Matt Pufahl and the Silvertips are looking to keep their hot streak going into the playoffs (Christopher Mast photo)
By Andrew Eide
Without question, one of the hottest team in the WHL on the eve of the playoffs are the Everett Silvertips. They struggled with injuries after the holidays but as they got healthy they started to win games -- a lot of games. They enter their first round playoff series with the Seattle Thunderbirds winners of nine of their last ten games and have not lost in regulation in 13 games.
Not to mention, a three-game winning streak against Seattle.
For Everett head coach Kevin Constantine, he likes how the team was going and would like to keep the hot play going.
"You hope so but it's a new season," he said of carrying over his team's play. "Everybody starts zero-zero. I don't know how much carry over there would be from the regular season to the playoffs, obviously you hope you keep playing the way you've been."
As has been well documented, these two teams know each other very well. They have met ten times, and Constantine points out that nine of those meetings have been in the second half of the season. They have played hard fought games all year, and all within the last couple of months. That gives the Silvertips players a pretty solid handle on what they will face with the T-Birds.
"It's going to be a real physical one obviously," Everett captain Matt Pufahl says. "Every game that we played with Seattle this year was just like a playoff game, even though it wasn't. They're a physical team, they work hard, they like to get the puck down on our D. That's something that we have to work on and make sure we have pride on our breakouts."
Earlier in the week, Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk commented on how similar the T-Birds and Everett are. They are virtually tied in the standings and split their season series, both winning games in the other's building.
Constantine seems to share those sentiments with his counterpart. He goes on to say that the keys to winning are sticking to the simple things that always win you hockey games.
"You know, getting off to good starts in games," the coach says. "Those kind of things will be important to both teams. It's the playoffs so each goal generally takes a little more significance, special teams take a little more significance in playoffs, so those things will be important."
The Silvertips are well aware of Seattle's size and their desire to play a physical game. The T-Birds game is to get the puck deep and use their big forwards to forecheck aggressively. Pufahl and his fellow defensemen will be key to the Silvertips success as they will bear the brunt of the Seattle checks. He says the key is managing the puck.
"We've just got to make sure that we don't give them the red line, or the blue line," Pufahl said. "We've got to try and play in their end as much as possible. When they do get in our end we've got to go back and grind and communicate with each other, sort it out and get the puck out and to their end as quick as possible."
The neutral zone is always important in hockey, but maybe even more so in this series. Both teams will try to control the neutral zone, take the puck away from their opponent to generate offense. It is something that Everett has excelled at all year.
"I think that's certainly important," Constantine says of the neutral zone. "I think managing the puck, you've got to find the right balance between making plays, which is important. You've got to make plays to have any type of offense, but you've also got to take what's given and manage the puck. That will be an important factor in the series."
Constantine feels that for his team to be successful they have to play a team game.
Josh Winquist was the big scorer for the Silvertips this year but the coach says that every player will have to work hard for Everett to be successful. Jujhar Khaira has been a big boost for Everett as well this year and there is some question about his health. He left the Silvertips last game of the year against Portland and his status is unknown for Saturday's first game.
As for Seattle, Constantine feels that his team needs to focus on their game rather than key on one or two of the T-Birds guys.
"I don't think there's any specific strategy that we have for any specific player on their team," he said. "We just try to play our game. They've got plenty of weapons up front and I think the whole world knows how effective [Shea] Theodore is on the back end for them. So we have a lot of respect for their team, we know they're well coached and we know we're going to have to play well."
With a heated rivalry between teams that are geographically close to each other, big crowds are expected through out the series. This will most likely be a big lift for both squads as there is nothing like a loud, playoff atmosphere to get fans excited.
"It gives your club a huge boost," Pufahl said. "Even when you go down there to Seattle, they always have good crowds too and they're going to be just as big in the playoffs. Its fun playing in that rink too, they're loud and energized, we kind of feed of that too."
There has been a lot of chatter and intrigue in the odd playoff format for this opening round series. Instead of the team with home ice advantage getting the first two games at home, the teams will alternate rinks after each game. Constantine says that he has experienced this format before and that there really is no advantage either way.
"I don't think it changes anything," he said of the format. "The last two years of my life I coached in Switzerland. The top hockey league in Switzerland plays with the same strategy because of the closeness of the teams to each other. So it's a little unusual in North America, but not in Europe.
I didn't find any advantage or disadvantage, any strategy that changed that. It's fun because its unusual but I don't think it changes much."
As we sit one day away from a playoff series that was eleven years in the making there is anticipation on both sides. Fans are excited, players are excited and these two teams should treat us to an entertaining and well fought series. Both teams have had good years and both will want nothing more than to knock the other out of the WHL playoffs for the first time ever.
"I think our players are at a point now where they just want to get playing," Constantine said. "They're tired of practices and meetings, they just want to get going."
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andyeide.