Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pair of Alumni Selected to Represent Canada in Russia

I have never considered myself a source of breaking news ... but it almost seems that way with this story. Spruce Kings alumni Justin Fillion and RJay Berra recently received and accepted selection invites to represent Canada in a basically all BCHL team in four team tournament. The Russian Invitational Tournament is scheduled for April 15-17 in Podolsk, Russia.

The process of making sure all the "T's" are crossed and the "I's" dotted has left some people overly cautious but still confident that the tournament will be a go with an expected departure from Vancouver on April 8th. Passports and legal documents have to be in order for a team that will consist of twenty players and the staff.

Hockey Canada was invited to enter a squad after being contacted by Russian goaltending legend Vladislav Tretiak. Ron Paterson of the Surrey Eagles is the team's General Manager and has been working hard at making sure that this event will become a reality for a list of players that have familiar names in the BCHL. For many of these players it will be their first chance to wear a Team Canada jersey and represent a country that is synonymous with the game of hockey.

"We're incredibly excited to be making this trip and giving these young men an opportunity to represent their country," said Team Canada general manager Ron Paterson. "It's been a lot of planning and paperwork but I'm sure it will be more than worthwhile once we get there."

Podolsk is a town of over 180,000 people situated about 50 kilometres south of Moscow. Each team in this event will play three games with each game being a three point contest in an IIHF round-robin format. The team with the most total points at the end will be declared the winner.

Leading up to the Tournament, Team Canada will have a pair of practices in Surrey before leaving Canadian soil on April 8th. After arriving in Russia there will be a few more opportunities to practice and one exhibition game. Team Canada will play one game on each day of the Tournament - April 15, 16 and 17. The actual opponent for those specific dates has not yet been determined.

The Canadian team is one of four teams with the other three teams expected to be the Russian National Junior Team, a Russian Select Team and the Slovakian National Junior Team. Made up of players coming from the BCHL, Team Canada consists of two 16 year olds, seven 18 year olds, six 19 year olds and five 20 year olds. The squad will be coached by Tim Kehler, the Salmon Arm Silverbacks bench boss and the 2011 BCHL Interior Conference Coach of the Year.

Talking with RJay Berra and Justin Fillion it is pretty obvious that this is being seen as an opportunity of a lifetime but also a chance to wear the Maple Leaf. It is an opportunity like this that makes all those early morning practices, hard hitting games and the daily grind of a junior hockey player all worthwhile.

With a majority of their junior careers played wearing the crown for the Prince George Spruce Kings, these two have already represented their hometown with respect and pride. Now they have a chance to represent Prince George, British Columbia and Canada in an International Tournament on foreign soil. Congratulations on being selected and good luck playing for Team Canada.

Position – Name (Home town/BCHL Club)

G – Khaleed Devji (West Vancouver, BC/Coquitlam Express)
G – Kris Moore (Calgary, Alta./Salmon Arm SilverBacks)

D – Troy Paterson (Surrey, BC/Cowichan Valley Capitals)
D – Justin Fillion (Prince George, BC/Victoria Grizzlies)
D – Brandon Pfeil (West Vancouver, BC/Merritt Centennials)
D – Mitch Jones (Delta, BC/Surrey Eagles)
D – Josh Manson (Prince Albert, Sask./Salmon Arm SilverBacks)
D – Jayson Reardon (Lumby, BC/Salmon Arm SilverBacks)

F – Brayden Jaw (Vancouver, BC/Nanaimo Clippers)
F – Mike Hammond (Victoria, BC/Salmon Arm SilverBacks)
F – Evan Richardson (Nanaimo, BC/Victoria Grizzlies)
F – Jake Charles (West Vancouver, BC/Coquitlam Express)
F – Austin Carroll (Vancouver, BC/Coquitlam Express)
F – Malcolm McKinney (West Vancouver, BC/Coquitlam Express)
F – RJay Berra (Prince George, BC/Prince George Spruce Kings)
F – Brett Knowles (Vanderhoof, BC/Salmon Arm SilverBacks)
F – Bryce Gervais (Battlefords, Sask./Salmon Arm SilverBacks)
F – Devin Gannon (Kamloops, BC/Salmon Arm SilverBacks)
F – David Killip (Kelowna, BC/Salmon Arm SilverBacks)
F – Jarryd Ten Vaanholt (West Vancouver, BC/Salmon Arm SilverBacks)

Head Coach – Tim Kehler, Salmon Arm SilverBacks
Assistant Coach – Colin O’Hara, Salmon Arm SilverBacks
General Manager – Ron Paterson, Surrey Eagles
Trainer – Wayne Hubbard
Massage Therapist – Larry Martin
Media relations – Eddie Gregory
Equipment Manager – Dan Ilich

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Three Times the Charm

... well at least that is what the Powell River Kings are hoping as they prepare to host the Vernon Vipers for the 2011 BCHL Championship. This is the third consecutive year that these two teams have met to vie for the Fred Page Cup. That is almost unbelievable ... save for the fact that it is the true.

