The Prince George Spruce Kings rolled in to Vernon to take on the Vernon Vipers Sunday afternoon with every excuse possible available for them. Coming off of two losses to the Trail Smoke Eaters to start a three game weekend in less than three days. A grueling bus ride that started on Thursday saw the team spend half the day in the bus traveling down to the Kootenays. After the late Saturday game (a 7:30pm start), the team then had to get back on the bus for a five hour trip to Vernon for a short sleep before heading to the rink at noon for the 2:00 game time.
Frustration, fatigue and a host of other excuses could have been used and accepted by a lot of people that know all to well how tough it is to play three games on the road. The players and the coaching staff weren't prepared to use those excuses and instead through them in the garbage can with the used tape. After the fact a few players admitted that some Red Bull did provide them with the wings and the energy to go the distance plus a little extra in the overtime win over the Vernon Vipers.
When the team came out onto the ice for their pregame skate, I was underneath the stands near the Spruce Kings tunnel. Standing there interviewing Tom Bohmer before the start of the game there was just something about the sounds in the arena that had me fired up. The pucks off the glass, the skates cutting into the ice and the song "Sandstorm" by Darude provided a charged up atmosphere and I got excited for the game. Bohmer was telling me about how the team had been building momentum in their two losses against the Trail Smoke Eaters and he had a believe that good things were on the horizon if the simple game plan was adhered too.
The coaching staff made very few changes from the previous two games except for maybe one. On a hockey instinct, head coach Ed Dempsey went with Kirk Thompson in goal and then added Nic DeSousa to centre up the top line of Zac Ashdown and RJay Berra. Justin Fillion and Trevor Esau started on the blueline. Early in the game the Vernon Vipers came up with some early shots on Thompson that got the eighteen year old rookie into the game early. As the period progressed the Spruce Kings found themselves just going with the flow but getting the job done.
With the first five minutes out of the way, the feeling started creeping into the game that this was one the Spruce Kings could steal away if they could get a few bounces to go their way. The first bounce was a neutral zone interception by Riley Spraggs who knocked down the puck and went in for the first real scoring chance for the Spruce Kings. That chance was followed up by two more back to back quality shots by the youngsters, Jujhar Khaira and Stephen Ryan.
The first period ended in a scoreless tie with both sides believing they had the edge in the play but neither having anything to show on the score clock. In the second period, the Spruce Kings found themselves hemmed inside their own zone again and again they were able to withstand the pressure. At one point the Vipers had a sure goal stolen away by Justin Fillion who was able to stop the puck behind Kirk Thompson along the goal line and clear the zone. That seemed to be another one of those bounces that went the Spruce Kings way and let to some more chances but still no goals ... for either team.
Just past the midway mark of the second period the Vernon Vipers were able to work the puck down the ice and eventually through the top of the crease and off the stick of Adam Hadley to open the scoring. A few seconds later the Vipers thought they scored again but were robbed again on the goal line this time by the quick glove of Thompson. Off the ensuing faceoff Trevor Esau started the defensive zone breakout with a nice pass to Connor Tiechko who tried to feed Chris Bodo through the neutral zone. The puck bounced off a defender`s skate and came right back to Tiechko who broke in over the Vipers blue line and from the high slot fired a wrister that beat Bryton udy cleanly. A whistle from the linseman who called Bodo offisde brought that one back.
Shortly after that the Vipers added to their lead when Dylan Walchuk was able to come out from the right side and dance through the crease before dropping the puck into the back of the net on the far side. The excuses were starting to be formed from those that didn't believe, but not the Spruce Kings. They kept digging and trying to come up with chances with an effort that resulted in their first power play chance. The Spruce Kings power play unit looked much improved on this night with the right side of the ice being utilized between Justin Fillion from the high slot to Zac Ashdown, Nic DeSousa and RJay Berra down low.
With the puck in the right corner, Ashdown was able to get it back to Fillion who fed back into the corner for Berra. The captain may have spotted the penalty door open or saw something else with DeSousa open on the far side, either way he decided to fire a quick shot from sharp angle. The shot took a Spruce Kings bounce off a defender's skate and deflected into the net. A bounce that went the way of the Spruce Kings in the form of an even strength goal scored just one second after the power play ended.
