Everett and Tri-City to battle in all U.S. Western Conference Final
After 72 regular season games and two rounds of playoffs, the Western Hockey League is down to four teams left in the 2018 post season.
In the Eastern Conference, the Swift Current Broncos will take on the Lethbridge Hurricanes while out west it will be an all-U.S. match up. The U.S. Division champion Everett Silvertips have advanced to the conference final for the first time in 12 years and they face the Tri-City Americans, who haven’t been this far since 2012.
In the 50-year history of the WHL, it will only be the seventh time that two U.S. based clubs will meet for a chance at the league final. Five of those all red, white, and blue conference finals have featured the Portland Winterhawks. Portland would win all five, including a 4-2 series win over the Seattle Breakers back in 1982.
Both U.S. teams this time are looking to make their second league final in a quest to win the first Ed Chynoweth Cup in franchise history. Here’s a preview of the best-of-seven series that gets underway Friday night at the Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett at 7:30.
How they got here: Tri-City took its first wild card slot and headed into the B.C. Division playoff bracket. They ran through it pretty easily, dispatching the division champion Kelowna Rockets in a four-game sweep and the second place Victoria Royals in yet another sweep.
Everett won the U.S. Division and followed that up by dispatching of the Seattle Thunderbirds in five games before doing the same in the second round against the Portland Winterhawks.
Key players: Tri-City – Morgan Geekie, C (15-9-24, Carolina 2017 3rd round pick), Michael Rasmussen, C (10-14-24, Detroit 2017 1st round pick), Juuso Valamaki, D (1-4-5, Calgary 1st round pick), Jake Bean, D (1-13-14, Carolina 2016 1st round pick). Everett – Carter Hart, G (1.92 GAA, .944 SV, Philadelphia 2016 2nd round pick), Patrick Bajkov, RW (7-8-15, 2018 Florida free agent), Garret Pilon, C (6-8-14, Washington 2016 3rd round pick), Matt Fonteyne, C (4-9-13).
Tri-City had high expectations coming into this season, but a string of injuries forced them to muddle through the regular season and into the seventh spot in the Western Conference. They added Bean in a trade-deadline move with the Calgary Hitmen but had to wait to the last couple of weeks of the season to get a look at a full lineup. They finished the regular season winning six of seven and haven’t looked back, carrying that hot streak into the playoffs where they have yet to lose a game in the first two rounds.
They are scoring goals. A lot of goals. In eight playoff games they have averaged just under six goals a game with both Geekie and Rasmussen averaging three points-per-game. As good as those two are, the best American may be Finnish import Valamaki. The defenseman was limited due to an injury during the season but could make a case as one of the best skaters in the league over the second half. The injury question is back as he, and forward Kyle Olson, missed the last two games in Tri-City’s second-round sweep of Victoria. Head Coach Brian Williamson was vague in a video the team posted this week saying the two ‘may’ be ready to go in Game 1.
Goaltending was a question mark for Tri-City coming into the season, but 20-year-old Patrick Dea found his game late and in the playoffs. He’s yet to lose and has posted a 2.77 goals-against to go with a .905 save-percentage – both marks that are higher than his regular season numbers.
Hart-to-heart in Everett
The Silvertips had low expectations coming into the season and there was rampant speculation that Hart would be on the trade block at some point. A hot start and first-half division lead put that to rest and Everett became buyers. General manager Garry Davidson pulled off a deal to get Pilon and defenseman Ondrej Vala from the Kamloops Blazers and the Silvertips haven’t looked back. First year head coach Dennis Williams has installed a new system, but the club still is one of the hardest working teams in the league and stingy on defense. They quite simply out-coached and out-played a Portland team loaded with four, first-round draft picks in the second round.
Everett’s top-six forward group has keyed its offense in the post season. Bajkov, Pilon, Connor Dewar, Fonteyne, and Riley Sutter are the core of that group and are responsible for 22 of Everett’s 43 goals. The acquisition of Vala helped provide some size on the Silvertips blue line and Everett is still one of the best defensive teams in the league. They’re allowing just under two goals per-game in the playoffs and are at their best in defending the ‘house’ area in front of Hart.
What else is there to say about Hart? The two-time WHL Goalie of the Year is a lock to make it three in a row and is having his best season in what has been a junior career for the ages. Never rattled, the Edmonton product is a calming presence that gives the Silvertips’ players a ton of confidence in front of him. Twice in the playoffs he’s allowed five goals in a game but has bounced back both times and has been part of three shutouts so far.
How the West will be won
Match ups are always key in playoff series and it will be no different here. Everett shut down Portland’s top line in the second round with a line made up of Dewar, Sutter and Pilon. Will Willams go with that trio against Rasmussen and Geekie? Both Geekie and Rasmussen can play center and Williamson could break them up if he feels that he is not winning that match up. Tri-City has a great deal of depth as they can attack in waves with guys like Jordan Topping, Dylan Coughlan, Nolan Yaremko, and Isaac Johnson. It could come down to which team gets more secondary scoring.
Everett will need to be aware of Valamaki and Bean. Both defenseman have offensive skill and Valamki is aggressive in joining the rush. The Silvertips forwards will need to keep an eye on him when Tri-City has the puck. Tri-City is going to have to find a way to neutralize Everett’s top-six forward group and crash the goal in front of Hart. When Hart has allowed goals in the post season it has come from finding rebounds in front of the net and the Silvertips do a good job of collapsing and making that difficult to do. The battle for the ‘blue paint’ could be a determining factor in who advances.
Special teams are always critical in the playoffs and Tri-City has been scorching on the power play so far in the playoffs. The Americans are clicking at a 47-percent clip with the man advantage and while Everett was a top penalty-killing team during the regular season, they’ve been a bit below that standard in the playoffs. The Silvertips play with discipline and will need to do that in this series.
There has been a great deal of teeth-gnashing about the WHL’s playoff format this post season, but it ended up pitting the two best teams in the West in the conference final. This should be a good series and while both teams have cut through their first two opponents, this series has all the makings of being a classic.