Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Four

And then there were four ... four teams vying for the title of Champion. First up will be the Conference Championship and then the BCHL Championship. Exciting times for sure and an adrenaline rush for those hundred or so players and coaching staff still on the bench in game action.

It started less than a month ago with fourteen teams starting the post season ... although only twelve played in that first round. At the end of the season the Powell River Kings and the Vernon Vipers came out as the cream of the crop and were given a first round bye. Those two re-entered the field once it had been cut down to six teams to make up a total of four semi-final series.

In the first round there were no "real" upsets ... and I emphasize the word real because I'm only going by how the teams finished in the standings at the end of the regular season. Although there were no upsets, its safe to say there was a lot of disappointment with only one of the six series going the distance and only one win to show among the other five teams with four being swept away.

The second round provided more excitement for sure and at least one upset with the Penticton Vees being escorted from the party after five games with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Arguably Kris Moore stole the show in this series after being outshot 135 - 65 in the first three games but allowing only four goals against while the team in front of him tallied eight times. In those first three games that saw the Silverbacks go up 3-0 in the series, Moore was the first star each time.

The other two versus three series saw the Surrey Eagles, who dropped the first game, go up 3-1 on the Langley Chiefs before finishing off their Coastal Conference foes in six games. The series was marred at times by some unsportmanlike play resulting in 236 penalty minutes as well as misconducts in four of the six games. I suppose its not surprising that these two teams have such a heated rivalry, after all their home rinks are only a half hour apart.

Starting the playoffs in round two with the opportunity of completing the unthinkable three-peat in Junior A hockey was the two-time defending National Champions - the Vernon Vipers. Although the Westside Warriors came out on the wrong end of the score in game one, they put together two solid efforts and had the Vipers down 2-1 in the series. I was immediately reminded of the playoffs a year ago when the Quesnel Millionaires put a scare into the Vipers only to have Vernon come back and keep rolling all the way to the RBC Royal Bank Cup Championship. Like they did a year ago, the Vipers came back strong winning the next three games and outscoring the Warriors 14-4 in the process.

The League's best in the regular season, the Powell River Kings also started their post season in round two against a Victoria Grizzlies squad that seemed to be rolling along at the right time. Coming off a five game series win over the Nanaimo Clippers, the Grizzlies were quickly reminded that the Kings were a much different squad and beating a team that had only lost nine games in the regular season would take something of a miracle.

The Victoria Grizzlies found that miracle on night number two staying right with their opponents and taking them to overtime where they stole home ice advantage in a 4-3 double overtime victory. The momentum carried the Grizzlies over in both of their home games and they found themselves up 3-1 on the Powell River Kings with a chance to end it all in game five. It was game five that many Victoria fans will have nightmares about.

After scoring a goal in each of their previous three games and three wins over the Kings, Dustin Johnson scored with 1:01 remaining in the third period to tie the game and force overtime. In that overtime period the Victoria Grizzlies were given an unbelievable opportunity with a powerplay at 8:35 on a roughing call. The Grizzlies had good pressure and were poised to dispose of the Powell River Kings except for an unbelievable diving block on a labeled Justin Fillion howitzer that allowed the Kings to kill off the man advantage.

Some thirty seconds after the successful penalty kill, the Kings went down the other end of the ice and claimed that game five overtime decision. The win put the Powell River Kings right back into the series and they would post back-to-back 4-1 victories to complete the series comeback winning all three elimination games.

All of this sets up an interesting Conference Finals that will have four of the five top teams from the regular season vying for an opportunity to play for the League Championship. In the Coastal Conference, the Powell River Kings are arguably the favourite as they will host the Surrey Eagles. Until late Wednesday night, the Eagles had no idea if they were going to have to travel to Powell River or play host to start the Cliff McNabb (Coastal Conference Championship Trophy) best-of-seven series.

Hockey players are a resilient sort and I don't think the short time frame to make travel arrangements will play a role once the Surrey Eagles step on the ice in Powell River. The extra couple of days that the Eagles had off following their physical series will also have been to the advantage of the team without it being long enough to have to worry about rust setting in.

As for the Powell River Kings, not only did they have to go the distance in their best-of-seven, they played an additional 40 minutes to settle three games in overtime. Travel in and out of Powell River isn't the easiest thing for either team and certainly the Kings are not immune from the required ferry crossings and miles on the windy Sunshine Coast.

