Friday, January 17, 2014

Game Day at Victoria Grizzlies

One time member of the Spruce Kings, Leo Fitzgerald (9) is
questionable to return to action tonight against his former team

The Prince George Spruce Kings are back on Vancouver Island to start a three game in three day road trip beginning with a stop in the Bear cave tonight. The Coastal Conference best team, the Victoria Grizzlies will play host to the visiting royalty tonight as Prince George goes looking for win number four in a row and number 25 on the season.

A win tonight for Prince George all but assures them of a playoff spot with sixteen games still remaining in the regular season. The team's magic number is technically 2 points but that would put them in a tiebreaker scenario with the Chilliwack Chiefs. If Chilliwack loses, the Spruce Kings would officially become the second team in the BCHL to secure a minimum of four games in the post season.

Not getting ahead of themselves will be very important for a group that has seen some highs and some lows this season while remaining near the top spot of the Mainland Division for almost the entire season. The Spruce Kings come into the game tonight with a three game win streak after posting back-to-back wins on home ice last weekend over the Surrey Eagles. The Victoria Grizzlies will be a little ornery after suffering a mid-week 4-3 loss to the Nanaimo Clippers.

Prior to that the Grizzles were 5 and 0 in their previous five game - all of which were played on home ice. The Grizzlies have an impressive 13-5-1-1 record on home ice and start another four game home stand tonight against the visiting Spruce Kings. On the road, Prince George has fared extremely well posting a record of 12-8-2-1, good for half their wins and half their points. Perhaps if there is a concern it will the Spruce Kings road record against Island Division teams where they are yet to pick up a point.

Although they played a very close game against the Powell River Kings, the Spruce Kings came up empty with a 2-1 regulation time loss. The following night in Port Alberni, the team played a forgettable game that saw them drop a 5-2 decision to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs. Finding a way to play against the more physical style of the Island based teams will be a priority for the Spruce Kings tonight as they look to start a tough weekend road trip on a positive note against a tough team in the Victoria Grizzlies.

The Grizzlies recently went through an ownership change that filtered down to an immediate change behind the bench. Gone is long time BCHL coaching Bill Bestwick. Perhaps best known for his days with the Nanaimo Clippers and for bringing the Fitzgerald triplets into the League, Bestwick is now a senior advisor with the Clippers. Craig Didmon is now the head coach in Victoria with Scott Hawthorne the assistant coach. From Victoria with long time ties to game of hockey in the Province's Capital, Didmon started this season as his fifth season behind the bench as an assistant and was immediately promoted to bench boss with the vacancy.

The team itself has been performing well since game one and comes into their 43rd game of the season tied with a league best record of 27-10-3-2. The Penticton Vees have a similar record of 27-10-2-3 while the Langley Rivermen have played more games but also have a 59 points with a record of 27-12-1-4. The Grizzlies have a better record, than the other two, in their previous ten outings with 8 wins and 2 losses.

Leading the way offensively are two thirds of the Fitzgerald triplets, Myles and Gerry have combined for 112 points while Leo has been sidelined for much of the season and has only been on the ice for three games, he suited up for a fourth but never made it to the opening faceoff and hasn't played a game since September 13th. There was speculation that Leo would make his return to the game on Wednesday night but didn't. That same speculation exists for tonight's game and we will have to wait and see if the one-time Spruce King will be able to play against his former team.

Victoria has a number of weapons in their arsenal, besides the Fitzgerald triplets there is Jesse Schwartz (14G, 30A), Travis Stephens (13G, 18A), Garrett Forster 12G, 9A), Jay Mackie (7G, 14A) and Mark McLellan (10G, 10A) are all into the 20+ point club among forwards. Then there's the offensively minded defenceman led by Brandon Egli (8G, 17A) and Jacob Kearley (3G, 16A). Rounding out the team is the goaltending duo of Alec Dillon (2.32 GAA, .923 SV%) and Nic Renyard (2.72 GAA, .911 SV%). Dillon ranks 3rd in both stats among the League's best netminders.

On paper, these two teams match up pretty evenly in styles with the offensive edge going to the Victoria Grizzlies, but the Spruce Kings are used to being the underdog and play better when they are in that role. In their first meeting of the season, the Grizzlies were able to claim the points in a tough defensive battle that ended in a 1-0 regulation time loss for the Spruce Kings playing their first game without Jake LeBrun in the lineup.

The Spruce Kings are basically healthy with the lone exception being Cooper Rush who was hurt in his first game playing for Prince George against his former team. The Spruce Kings have also brought along a pair of affiliate players (APs) and are expecting to get both Mitch Barker and Stefan Wood into the lineup at some point this weekend.

Prince George does come into the game tonight riding a bit of a high after those two wins over Surrey last weekend that feature a pair of hattricks against their Divisional opponent. On Friday night, Brent Lashuk picked up his second hattrick of the season and coincidentally, his second against the Surrey Eagles while Just Rai started on Friday with a goal and an assist and then provided the overtime heroics to register his first BCHL career hattrick against a team he grew up watching.

Finding different players to contribute offensively tonight will be another key to picking up valuable points in their race to the top of the Mainland Division. Tonight's game is one of three games that Prince George has on the front running Langley Rivermen who have a seven point cushion. One other game in the BCHL tonight of interest to the road team is being played in Coquitlam where the Express are hosting the Chilliwack Chiefs. As mentioned earlier, points for Prince George coupled with any points lost by Chilliwack will officially put the Spruce Kings into the post season.

Tonight's game from Bear Mountain Arena in Colwood has a 7:15pm start time and will be broadcast live online with the pay-per-view feed available through and a free audio only webcast on the Spruce Kings Mixlr Channel beginning with a pregame show at 6:50pm. Following the game, the Spruce Kings will return to their home base in Nanaimo and will play the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Saturday night and the Clippers Sunday afternoon.

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