In the movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as the title characters are being relentlessly pursued by a nameless and faceless group on horseback, the title characters find themselves continuously trading the same rhetorical question:
This is the same question the Everett Silvertips must be asking themselves about the Tri-City Americans in advance of their WHL Western Conference championship series.
The Tips and the Americans begin their best-of-seven set for the conference crown Friday night at Angel of the Winds Arena, and despite being U.S. Division rivals it’s hard to know what Everett should expect from Tri-City.
Strange as it may be to say, considering the teams played one another eight times during the regular season, but Tri-City is something of a mystery to Everett. Are the Americans just another minor speed bump in the path to the WHL finals, the way Seattle and Portland proved to be? Or is Tri-City a legitimate threat to knock Everett off course?
Everett? There’s no mystery there. The Tips are worthy participants in the conference finals, having finished atop the conference standings during the regular season and rolled through the first two rounds of the postseason.
And Everett has been exactly the same team in the playoffs as it was during the season. The Tips are still getting dominating goaltending from Carter Hart, they’re still rock solid on defense, and they’re still receiving the bulk of their offense from the same two lines. If Everett was a movie script, it’s one that was leaked to every major studio, agency and industry media outlet in Hollywood.
But Tri-City? The Americans’ script is like those from the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones: closely guarded and the subject of a lot of theories and conjecture.
Since Everett entered the league in 2003, it’s difficult to identify a Western Conference playoff team that gave off as many conflicting signals about whether it was a legitimate championship contender than this year’s edition of the Americans. Just about every argument about Tri-City being a threat — both pro and con — has a built-in counter argument.
Argument in favor: Tri-City is immensely talented, with three first-round NHL draft picks on its roster (forward Michael Rasmussen and defensemen Jake Bean and Juuso Valimaki) along with a high third rounder (forward Morgan Geekie). But, the Americans have had teams with high NHL draft picks in the recent past (goaltender Eric Comrie, defensemen Brandon Carlo and Parker Wotherspoon), yet before this year Tri-City hadn’t won a playoff series since 2012, or even a playoff game since 2014. We don’t have recent evidence of the Americans turning talent into success.
Argument against: The Americans finished in a distant fourth place in the U.S. Division. But, Tri-City didn’t acquire Bean until the January trade deadline, and the Americans lost both Rasmussen and Valimaki for large stretches of the season because of injuries. Everett played Tri-City only once during the regular season when Bean, Rasmussen and Valimaki were all dressed, and the Americans won 4-2. Tri-City may be a significantly better team than what the Tips saw during the regular season.
Argument in favor: Tri-City has been the dominating force of the playoffs so far. The Americans have yet to lose, sweeping their series against both Kelowna and Victoria and outscoring the opposition 46-22 in the process. That includes Geekie scoring a ridiculous 15 goals in eight games. But, by falling into the first wild-card spot the Americans switched over to the B.C. Division pod for the first two rounds, where the competition wasn’t nearly as strong — the U.S. went 62-38 against the B.C. during the regular season. We don’t know if Tri-City has faced a true test yet.
Argument against: The Americans are suspect in net as their starting goaltender, Patrick Dea, is an overager who was plucked off the waiver wire after being dropped by Edmonton, where he never produced even league-average numbers. But, Dea has been more than Tri-City could have hoped, as his .913 save percentage during the regular season ranked seventh in the league. Dea has followed up with a 2.77 goals-against average during the postseason, which ranks third, suggesting the Americans have a goaltender after all.
Add it all up and, well, it doesn’t. If one were to input all this data into a calculator it would spit out an error message.
Make no mistake, Everett is the favorite in this series. The Tips finished 14 points ahead of the Americans during the regular season, won the season series 5-3, and winning eight of 10 playoff games against U.S. Division opposition — including the quick dispatching of Portland, which finished second in the conference — is at least as impressive as sweeping two B.C. Division foes.
But don’t book those tickets to the WHL finals just yet Everett fans. Tri-City is still standing in Everett’s way, and the Tips just don’t know who those guys are yet.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.