|Mark Ferner and his Everett Silvertips have their sights set on a playoff spot.|
(Photo by Christopher Mast / mastimages.com)
By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
Were the WHL playoffs to start tonight, the Kamloops Blazers would be opening at home against the Everett Silvertips.
The Blazers, the B.C. Division champions, would be going in as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, with the Silvertips No. 7.
That is where both teams are right now and, when one looks at what’s left on the schedule, the Silvertips have a better than puncher’s chance of finishing right there.
Which brings us to Mark Ferner, the first-year head coach of the Silvertips, who played and coached with the Blazers.
“Knowing the history there, I hope they win . . . I hope they win,” Ferner said Monday. “They haven’t won a round in a long time.”
He paused and chuckled, before adding: “Unless they play us . . . then I hope they don’t win.”
The Silvertips have a league-low 21 victories and just a few weeks ago were last in the 10-team Western Conference. But they have gone 5-4-1 in their last 10 outings and that, combined with 10 loser points, has them on the verge of qualifying for the playoffs for the ninth time in their nine-season existence.
“We just want a chance to play somebody,” Ferner said.
The Silvertips (21-38-10) have three games left, all of them on the road, where they are 7-20-6. They are to play the Kelowna Rockets on Wednesday, the Tri-City Americans on Friday and the Seattle Thunderbirds on Saturday.
Everett goes into the last week one point ahead of the eighth-place Victoria Royals, four up on Seattle and six ahead of the Prince George Cougars.
Everett is 1-1-1 against Kelowna, but they last faced each other on Jan. 18. Against Tri-City, Everett is 2-4-1, including 0-2-1 in Kennewick. The Silvertips hold a 4-2-3 edge over the Thunderbirds, including 1-1-2 in Kent.
“We’ve had a little bit of success against Tri, a little bit of success against Portland . . . we haven’t beaten Kamloops yet,” Ferner said.
The Blazers went 4-0-0 against the Silvertips, winning 5-2 and 3-2 there and 6-1 and 5-2 here.
Lately, however, things have been looking up for the Silvertips.
“The kids are starting to understand that you have to work,” Ferner said, adding that goaltender “Kent Simpson is playing very well for us and we’re better in front of him.
“It’s confidence and work ethic.”
Simpson, 20, has a 19-29-7 record, but is 5-1-1 in his last seven starts. In March, he is 4-0-1 with a 2.77 GAA and a .939 save percentage.
Everett’s roster also boasts Ryan Murray, who may be the league’s top defender.
Murray, an 18-year-old from White City, Sask., is certain to be an early first-round selection in the NHL’s 2012 draft.
“He’s a special player,” Ferner said. “He’s as good as I’ve ever seen at this level. Period.”
Murray missed two months early in the season with a high ankle sprain, then spent a month with Canada’s national junior team. These days, he’s healthy but battling fatigue.
“He just plays too much,” Ferner said. “When games are close, you have to make sure he’s on the ice at the right time.”
Ferner gave his squad Monday off and said he very well may give Murray today off, as well. Everett has two other defencemen — Austin Adams and Nick Walters — out with injuries.
“We just need to get healthy,” Ferner said, noting that former Kamloops winger J.T. Barnett (knee) is back skating and taking contact, so may return in time for the playoffs.
“If he does come back,” Ferner said, “he will play completely different minutes than if he was healthy. But he’s an older body.”
The other former Blazers skater in Everett, defenceman Josh Caron, has been “very, very good for us,” Ferner said.
“We were getting pushed around and we weren’t winning games and our back end wasn’t very good,” Ferner said. “He’s come in and he’s solidified it. He kills penalties and he plays 4-on-4. He’s in our top four (defencemen) right now.”
The Blazers (46-18-5) are to leave this morning for Spokane where they will play the Chiefs (36-23-9) on Wednesday. Kamloops will finish up its regular season going home and home with Prince George, playing here Friday and there Saturday.
The Blazers are four points off the Western Conference lead, which is held by Tri-City (49-17-3), and three back of Portland (48-17-4). The Blazers, then, aren’t officially locked into the No. 2 seed, but all signs are pointing in that direction.
At least they know they will be in the playoffs. Everett can’t say that yet.
“We’re close,” Ferner said. “We’re close.”
Victoria (22-41-7) has two games remaining, both of them at home against the Winterhawks, who will play there Wednesday and Friday.
Seattle (23-43-2) plays host to the Chiefs tonight, goes to Spokane for a Friday engagement, takes on the visiting Silvertips on Saturday and finishes up in Portland on Sunday.
Prince George (22-45-2) visits the Americans tonight — the Cougars couldn’t hold a 3-1 lead and lost 5-3 to Tri-City on Sunday — before playing home-and-home with Kamloops.
The Cougars are facing long odds, though, and their margin of error is awfully small — with three games to play, they are five points behind the Royals.
JUST NOTES: The Blazers are listing F Chase Schaber (leg) and F Chase Souto (shoulder) as being out day-to-day. . . . The WHL has made it official — the Blazers will open the first round at home on March 23 and 24. Game time both nights will be 7 o’clock.
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