Special to the Seattle Times
Put Shaun Heshka and Logan Stephenson in the same rink without skates and sticks, and they might become fast friends.
Put them on opposite sides of the ice when a hockey game breaks out, and they really don't care for each other very much.
The two will get to know each other all too well when Heshka and the Everett Silvertips meet Stephenson and the Tri-City Americans in a best-of-seven first-round Western Hockey League playoff series beginning Friday at the Everett Events Center.
Heshka and Stephenson are two of the most respected defensemen in the WHL. Both learned first to be responsible in their own end before displaying a deft scoring touch this season.
Heshka, who always seems to be in the right position and has a knack for breaking up plays, scored 10 goals and had 49 assists to finish second in the WHL in scoring among defensemen.
Stephenson, who is about as subtle as a freight train on a steep downhill grade, showed he can also score; he had 10 goals and 53 points this season.
Although the Silvertips and Americans have developed a healthy rivalry over three seasons, Heshka said it's merely an inevitable part of playing a physical game.
"It rough on the ice, but it stays on the ice," Heshka said. "Everybody battles. That's part of being a hockey player. We know we're not a well-liked team. It's going to be an all-out war with Tri-City."
Stephenson, who had 162 penalty minutes in 71 games this season, takes the rivalry a little more personally.
"I don't know what it is about that franchise," Stephenson said when asked about Everett. "We just don't like them and they don't like us."
The Silvertips won the U.S. Division championship with a 40-27-2-3 record, but they come into the playoffs having lost four of their last five since clinching the title.
The Americans, 30-35-4-3 and fourth in the division, limped into the playoffs with only three wins in their last 10 games.
The Silvertips held the upper hand during the regular season, compiling a 7-2-1-0 record against the Americans.
The Silvertips were especially dominant against the Americans at the Everett Events Center, finishing with a 5-0 record while outscoring Tri-City 27-7.
Stephenson knows the numbers. He just doesn't consider them important.
"Whoever makes the playoffs has a chance," Stephenson said. "Things always happen in the playoffs that are amazing, things you would never think. The only thing that really matters is what happens after you make the playoffs."
Everett coach Kevin Constantine and team captain Torrie Wheat also know the regular season means little.
"The playoffs are the second season, and in hockey the second season is always more important than the first," Constantine said. "Over the course of the three seasons we've had an extremely competitive series with the Americans. We think they're very talented."
Wheat knows the division banner the Silvertips have already hung from the rafters won't matter in the playoffs.
"It was nice to win the division, but now it's the first round and no one cares about the regular season," Wheat said. "The Americans are a tough team and really grind down low. It's not going to be much fun."
The Americans are led in scoring by Ian McDonald, who finished third in the WHL scoring race with 37 goals and an amazing 55 assists. McDonald either scored or had a helper on 48.9 percent of Tri-City's 188 goals this season.
The key matchup in the series is Everett's offense against Tri-City goaltender Carey Price.
After being selected in the first round of the 2005 NHL entry draft by the Montreal Canadiens with the fifth overall pick, Price had something of a lackluster season.
Price allowed an average of 2.87 goals a game (18th in the WHL) with a mediocre 90.6 save percentage, numbers far below those of Everett goaltender Leland Irving, who allowed only 1.91 goals a game with a 92.5 save percentage.
Still, the Silvertips know what Price can do.
"He's good and he's going to be hard to score on," Constantine said. "We don't really have strategies to change our offense against different goaltenders, so we just have to play hard, get some shots and try to get second opportunities."
Wheat knows the biggest battle will be fought directly in front of Price.
"It's going to be a real grind down low against those guys all series," Wheat said. "Price is an awesome goalie, so we have to try to take him out of the game by screening him and not letting him see shots, and then getting to the net and banging in the rebounds he doesn't have a chance to save."
Heshka believes the first two games of the series in Everett are crucial. "That's why you battle all year to get that home-ice advantage," he said. "We know Tri-City is going to come out hard in our rink. It's critical that we get a good start."