|Justin Rai (17) scored the double overtime winner last night|
after receiving the heads up pass from Mitch Eden (27)
Photo courtesy Garrett James Photography
While the Spruce Kings look to keep rolling and finish up a three game weekend with another win, they are also mindful of the fact that this is the first of three in a row against the Langley Rivermen. Although this can't be officially billed as a playoff preview, it very well could be just that if both teams do what they are expected to do in the first round. Today's game is a 2pm start which adds a wrinkle becoming the third game in basically two and a half days for the Prince George Spruce Kings.
While the Spruce Kings were playing in extra time last night and then traveling back to their home base before winding down for the night, the Rivermen had the option of making it an early night and getting up early while still be rested if they took the option of watching the Gold Medal game in the Winter Olympics. That option of getting up was not as easy to make for the boys representing the North. Although you have to imagine that some if not most or even all, did just that.
Travel in the BCHL for Prince George has never been easy, but testing the wariness of that travel on the final day of a long road trip is not ideal. Throughout the season, the players have been coached both on the ice and off the ice when it comes to managing the game; rest is a big part of that management. Some of that game management was seen last night in Chilliwack, when the Spruce Kings found themselves down 3-0 through a three minute span in the first half of the first period.
The Chilliwack Chiefs opened the scoring on an unassisted break-away by Jordan Kawaguchi at the 9:16 mark. Shortly after that, Prince George took back-to-back penalties allowing the Chiefs to set up on an extended two man advantage with Matthew Tibbett scoring from the slot at 11:25. Kawaguchi would get his second of the game and give the home town fans reason to be excited for the game they chose to come out and watch when he was fed a pass from Caleb Thompson, stepped over the Spruce Kings blue line and ripped a shot glove side at 12:41.
Although Jesse Jenks can't be faulted for the poor start, sometimes the coaching staff had to make the change and put Alex Murray in for the rest of the game. The decision served its purpose and the team was able to start its climb out of the hole they had dug for themselves. On their second power play early in the second period, Sean Landrey took the ensuing faceoff and won it back to Skylar Pacheco. Landrey then went to the front of the net and was able to get the blade of his stick on the point shot to tip the puck into the back of the net.
That goal came at 7:12 and it would be another ten minutes before there was another goal, it to came on a Spruce Kings powerplay. With Jeremiah Luedtke, Justin Rai and Chad Staley cycling the puck down low, Luedtke brought the puck to the top of the crease for the first shot. The Chiefs defender was unable to clear the puck leaving it for Staley to try, his shot was stopped with the rebound coming out to Rai who lifted his 20th of the season over the stretched out netminder and Prince George was within one.
Before the goal could be announced in Prospera Centre, the line of Braiden Epp, Brogan O'Brien and Marco Ballarin all contributed on the tying goal just 40 seconds later. Epp, who played one of his best games all season, stole the puck in the neutral zone and passed it up to O'Brien who walked over the blue line and took a big shot from the top of the faceoff circle. The save was made but a juicy rebound came right onto the stick of Marco Ballarin who also went with a high shot to score his fifth of the season and pull the Spruce Kings even.
Chad Staley would give Prince George their first lead of the game three minutes into the third period when he received a pass from Jeremiah Luedtke in the low slot and as he skated through the top of the crease, backhanded a rising shot that fooled Josh Halpenny on the glove side. The Chilliwack Chiefs, who put on a strong game, didn't go away and at one point were awarded a penalty shot when Matthew Tibbett was hauled down by Christian Weidauer and fell awkwardly into the goal post back first. Tibbett looked to be shaken up on the play but elected to take the shot that Alex Murray kicked aside with right foot.
That was one of Murray's nineteen saves on the night, the lone save he couldn't make would come a few moments later when Jaret Babych skated down the right wing and let a howitzer go that squeezed through the blocker and body just above the big pads of Murray to tie the game up at four goals a-piece. That Spruce Kings came to within a skate blade and mound of snow from winning the game outright in the final minute of regulation time when Jake LeBrun tried to tap home a shot from the side of the net leaving the puck sitting against the goal post.
With overtime required both teams would be credited with two shots each in the first five minutes of extra time. In the second overtime period, Mitch Eden picked up the puck inside his own zone, spotted Justin Rai in the middle and fed the perfect pass for the speedy forward who picked it up on the fly and got a stride on the defender. The shot was another high shot, this time blocker side 19 seconds into double overtime giving Rai his 21st goal of the season and fourth game winning goal of the year.
The win is the Spruce Kings 32nd on the season, giving them 69 points, which is just 3 shy of their all time BCHL franchise record mark of 72 set just two seasons ago when PG finished with 72 points in 60 games. This year the game played are only 58 and with three games remaining, the Spruce Kings have a legitimate chance of catching and surpassing that total. Of course standing in the way are the Langley Rivermen who have 77 points.
As mentioned, the Rivermen will be a rested group, but the Spruce Kings may have adrenaline on their side. Throughout the season, Prince George has come up with six wins in eight of those third games in a three game set. A couple of them have even come against the Langley Rivermen. Overall the Spruce Kings head-to-head record against Langley has Prince George leading by a single point. These two teams have played each other six times so far with both teams picking up three wins, one of Langley's wins came in overtime. As for goal differential, Prince George leads that 16-14.
Those are just numbers, the Spruce Kings will want to have a solid effort from top to bottom today and may want to test a team early that has secured top spot and had the day off yesterday. The early start could be beneficial to a team that isn't at a hundred percent right now. Cooper Rush is still waiting doctor clearance to return to Prince George, Riley Hawes is back home recouping, Brent Lashuk was a scratch last night and will be a game time decision today and Karan Toor will be a game time decision today.
Injuries are another variable that has to be managed accordingly, but with the confidence that the coaching staff has been putting into the younger players, this team is exuding confidence on every line and every line has been creating chances. Look to see another strong game from the likes of Braiden Epp, Brogan O'Brien, Matt Painchaud, Cole Todd, Marco Ballarin and Mitch Barker up front who are showing that the long term future of the Spruce Kings is bright.
It is an early game today with puck drop scheduled for 2pm from the Langley Events Centre. The game will be broadcast live online with the pay-per-view feed available through Fasthockey.com and a free audio only webcast on the Spruce Kings Mixlr Channel beginning with a pregame show at 1:40pm. Following the game, the Spruce Kings will return home to wrap up the regular season with a double header on Thursday and Friday against this very same Langley Rivermen squad.