A few minutes later Brendon Fornwald found himself in the defensive zone without a stick. Fornwald from his knees on the top of the crease tried to throw the puck out of the zone. The puck was stopped by Malcolm Lyles on the right point who fired it back at the Spruce Kings goal. The shot was blocked by Trevor Esau who fell on the puck; with his back to the shooter, Esau lay on the puck waiting for the whistle when Lyles came in with a vicious spear. Fornwald saw this and immediately went to the assistance of his defense man and was knocked to the ice.
The incident drew a pair of minors for spearing and roughing in the eyes of Kris Hartley and when David Robinson went to question the calls he was assessed an unsportsman conduct penalty. The three minors put the Spruce Kings on an extended power play starting with a full two minute two man advantage. Again Justin Fillion quarterbacked the power play from the slot feeding the puck to Trent Murdoch who went down to the corner where Nic DeSousa and Zac Ashdown kept the puck in control and got it back to Murdoch. Faking the shot, Murdoch fired a had pass across to the top of the left side faceoff circle where Fillion was waiting for it and one-timed a bullet of shot labeled for the short side beating the goaltender and tieing the game up at two.
In the third period, both teams would trade chances with the Spruce Kings getting the puck in deep a few times. It would be the Vipers with the best scoring chances late in the game, but Kirk Thompson had his best saves of the game waiting in his glove. With 5:10 remaining in regulation time, a high shot found its way to the net and got Thompson just over the chest protector and just under the mask, hitting the goaltender in the collarbone. Thompson made the save but was slowing getting up bringing the trainer Bill Baldridge to the ice to check on the youngster.
It was only a short stoppage and provided the Spruce Kings with a bit of a breather for the final minutes of regulation time. The Vipers would get one more chance to win it in regulation time on a breakout from their own zone that saw Thompson rob the shooter with a quick glove at the 18:40 mark of the game. From there the final seconds ticked down leading to the four on four BCHL first overtime period. The Vipers would get the first chance to score with another shot high to the glove side of Thompson that again was caught and held.
The Spruce Kings would get their chance seconds later when Zac Ashdown sped down the right side wall and Chris Bodo joining him for a 2-on-1. While trying to get the pass across to Bodo, Ashdown was caught and hooked down from behind leaving the referee no choice but to make the hooking call. Ed Dempsey called a time out and drew up a faceoff play that seemed to work to perfection. Ashdown took the draw with a pair of right handed shooting forwards lined up on either side. Chris Bodo on the right, RJay Berra on the left and Justin Fillion behind. Ashdown won the draw and went straight to the net, both Bodo and Berra were able to get a stick on the puck and direct through traffic to Ashdown who slid it five hole for the overtime winner.
The goal gave the Spruce Kings their first overtime win in three tries and more importantly their first road victory of the season and the all important two points. Over in the Nicola Valley Arena, the Merritt Centennials were putting the finishing touches to a 4-1 win over the Quesnel Millionaires for their second win in a row. The win by Prince George leaves them one point back of the Quesnel Millionaires and three points back of the Merritt Centennials. The Spruce Kings next two game will be huge as they are both against the Centennials in the Castle on Friday night and Sunday afternoon with the Centennials also playing Saturday night in Quesnel while the Spruce Kings will be idol that night.
It was an entertaining game for a number of reasons, but none more so than the fact that the Spruce Kings did not just roll over and take it when the excuses were there to defend them. Out of the twenty man roster that dressed for the Sunday afternoon game, you would be hard pressed to find a player that didn't contribute to the final outcome. Just selecting the three stars was tough and Vernon found themselves missing out on choosing perhaps the best player on the ice as Justin Fillion was strong both offensively and defensively in the game. Kirk Thompson was sensational in goal and of course Zac Ashdown's overtime winner almost automatically gives him a star. RJay Berra had another strong game and all four were selected in the game broadcast for a star with Berra getting the Generator Player of the Game nod.