Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Game Preview: at Chilliwack Chiefs

Game On! It's the Chiefs and Spruce Kings one more time.

For the third straight game, the Prince George Spruce Kings will be facing off against the Chilliwack Chiefs. Going back two more games, this will be the fourth meeting between the two in less than two weeks. The problem with that is the fact that the Spruce Kings have only picked up one point in five tries this season against their Mainland Division rival.

Although that might be cause for concern in some camps, it isn't with the Spruce Kings who believe that they have gotten better every time they have played the Chiefs and are expecting the tide to turn tonight. In the very first two meetings - a double header in Prince George that everybody would rather forget - the Spruce Kings were held off the score sheet in both games. The last time the Spruce Kings were in Chilliwack they had a late third period lead slip through their hands as a result of two powerplay goals scored against them.

This past weekend in Prince George, the Spruce Kings gave up only one powerplay goal against and were able to score two of their own. That's no easy task given that the Chilliwack Chiefs have the third best powerplay and the best penalty kill in the BCHL. Penalties may end up being a factor again Wednesday night, because let's face it, these two teams don't like each other. They play a very mean and physical style and look to punish each other whenever they can.

We especially saw that on Friday night and even with a tamer game on Saturday night, there were still 26 minutes in powerplay time handed out and a penalty shot awarded bringing the weekend total to 21 powerplays split between the two teams (14 for Prince George and 7 for Chilliwack). That doesn't include a few hits that went undetected and left players with battle wounds afterwards. The most grotesque was to Trevor Esau who had his head drilled into the glass by Tanner Burns resulting in a cut and swollen eye for the Prince George captain.

Certainly in hockey days gone by you could sell tickets on the expected retaliation alone, but those days are long gone with rules in place to deter against fighting and those types of situations that leaves the game with the black eye. Instead the retaliation for Prince George will have to come in the form of offence, something that has been hit and miss since the calendar turned to 2013.

If you can count on trends, the Spruce Kings are due to bump the slump tonight, but in order to do that they will have to figure out Mitch Gillam. Destined to play in Cornell next year, the twenty year old netminder for Chilliwack can be credited for both wins on the weekend stopping pucks, in some cases when he couldn't even see them. In the two games on the weekend, Gillam is credited with 78 saves on 82 shots in total. In contrast, the Chiefs managed only 67 shots and two of those were into empty nets.

Kirk Thompson has been doing his job and really the only difference in the two games was some untimely bounces off players in front redirecting pucks into the Spruce Kings net. Thompson has been sensational through the recent offensive production struggles of the team and has been getting help from his defence who are allowing the twenty year old to see the puck and help clear away rebounds.

Perhaps the most consistent player on the blue line has been Karan Toor, who plays under the radar but has been a stalwart in the Spruce Kings zone. Never giving up on a puck battle, Toor can muscle his man off a puck and get it out of harm's way and won't stop trying until he succeeds. Toor has also been seen recently trying to help out the offence and has had a few chances joining the rush and also with his point shot.

One other tidbit of information to relay, that will be seen as reason for concern, is that the Spruce Kings are doing this one game roadtrip as just that - a one day there and back affair. Nine hours on the bus to Chilliwack, play the game and then get right back on the bus and come home. For almost every other team in the BCHL this incomprehensible, but for the Spruce Kings it's what they know.

Road trips are a part of life as a Spruce King in the BCHL, the closest opponent is Merritt and the closest Divisional opponent is the Chilliwack Chiefs. Having to be able to manage life on the road through the regular season should benefit the Spruce Kings if they get through to the post season. This particular road trip can be used as a conditioning exercise for the team - especially if a first round playoff series goes the distance.

With the recent League realignment, there was also a need to tinker with the playoff format. In the Coastal Conference the first round will pit the fourth seed against the first seed and the third against the second within the respective divisions. The thing to note here is the format is a best of five with the first two games in higher seed's arena. After a travel day, games three and four will be played in the lower seed's arena. Where it becomes interesting is if a fifth game is required, it will be played the next night back in the first rink without a day off in between.

Certainly the Spruce Kings aren't in the playoffs yet and there are still enough games to be played that anything could happen in what is still considered to be a pretty tight division. The five teams in the Mainland Division are separated by a total of 19 points with 16 games remaining in the season. The Chilliwack Chiefs sit in top spot with 54 points, one better than the Surrey Eagles. Being able to put a little more distance between first and second should provide motivation for the Chiefs tonight.

The Prince George Spruce Kings are in third spot with 45 points and looking to play catchup with the two front runners. The Langley Rivermen, who have played two fewer games then the top three teams, is right there in the chase with 38 points. The Spruce Kings next two home games are against the Coquitlam Express who have now played the most games in the division at 42 and are sitting in the basement with 35 points.

A Prince George win tonight will do two things, the obvious being the two points gained to pull themselves closer to the top teams, the other will be to provide that confidence to go along with the resolve that they can beat the Chilliwack Chiefs. With teams leap frogging each other since before Christmas, the notion that the teams have found their rung on the playoff ladder simply isn't valid. I expect to see some more changes in playoff positioning and a win tonight by Prince George sets them up nicely to get right back to top before the end of the month.

Before we can have a serious conversation about the post season, we first have to get through the regular season and build on strengths. The strongest part of the Spruce Kings game right now has been it's defence, so you know that the coaching staff will be looking to find ways of lighting that offensive spark tonight. The line combinations to begin the game are expected to be the same as they were on the weekend, but don't be surprised if you notice some changes, especially if the Spruce Kings don't get going early in this one.

Game time tonight is 7pm with the game broadcast on 93.1 CFIS-FM beginning at 6:35pm with the Treasure Cove Casino pre-game show. Besides finding the call of the game on the radio, it will also be available for free on the Spruce Kings channel and a pay-per-view video broadcast on Again, following the game, the Spruce Kings will head home and get ready to host the Coquitlam Express in a double header this weekend with games Saturday night at 7pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm. By the way, after Sunday's game, fans will get a chance to skate with the Spruce Kings players so remember to bring your skates to that game January 27th.

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