I don’t think anyone would have imagined the Everett Silvertips would be right in the thick of the playoff race when they were struggling through the season at the turn of the New Year. On January 4, the Silvertips defeated the Seattle Thunderbirds 5-2 to improve to 7-22-1-7, eight points behind the Victoria Royals for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. On January 6, they got defenceman Ryan Murray back from the World Junior Championship and the team has doubled its win total on the season by going 7-9-0-1 since. The Royals had a big opportunity to put some breathing room between them and the Silvertips this week with a pair of home games to open the season series, but Everett picked up two huge road wins by 3-2 scores to move to within three points of the Royals and Seattle Thunderbirds for eighth in the West. Ryan Harrison was the hero of the week for the Silvertips with two game winning goals in the third period. Harrison scored at 11:41 of the final frame Tuesday night, then 11:37 of the third last night. Harrison extended his point streak to five while Cody Fowlie now has an assist in seven straight games. The losses spoil the fact that Royals’ leading scorer Jamie Crooks is now on a six game point streak and defenceman Hayden Rintoul is on a five game assist streak.

Now the kitchen just got pretty hot. Last season, four teams (Prince George, Everett, Kamloops and Seattle) went down to the final weekend to decide the last two playoff spots in the west. It looks like that will be the case this year, with Victoria taking the spot of the Blazers, who must be enjoying watching that playoff race from the perch they are in with the top seed overall. Six of the Royals’ next 13 games are against the Cougars or Silvertips, which starts next weekend with a back-to-back with the Cougars at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre. Cougars’ play-by-play man Dan O’Connor gives a very detailed look on what each of the four teams will deal with over the next month and a half to get into the post season. This was put together yesterday (Wednesday).

Keep in mind that the Silvertips could easily have the other three teams looking up at them if they were even average at best in shoot-outs. The Silvertips have left 8 points in the rink by going 1-and-8 in shoot-outs this season. The Silvertips are the hottest of the four teams right now with wins in four of their last five games and are doing that despite plenty of injuries and the loss of 20-year-old defenceman Brennan Yadlowski, who has served two games of a 10-game suspension. The ‘Tips are banged up, the Thunderbirds are fully healthy and the Prince George Cougars are walking wounded. In the WHL’s weekly report, the Cougars have nine players listed with injuries. All but two are day-to-day, but that includes goalie and likely team MVP Drew Owsley with a lower body injury.

Prior to facing the Cougars, the Royals will get a big test Wednesday against the Calgary Hitmen. The Hitmen have been up and down all season to say the least. After they won 14 of 15 games recently, they have now lost three of four and were thumped by the Edmonton Oil Kings in Calgary last night 9-5. The way it looks, expect Victoria product Brandon Glover in goal on Wednesday, since the Hitmen have been alternating between Glover and Chris Driedger in goal for the past nine games and have two games between now and their encounter with the Royals on January 15. The Hitmen already posted a 9-4 win in Victoria on January 3, a night that saw Logan Nelson notch a hat-trick. Calgary is right now the fifth seed in the East, but tied with Saskatoon with 67 points. The Blades have one more win and a game in hand.

Tough return for Royals’ defenceman Tyler Stahl to the line-up after he missed 50 games with a concussion. Stahl, a 19-year-old prospect of the Carolina Hurricanes, was his usual hard-hitting self on Tuesday in the opener against Everett, but received a major penalty for charging in the second period, which carried a game-misconduct. The WHL announced Stahl would miss last night’s game with a suspension and we are still waiting to hear the severity of the penalty that is being handed to Stahl for the hit. Looking at past suspensions handed out this season for charging majors, the penalty has ranged from one game (several times) to four games, with a handful of three game suspensions passed along.

If I was a betting man, I would put some chips down on Emerson Etem hitting the 50-goal plateau in 50 or fewer games. The Medicine Hat Tigers’ star and Anaheim Ducks’ 2010 first round prospect has 49 goals in 48 games this season and will take a 16-game point streak into Friday’s clash with Prince Albert. Etem has two goals in two games against the Raiders this season and has 21 goals over his point streak, with just 7 assists. If he doesn’t score Friday, game 50 would be against Brandon on Sunday in Medicine Hat. If Etem reaches 50 goals this weekend, it would be the earliest a WHL player had reached that mark since Layne Ulmer notched 63 for the Swift Current Broncos in the 2000-01 season. Ulmer got to the 50 mark on January 31, 2001, against Regina and recorded his eighth hat-trick of the season that night. What’s interesting about that is Ulmer was a relatively pedestrian scorer by his standards after that game, with 12 goals in the final 21 outings. He had no more multi-goal games the rest of the year. Ulmer is the last player to reach the 60-goal mark.

Brandon’s Eric Fehr, currently with the Winnipeg Jets, was the last WHL player to hit goal 50 in February in the 2004-05 season, on his way to a 59-goal campaign. Fehr had 50 goals the year before and scored a hat-trick on the final night of the season to get there in 2003-04.

Etem is a lock to 50 and it’s a good bet that teammate Hunter Shinkaruk will reach that mark, too. Shinkaruk has 40 goals with 17 games to play. The last time a team had two 50-goals scorers was in the 1998-99 season when Pavel Brendl led the WHL with 73 goals, followed by Calgary Hitmen teammate Brad Moran and his 60 goals. No surprise, Calgary was a great team that season and was coached by current Prince George Cougars bench boss Dean Clark. The Hitmen went 51-13-8 and won their first WHL title. The Hitmen were a shot away from a Memorial Cup Championship, but lost to the host Ottawa 67’s in overtime in a wild 7-6 tournament finale.

Last night’s Shaw TV game featured former Royal Kevin Sundher and the Brandon Wheat Kings as they faced the Regina Pats in the Saskatchewan Capital. Hard to believe Sundher had just seven points in 13 games in Brandon leading up to the contest with the Pats, and he was a -9. But Sundher looked like his old self last night, was dangerous many times with the puck, scored the tying goal in the third period that led to the Wheat Kings’ 3-2 win and was +1. That win keeps Brandon four points ahead of the Red Deer Rebels for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and moves them three back of the seventh place Pats.

I’ll be in Vancouver tomorrow night for the Silvertips battle with the Vancouver Giants, which starts at 7:30pm Pacific Time. Forward Brendan Gallagher is chasing down Giants’ records as he is one goal shy of Adam Courchaine’s team record for goals, which stands at 126. Gallagher is 10 points shy of Courchaine’s point’s record of 273 and 17 assists away from Jonathon Blum’s mark of 155 helpers. Gallagher needs a goal-per-game pace to hit the single season goals record of 48, which was set by current Winnipeg Jet Evander Kane in the 2008-09 season, Gallagher’s rookie year as a 16-year-old. Gallagher has 30 goals on the season with 18 games left to play.

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