By Tim Pigulski
It's been a back-and-forth rivalry between the Seattle Thunderbirds and Silvertips this season. At one point, the T-Birds had won four in a row against their I-5 North rivals, only to finish the season by falling in three straight games against Everett.
The Silvertips come into this series as the hottest team in the WHL, having not lost in regulation in 13 consecutive contests, which ultimately allowed them to jump to fifth place in the Western Conference standings, setting up the first ever playoff matchup between these two teams.
Silvertips starting goalie Austin Lotz left the team's final regular-season game against Portland, a shootout loss that prevented them from gaining home-ice advantage in the first round, and his potential absence could swing the outcome of the series. Everett's backup is 15-year-old Carter Hart, who has just two games of WHL experience under his belt.
With or without Lotz, for the Thunderbirds to slow down the streaking Silvertips, they'll need to do a few things:
Control the neutral zone. This is easier said than done, as it's a factor that the Silvertips' gameplan is contingent upon, and something they've gotten better and better at as the year has worn on. The Silvertips employ the dreadfully tedious neutral-zone trap, which will make it difficult for the Thunderbirds to carry the puck through the center of the ice as opposing defenders do everything they can to slow the opposing advance, cut off passing lanes, and force turnovers.
To beat the trap, Seattle will need to make crisp, quick passes on the breakout to avoid turning the puck over. Once Seattle crosses the red line, the offense will need to shift into dump-and-chase mode, getting the puck deep into the Silvertips' zone and forechecking their defensemen hard. Silvertips defensemen will need to be pressured into getting rid of the puck quickly, which in turn will lead to turnovers and offensive chances for Seattle.
Seattle's big, fast forwards will be important here. Guys like Justin Hickman, Branden Troock, and Jaimen Yakubowski will want to hit the Everett defense hard, ensuring that no breakout is easy or unpressured. The trap won't give the Thunderbirds' skaters the space to stickhandle in the neutral zone as much as they're used to, but if they can force Everett's defense into panicking with the puck, they'll generate scoring chances.
Score the first goal. As pointed out by Andy Eide, the Silvertips have only lost six times in regulation when scoring first. In head-to-head matchups, the T-Birds are 4-0-1-0 when they score first, and 1-4-0-0 when the 'Tips score first.
Related to the first point about controlling the neutral zone, it's incredibly difficult to overcome deficits against teams like the Silvertips, as they're perfectly content with one- or two-goal leads. Once they've gotten ahead, their forecheck slows down even more and they clog center ice, making scoring once – let alone two or three times – a daunting task.
Of late, the T-Birds have struggled to get on the board first, allowing their opponent to score the first goal in nine straight games before their final regular-season contest against Tri-City. It's no coincidence that during that nine-game stretch, their record was 3-6-0-0. The Thunderbirds will need to come out of opening puck drop playing as though their hair is on fire, leading to the next point ...
Play a full 60 minutes. When speaking with T-Birds head coach Steve Konowalchuk, the most common deciding factor between a Seattle victory versus a defeat is the compete level. In losses, it's usually easy to identify a stretch – sometimes as long as an entire period – where it didn't appear as though the T-Birds were fully committed to the task at hand. When they win, the compete level is consistently high throughout the entire lineup.
This season we've seen quite a bit of line juggling, which is often an indicator of Konowalchuk feeling that someone isn't fully committed to playing a 200-foot game. He's not afraid to move his top players down to the fourth line or bench them entirely. With a team featuring a number of younger players, it's common to see some of those guys take a shift or two off. It will be up to the veteran leadership on the team to ensure that everyone is on the same page for the entire series.
Stay out of the penalty box. Of the 16 teams in the WHL playoffs, no team has more penalty minutes than the Thunderbirds' 1,315. They've also been shorthanded 333 times, the most of any team in the Western Conference, compared to Everett's mere 221. This means that, on average, the T-Birds are on the penalty kill 4.625 times per game. With a 13th-ranked penalty kill that is successful 79 percent of the time, Seattle averages .97 goals against per game while shorthanded.
Everett, on the other hand, is shorthanded just over three times per game, allowing .64 power play goals against per contest. The teams are ranked just one spot apart (Everett's penalty kill is 12th overall), but that ultimately translates to a huge difference in goals since Seattle spends so much more time with a man down.
Keep Everett's top line off the scoresheet. Everett's top line of Josh Winquist, Ivan Nikolishin, and Jujhar Khaira combined for over 37 percent of the Silvertips' regular-season goals. Shut these guys down, and you've shut down nearly half of their offense.
Fortunately for the Thunderbirds, they've established a very good checking line made up of Scott Eansor, Sam McKechnie, and Yakubowski. It's a sure bet that Konowalchuk will do his best to get these three matched up against Everett's top scorers.
The T-Birds may have some help in dealing with the Silvertips' first line, as Khaira left Everett's final regular-season game with an undisclosed injury. At this point the big center's status is unknown, but it'd be a huge detriment to Everett's hopes if he were to miss time or play at anything less than 100 percent.
If the Thunderbirds can avoid Everett's trap, get on the board first, give an all-out effort for the entire contest, steer clear of bad penalties, and shut down Everett's big scorers, they should find themselves moving on to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Follow Tim Pigulski on Twitter @tpigulski.