Five keys for the Thunderbirds against Everett

Apr 8, 2016, 1:11 PM | Updated: 2:03 pm
Seattle acquired goalie Landon Bow at the trade deadline for exactly this situation. (T-Birds photo...
Seattle acquired goalie Landon Bow at the trade deadline for exactly this situation. (T-Birds photo)
(T-Birds photo)

The Thunderbirds and Silvertips face off in the second round after each swept their respective opponents in Round 1. The two teams scored nearly the same number of goals and allowed the same number of scores in the first round, which goes to show how evenly matched this series likely will be.

Everett had the advantage in head-to-head matchups during the regular season, finishing with a 6-2-1-1 record against Seattle, but the Thunderbirds came on late in the year, winning their final three contests against their local rivals.

Here is what Seattle needs to do to advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the 2002-2003 season:

Get ahead early. The Silvertips are one of the best defensive teams in the WHL with a game-plan that has all five skaters’ primary focus on keeping the puck out of the net. The Silvertips led the league in goals against for the majority of the season, only finishing second in that department after the Victoria Royals went on an improbable hot streak to end the season. Everett ended up finishing second, allowing 172 goals in 72 games, six more than the Royals allowed.

What that means is that if you get behind against the Silvertips, coming back is even more difficult than it usually is because they’re so adept at keeping the puck out of their own net. Getting down by two or three goals to Everett is a recipe for disaster. If the Silvertips can build a comfortable lead – which is just a couple of goals for them – they can focus entirely on their trap where they clog up the neutral zone, limit shots, keep plays to the outside and frustrate opposing forwards into making bad decisions with the puck.

On the flip side, if Seattle can get ahead, it forces the Silvertips to open up and try and score more goals, something they’re not very good at based on the fact that they’re the only playoff team that scored fewer than 200 goals during the regular season. They actually scored the second-fewest goals among all WHL teams, averaging just 2.53 per game. Get ahead and the Silvertips’ game-plan is turned on its head.

Win the battle in net. When the Thunderbirds acquired goaltender Landon Bow at the trade deadline, general manager Russ Farwell said, “Every time (Bow) plays, he’s going to put us on even footing with any goaltender in our conference. We’ve got a pretty good group, but we just didn’t feel we were on the same level some nights in goal.”

Farwell didn’t name any names, but it’s pretty clear that one of those goaltenders he was referring to is the 17-year-old netminder who will be staring Bow down from the opposing crease over the next couple of weeks.

Carter Hart came to Everett as a 16-year-old and has since proven himself as one of the WHL’s truly elite goaltenders. His 53-29-3-7 record, .917 save percentage, 2.22 goals-against average, and 10 shutouts reflect the success he’s had in about one and a half seasons in Everett.

Hart has had some stiff competition in the Pacific Northwest since Bow came to Seattle. Bow’s record against Everett is 4-3-0-0 with a 1.89 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. The goals-against average and save percentage are eye-popping, but the somewhat average record goes to show the kind of defensive matchups these two teams have participated in.

It’s almost a given that most games these two teams play against each other will go down to the final minutes and the margins of victory will be razor thin.

Get the power play back on track. Seattle’s power play converted just two of 16 opportunities in the first-round series against Prince George. The T-Birds’ 12.5 percent conversion rate was second-worst of any team in the first round. There was a glimmer of light as the power play scored a huge goal late in Game 4 to send it to overtime, which Seattle eventually won.

Playing against such a strong defensive team, it’s important that you score on the chances you have, which will likely be few and far between. Five-on-five goals will be tough to come by, as getting control of the puck in the Everett zone is a mountain of a task in itself that becomes much more surmountable when the opposition is down a man.

Seattle has a clear advantage offensively, but the old adage that a great defense beats a great offense has come into play more than once in head-to-head matchups between these two teams. The conversation could change quickly if Seattle can tack on some power-play goals and wear down the Silvertips’ defense as the series goes on.

Wear down the Everett defense. The neutral-zone trap employed by Everett head coach Kevin Constantine is a frustrating one for opponents, particularly the skilled players who like to operate in space and create plays on their own. The T-Birds’ most skilled player, Mathew Barzal, averaged over 1.5 points per game during the regular season, but had only eight points in nine games against Everett.

Seattle’s lower lines are going to be huge in this series, and not just the line of Scott Eansor, Nolan Volcan, and Donovan Neuls that we’ve talked about here before. Josh Uhrich, Cavin Leth, Andreas Schumacher and whoever else ends up being in the lineup will need to constantly pressure the Everett defense, finish their checks, win puck battles in the offensive zone and do anything else they can to keep the Silvertips’ blue line group on their toes. The more havoc those players can wreak, the more things will open up for the skilled players.

Shut down Everett’s top line. Most of Everett’s offense comes from its top line of Remi Laurencelle, Dawson Leedahl and Carson Stadnyk. It seems likely that those three will be matched up throughout the series with the Seattle forward line made up of Eansor, Volcan and Neuls.

Seattle’s checking line – which has become so much more this year – excels at keeping big scorers off the board. No one on the Everett roster can really be called an elite scorer, but if they can shut down Laurencelle, Leedahl and Stadnyk, Seattle should be in good shape. It’s a task the line should be more than up for as it was able to capably handle the more talented group of offensive forwards that Prince George threw at Seattle.

Past Laurencelle, no one on the Silvertips’ roster came close to averaging a point per game during the regular season. Everett’s style of play doesn’t lend itself to high scorers, but this is one area where Seattle has a very clear advantage. The Silvertips don’t have a lot of guys who can score in bunches; the Thunderbirds do. Keep those players who can score from having a lot of time to do anything with the puck and it will go a long way for Seattle.

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Five keys for the Thunderbirds against Everett