This weekend the Spruce Kings will hit the three quarter mark of the season when they play game number 44 and 45 against the Quesnel Millionaires and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Friday and Saturday respectfully. It will be the seventh meeting of eight this season against the Mills and the second and final meeting against the 'dogs.
Starting first with the Quesnel Millionaires, this is an opportunity for Prince George to pick up the proverbial four points in a divisional game while Saturday night's game is a chance to pick up a pair of important points in an inter-divisional game. At this point in the season, all games and their points are that much more important as games remaining become fewer leaving less opportunities to move up in the standings.
Eight points back of the Millionaires for the final playoff spot, the importance of this one game is not lost on anybody - a win and the Spruce Kings are three games back, but a loss puts the Spruce Kings down by double digits. In their last three meetings against their Friday night opponent, the Spruce Kings won twice and more importantly kept the Mills to only five goals total and only three against in the previous two.
"For us we have to build on the three goals against in the last two games," said Spruce Kings head coach, Dave Dupas. "If we can keep our shots down under thirty against and keep the goals against down, then we'll have a chance to win every night. We just have to start scoring."
Still sitting as the top goal scorer in the league, RJay Berra is two points from moving back in to the top ten among the league's most offensively productive players. On December 11, Berra tallied a hat trick and set up another in a 4-2 win over the Millionaires. In the six previous head-to-head matchups the Spruce Kings captain is the team's leading scorer against the Quesnel Millionaires with 7 goals and 2 assists.
"Anytime you have success individually against a team it is always good," said RJay Berra. "But the last two games they have been able to keep me off the scoresheet for the most part. I think the team as a whole has to get back to outworking them in the offensive zone, getting in on the attack from there and then we have to get the pucks in the net even if they are ugly goals."
With a week off since their last game, the Spruce Kings have had lots of opportunities to practice systems and come up with a game plan for their first game of 2011. Dave Dupas characterized the week as a mini-training camp with all players going through intense practice and fitness routines.
"We used this week to get them used to what they are going to be doing here," said Dupas. "Which is going to be hard work. They're going to go to practice, they're going to work hard. They're going to go to the gym, they're going to work hard. That's just the way it is going to be here and we used this week to get that point across to these guys and I think they were very accepting and willing to do what we asked."
"We worked on everything that we think that we need to touch on," continued Dupas. "For us, we have to keep working on things on a daily basis and just try to keep getting better little by little."
When asked about the specific opponents, Dupas mentioned that there have been areas of concern with the Quesnel Millionaires finding ways of getting odd man rushes. He also talked about having to match their work effort and keeping their go-to guys contained and off the scoresheet ... something the Spruce Kings have already had some success with.
Since the Christmas break, the Millionaires are .500 with one win, one loss and one overtime loss in three one goal games. In their last ten games dating back to December 3rd, the Mills are only one game below .500 with a 4-5-0-1 record having kept all games close scoring 25 times while limiting the opposition to 31 goals in those ten games.
Players to pay attention to on the Millionaires roster include their top three scorers of course - Spencer Graboski, Skyler Smutek and Malcolm Gould - but there are three others that have been adding scoring depth. Leading the way is Chris Blessing who has 4 goals and 4 assists in his last ten games and has registered five points (2g, 3a) in four games versus the Spruce Kings.
A pair of rookies also have numbers worthy of note - Derek Huisman is a point a game guy with 3 goals and 2 assists in the past five games while Daryl DeVries had a three point (1g, 2a) game against the Merritt Centennials on New Year's Day. As for a starting goaltender, Doug Hedley and Brian Kozak can't be blamed for going with Adam Harris who is perfect against Prince George with two wins in his two games against the Spruce Kings while Bryton Udy is 0 and 2 with a 4-2 loss and 3-2 loss in overtime.
For the Spruce Kings rookie tandem between the pipes, Cameron Large registered his first BCHL career win on December 29th in that 3-2 overtime victory and Kirk Thompson couldn't be faulted the following night in a 1-0 regulation time loss. Dave Dupas has been evaluating his goaltenders on a daily basis and will likely term it a game time decision which will be as much as who he wants to put in for Saturday's game against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs as it is for a starter Friday night.
The Coastal Conference Alberni Valley Bulldogs are on one of their longest road trips of the season that dates back to December 28th when they first came off the Island to start a seven game in twelve day tour of the Province. The Bulldogs started with a win against the Coquitlam Express but have gone without a point in four straight including a pair of games played early this week on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Bulldogs will get a chance to rest up for the Spruce Kings and scout both of their opponents on Friday night in the Coliseum. Prince George won't have that luxury but at the same time there are certain parts of the game already in the books that they will be able to draw on including coming to within one goal before time ran out in regulation time ... and then there's the salmon incident.
Early on in the game played in Port Alberni on October 9th, the Spruce Kings stayed right with the Bulldogs and were tied 1-1 early in the first period and trailing 3-2 early in the third period. Trent Murdoch (yes the Spruce Kings forward now) scored his second of the game to make it 4-2 and then just past the midway mark of the third, Casey Bailey would score the eventual game winner.
With time starting to tick down in the Weyerhauser Arena, a seemingly scripted interruption of the game took place with the Spruce Kings moving in to the offensive zone with purpose. Earlier in the day, Port Alberni was named the Salmon Fishing Capital of the World and in celebration of that honour somebody decided they would throw a good sized frozen salmon on the ice. The fish, pardon me ... the salmon, was flung over the glass narrowly missing Jeff Earnest as he skated into the offensive zone.
With the fish laying on the ice, the Spruce Kings took advantage of the time out and came up with a play that payed immediate dividends with Nic DeSousa scoring at 16:28 off the faceoff. The Bulldogs were able to hold off the Spruce Kings attack and were rewarded with a powerplay to end the game with, but it would be the visitors that scored. Again it was Nic DeSousa finding the back of the net leaving the Spruce Kings one shot short of tying the game and the fans quiet in their seats wondering if the salmon had jinxed their team.
"We have to just win games whether its revenge or whether we lost down there or we beat them, to us it really doesn't matter," said Dupas after he was shown video of the salmon incident and asked about the first meeting since then. "We have to try to win the games in our building and we have a lot this month. So we have to start taking care of our home territory here and whoever comes in here, we're just gonna try to play as hard as we can and win some games."