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Keys to a T-Birds upset over Everett

Nolan Volcan led all Seattle players with six goals vs. Everett during the regular season (T-Birds photo)

The Western Conference’s one-versus-eight seed playoff series should, in theory, be a relatively easy victory for the better-seeded team.

Nothing about the regular season series between the T-Birds and Silvertips, however, indicates that will be the case. The two teams were neck-and-neck in every game they played and the playoffs should be no different.

Playing against Everett 10 times during the regular season should have given the Thunderbirds the recipe they need to pull off the upset. Below we take a look at what Seattle will need to do to pull off a historic series win.

Traffic, traffic, traffic. The numbers speak for themselves — Carter Hart is a pretty darn good goalie. In case you need to be reminded, here are some of his accolades this year (so far):

• Western Conference Player of the Year
• Western Conference Goaltender of the Year (he’s basically a lock for WHL Goaltender of the Year)
• Lowest goals against average in the WHL (1.60, a full 1.17 fewer goals allowed per game than the second-best starting goaltender in the league in this category, Portland’s Cole Kehler)
• Highest save percentage in the WHL (.947, .033 higher than the second-best starter in this category, Victoria’s Griffin Outhouse)
• Most shutouts in the WHL (seven, one more than Swift Current’s Stuart Skinner, who played in 15 more games)

Hart doesn’t really have bad games. The most goals he allowed in a single contest this year was five against Spokane at the end of January. Other than that, he’s allowed three goals six times, and two or fewer in the other 34 games he’s played.

The T-Birds can’t expect to catch Hart on an off night, so they’re going to have to make their own luck. The best way to do that is to prevent Hart from seeing the puck entirely. Guys like Dillon Hamaliuk, Mike MacLean, Matthew Wedman and Seattle’s other big forwards will be tasked with making Hart’s life awful, and if they can, it’ll give Seattle a much better shot at winning this series.

Make special teams great again. It’s easier said than done, but Seattle needs to be the more disciplined team on the ice during this series.

Everett was shorthanded 71 fewer times than the Thunderbirds during the regular season, or about once fewer per game. In head-to-head matchups, Everett had 14 more power play opportunities.

The big thing to note here is that, despite having 14 more chances on the man advantage, Everett didn’t score any more goals than the T-Birds (seven). The Silvertips’ league-leading 84.5% penalty kill success rate is significantly higher than what they’ve done against the T-Birds’ power play unit, against whom they’ve killed just 74.1% of penalties.

Lots was made during the regular season about the officiating when these two teams play each other, but Seattle needs to throw all of that out the window. They have an opportunity here, if they can shrink that difference in penalties just a bit, to really get the leg up in this matchup where they’ve proven to have superior special teams.

Battle of the grizzled old vets. It’s no secret that Seattle is heavily reliant on its older players. Of the 250 goals the T-Birds scored during the regular season, 151, or 60.4% were scored by 19- and 20-year-olds.

By contrast, Everett’s veterans accounted for 39% of their goals.

We know that Donovan Neuls, Nolan Volcan, Zack Andrusiak, Noah Philp and Austin Strand pack most of Seattle’s scoring punch, and they’re the same group that, for the most part, has been successful against Everett this season.

Of Seattle’s 22 regular season goals in 10 games against Everett, 15 have come off the sticks of their veterans, an astonishingly high percentage. Two of those “goals” were shootout winners, so in essence, half of Seattle’s goals against the ‘Tips were by the old guys. Eight of Everett’s 24 goals were by their 19s and 20s.

Whatever the case may be, the series has been about as close as it could be. Fortunately for Seattle, with the exception of Blake Bargar, who could be back from injury for the playoffs, they’re about as healthy as they’ve been all year.

Some might argue Seattle has relied too much on these guys to this point, but now is certainly not the time to try and adjust.

Come out of the gates hard. Everett won 47 games during the regular season. When they were leading after one period, they were 26-2-1-3. When leading after forty minutes, the ‘Tips never lost in regulation, finishing 37-0-2-1.

While they’ve shown more offensive acumen this season, the ‘Tips are still perfectly capable of clamping down once they’ve established a lead and making it nearly impossible to score on them.

To avoid getting caught up in this frustrating game, Seattle needs to jump out to some early leads.

In the T-Birds’ four regular season wins over Everett, they never trailed by more than one. A one-goal deficit is fine — it doesn’t let the ‘Tips move into their “prevent defense” because one untimely penalty and opposing power play could completely change the dynamic of the game. A two-goal lead lets them take their foot off the gas and only try to attack when a clear opportunity presents itself.

Seattle will feel like it needs to steal one of the first two games on the road, and by getting out to an early lead, they’ll have the opportunity to quiet a loud opposing crowd and their cowbells.