Silvertips not looking back in playoff match up with the Thunderbirds
Eight straight losses.
That’s the post season trend the Everett Silvertips are hoping to reverse as they begin a WHL first-round playoff series with the Seattle Thunderbirds this Friday night. The U.S. Division champs have seen their playoff run ended by Seattle in each of the past two seasons and in three of the last four years.
You would understand if that was an extra motivation heading into Friday’s Game 1 at the Angels of The Winds Arena. However, despite the recent playoff setbacks, the Silvertips are more focused on looking ahead instead of back.
“It’s a new season,” Everett captain Matt Fonteyne says. “A lot of guys haven’t even been in the playoffs on our team. It’s a new season, new series. We just need to focus on our game and make sure we’re on top of our details going into the series.”
The 20-year-old Fonteyne has seen his season end three times at the hands of the Thunderbirds but the same can’t be said for his head coach.
Dennis Williams joined Everett this year for his first go-around in the WHL. It’s been a success as not only did he guide the Silvertips to a division title, but also the top spot in the Western Conference which earned him a nomination for coach of the year. The Silvertips also set a franchise record for goals scored and are back-stopped by the best goaltender in the WHL.
Williams is quick to point out that none of that matters come Friday night.
“That first season’s done as we say,” Williams said after practice earlier this week. “Now we’re into season two, we have a zero-zero record. We have a lot to play for as I reminded our guys, our wins and our power-play goals, they don’t come in with us here. We start with a clean slate.”
Everett finished 21 points ahead of Seattle in the standings and for the first time in the two team’s playoff history, are the favorites.
Despite the disparity in points, the match up with the Thunderbirds has been close. Eight of the 10 contests the two played were decided by one goal with four being decided in overtime or the shootout. On top of that, the Thunderbirds scored more goals than the Silvertips during the regular season.
So, why was Everett so much better?
Special teams played a big role in the Silvertips success. Everett drew the second most power-play chances in the league and converted, getting 31-percent of its overall goals with the man advantage. Seattle only relied on the power play for 25-percent of its scoring.
Everett also was a better puck possession club than Seattle. The Thunderbirds had a shot disparity of minus-217 while Everett took 345 more shots than its opponents did this season. More shots generally means you have the puck more often and that will be a key factor in this series.
It also helps that the Silvertips have Hart in net.
The Philadelphia Flyers prospect is looking at his third straight WHL Goaltender of the Year award this spring and turned in one of the statistically best performances the league has seen. He blew away the league with a 1.60 goals-against along with an impressive .947 save percentage. Hart only lost six games in regulation during the regular season.
“He’s a warrior out there,” Williams says of Hart. “He loves the game, competes to be the very best, not only goalie, but player on the ice night in and night out, practice in and practice out. We’ve relied on him back there for the majority of the games…He gives us a vote of confidence.”
Fonteyne was one of many Silvertips to put up career numbers this season. He crushed his previous numbers with 35 goals and 88 points. He’s seen a lot of the Seattle-Everett rivalry and knows what to expect.
“They’re really structured and work really hard,” he says of the Thunderbirds. “They have a lot of skill guys as well and on top of that they have a really strong coaching staff…they play a really good game and battle hard in and out every night.”
The rivalry this season between the two teams has been as intense as ever in the 15 years they have been in the WHL together.
Games have been tight, hard hitting and ripe with emotion. While the playoffs don’t officially begin until Friday, these two clubs have been playing playoff type games from the start of the season.
“I thought the exhibition games felt like playoff games,” Williams says. “As we approach it, I think it’s great here in the Pacific Northwest for hockey. I think its great rivalry that’s been developed. We’re not focused on what’s happened in the past, we’re worrying about how we approach Friday’s game.”
Playing your rival always seems to get the hair on your arm to stand at attention and in the playoffs, that intensity is only heightened. Everett has the advantage in this, the fourth chapter, of these two teams’ playoff history for the first time.
They also have all the pressure as the expectations are to make a long playoff run.
It won’t be easy against a Seattle team that has played them as tough as anyone during the regular season. Williams knows this and knows what his team will need to do in order to come out on top.
“We’ve got to use our speed,” he says. “We have to stay disciplined for sure and the one area we have to get continually better at is inside the blue paint at both ends of the ice. I’ve been saying it all year, we’ve got to work to get over the top of their goalie’s eyes and take away easy catch saves. Same thing on the defensive side, we’ve got to do a good job of boxing out.”
The blue paint just may turn out to be a hotly contested area come Friday night at 7:30.