Thursday, January 13, 2011

Weekend Preview: The Smoke and The Snakes

Is the glass half full or half empty ... seems to be a lot of people around thinking that the Spruce Kings have opted to build for next season and just let this season go, but don't let the coaches or players hear you say that. The immediate goal, according to the team, is to make the playoffs and let the second season take care of itself. At the same time everyone agrees that it won't be an easy task, but that just leads to the cliché of taking it one game at a time.

"A lot of people see us as building for next season," said Spruce Kings defenceman and assistant captain, Trevor Esau. "We want to make it into the playoffs and that is our goal right now."

Earlier in the week the Spruce Kings found themselves busy during the trade deadline and in the end the top three goal scorers were gone along with a few other players from the roster replaced by some younger players that will be available next season as well. Gone are RJay Berra (34G, 21A), Nic DeSousa (13G, 29A) and Justin Fillion (14G, 27A) the top three goal scorers through three quarters of the season. Derek Henderson also found himself on the trading block going to Grande Prairie with Berra.

"It's a little bit different (in the room) without RJay, Deuce and Filly," adds Esau. "They were the go-to guys, but now we have other guys that are stepping up ... it is really different that's for sure."

Coming in return for those players, and a few others that were used as bargaining chips to sweeten the pot, are Sam Waterfield (D), Ben Woodley (D), Dustin Beairsto (F) and Todd Skirving (F). Waterfield was playing with the Dawson Creek Rage of the North American Hockey League (31GP, 3G, 11A), Skirving with the Vernon Vipers (34GP, 4G, 5A) while both Woodley (41GP, 6G, 26A) and Beairsto (37GP, 4G, 3A) were with the Grande Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The team will look a little different, not just because of the players gone or the players coming in, but because of the new roles and the new opportunities for all the players.

"We lost a lot of offense," admits Spruce Kings head coach, Dave Dupas. "So we're going to have to play a little more defensively and try to shut teams down and get the goals against down. Hopefully we can win games 2-1 or 3-2, not 5-4 as we have been doing."

The Spruce Kings first test comes Friday night versus the Trail Smoke Eaters and then that will be followed up on Saturday night against the Vernon Vipers. Interestingly enough the Spruce Kings have had more success this season against the Vipers than they have against the Smoke Eaters. The Spruce Kings will have to figure out how to extinguish the fire that Trail started for themselves on Thursday night in Quesnel with an 8-2 win over the Millionaires.

The win means that Quesnel now only has one game in hand on Prince George with that six point cushion. That doesn't change the fact that the Spruce Kings have to win games in order to catch the Millionaires ... something they haven't done in five tries against the Smokies so far this season. This will be the final meeting between the two teams who played each other five times in less than a month including a pair of weekend double headers.

The biggest change since those five games is that Nic DeSousa will now be skating for the visiting team in the Castle. DeSousa, who scored a goal and had three assists as a Spruce King versus the Smoke Eaters, will now be wearing an orange and white jersey and looking to pick up his first points with his new team. Nic DeSousa was the only player deal that the Smoke Eaters made which is an indication of how happy the team is with their roster when all players are healthy.

Injuries have played a big role in a recent slide experienced by the Trail Smoke Eaters but, with almost everybody back, the idea is that they will be able to recover some of the lost ground on the top four teams in the Interior Conference. After Thursday's game, the Smoke Eaters are tied with the Westside Warriors with 51 points through 45 games played and eight points back of that top spot currently occupied by the Penticton Vees.

In the last few weeks of the season, the Smoke Eaters have a total of seven games to play between the four front runners so keeping pace or even gaining some ground now is vital to their cause before they lose at least ten players through scholarships and age restrictions at the end of the season. The list of graduates that the Smoke Eaters will lose includes Scott Jacklin, Sam Mellor, Travis St. Denis, Nic DeSousa and Paul Mailey (five of their top six goal scorers) and their twenty year old goaltender - Kiefer Smiley.

The Spruce Kings no longer have that situation weighing on them for next season with only one twenty year old (Faiz Khan) and one scholarship that starts in 2011-12 (Jeff Earnest). Right now the problem for the Spruce Kings is a full roster with only eighteen players on that list. The short bench will need to be filled with affiliate players when available and will also mean much more ice time for everyone. Staying healthy and ready for that type of ice time is something the team has been working on for awhile now.

"We've been working on getting the new guys comfortable," says Spruce Kings assistant captain, Trevor Esau. "I know now that I need to step up my game, we all have to do our part and make it happen and to make the most of our situation. I don't think anyone is prepared to give up."

That positive attitude will come in handy on Saturday night when the Vernon Vipers slither in to town. Vernon might be ahead of Prince George in the standings but they have had their difficulties with the Spruce Kings. The two teams have split the four meetings in the season series so far winning one in each other's barn and once each in their own. With the exception of one game ... neither team has been able to score more than three goals with two of them being decided by 3-1 scores and the other a 3-2 overtime win for the Spruce Kings in Vernon.

At the trade deadline, the final deal of the day was between the Spruce Kings and the Vipers. Vernon wanted Ryan Renz who was property of the Spruce Kings from a deal made earlier in the day. The Vipers agreed to trade Todd Skirving and future considerations for the 17 year old defenceman that had been off the ice since December 18th. Todd Skirving on the other hand has indicated that he wants to play and he is going to get a chance to do just that on the top line with Faiz Khan and Jujhar Khaira.

Sean Landrey will be AP'ed again this weekend by the Prince George Spruce Kings to help offset the short bench. In last weekend's pair of 5-4 overtime victories, Landrey didn't look out of place and got involved with some physical play in both ends of the ice. Landrey is a bigger body that can help wear down the opposition. In fact the Spruce Kings are now the second biggest and second tallest team in the BCHL while being the youngest team on average at 18.17 years in the League. In comparison the Trail Smoke Eaters are the fifth oldest at 18.68 years but that is still younger than the Powell River Kings that come in at an average age of 18.91 years.

This weekend look for the new guys and their new numbers ... Sam Waterfield #7, Ben Woodley #10, Sean Landrey #18, Todd Skirving #21 and Dustin Beairsto #25. The other thing to be looking for is the letters, with the departure of the captain and two assistants, the Spruce Kings will be handing out letters to a few new players who have worked hard and shown the leadership and character to wear a letter alongside the crown.

Game time both nights is 7:00pm at the Prince George Coliseum with the games being broadcast on 93.1 CFIS-FM and also online from the Spruce Kings website and the BCHL Pay-Per-View online webcast. Pregame show with Roland Ziprick and Todd Doherty along with Ron Gallo will start at 6:40pm both nights.

No comments: