a breakdown of the series between the Tips (47-20-2-3 in the regular season, 12-4 in the playoffs), who were the top-seeded team in the Western Conference, and the Broncos (48-17-5-2, 12-8), who were the No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference:
Goals scored: Everett 246 regular season (3.42 per game, 11th in WHL), 68 playoffs (4.25, 3rd); Swift Current 284 regular season (3.9, 3rd), 62 playoffs (3.1, 10th).
Power play: Everett 23.5 percent regular season (9th), 20.0 playoffs (t-12th); Swift Current 29.4 regular season (1st), 28.4 playoffs (4th).
Swift Current built itself an offensive juggernaut. The Broncos began the season with three elite offensive players in Glenn Gawdin (125 points regular season, 25 playoffs), Aleksi Heponiemi (118, 24) and Tyler Steenbergen (102, 24), all of whom finished in the top six in the league in scoring. Then the Broncos added two more elite offensive performers in Giorgio Estephan (86, 19) and Matteo Gennaro (79, 12). All five are NHL draft picks, and they give Swift Current two dynamite scoring lines, meaning opponents aren’t able to focus their defensive attention on stopping one unit. Add in blue-line support from Colby Sissons (71, 18) and the Broncos have a power-play unit that rivals the Tri-City power play that shredded Everett in the conference finals.
But Everett has two strong scoring lines of its own. The overage duo of Patrick Bajkov (100, 21) and Matt Fonteyne (88, 20) was excellent during the regular season and carried that over into the playoffs. Meanwhile the trio of Garrett Pilon (80, 24), Connor Dewar (68, 21) and Riley Sutter (53, 14) has only gotten better over time since coming together shortly after the January trade deadline. The Tips also have their own blue-line helper in Kevin Davis (65, 14). However, Everett’s forwards don’t have near the NHL pedigree of Swift Current’s.
If there’s one concern for the Broncos, it’s that they only scored 30 even-strength goals in their 20 playoff games.
Advantage: Swift Current
Goals allowed: Everett 167 regular season (2.3, 1st), 41 playoffs (2.6, 1st); Swift Current 213 regular season (3.0, 2nd), 53 playoffs (2.7, 2nd).
Penalty kill: Everett 84.5 percent regular season (1st), 71.8 playoffs (11th); Swift Current 79.5 regular season (3rd), 80.0 playoffs (t-3rd)
These have been the league’s two best defensive teams, both during the regular season and the playoffs. Everett has the league’s biggest difference-maker in goaltender Carter Hart (1.60 goals-against average and .947 save percentage in the regular season, 2.44 and .922 in the playoffs), who was just named the league’s Player of the Year and won an unprecedented third straight Goaltender of the Year award. However, in Stuart Skinner (3.07 and .905 in the regular season, 2.32 and .927 in the playoffs) Swift Current has the one goalie who could match Hart in terms of talent. Skinner came into the league as a heralded first-round bantam draft pick, and he established himself once joining the Broncos midseason.
Both teams also have a strong top-four on defense. Swift Current’s quartet of Sissons, Artyom Minulin, Josh Anderson and Sahvan Khaira is built for the playoffs. All four are 19-year-old veterans, all four are big, and all four have a physical element to their game. Everett has plenty of experience as well, as Davis has now appeared in 400-plus games in a Silvertips jersey, Ondrej Vala is a 19-year-old in a similar mould to the Swift Current defenders, and 18-year-olds Wyatte Wylie and Jake Christensen made good strides this season.
Everett’s league-leading penalty kill took a beating in the conference finals against Tri-City. We’ll see if that’s an issue for the Tips, or whether the Americans were just that good with the advantage.
There’s no ambiguity about what Swift Current was trying to achieve this year. The Broncos knew they had a top contender before the season began, then went all-out to improve their team via trades, executing multiple major deals to supplement their roster. Therefore, Swift Current’s players have been steeled to the thought of chasing the title. However, that also comes with a certain level of pressure, knowing the organization sacrificed its future for this one shot at glory.
Everett had a relatively easy time getting to the finals, needing just five games in the first two rounds before going six in the conference finals. Meanwhile, Swift Current needed to win two Game 7s just to get to its conference finals before going through in six. So Everett has a little less playoff wear and tear.
What about the level of competition? That depends on what one believes about the quality of play in the U.S. Division versus the East Division. The East had to travel to the U.S. this year, so all the games were road games. Yet the U.S. went 22-8 against the East this year, including Everett’s comfortable 4-1 victory over the Broncos on Jan. 21 when both teams had their full rosters.
But there seems to be an air of destiny about this Everett team. The Tips weren’t supposed to be a contender this year, but they’ve passed every test so far. And their ability to deal with adversity — both with a perfect 7-0 road record in the playoffs and their in-game responses when games went against them — has been remarkable.
Before the season began the main question observers asked about the Tips was when they were trading Hart and to whom. Now Everett finds itself four wins away from its first WHL championship. This is the first time in the playoffs that the Tips are facing a team that finished with a better record during the regular season, and Swift Current has an 8-2 advantage in NHL draft picks. However, Everett is 55-15-1-3 since starting the season 4-9-1-0 in the absence of its top two goaltenders, a rate that would have seen the Tips claim the Scotty Munro Trophy for the league’s best record. It’s been a magical season for Everett and the Ed Chynoweth Cup is within the Tips’ grasp.
Prediction: Everett in seven games.