Looking at the numbers between these two teams you have to remember that the Surrey Eagles have been active for ten post season games through two rounds while the Powell River Kings only have the one series to establish their numbers. Looking at points per game, the Surrey Eagles Bradley McGowan comes in with 1.8 per game with a record of 6 goals and 12 assists in 10 games. Chad Niddery has 5 goals and 5 assists or a 1.4 points per game average for the Powell River Kings.

As for post season goals for and against, the Surrey Eagles have the edge there averaging 4.3 goals a game while allowing only 2.4 goals against. Even when the 18 goals scored in the first series are taken out of the equation, the Eagles have a 4.17 goals per game average. In comparison the Powell River Kings average is 3.29 goals for and 2.43 goals against.

Interestingly enough, the goaltenders for these two teams have identical 2.27 goals against averages. Karl St. Laurent's save percentage of 92.5 with the Surrey Eagles is slightly better than Michael Garteig's 89.7 in seven games with the Powell River Kings. St. Laurent also gets the edge in the win loss column with eight wins and only two losses while Garteig was dinged with three losses.

It does appear that the Surrey Eagles have a slight edge offensively and have used their prowess up front to strengthen their defenses. In the regular season, the Powell River Kings used their strength from the man between the pipes and their ability to stifle opposition and provide their opportunities offensively. If the Powell River Kings get back to what made them successful through the first sixty games, they will make it tough on a Surrey Eagles team that excels on a larger ice surface than what is available in Powell River.

In the Interior Conference Finals, fans should expect to see a lot of speed out of two teams that can open up a game in a flash. Not that there will be a lack of physical play, but these two teams prefer to use the ice with long strides and longer passes. Both teams have had a few days off and will be itching to get back on the ice. The Ryan Hatfield (Interior Conference Championship Trophy) series may very well become a goaltender's duel.

Both teams have found success with the masked men between the pipes. In Salmon Arm, the hero of the previous series was Kris Moore who stole the show in the first three games to spot the Silverbacks to a 3-0 series lead. It might come as a surprise to some that Moore has a higher goals against average than his counterpart. The Silverbacks netminder has a respectable 2.52 GAA with a record of 8-1 and a save percentage of 93.1 in nine games, but it is Kirby Halcrow who sits as the best in the league this playoffs based on his 1.74 GAA. Halcrow has only been in five games recording 3 wins and 1 loss with a 92.4 save percentage.

The Vernon Vipers went into the playoffs with two 19 year old goaltenders and it was Blake Voth that got the nod to start the series which he did with a win. Game two wasn't as kind to Voth as he got yanked 33 seconds into the second period. It is said that the position of goaltender is the unkindest of them all cause you never know when you are going to get back in especially when the other guy plays so well.

Kirby Halcrow did play well allowing only one goal against in 38 minutes in the remainder of game two. Halcrow suffered a loss in game three but it wasn't enough for the coaching staff to change their plans and that faith paid off as Halcrow posted three consecutive wins allowing only four goals against.

Offensively speaking the Salmon Arm Silverbacks have three players that have better than a point a game average while the Vernon Vipers don't have any. The Silverbacks top guns are a pair of nineteen year olds - Brett Knowles (5G, 9A) and Devin Gannon (5G, 5A) and one overager - Mike Hammond (8G, 5A) who was acquired from the Cowichan Valley Capitals at the trade deadline. Hammond finished the regular season as the league's scoring leader finishing with 93 points total.

Before you factor in the significance of having a short list of players with a better than a point a game average, consider that the Vernon Vipers finished first in the Interior Conference with only one player in that category. Dylan Walchuk, who played in 55 games, finished with 56 points (24G, 32A) while two others finished just shy of a point a game average - David Robinson and Bryce Kakoske both reached the 50 point plateau. The real strength of the Vernon Vipers comes from their depth with fourteen players finishing with 24 or more points.

As I mentioned earlier, this series could come down to which goaltender cracks first under the offensive pressure that both teams are capable of applying at will. Through the regular season, goaltending was the Vernon Vipers edge but in the post season Kris Moore has shown spectacular form. If Moore and the Silverbacks keep it going, they may very well stop the Vipers from doing something that is unheard of in Junior A hockey.

I'm excited for the start of the Conference Finals and I will be paying as close attention as possible to both series, posting results and reactions to my twitter account (@ron_gallo).

1 comment:

Fraser Rodgers said...

great write up Ron! Love the break down of both series. My blog address has changed.

Keep up the good work!