Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spruce Kings Never Give Up

Mitch Gillam and Kirk Thompson took a little extra time
to congratulate each other at the end of the game

The Prince George Spruce Kings season came to an end Wednesday night in Chilliwack after suffering a 5-2 loss to the Chiefs just 24 hours after PG extended the series with an identical score in the Coliseum. Perhaps it was the short series highlighted by a quick turnaround from Game 4 in Prince George to Game 5 in Chilliwack with an eight hour bus ride to the Fraser Valley, but both teams had to do it. As much as it hurts to say it, the better team did win this series but not without having to earn it and both teams were better teams after the series than before the post season started.

Both teams started the game running on adrenaline but it was obvious to see that they had been playing on for the previous four games was missing. The plays were more calculated and more defensively minded as opposed to the hard hitting in your face style that we had witnessed in the games leading up to this fifth and deciding contest.

An early goal by Prince George send waves of excitement rippling through the Province as a future star with the Spruce Kings opened the scoring just 73 seconds into the game. Lyndon Martell and David Stephens hopped over the bench with Braiden Epp joining the pair for the trio's first shift of the game. The play started with a nice defensive stick by Martell who stole the puck away and tapped it up to Stephens. The hockey product from Whitehorse took off up the left wing with Epp jumping up through the middle creating a two-on-one rush for Prince George.

With David Stephens looking to feather a pass through to Braiden Epp, the Chilliwack Chiefs defenceman committed to taking away the pass and threw his body in the lane. Stephens took an extra step to the left that pulled Mitch Gillam into no man's land and then saucered a pass over to Epp in the slot. Committed to the Prince George Spruce Kings for the 2013-14 season, Epp took the pass on his forehand with Gillam overcommitting to get back to cover a one-timer from the youngster. Epp pulled the puck back to his back hand and lifted the puck over a vulnerable Gillam for his first BCHL goal.

The lead would hold up for only six minutes before the BCHL's Coastal Conference Rookie of the Year took matters into his own hands and led a Chiefs rush down the ice the other way. Luke Esposito showed his ability to turn on the jets on this play as he drove hard down the right side wall before letting a hard shot go from outside the faceoff circle. Kirk Thompson got all of the shot with his big pads but the rebound went right out to Josh Hansen who was coming down the middle and was able to corral the puck and move in on Thompson untouched. Hansen made no mistake going blocker side on Thompson to the tie the game at a goal a-piece.

The toll of the bus ride started to show on both teams as they didn't have the legs or the life in them as the period wore on. The opening twenty minutes would end in a 1-1 tie with Chilliwack posting 17 shots on Thompson and Spruce Kings getting 8 on Gillam. In stark contrast to previous games, the first period had no penalties to show for either team; which was as much an indication of how the game was being called as it was being played. The four man officiating crew let a few borderline calls that didn't have any malice to them go on both sides.

In the second period, the teams traded penalties with Cooper Rush getting called for the hold at 2:14 putting the Spruce Kings on the game's first powerplay of the game. The Spruce Kings were able to work the puck around quite nicely and kept the pressure in the offensive zone for almost a full minute before the Chiefs were able to relieve the pressure and send the puck down the ice. Eight players were able to change with only Mitch Eden left on the ice as he went to retrieve the puck from deep in his own zone. The Spruce Kings put more pressure on Chilliwack with their second unit but couldn't get anything past Gillam. Even after being on the ice for the full two minutes and a few extra seconds, Eden came off still looking as fresh as he did when the powerplay started.

Through the next few minutes the game took on a feel that the next goal was going to win the game even though there was lots of hockey still to be played. The teams were playing defensively cautious hockey and the offense wasn't looking to get caught in a situation that could lead to an odd-man rush for the other team. Both sides were playing this one close and safe and then Chilliwack got their first powerplay of the game with Trevor Esau was called for interference after not releasing a player off the wall after the puck came loose.

Fortunately the Chiefs first powerplay was also ineffective despite getting some good cross seam passes through. The one-timers were either wide or blocked and the ones that did get through from the peripheral, Thompson was able to stop. In what looked like the makings of the Studio Cuts Crowning Moment of the Game for Prince George, just seconds after Esau was released from the sin bin, the Chiefs captain was sent to sit for two or less on a cross checking call at 9:33 of the second.

The Spruce Kings power play that had looked so good earlier in the second period on their first chance came up empty and they spent very little time in the Chiefs zone with any kind of pressure or possession. In one foreshadowing play, the Spruce Kings struggled to get the puck into the offensive zone and had to circle back no less than three times and by then the team's second powerplay was over. To make matters worse, 14 seconds later Skylar Pacheco was called for high sticking while trying to wrap the puck around the back wall.

The Chiefs embraced their second powerplay that started at 11:47 and lasted 51 seconds before the BCHL Playoff Scoring Leader was credited with his seventh goal of the post season. In a flurry of action, Philip Zielonka received a pass from the left side wall to where he was standing at the bottom of the right side face off circle. Zielonka's shot hit Kirk Thompson and redirected across the ice into the left corner. Before I could finish extolling the greatness of that save, the puck was fired back to Zielonka who took one more shot towards the net.

