Thursday, February 24, 2011

Playoffs Underway

Unfortunately for the Spruce Kings, they will not be in the 2011 edition of the BCHL Playoffs, but not for a lack of trying. I know ... I already covered that, but if I could allow me to just say one more time how impressed I was with the push they gave to get in.

The very first game of the BCHL Playoffs could very well have been the Spruce Kings up against the Penticton Vees on Thursday night. The first series between the second place and seventh place team had to get started one night earlier than the rest of the series because of the arena being booked for a Toby Keith concert on Saturday night.

The Penticton Vees saw the Quesnel Millionaires as recently as Saturday night where the Millionaires skated with the Penticton Vees early but could not maintain the pace dropping a 5-2 decision. That same scenario basically played out on this night again with the two teams tied at 1-1 after the first period on the strength of a pair of early goals traded in the first five minutes.

In the second period, the second best team in the Interior Division started to pull away from their first round opponents and scored a pair of goals in both the second and third periods to register the 5-1 win. The two will meet again on Friday night in the South Okanagan Events Centre and the other five series will also start up around the league.

In the Interior, the Westside Warriors (4) and the Trail Smoke Eaters (5) will start their best of seven series in West Kelowna. This is the series that has generated the most votes around the league as the series most likely to go the distance.

The Westside Warriors have a lot of fire power up front with five players all finishing with over 50 points each and 136 goals between them. Defensively their is some big bodies back there including Prince George Minor Hockey product - Michael King and five other NCAA Division I committed players on the blue line.

Don't look for either of the Warriors goaltenders in the league's top ten, but even if that is the weak link ... don't expect it to be the breaking point. Kevin Boyle finished with a respectable 3.02 goals against average and a save percentage better than 90 percent. Cole Holewenko may have single-handedly kept the Spruce Kings from realizing their post-season aspirations stopping 20 of 21 shots in the third period of the final game in the regular season.

There's a reason this series is thought to be the series most likely to go the distance and that is the Trail Smoke Eaters and especially what they showed they are capable of doing early in the season. The one knock going into the first round is that they have the memories of having their post season ended twice in a row by the Westside Warriors.

For the Trail Smoke Eaters their strength starts from between the pipes with the best goaltending tandem in the Interior Conference. The rookie goaltender Matt Larose saw the fewer number of goals with Kiefer Smiley playing a majority of the games. Larose finished with a 2.67 GAA and 92.40 save percentage; Smiley was right there with a GAA of 2.83 and a 91.50 save percentage.

Like the Warriors, the Trail Smoke Eaters boast five players that have registered over 50 points each. Conversely the Smoke Eaters defensive core is not nearly as decorated with only Jake Baker and Eric Walker having secured NCAA Division I scholarships.

At the trade deadline the Trail Smoke Eaters acquired Nic DeSousa from the Spruce Kings and since playing for the Big Smoke, the Fraser Lake export has picked up 14 points (4 goals and 10 assists) in 16 games for a season total of 56 points (17 goals and 29 assists) in 60 games. The DeSousa trade was the only move made by the Smoke Eaters at the trade deadline and was designed to compliment the team's top two lines.

The other series in the Interior Division has the Salmon Arm Silverbacks (3) hosting the Merritt Centennials (6) for the first two games of their best of seven series. The Silverbacks stubbed their toes coming out of the regular season with a 10-5 loss to the Coquitlam Express in game sixty. The loss cost the Silverbacks second place in the Interior Conference and prevented a repeat of last year's first round of the playoffs with the Quesnel Millionaires.

Excluding that one game blemish, the Silverbacks strung together an 8-1-0-1 record to finish the season scoring 55 goals against their opponents. Mike Hammond finished the regular season as the League's top scorer finishing with 93 points (39 goals and 54 assists). Seven forwards finished with a better than 50 points each and a pair of defenceman were on the doorstep of that magic marker.

The depth of the Silverbacks was evident with the selection of Bryce Gervais as the Interior Conference Rookie of the Year. Tim Kehler also won the Coach of the Year award. Hardware aside, the Silverbacks have worked hard since the off-season to get to where they are this season and won't be pushed to an early exit easily by the Centennials.

Despite struggling for points in their final ten games, the Merritt Centennials seemed to be working on specific areas of their game and may have gotten all the parts working in unison just in time for game sixty. The Centennials will be a bit of an unknown because of this but will have to go for a split in Salmon Arm before bringing the series back to the Nicola Valley Arena where they have the chance to surprise their opposition.

The offensive scales are not balanced in this series with the Merritt Centennials having only one player with a better than a 50 point season heading in to the playoffs. The Centennials saw the Spruce Kings put together victories first hand on the strength of a team defense first approach ... if they use that approach and truly believe in "One Town. One Team. One Dream." they will be able to overcome the loss of JP Witkop who was suspended for the first two games of the series.

Of course the Vernon Vipers received a first round bye finishing with the best record in the Interior Division. The Powell River Kings also get a first round bye after finishing as the league's best team this year. The Coastal Kings picked up points in 51 of 60 games finishing with an 46-9-3-2 record.

