Thursday, November 17, 2011

Feels Like The First Time

Another Thursday trip to Merritt for a one and done game with the Centennials. With the relocation of the Quesnel Millionaires to Chilliwack this season, the Spruce Kings knew before the schedule was drafted that there would be some tough road trips to deal with. Tonight's game in Merritt is the second time in as many weeks that the Spruce Kings have to travel 6 hours south for a single game and then return home for their next opponent. It's something that does leave the team a little perplexed, but something that they know they will deal with and expect different results this time around.

Last week when the Spruce Kings boarded the bus and headed down to the Nicola Valley Arena for their third game of the season against the Merritt Centennials they were left licking their wounds all the way back after suffering a 7-4 loss. That loss seemed to inspire the team who recorded a 5-2 victory over the Victoria Grizzlies. That win along with the return of some previously missing players has injected a new level of confidence for their second appearance in Merritt.

Through the first 19 games of the season the Spruce Kings had to enlist the assistance of affiliate players (AP's) in their line up to fill the holes created by injuries and absences for players skating for Team Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge. In all the Spruce Kings saw a total of 35 slots filled by APs over the course of those 19 games with a total of four APs appearing at a time in five games.

Tonight's game will see a full roster of players in the game with Jujhar Khaira playing in his first game back after winning gold with Team Canada West. Jeff Earnest is also back after dealing with an upper body injury that has kept him out of the lineup since just after the season's opening weekend series against these same Merritt Centennials. But the team is not 100% healthy with some players dealing with minor issues and Sean Landrey still sidelined with his lower body injury.

I mentioned "these same Merritt Centennials" and they really are the same team they were at the beginning of the season ... at least in personnel, but in the game they seem to be so much different. After suffering an opening night 6-3 loss to the Spruce Kings, the Centennials have responded with two victories (4-3 on September 24 and 7-4 November 11) against Prince George. In their last twelve games, Merritt has picked up points in 11 of those games (10-1-0-2) and have an overall record of 10-5-1-3, good for third in the Interior Division.

There is only one Merritt Centennial in the top twenty among the League's scoring leaders and nobody on the team has reached double digits for goals scored yet. In fact the Centennials are only sixth best in the Interior Division for average goals scored in a game with 3.32 ... so where does their success come from? Regan Soguila is their leading points getter with 6 goals and 19 assists, 10 points better than Chad Brears who has the team's lead in goals scored with 7 and 8 assists.

Defensively the Merritt Centennials don't have impressive numbers here either giving up an average of 3.47 goals against per game, which is only .5 better than Prince George who has a 3.95 goals against average per game. The difference appears to be in the actual goal spread. The Centennials have been in eight overtime games so far and two more that were decided by a single goal with a record of 6 wins, 3 overtime losses and 1 tie. Of the other games that were decided by two or more goals, they have been in three two-goal games (2-1), five three-goal games (2-3) and one loss in a game that was decided with a five goal spread.

Close games seem to go the way of the Merritt Centennials, especially on home ice where they will dump and chase the puck all night long looking for a turnover that they can capitalize on. The Spruce Kings are aware of this and will have to be prepared for it if they hope to even up the season series with the Merritt Centennials. Prince George has had its own roller coaster ride already this season having been on a five game winning streak high and recently coming out of a five game winless stretch that saw them pick up only two points in some hard fought battles prior to the 5-2 win their last time out.

Game number 20 against the Merritt Centennials marks the one-third mark in the season and the Spruce Kings would love nothing more than to be one game above .500 coming back home for a double header against the Salmon Arm Silverbacks on Saturday and Sunday. Before they can look ahead to the home dates, they will have to deal with the Merritt Centennials and there is certainly a lot of optimism heading into that game with the return of Khaira and Earnest.

Both players are NCAA Division I committed players that have the ability to open up a game offensively while punishing the other team with their physical play. When Jujhar Khaira last skated with the Spruce Kings, he was sitting in second place among the League's leaders; he comes back still in the top 15 and wanting to start climbing back up the list. Jeff Earnest only has two games under his belt this season and wants to get back in the game and start climbing the ladder himself as he is the only player on the Spruce Kings roster without a point.

Khaira will return to his left wing position on the top line with Michael Colantone at centre and Paul De Jersey on the right side. Earnest will play left wing on a line centred by Tyson Witala and right winder Stefan Bazar. The other lines will remain the same with the Fitzgerald triplets (Myles, Leo and Gerry) skating together and the McHaffie twins (Spencer and Scott) with Michael Klonarakis. Defensively there has been very little movement with Ben Woodley, Chase Golightly, Trevor Esau, Ben Matthews, Skylar Pacheco and Cody Bardock patrolling the blue line. Kirk Thompson is expected to get the start with Marcus Beesley the backup.

I had a chance to catch up with coach Dave Dupas and talk about all of this and a few other things before the team boarded the bus to head to Merritt. I started by asking him about getting to full regular roster for the first time this season.

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I did talk to Coach Dupas about a few other things including being a .500 team, scheduling nightmares and what the team has been working on during the weekend for these next few games coming up.

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