After a first round sweep of the Tri-City Americans in four games, the Seattle Thunderbirds move on to the second round of the 2017 Western Hockey League playoffs.
Up next, Seattle will square off against US Division and local rival Everett Silvertips.
In a best-of-seven series, the winner will move on to the Western Conference Finals. Games One and Two in Everett are slated for Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8. The series then goes back to Seattle for Game Three on Tuesday, April 11, and Game Four on Friday, April 14. Games Five and Seven would be hosted by Everett, and Game Six by Seattle, should the series need extra to decide a winner.
Here is our breakdown of the Silvertips ahead of the series opener…
44-16-9-3, 100 points, 1st in US Division
Over the first 20 games of the season, Everett won 15 games and picked up points in 18. Early on the Silvertips looked to be the best team in the WHL, in firm control of the division.
Then, winter hit.
Between Dec. 27 and March 3, a stretch of 30 games, Everett dropped 16, including a stretch of seven-straight defeats in late January. During that stretch, the US Division lead began to slip away. Seattle rode an undefeated streak at home and several road wins to ultimately leapfrog Everett in the standings, and the two teams jostled for positioning over the final month of the season.
After a run of wins down the stretch of the regular season to get the Tips back on track, the division title came down to the final two games of the regular season. A Silvertips win and a Thunderbirds loss on March 18 officially clinched the US Division crown for the Tips, their fifth division title in team history.
Advanced 4-2 over the Victoria Royals
Surprisingly, as this was viewed as a potential sweep for Everett, the Silvertips first round series with the Victoria Royals teetered back and forth between both squads.
Despite a miserable final few months heading into the playoffs, the Royals put up a strong fight to win Game Two in Everett, 4-3. Victoria scored a game winning goal with just five minutes left in the game for a huge road win that forced the series to return to Everett after Games Three and Four.
After the Silvertips took Game Three on the road, shutting out the Royals 3-0, Victoria pulled off another upset. Scoring goals in both the first and second period of Game Four, the Royals help Everett to just one goal on 36 shots en route to a 2-1 win to tie the series at two.
The Tips would go on to win both Game Five back in Everett and Game Six in Victoria to take the series, but it wouldn’t come without a price.
After finishing regulation tied 2-2, the Silvertips and Royals went at it for five overtimes before Everett found a game-winner. At over 150 minutes, Game Six was the longest game played in WHL history—essentially the length of two and a half regulation games.
Fatigue could play a factor for the Tips going forward, having played the equivalent of seven-plus games through just their first series.
Players to Watch:
Goalie Carter Hart; Forwards Patrick Bajkov, Dominic Zwerger; Defenseman Kevin Davis
One of the top goalies in the WHL, Carter Hart is a nightmare for opposing forwards.
A second round selection by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2016 NHL Draft, Hart put together an incredibly impressive 2015-2016 season. Even more impressively, he managed to top that this season.
Hart was the only goalie in the WHL to post a goals allowed average under two (1.99/game). He also led the league in save percentage (.927), tying fellow Canadian junior goalie Connor Ingram.
Over the six games played during the playoffs, Hart has a 4-2 record, allowing 1.5 goals per game with a .938 save percentage. He’s played the most minutes out of any goalie in the WHL, yet remains one of just two (along with Regina’s Tyler Brown) who have allowed less than two goals per game.
Patrick Bajkov was Everett’s leading scorer during the regular season finishing with 78 points on 29 goals and 49 assists. The 19 year old winger out of British Columbia had his best season in a Silvertips sweater, nearly doubling hit points per game total from the previous three seasons. Bajkov is also tied for the team lead in points during the playoffs (10) and leads in power play goals (4).
The player tied with Bajkov for playoff points?
That would be his first line wing partner Dominic Zwerger, who has two goals and eight assists, six on the power play, during the 2017 playoffs. Zwerger, who played the last three seasons in Spokane before being acquired by Everett, finished the regular season with 75 points, just three less than Bajkov. While he’s much more of a distributor up top, racking up 47 assists, his 10 power play goals are second most on the team.
While as a team, the Tips allowed the fewest goals in the WHL (2.35/game), the defense doesn’t just sit back throughout the game: Defensemen Kevin Davis and Aaron Irving were the third and fourth highest point scorers on the team respectively.
Davis finished the season with 50 assists and 29 power play assists, both team highs. The Kamloops, BC native has continued his success in the post season with seven points on one goal and six assists in six games. Davis’ seven points in the playoffs also land him tied for third in the WHL in points by a defenseman.
What Makes Them Tough:
Everett’s defense is top notch.
Between an NHL prospect goalie, several of the top two-way defenders, and the least amount of goals allowed during the regular season, teams can’t afford to waste chances.
However other opportunities, especially the man advantage type, rarely present themselves as the Silvertips don’t take many penalties.
During the regular season, the Tips averaged just over three penalties per game. Everett was shorthanded 225 times—57 less penalties than the next fewest Western Conference team (which, incidentally, is the Thunderbirds at 282.)
What’s more, the Silvertips also lead the league in penalty kill percentage, holding teams scoreless on almost 86 percent of man advantage opportunities.
How Seattle Wins:
The Thunderbirds can thank Victoria for putting up a good fight in the first round. Again, fatigue can play a huge role in the playoffs, with so many games jammed together in a short amount of time.
Beyond that, the Royals did prove Everett has their share of weaknesses.
Everett doesn’t score a gross amount of goals, even against a struggling team like Victoria. Over their six game series, the Silvertips averaged just over two and a half goals per game. If you can break through the defense, Everett becomes a very vulnerable team.
But Seattle knows this. More importantly, they’ve already done it.
The Thunderbirds were 6-3-1 against the Silvertips this season. Seattle was a perfect 5-0 at home, which included wins by scores of 3-1 and 6-1. The TBirds won six of the final eight regular season meetings and over those games outscored Everett, 25-17.
The Silvertips recent play doesn’t suggest they can outscore Seattle consistently. Everett’s 2.5 goals per game against Victoria is a full goal less than Seattle’s regular season average of 3.5 goals per game, and three less than the 5.75 goals the Thunderbirds averaged in their first round series with Tri-City.
Despite Everett getting the best of the Thunderbirds in the US division this season, plus being the higher seed with home ice, don’t be surprised if Seattle is favored in more than half the games and ultimately advances to the Western Conference Finals.