In the Coastal Conference, the first round series will see the Surrey Eagles (2) welcome back the Coquitlam Express (7) to the BCHL Playoffs after the Express missed out on post season play the two previous years. The Coastal Conference most offensively gifted team, the Langley Chiefs (3) will host the Alberni Valley Bulldogs (6).

Billed as the Coastal Conference most heated rivalry and expected to be one of the most intense playoff matchups, the Victoria Grizzlies (4) won home ice advantage over their first round opponent the Nanaimo Clippers (5) in their final game of the season.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Team Awards

The British Columbia Hockey League announced their annual trophy winners on Tuesday and the Spruce Kings will announce their team awards on Wednesday during the annual Player's Awards Banquet. Awards include the only non-player award - the Volunteer of the Year.

The only trophy presentation that is no secret heading into the banquet is the annual recognition given to the team's top scorer. This year the standout rookie, Jujhar Khaira will lay claim to that trophy finishing the season with 42 points and one of only two Gordie Howe Hat Tricks on the season.

Into its fifth season of existence, the newest team trophy recognizes the work and dedication that a player has for the community he plays hockey in - the Craig Dzuiballe Memorial Trophy for Outstanding Community Service. Previous winners include RJay Berra, Zach Davies, Peter Funnell and Ryan DeVries.

Also a relatively new trophy that recognizes achievement in the education arena - the Scholastic Player of the Year trophy will be awarded to its sixth recipient. Previous winners include RJay Berra (2x), Kevin Genoe, Jordan Inglis and Patrick Sullivan.

The rest of the hardware will put players that receive these trophies in the elite company of some of the most recognized and remembered Spruce Kings alumni. Up for grabs will be the Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Most Inspirational Player, Most Dedicated Player, Defenceman of the Year, the Seventh Player and the regular season MVP.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Battle to the End

It is the unfortunate end of the season for the Prince George Spruce Kings. It came right down to the end to but they came up two shots short of squeezing out the required two points in that last game of the season. What a treat to watch and what a treat to call as the players put everything they could into that final twenty minutes in West Kelowna and in fact it wasn't until the final ten seconds that reality started to set in.

It started out well for the Spruce Kings with a goal early after Matt Kronin broke his stick on a point shot that led to a three-on-one break out set up by the quick thinking of Ben Woodley. One of the latest acquisitions to the team, Big Ben spotted Dustin Beairsto on the right wing and quickly Beairsto was away to the races with Jujhar Khaira coming down the middle and Todd Skirving joining the rush on the left side.

After gaining the blue line, Beairsto dished to Khaira who faked shot pulling the goaltender out to the top of the crease before giving back to Beairsto who made no mistake in finding the open net. The Spruce Kings led that final game of the regular season 1-0 with the opening goal just 1:12 into the first period. That tally would stand up as the only goal until the mid-way mark of the second when Quinn Gould was able to force a turnover in the Spruce Kings end and get the puck to Kyle Singleton for his first of three on the night.

After Singleton scored a similar goal that was the result of Gould forced turnover, the eventual game winner came off the stick of a Prince George minor hockey product - Michael King. Committing to Colorado College earlier in the year, King showed off some of the assets that got him the NCAA Div I scholarship when his big shot from under the blue line was tipped in off the stick of Singleton to give the Warriors a 3-1 lead early in the third period.

The Spruce Kings still didn't go away and got the game to within one with lots of time remaining in the third period. Connor Teichko spotted and sprung Kyle Manlow for a breakaway from the top of the Westside Warriors zone. Manlow moved in with speed right down the slot and made a couple of moves in tight before sliding the puck along the ice and under Cole Holewenko to pull the Spruce Kings to within one with the 3-2 tally.

The back breaker was the result of perhaps the only miscue the Spruce Kings made the entire night. After defending their own zone for an extended period of time, the Spruce Kings thought they had cleared the zone and got it far enough down the ice to allow for a line change. Brayden Sherbinin knocked the puck down at centre ice and moved it back into the Spruce Kings zone with speed. In all alone on Kirk Thompson, Sherbinin made a couple of nice moves before lifting the puck high off the backhand making the score 4-2.

The Spruce Kings still didn't go away and for the rest of the game had the Warriors hemmed inside their own zone getting shot after shot on Holewenko but unable to complete the miracle come-back. When all the shots were tallied up, the Spruce Kings were credited with 21 shots in that third period and that didn't take into account the three goal posts or numerous blocked shots in front of the net.

For three nights in a row and for the fifth straight game, the Spruce Kings battled with a fierce tenacity and would not give up on the dream of getting to the post season easily. That warrior attitude that was shown on the ice was clearly publicly recognized by the Penticton Vees - the team that the stood a good chance of meeting the Spruce Kings in the first round. Fred Harbinson, the Vees head coach and general manager, said in the post game show on Friday night that he didn't want to have to play Prince George in the first round that they were that tough of an opponent.

