The Prince George Spruce Kings make their second of three stops through the Interior Division in Vernon tonight to face the 2014 RBC Royal Bank Cup host team, the Vernon Vipers. Let's get this out of the way first ... for quite a few Prince George fans, what they remember and know about the opponent tonight is they are the reason the Spruce Kings are missing Jake LeBrun. Although the injury did happen on October 4th back in Prince George when a LeBrun was hit against the side wall from behind by a Vernon Vipers player, the focus tonight is not on retribution.
Since October 4th, the Spruce Kings have seen a long list of players leave the ice with injuries that have stretched now into 40 missed games between them. LeBrun has missed 12 games so far and is scheduled to miss tonight's and tomorrow's game before expecting to return next weekend. Bryant Christian has missed four games so far but is expected to be out for the rest of the month of November and into the month of December. Mitch Barker has missed five games now but is expected to ready to return shortly. Sean Landrey and Cole Todd are unable to play this weekend after suffering injuries last weekend.
The Spruce Kings feel they have dodged a bullet after Braiden Epp was hit against the glass at centre ice on a play that resulted in a five minute major for a blow to the head and a game misconduct to the offending player. That hit was the fourth in a series of hits that appeared to be targeted on key players on the Spruce Kings roster. Brogan O'Brien, Chad Staley and Jeremiah Luedtke were also all hit late in the game with borderline illegal checks. In all of that the Spruce Kings have strung together a seven game points streak with five wins and two overtime decisions.
The team has dealt with the injuries and other adversary they have had to face by not giving up. Instead they have found ways to win and continue to play an exciting brand of hockey that has endeared fans to them everywhere they go. Tonight those fans may be few and far between as they play a team fighting for top spot in the Interior Division on their parent's weekend. The Vernon Vipers (11-6-1-4) are currently tied with the Merritt Centennials (13-9-1-0) with 27 points, one up on the Penticton Vees (12-4-1-1) but the Vees do have one game in hand.
The Prince George Spruce Kings (12-7-1-2) are in their own fight for top spot in the Mainland Division, currently sitting one point back of the Langley Rivermen (13-6-1-1). A win tonight could potential give the Spruce Kings that top spot if the Merritt Centennials can do what they did last night - beat the Rivermen. Finding themselves in that battle for top spot is what drives the Spruce Kings these days as they may very well be the most close knit team that Prince George has ever seen. Doing whatever it takes and winning games for each other, including those not in the lineup, provides the motivation.
Over the years, these two teams have had some epic games and tonight very well may turn into another one for all of the reasons listed above and then some. Winning one for Jake LeBrun, ranks up there as does winning one for Sean Landrey and the newest member of the team - Mike Iovanna. In three years, Landrey has played some of his best games in the Vernon arena and a few players know that he was always good for a goal in the building. For Iovanna this is his fourth game with the his new team and first chance to play against his former team.
After struggling with no points through fourteen games, Iovanna was acquired in a trade to help fill the void of missing LeBrun and Bryant Christian. Although he went a fifteenth game without a point, Iovanna changed that in his second game with his new team after knocking down a puck and breaking in on a goal for his first of the season. Last night, the speedy winger joined Brogan O'Brien on one of his rushes and was able to tap in the puck on the short side for his second BCHL goal and second in as many games. This sets up the former Viper nicely for his return to Kal Tire Place and a chance to extend that scoring streak to three games.
Prior to last night's game, Alex Murray said of traveling all day to Trail that the team "didn't come all this way to go home empty handed." Murray backed up those words with some strong play in net coming up with momentum turning saves in all three periods. Murray came up with 26 of 28 saves and quite a few of them were of the highlight reel variety including one in the second period that he was able to throw his hand back and catch the puck with the heel of his catching glove before it crossed the goal line.
Another player that has been taking charge of the game is Mitch Eden. In the third period of last night's game, Eden scored the eventual winner on a shot that never hit the ice but did "break the goal plane" before being batted out of the air from behind the Smoke Eaters goaltender. The play of Brent Lashuck since returning from his injury and being placed on a line with Chad Staley and Jeremiah has turned this line into arguably the best line right now in the BCHL. Creating chance after chance and collecting points in all but one game since Lashuck's return, this line plays in all situations and is eating up their ice time and loving it.
Since losing 3-0 to the Spruce Kings back on October 4th in Prince George, the Vernon Vipers have put together own impressive string of points with eight wins and two overtime losses in twelve games. All of which has resulted in an improvement to both their average goals for (3.27) and goals against (3.14) in a game. Although the goals for is a little bit lower for Prince George (2.82), the Spruce Kings have one of the best goals against average allowing only 2.55 goals against per game.
A lot of those numbers can be attributed to the strong play between the pipes by both Murray and Jesse Jenks (who is still away with Team Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge). A lot of credit also has to go to the defensemen and a complete team defense first philosophy instilled by head coach Dave Dupas and assistant coach Colton Buffie. The coaching tandem on the road coupled with the assistant coach Jason Garneau and Stew Malgunas at home has the players completely buying into the program and that can be seen in the unselfish plays being made by players diving in front of point shots to make the block.
The larger ice surface tonight should not play in either team's favour as both teams played last night. The Spruce Kings did have to make the trip through the night from Trail to Vernon, but bunks on the bus and a little more time to rest this morning should have helped with the travel. The game tonight is a 7pm start and will be broadcast online through the usual pay-per-view feed on Fasthockey.com and the free online audio only feed from the Spruce Kings Mixlr Channel beginning with the pregame show at 6:40pm.