As of this weekend when Game One opens in Powell River, five players will start their third consecutive year playing for the league championship. Michael Gartieg, gets an asterisk as he was in the Powell River Kings fold but was an extra with the team during the post season.

For the Powell River Kings, Andrew Pettitt and Chad Niddery as eighteen year olds were into their second seasons of their junior hockey career and were doing their part to contribute. In the post season Pettitt had a 2G 2A record in 15 games while Niddery had a 3G 3A record in 16 games.

Steven Weinstein patrolled the Vipers blue line during four games of the Conference Finals series versus the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Adam Thompson, another eighteen year old defenceman scored the first goal in the sixth game that saw the Vernon Vipers win 2-1 in Vernon and eliminate Powell River. Bryce Kakoske is the third member of the Vernon Vipers squad that will be trying to three-peat.

The numbers increase when you look at returning players from the last Vernon vs Powell River Championship series. Powell River has nine players returning to the League Championship while the Vernon Vipers have seven. Michael Gartieg again is a slight anomaly as he was suited up as the back up but never got any minutes in net. Of course Andrew Pettitt and Chad Niddery were front and centre, especially Niddery who played in all seven games and 23 in total during that post season.

Braden Pears, Klay Kachur, Brenden Forbes, Jason Yee, Steven Schmidt and Justin Dasilva are the six other playoff vets that know all too well the pain of suffering a post season loss to the Vernon Vipers.

The Vipers after making it to two consecutive RBC Royal Bank Cup Tournaments and claiming the National Championship were thought to be in a rebuilding season this year. It appears now that such a notion was only from the outsiders with the Vernon Vipers sending seven players back to the League Championship.

Although he only saw four games in his first post season, Steven Weinstein this time was dressed for a total of 19 playoff games including all seven against the Powell River Kings. Adam Thompson and Bryce Kakoske also dressed for all 19 of the Vernon Vipers playoff games en route to their second league championship.

Dylan Walchuk, from McBride, tasted success in his first post season coming up with a 5 point record in 19 games. David Robinson also played in the full allotment of playoff games whereas Patrick McGillis only played in one post season game - game one against the Powell River Kings. Blake Voth was the backup goaltender, but did get to see just under a period of play stopping all seven Kings shots he faced.

It will also be the third time that the coaching staff will be drawing up the X's and O's against each other. Kent Lewis who has had a banner year behind the bench of the Powell River Kings saw his team finish with a league best 97 points on the strength of a 46-9-3-2 record. In the late stages of the season, Lewis recorded his 500th win as a head coach.

Mark Ferner has been behind the bench of the Vernon Vipers for their two previous winning seasons that started with the Fred Page Cup, then the Doyle Cup and the two back-to-back RBC Royal Bank Cups. Earlier in the season, I had a conversation with Ferner and asked him if he thought about the prospect of doing what many people think is impossible - a complete three-peat. Ferner told me that he believes in this team and would love to be a part of something like that.

The Vernon Vipers quest for the three-peat of the BCHL Championship begins as it did two years ago in Powell River. In the 2008-09 post season, the Vernon Vipers won the Fred Page Cup on home ice in Game Six. Vipers won Game One 4-0, Game Two 3-0, Game Four 3-2 in overtime and Game Six 2-1. The Powell River Kings won Game Three 3-2 in overtime and Game Five 4-1.

The following year saw the Vernon Vipers with home ice advantage but the Powell River Kings stole home ice with a split in Vernon with the teams trading 2-1 and 3-1 wins. The Kings returned home and found themselves up 2-1 in the series with a Game Three shutout victory. The Vipers responded the next night doubling up the Kings 4-2 to make the series a best-of-three heading back to Vernon.

The Vipers won Game Five 4-2 putting the Powell River Kings on the brink of elimination in front of their hometown fans, the Kings would have nothing of that and came up with a statement win scoring four times in the second period to post a 5-2 win and force a seventh and deciding game. In Game Seven Chad Niddery spotted the Kings the 1-0 lead only to have the Vipers come back with three unanswered goals to win the game 3-1 and the series 4 games to 3.

So what trend will continue this year? Will it be the trend of Vernon winning the League Championship on home ice (i.e. Game Six on April 9th) or will Powell River go from two wins in 2009, to three wins in 2010 to four wins and the League Championship in 2011.

