What separates Winterhawks and Silvertips?
There was not much separation between the Portland Winterhawks and the Everett Silvertips during this Western Hockey League season.
So what will be the separating factor when the top two teams in the Western Conference meet in a best-of-seven playoff series that begins with games on Friday and Saturday at Everett?
Will it be Portland's celebrated forwards and high NHL draft picks?
Or will it be the best goalie on a U.S. Division team in many years?
Will the Winterhawks carry momentum and confidence from surviving a tense, competitive first-round series with Spokane?
Or will the more rested Silvertips benefit from taking care of business in five games to eliminate Seattle?
The rivals split their 10 head-to-head meetings in the regular season, with one of the Silvertips' five wins coming in a shootout.
Everett's three wins at Portland were all by one goal.
Portland shut out Everett in the last two meetings, both in Portland.
But there is a difference between this Everett team and the traditional Silvertips.
Yes, they remain the best defensive team in the league based on only 167 goals allowed. But, under first-year coach Dennis Williams, they no longer are a defense-first, counter-punch attack outfit.
"They play a little bit more up tempo, a little bit more of an offensive game," notes Winterhawks coach/GM/VP Mike Johnston. "But they still have good habits from Kevin Constantine when he was there with their defensive game and blocking shots and things like that."
The Silvertips also have the best goalie the U.S. Division has seen in years. Carter Hart, 19, was honored as the WHL's Western Conference player of the year — not only goalie of the year.
A second-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2016, Hart posted a 31-6-1-3 regular-season record. He allowed 1.60 goals per game and saved 94.7 percent of the shots he faced.
"I don't know when the last time is we've had Canada's No. 1 (World Juniors) goaltender in the U.S. Division or in the Western Conference," Johnston says. "He's just really good."
Portland's defense isn't too shabby, either. And Los Angeles Kings prospect Cole Kehler should carry plenty of confidence into this matchup after shutting out the Silvertips the last two times the teams played — and limiting Spokane to one goal under Game 7 pressure on Tuesday.
Statistically, Portland allowed the third-fewest goals in the regular season (214), though that was 47 more than Everett gave up.
Portland's 274 goals ranked sixth in the league during the regular season. Everett's 246 goals ranked 11th in the 22-team league — that it is a franchise record reflects the defense-first philosophy that has held sway in Everett.
Silvertips general manager Garry Davidson was the Winterhawks' player personnel director before taking the Everett job in 2012, and his influence can be seen with the speed in this Everett lineup.
Everett had four players score more than 30 regular-season goals for the first time in franchise history, led by 38 from 18-year-old center Connor Dewar. Patrick Bajkov (33 goals, 67 assists) led the team in points. The 20-year-old recently signed a free-agent contract with the Florida Panthers.
Matt Fonteyne, another 20-year-old, had 35 goals and 53 assists in the regular season. Washington Capitals prospect Garrett Pilon had 16 goals and 20 assists in 30 games with Everett after arriving in a trade from Kamloops.
"Their top line has been really, really good," Johnston says. "And then at the trade deadline they added Pilon from Kamloops, and that's really helped them with depth up front, which they needed."
Portland's top line has been really, really good, too. And, with the season on the line, Cody Glass, Skyler McKenzie and Kieffer Bellows produced all three goals in Tuesday's win over Spokane.
And, Portland's big trade deadline acquisition, defenseman Dennis Cholowski, led all scorers in the Spokane series with four goals.
The ability to generate offense through defensemen is an area where Portland has an advantage thanks to Cholowski, a 2016 first-round pick of the Detroit Red Wings, and Henri Jokiharju, a first-round pick of Chicago last summer. They are two of Portland's four NHL first-round picks, along with Glass and Bellows.
The Hawks have seven NHL-drafted players on their roster, including McKenzie, Joachim Blichfeld and defenseman Brendan DeJong. And Kehler has signed an entry-level deal.
Everett has only three players who have been drafted by NHL teams — Hart, Pilon and 19-year-old Czech Republic defenseman Ondrej Vala.
"It's going to be a hard series, a real gritty series," McKenzie says, adding that Everett is similar to Spokane in many ways.
"They've got bigger defensemen that like to be physical on you, and they've got really skilled forwards up front. I think it's going to be a similar series to (Spokane)," McKenzie says.
On way the series is different: Portland and Everett know each other well because they played several times late in the season with full lineups. That wasn't the case for Portland and Spokane, which meant there was more uncertainty for coaches on both sides at the start of that first-round series.
• The top two seeds in the West are meeting in the second round because the WHL format currently mirrors the NHL's in using a hybrid division/wild-card format that sticks with brackets rather than seeding based on regular-season results.
If the league used 1-8 seeding to accurately reflect regular-season performance, the Hawks and Tips would not cross paths until the conference finals.
Instead, the survivor of this series will face a lower-seed (No. 4 Tri-City and No. 5 Victoria face off in the other conference semifinals). Victoria has home-ice advantage as the second-place team in the B.C. Division even though Tri-City had the better regular-season record.
• Winterhawks 19-year-old forward Lukus MacKenzie remains out with an undisclosed injury. … Rookie defenseman Clay Hanus, who played in only one game against Spokane, should be healthy enough to return against Everett.
• Rookie forwards Jaydon Dureau and Seth Jarvis have joined the Winterhawks after the conclusion of their midget season and will be available against Everett.
Dureau was MVP of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League this season after putting up 32 goals and 74 points in 38 games for the Regina Pats Canadians.
Jarvis led the Winnipeg Rink Hockey Academy Midget Prep team with 32 goals and 28 assists in 32 games.
WHL Western Conference semifinals
Best of seven
Game 1 — Portland at Everett, 7:30 p.m. Friday
Game 2 — Portland at Everett, 7 p.m. Saturday
Game 3 — Everett at Portland, 7 p.m. April 10 (Memorial Coliseum)
Game 4 — Everett at Portland, 7 p.m. April 12 (Moda Center)
Game 5 — Portland at Everett, 7:30 p.m. April 13, if necessary
Game 6 — Everett at Portland, 5 p.m., April 15 (Memorial Coliseum), if necessary
Game 7 — Portland at Everett, 7 p.m. April 17, if necessary
Winner advances to the Western Conference finals against the winner of series between Victoria and Tri-City.