Unfortunately the Spruce Kings could not realize the dream of making the post season. Following Saturday night's game a dejected group of players packed up their bags and proceeded to enjoy one last post-game meal together. Perhaps adding a little more sting to the wound, less than twenty four hours later the Spruce Kings learned that the Quesnel Millionaires were shut out by the Vernon Vipers and had failed to pick up even a single point in their final weekend - a point that would have eliminated the Spruce Kings even if they had beaten Westside.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Final Game of the Regular Season

It is game number sixty of sixty marking the end of the regular season for the Prince George Spruce Kings, but will this be the final hurdle before heading into the "second season?"

It is cliche, but so true of the playoffs that whatever happened in the regular season doesn't mean anything when all teams start the post season with a clean slate. The Spruce Kings are hoping the hockey gods have taken a shine to them since the Christmas Break and will see them through to the second season when the dust settles after Sunday's final games in the BCHL.

The Spruce Kings have worked hard to get to where they are today and that is the opportunity to play a game that means something to them and their season - a win and they will immediately turn their attention to the Quesnel Millionaires and what they are doing in their final two games.

The Spruce Kings started the weekend with their magic number sitting at 11 and only able to pick up a maximum of six points and the understanding that anything less than five and the season would be over. On Thursday night they rolled into Merritt, after giving up the game's first goal they built up a lead on the strength of a pair of powerplay goals and defeated the Centennials 4-2.

That win brought the Spruce Kings magic number down to 9 and the requirement to pick up at least three points in their final two games. On Friday night the Spruce Kings registered one of those required points after tying the game late in the third period and getting the game to overtime where nothing was settled in a 2-2 tie.

In West Kelowna the Westside Warriors shutout the Quesnel Millionaires which brought the Spruce Kings magic number down to 6 where it currently sits heading into Saturday night's games. The Millionaires and Spruce Kings swap opponents tonight with Quesnel in Penticton and Prince George in Westside.

Looking at the games, obviously the Millionaires have something to play for as they need at least a single point to officially eliminate the Spruce Kings on their own. The Penticton Vees will be reeling after giving up the chance to catch Vernon for top spot in the Interior Conference, but still up for grabs is second place with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks two points back and with a game in hand on Penticton.

On the other hand, the Westside Warriors locked up home ice advantage heading into the playoffs. It would make sense that the pressure for the Warriors to come up with points is diminished and instead the notion of "resting" some key players is of more importance to them.

Maybe that is wishful thinking or maybe that is how I am hoping the hockey gods are working this scenario for the Spruce Kings. Either way tonight's games are very important to the Spruce Kings and so is Sunday afternoon's game with the Quesnel Millionaires finishing off the season in the home of the first place Vernon Vipers. The Spruce Kings need two points to keep their playoff lives alive but they also need Penticton and Vernon to win in regulation time to take over that final playoff spot and get into the post season.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Playoff Spot Still In Sight

Reading through some of the media articles about the Spruce Kings and their final weekend of regular season play has left me confused as to what it will take for the team to squeak into the playoffs. The word squeak might not be fitting because it will take a monumental effort from the Spruce Kings this weekend and a lot of help from three divisional opponents to pull off.

One of the most over used cliches I hear from coaches during my pre-game interviews with them is that they can "only play their game" and they "can't control what other teams do." Looking at that cliche from a post game perspective it becomes readily apparent that the Spruce Kings must look at themselves for the situation they find themselves in.

At the same token they have been able to stay on par with the team they continue to try and catch to claim the last playoff spot in the BCHL Interior Division. After Thursday night's 4-2 win over the Merritt Centennials, the Spruce Kings find themselves three points back of the Quesnel Millionaires. The Mills have three games remaining while the Spruce Kings are down to a pair against the Penticton Vees and the Westside Warriors.

The Spruce Kings magic number right now is 9 ... a total of 9 points either lost by the Quesnel Millionaires or gained by the Spruce Kings. With only two games remaining the Spruce Kings can only control four of those points with wins on Friday and Saturday night. The other points have to come from the Millionaires failing to earn them.

What that means is that as it stands right now in its simplest terms is that the Spruce Kings need a minimum of three points - a win (either in overtime or regulation time) and an overtime decision being either a win, loss or tie. Coupled with that is a requirement of zero points from their rivals who have games against the Westside Warriors, Penticton Vees and Vernon Vipers this weekend. A single point by the Quesnel Millionaires means the Spruce Kings will have to pick up two wins.

Where things start getting tense for the Spruce Kings is if the Millionaires pick up more than a single point. Right now three points puts the Spruce Kings in a tie with Quesnel resulting in a tie breaker to decide the final playoff spot. The first tie breaker in the BCHL is the number of wins - currently the Spruce Kings and Millionaires are tied with 13 of those. If the Spruce Kings get their three points they will obviously have 14 wins which means they would win the tie breaker for the final playoff spot.

Does that make it any clearer? Probably not but the players aren't worrying about it, they are just going out there and playing some of their best hockey of the season ... and that is something that seems to be missing in all of the media reports lately. That will be the subject matter for a latter blog ... for now lets just enjoy this roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows and see how it all plays out.