This one is too close to call and there are also the sentimental reasons for both teams to win ...

Powell River because they've been to the dance twice before only to leave without a date.

Vernon simply because how cool would it be to see a Junior 'A' team pull off the ultimate in three-peats.

The best-of-seven series gets started on Friday April 1st in Powell River with Game Two on Saturday night also in the Hap Parker Arena. Games Three and Four will be in the Wesbild Centre on April 4th and 5th. Games Five, Six and Seven as required will alternate with a day off in between - April 7th in Powell River, April 9th in Vernon and April 11th in Powell River.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Final Four

And then there were four ... four teams vying for the title of Champion. First up will be the Conference Championship and then the BCHL Championship. Exciting times for sure and an adrenaline rush for those hundred or so players and coaching staff still on the bench in game action.

It started less than a month ago with fourteen teams starting the post season ... although only twelve played in that first round. At the end of the season the Powell River Kings and the Vernon Vipers came out as the cream of the crop and were given a first round bye. Those two re-entered the field once it had been cut down to six teams to make up a total of four semi-final series.

In the first round there were no "real" upsets ... and I emphasize the word real because I'm only going by how the teams finished in the standings at the end of the regular season. Although there were no upsets, its safe to say there was a lot of disappointment with only one of the six series going the distance and only one win to show among the other five teams with four being swept away.

The second round provided more excitement for sure and at least one upset with the Penticton Vees being escorted from the party after five games with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks. Arguably Kris Moore stole the show in this series after being outshot 135 - 65 in the first three games but allowing only four goals against while the team in front of him tallied eight times. In those first three games that saw the Silverbacks go up 3-0 in the series, Moore was the first star each time.

The other two versus three series saw the Surrey Eagles, who dropped the first game, go up 3-1 on the Langley Chiefs before finishing off their Coastal Conference foes in six games. The series was marred at times by some unsportmanlike play resulting in 236 penalty minutes as well as misconducts in four of the six games. I suppose its not surprising that these two teams have such a heated rivalry, after all their home rinks are only a half hour apart.

Starting the playoffs in round two with the opportunity of completing the unthinkable three-peat in Junior A hockey was the two-time defending National Champions - the Vernon Vipers. Although the Westside Warriors came out on the wrong end of the score in game one, they put together two solid efforts and had the Vipers down 2-1 in the series. I was immediately reminded of the playoffs a year ago when the Quesnel Millionaires put a scare into the Vipers only to have Vernon come back and keep rolling all the way to the RBC Royal Bank Cup Championship. Like they did a year ago, the Vipers came back strong winning the next three games and outscoring the Warriors 14-4 in the process.

The League's best in the regular season, the Powell River Kings also started their post season in round two against a Victoria Grizzlies squad that seemed to be rolling along at the right time. Coming off a five game series win over the Nanaimo Clippers, the Grizzlies were quickly reminded that the Kings were a much different squad and beating a team that had only lost nine games in the regular season would take something of a miracle.

The Victoria Grizzlies found that miracle on night number two staying right with their opponents and taking them to overtime where they stole home ice advantage in a 4-3 double overtime victory. The momentum carried the Grizzlies over in both of their home games and they found themselves up 3-1 on the Powell River Kings with a chance to end it all in game five. It was game five that many Victoria fans will have nightmares about.

After scoring a goal in each of their previous three games and three wins over the Kings, Dustin Johnson scored with 1:01 remaining in the third period to tie the game and force overtime. In that overtime period the Victoria Grizzlies were given an unbelievable opportunity with a powerplay at 8:35 on a roughing call. The Grizzlies had good pressure and were poised to dispose of the Powell River Kings except for an unbelievable diving block on a labeled Justin Fillion howitzer that allowed the Kings to kill off the man advantage.

Some thirty seconds after the successful penalty kill, the Kings went down the other end of the ice and claimed that game five overtime decision. The win put the Powell River Kings right back into the series and they would post back-to-back 4-1 victories to complete the series comeback winning all three elimination games.

All of this sets up an interesting Conference Finals that will have four of the five top teams from the regular season vying for an opportunity to play for the League Championship. In the Coastal Conference, the Powell River Kings are arguably the favourite as they will host the Surrey Eagles. Until late Wednesday night, the Eagles had no idea if they were going to have to travel to Powell River or play host to start the Cliff McNabb (Coastal Conference Championship Trophy) best-of-seven series.

Hockey players are a resilient sort and I don't think the short time frame to make travel arrangements will play a role once the Surrey Eagles step on the ice in Powell River. The extra couple of days that the Eagles had off following their physical series will also have been to the advantage of the team without it being long enough to have to worry about rust setting in.

