Monday, January 31, 2011

Playoff Spot in Sight

Okay admit it ... when was the last time you heard the words “Spruce Kings” and “playoff spot” used together in a positive statement? Probably not in quite awhile and that is understandable given the record the team has put together this season. If you do want to hear those words together and see faces beaming when they say it, come down to the rink ... every player is saying it to themselves, each other and anybody who will listen and they are saying it with conviction.

The Spruce Kings just put the finishing touches to their first winning month of the season and it comes at a time when a lot of people had already jumped off the bandwagon. In the month of January, the Spruce Kings finished with a positive record of 4 wins, 3 losses and 2 overtime losses. Those wins weren’t easy either with a total of five games being decided in extra time.

The wins were against the likes of Vernon (5-4 in overtime), Westside (5-4 in overtime), Alberni Valley (5-4 in overtime) and Merritt (4-1) while the two overtime losses were a 1-0 decision to the Merritt Centennials and a 5-4 final in Vernon against the Vipers. The record to start 2011 has also launched the Spruce Kings climb from an uneasy eight points out of a playoff spot to where they are now – one game back of the team that sits on that final rung of the Interior Division playoff ladder.

This past weekend saw the team head out on the road with the mindset that all the points were there for the taking. On the first night they had to overcome a 3-0 first period deficit in Vernon to force the two-time defending National Champions to overtime. The Spruce Kings did lose that game in the extra frame 5-4 but it gave them confidence, something they haven’t had a lot of to work with this season and perhaps something they wish now they had left behind.

The following night in Salmon Arm, the Spruce Kings went away from the game plan that had brought them a measure of success in games against the Merritt Centennials, the Westside Warriors and the Vernon Vipers – all games played after the trade deadline. Unable to keep up with the fast moving and faster passing Silverbacks, the Spruce Kings lost an ugly one that left coaches, players and fans embarrassed and bewildered at the turn of events.

After surveying the aftermath and analysing the destruction, the team dusted themselves off and refocused for their game against the Merritt Centennials on Sunday afternoon. In the first period, the game had shades of the previous night with the opposition seemingly having their way with the Spruce Kings. The difference this time was the determination of one individual not to allow this game to become another blowout – Kirk Thompson was nothing short of sensational in the opening frame turning aside 23 shots and keeping the opposition off the scoreboard.

In the dressing room during the intermission the players fed off the performance of their goaltender and turned the game around in the second period putting together a solid twenty minutes that resulted in three scoring chances and one goal. Leading 1-0 after forty minutes, Connor Tiechko only needed 23 seconds of the first shift in the third period to pot the eventual game winning goal on a wrap-around from behind the net.

The 2-0 goal sparked more players and a couple of shifts later Brandon Watson found himself streaking down the right wing with Trent Murdoch coming through the middle. Watson dropped Murdoch the puck as he crossed the blue line into the Centennials zone and watched as Murdoch moved in on the goaltender beating him on the glove side to give the visitors a 3-0 lead. That goal spelled the end for Lino Chimienti between the pipes and brought in Tyler Steel. The goaltending change and the time out seemed to spark the Centennials as they went hard for the rest of the period looking to get on the board.

The relentless pressure forced the Spruce Kings to call a time out with just under four minutes remaining in hopes of settling down the troops. The ensuing faceoff inside the Spruce Kings came back to the point and resulted in a shot on goal that went off some skates in front. In the goal mouth scramble Evan Stack ended the shutout bid for Kirk Thompson as he was able to poke it under the rookie netminder and get the Centennials on the board.

That would be the only goal for Merritt in this game although they would get a few more chances with the extra attacker on the ice. From the slot inside his own zone and with time running down, Kyle Manlow grabbed the puck and, in what can only be equated to a bowler’s stance as he releases the ball with one knee on the lane, fired the puck straight down the ice into the empty net. The shot and the goal with less than 8 seconds remaining in the third sealed the victory for the Spruce Kings and the faceoff at centre was only a formality to let the clock tick down the rest of the way.

The win left the players in good spirits and an understanding that the end goal may be more in reach than it was before the weekend started but with work still to be done. With only eight games remaining in the regular season, the Spruce Kings need to come up with three more points than the Quesnel Millionaires who have a similar schedule. For Prince George it starts this Friday with their final Inter-Divisional game of the season as the Nanaimo Clippers come to town. After that is a game in Quesnel, a three game home weekend and a final set of three on the road to finish off the regular season.

The Spruce Kings can’t get too far ahead of themselves as the Nanaimo Clippers have already shown that they can be a tough opponent to overlook. Earlier this season the Clippers handed the Spruce Kings a 10-2 loss in the second game of their four game Island road trip. Nanaimo currently sits fifth in the Coastal Conference with 56 points, three behind Victoria and three ahead of Alberni Valley. The Clippers will be in Prince George for their third game in four nights and third game of four in five nights through the Interior Conference.

A playoff spot is there for the taking for Prince George, but they will have to stick to a game plan that gave them their first winning month and first .500 or better record through ten games of the season.

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