In a flurry of movement in front of the net and beside it, Thompson was back in position and down on the ice to take away the high percentage shot coming from Zielonka. Good positioning by Thompson was trumped by better luck from Zielonka as his shot deflected off a defender at the side of the net and ended up fluttering over the reach of Thompson and landed on the ice just over the goal line. The goal spotted a the Chiefs their first lead of the game and marked the first time in the series that a team was able to erase a deficit in a game they trailed in.

As predicted the goal changed the tide and left the Spruce Kings to try and open things up looking for the equalizer that would never come. The second period ended as a 2-1 lead for the Chilliwack Chiefs despite being outshot 13-11 in that middle frame by a desperate Spruce Kings squad. Both teams had just the two powerplays in that middle frame to work with.

To start the third period, the Spruce Kings came at Chilliwack in waves who for just the second time this series seemed content to recede into a defensive shell. The only other time I saw that from the Chiefs was late in the first game after the Chiefs scored their first goal to take away Thompson's shutout. After scoring that goal, the Chiefs just carried the puck into their own end of the ice and waited for the clock to expire. The difference between game one and game five was that there were only four seconds on the clock in game one and still twenty minutes of hockey to be played in this deciding game.

Even when playing a defense-first style of game, when opportunities present themselves, you have to take them and that happened very early in the third period for Chilliwack when Spencer Graboski forced a turnover in his own zone and was able to go down the ice with Mathieu Tibbet. Although not an offensive threat in the regular season, Tibbet provided depth for Harvey Smyl's team and on this play would pick up his third goal of the post season and seventh point.

With the Chiefs now up 3-1, Zielonka and Esposito were noticeably absent as they sat on the bench resting in case they were needed later on in the period. It was instead a steady diet of Spencer Graboski, Autin Plevy and Mathieu Tibbet for the Spruce Kings to deal with. On one particular play Plevy dove for a loose puck and ended up falling face first onto Cameron Lawson's stick.

In noticeable discomfort, Plevy went straight to the bench and the trainer started working on him. It became quite apparent that Plevy had broken his nose as the trainer put it back into place and cleaned up the forward. No sooner was Plevy back in the game then he was on the scoresheet. Just moments after having his nose broke, Plevy was set up Graboski in front and whistled his fourth of the post season past Thompson at 7:26.

Just over two minutes later, the Spruce Kings were able to get on the board on a nice play that started with Jake LeBrun protecting the puck in the left side faceoff circle while playing keep-away from three defenders. LeBrun put the puck off the wall to Shayne Morrissey who was standing behind the Chiefs net. Morrissey faked one way and came out the other passing the puck through the top of the crease to Sean Landrey who was on the inside of the left face off circle.

Landrey didn't spend any time thinking of what shot to take, he just let instinct take over and knew that Gillam would be coming back to protect the short side so he fired top shelf far side beating Gillam's glove for his first of the post season. The goal gave the Spruce Kings bench some life as they now had 10:16 remaining in the third period to come up with two more goals to tie this game up.

Dreams of seeing this game go to overtime were not shared by Chilliwack who concentrated on their defensive game first and foremost leaving the Spruce Kings with very little to go on. As time ticked down on the Spruce Kings season and the tanks empty from the adrenaline laced game just one night prior in Prince George, it started to become apparent that this series was going to go to the home team.

In one last valiant effort to maybe find fumes, Dave Dupas pulled Kirk Thompson and sent Coltyn Hansen on the ice as an extra attacker. The gamble looked like it might actually pay off as the Spruce Kings used the artificial man advantage to create a couple of scoring chances but again Gillam was not going to be letting anything more in on this night. As if the time on the clock hadn't already sealed the deal, Austin Plevy made sure of it scoring an empty net goal with four seconds remaining on the clock. Prince George outshot Chilliwack 16-11 in that final frame but only the Landrey shot beat Gillam.

The two teams shook hands at centre ice taking a little extra time to congratulate different players on both squads. While watching the graduating players go through the line, it was clear to see that there was a lot of respect for what Kirk Thompson and Trevor Esau brought to the series. It is a strange feeling to know that a pair of rookies just three season ago that gave so much to the Spruce Kings and to the City of Prince George will no longer being wearing the Crown on the ice, but will always wear the Crown on their hearts.

With the season done, the team will return to Prince George to clean out their dressing room, hold exit interviews and present recognize individual achievements with the annual Player Awards Banquet on Saturday night. I will have a wrap up of those awards that feature two new ones this year to recognize areas of play in a game that are very important to Dave Dupas and his coaching staff. Perhaps the hardest trophy to find a single recipient for will be that of Playoff MVP with so many players elevating their game in the post season and showing the true character of what it means to be a Spruce King.

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