Friday, December 30, 2011

Smoke in the Castle

Gerry Fitzgerald (21) and the rest of the Spruce Kings
will be looking to pull away to end 2011 and head into 2012

Tonight marks the end of the calendar year for the Spruce Kings as they play their final game of 2011 against the Trail Smoke Eaters. This game is an important one for the psyche of both teams ... being able to end the year on a positive note will provide the confidence required to start 2012 when the games start to heat up.

These two teams haven't seen each other except for an early season double header in the Coliseum back in the middle of October. At the time the season was young but there were signs that the Smoke Eaters were having some difficulties while the Spruce Kings were busy trying the erase the memory of a disappointing season the previous year. The Spruce Kings won both games 8-0 and 5-2. This is third and final time that the Smoke Eaters will come to Prince George this season; the Spruce Kings have two double headers in Trail in the New Year (February 10 & 11 and March 2 & 3).

For the Spruce Kings, 2011 started with the promise that things were going to get better for a team that had struggled in the first half of the season. And for the most part they were a much better team fighting right down to the wire for a playoff spot that eluded them because the hole was just too deep that had been dug. This year it is the Trail Smoke Eaters that are in that same position and will be looking to build for the future one game at a time.

This is the first game back after the Christmas Break for the Trail Smoke Eaters; despite their record, they will be coming in as unknown. In their final weekend before the break the Smoke Eaters were outscored 15-1 leaving the team with lots of time on their hands to evaluate their position. As is the case with most extended breaks (almost a full two weeks for Trail), the little aches and pains go away and the desire to compete comes back. If the Smoke Eaters used some of that time to skate, they could be a very dangerous opponent tonight and one that the Spruce Kings certainly can't take for granted.

The Spruce Kings have already played one game since the Christmas Break, a 4-2 win over the Chilliwack Chiefs in Chilliwack. Prince George was full of jump and was able to get shots and lots of them through to the goaltender, but the best player on the ice was not suffering from any turkey hangover as he turned away all 29 shots he faced in the first two periods. The Spruce Kings were finally able to break through the armour led by Michael Colantone's natural hattrick and then after the Chiefs pulled to within one it was De Jersey who put the game away scoring his 27th of the season to reclaim the lead atop the League's scoring machines.

The win gave the Spruce Kings sole possession of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Interior Conference and last night the Salmon Arm Silverbacks provided a late gift defeating the Vernon Vipers 7-4 to keep them two points back of Prince George. The Vernon Vipers also play tonight and have two games in hand on the Spruce Kings so a win tonight is essential for Prince George to maintain some distance ahead of the three time defending BCHL Champions.

Over the month of December the goals against average for the Spruce Kings net protectors has come down from 3.56 to 3.24 thanks in part to a deal made by Mike Hawes at the beginning of the month that brought Ty Swabb over from the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Since arriving in PG, Swabb has played in five games with a record of 3 wins, 1 loss and 1 tie. To go along with the 7 points, Swabb has a goals against average of 2.50 (6th in the League) and the second best save percentage of .926 as measured for goalies having played in four or more games.

Offensively things could be a little better as the team has been in a number of one goal games and haven't been able to deliver those decisive blows on the scoreboard. Through nine games in the month of December, the Spruce Kings have scored 27 times and been scored on 21 times. Six of the nine games were decided by a single goal or less and their biggest goal spread was a 4-1 decision over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.

The Spruce Kings have been getting offensive production from the top line of Paul De Jersey, Jujhar Khaira and Michael Colantone but will need to see some more scoring from the other lines. The defense has also been stepping up and delivering timely goals but as the intensity on the ice heats up, they will have to make sure their end is looked after first and foremost. De Jersey is on a 17 game points streak (11G, 19A). Since coming back with a gold medal at the 2011 WJAC, Khaira has climbed back into the League's Top Ten with 7 goals and 13 assists. Colantone has also worked his way back up the list and currently sits in 12th spot thanks to a big three goal night against the Chilliwack Chiefs (trivia buffs will like to know that this is Michael's second BCHL hat trick, his other one was against the Spruce Kings on December 4, 2010 when he scored three times and also had three asssists).

Since coming to the Spruce Kings, Michael Betz has picked up a pair of goals and added a pair of helpers to his cause, not quite the numbers he was hoping to put up but the contribution is there and his natural ability has been showing through every game. December hasn't been kind to the Fitzgerald triplets either despite their tenacious approach to the game and the scoring chances they have created. The three have combined on only three goals, something they and the coaching staff both know only need a small spark to change.

Through all of that the Spruce Kings have fought hard in every game and have a chance to end December with a record of 6-3-1-0 which is an indication of just how far they have come in a year. This will be the 52nd game the team has played in 2011 and through the good, the bad and the ugly that was 2011 they have a chance to finish on a huge positive and come out of the year with a record of 22-20-3-7 and take a record of 17-13-2-3 this season with them into 2012.

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