As for the Powell River Kings, not only did they have to go the distance in their best-of-seven, they played an additional 40 minutes to settle three games in overtime. Travel in and out of Powell River isn't the easiest thing for either team and certainly the Kings are not immune from the required ferry crossings and miles on the windy Sunshine Coast.

Looking at the numbers between these two teams you have to remember that the Surrey Eagles have been active for ten post season games through two rounds while the Powell River Kings only have the one series to establish their numbers. Looking at points per game, the Surrey Eagles Bradley McGowan comes in with 1.8 per game with a record of 6 goals and 12 assists in 10 games. Chad Niddery has 5 goals and 5 assists or a 1.4 points per game average for the Powell River Kings.

As for post season goals for and against, the Surrey Eagles have the edge there averaging 4.3 goals a game while allowing only 2.4 goals against. Even when the 18 goals scored in the first series are taken out of the equation, the Eagles have a 4.17 goals per game average. In comparison the Powell River Kings average is 3.29 goals for and 2.43 goals against.

Interestingly enough, the goaltenders for these two teams have identical 2.27 goals against averages. Karl St. Laurent's save percentage of 92.5 with the Surrey Eagles is slightly better than Michael Garteig's 89.7 in seven games with the Powell River Kings. St. Laurent also gets the edge in the win loss column with eight wins and only two losses while Garteig was dinged with three losses.

It does appear that the Surrey Eagles have a slight edge offensively and have used their prowess up front to strengthen their defenses. In the regular season, the Powell River Kings used their strength from the man between the pipes and their ability to stifle opposition and provide their opportunities offensively. If the Powell River Kings get back to what made them successful through the first sixty games, they will make it tough on a Surrey Eagles team that excels on a larger ice surface than what is available in Powell River.

In the Interior Conference Finals, fans should expect to see a lot of speed out of two teams that can open up a game in a flash. Not that there will be a lack of physical play, but these two teams prefer to use the ice with long strides and longer passes. Both teams have had a few days off and will be itching to get back on the ice. The Ryan Hatfield (Interior Conference Championship Trophy) series may very well become a goaltender's duel.

Both teams have found success with the masked men between the pipes. In Salmon Arm, the hero of the previous series was Kris Moore who stole the show in the first three games to spot the Silverbacks to a 3-0 series lead. It might come as a surprise to some that Moore has a higher goals against average than his counterpart. The Silverbacks netminder has a respectable 2.52 GAA with a record of 8-1 and a save percentage of 93.1 in nine games, but it is Kirby Halcrow who sits as the best in the league this playoffs based on his 1.74 GAA. Halcrow has only been in five games recording 3 wins and 1 loss with a 92.4 save percentage.

The Vernon Vipers went into the playoffs with two 19 year old goaltenders and it was Blake Voth that got the nod to start the series which he did with a win. Game two wasn't as kind to Voth as he got yanked 33 seconds into the second period. It is said that the position of goaltender is the unkindest of them all cause you never know when you are going to get back in especially when the other guy plays so well.

Kirby Halcrow did play well allowing only one goal against in 38 minutes in the remainder of game two. Halcrow suffered a loss in game three but it wasn't enough for the coaching staff to change their plans and that faith paid off as Halcrow posted three consecutive wins allowing only four goals against.

Offensively speaking the Salmon Arm Silverbacks have three players that have better than a point a game average while the Vernon Vipers don't have any. The Silverbacks top guns are a pair of nineteen year olds - Brett Knowles (5G, 9A) and Devin Gannon (5G, 5A) and one overager - Mike Hammond (8G, 5A) who was acquired from the Cowichan Valley Capitals at the trade deadline. Hammond finished the regular season as the league's scoring leader finishing with 93 points total.

Before you factor in the significance of having a short list of players with a better than a point a game average, consider that the Vernon Vipers finished first in the Interior Conference with only one player in that category. Dylan Walchuk, who played in 55 games, finished with 56 points (24G, 32A) while two others finished just shy of a point a game average - David Robinson and Bryce Kakoske both reached the 50 point plateau. The real strength of the Vernon Vipers comes from their depth with fourteen players finishing with 24 or more points.

As I mentioned earlier, this series could come down to which goaltender cracks first under the offensive pressure that both teams are capable of applying at will. Through the regular season, goaltending was the Vernon Vipers edge but in the post season Kris Moore has shown spectacular form. If Moore and the Silverbacks keep it going, they may very well stop the Vipers from doing something that is unheard of in Junior A hockey.

I'm excited for the start of the Conference Finals and I will be paying as close attention as possible to both series, posting results and reactions to my twitter account (@ron_gallo).