It’s another Mainland Division weekend for the Vees and it starts tonight with the Langley Rivermen at the SOEC. Last weekend it was the Coquitlam Express taking both games of a home-and-home series with the Vees, the latter coming in Penticton, in overtime on Saturday; the Vees don’t want history to repeat itself tonight.
This week started a two week stretch of tough games for the Mainland Division leading Rivermen. Langley is in the midst of a three game road trip that started with a win in Prince George Wednesday (2-1) and wraps up tomorrow in West Kelowna. In a quirk in their schedule, after the Riv’ play Saturday IN West Kelowna, they have to scramble home for a 2pm matinee affair on Sunday against Chilliwack. Next weekend it’s another Interior road swing for Langley, as they make stops in Trail and Salmon Arm. That’s six games over in 11 Divisions split between two Divisions; grueling.
This is the second and final meeting in the regular season between these two non-divisional combatants. The two skated to an entertaining 1-1 draw back on October 19th at the Langley Events Centre; a goaltenders duel. Hunter Miska was terrific in that game for the Vees, stopping 36 of 37 including 10 shots in overtime. His counterpart, Steve Myland, was as good, turning aside 44 of 45 Vees shots, 15 of which came in the two overtime periods. Ben Dalpe scored for the Vees in the third to force overtime, after Matt Ustaski scored a short-handed marker in the second period to opening the scoring.
- I will lead with this again, the Vees are looking to string back-to-back wins together for just the second time this month and third since October 11th & 12th. Their season high win streak is four and that’s very attainable over the next two weeks. But you can’t win four if you don’t win three, you can’t win three if you don’t win two and you can’t win two if you don’t win tonight.
- The upside to their streaky play of late, has been the ongoing ability to bounce back after a loss. Coming into tonight’s game, the Vees are 7-1-0-1 after a loss, outscoring their opponents 34-20 in those nine games. After a Saturday’s somewhat bitter loss in OT to Coquitlam, the Vees regrouped and put together one of their best efforts of the month, in a 3-2 win in West Kelowna; now can they build off of that tonight.
- The Mainland Division has presented it’s challenges to the Vees, as they’ve got just one win to their name in five games. That win was on home ice, back on October 2nd when they goose-egged the Prince George Spruce Kings 2-0. They’ve lost twice in regulation, both coming on the road, Friday a 3-1 setback in Coquitlam and in September dropping a 4-3 decision in Prince George. They tied Langley as mentioned and lost at home to the Express 2-1 in OT six days ago. Basically they’re 1-3-1 against the Mainland Division but a combined 15-5 against the rest of the BCHL.
- I wrote pre-game Tuesday that special teams could go a long way in finding a win against West Kelowna, and tonight might follow a similar story line. The Vees own the leagues top power-play (23 %) but the Rivermen have the leagues best penalty-kill (87%). Langley is the most penalized team in the BCHL (139 times short-handed) and surrendered seven power-plays to Penticton in the first go-around with these two teams. The Vees speed seemed to draw penalties as the Riv’ got caught chasing and were forced to clamp on and hook. Five-on-five these two are fairly evenly matched, so it may come down to who can score on the power-play. Can the Vees Tuesday performance translate into success tonight?
- Developing good habits and positive momentum early will be important, especially after the Vees last start at home. In that Coquitlam game, the Vees were flat in the first period (mind you so was CQ and the SOEC for that matter) and coughed up the first goal midway through the frame. Time to reassert home ice dominance and get after the Riv’ early. They drove all day Thursday from Prince George and didn’t skate this morning. They might be well rested but on the same hand could have some stiff legs at the start. When the Vees score first they’re 11-3-0-2; the Riv’ are 5-6-0-1 when they surrendered the opening goal. The more telling stat? Penticton is 11-1-0-2 when leading after twenty minutes and Langley is a pedestrian 1-4-0-2 when trailing after the first period. Get off to a good start, get yourselves going, get the crowd going and get some energy in the building. A good first can lead into a good second and the Vees are 11-0-0-2 when up by two; Langley 2-8-0-2 when down after forty minutes.
- Contending with size will be another key area, as the Riv’ have the size advantage among the two forward groups. Of the 13 active forwards on the Langley roster, just two are below 6′; Gage Torrel is 5’9 and Darien Craighead is 5’11. Langley likes to come at their opposition hard, especially on the fore-check where they can create problems with their size and physicality. The Rivermen gave the Vees problems in their zone with that aggressive style early on in first match up. The Vees found ways to make adjustments on the fly and were a much better team in the second, third and both overtimes.
- I can’t say it enough, speed kills. For what the Vees lack in size, they make for in foot speed, as they’re one of the quicker teams in the BCHL. Tuesday they looked like their old selves again the way they were skating against West Kelowna. Their transition game was spot on and they wasted little time from getting the puck from their own zone to the opposition’s end. For what the Rivermen have in size, they somewhat sacrifice in foot speed. It will be key for the Vees to have their transition game going from the start; turn the Rivermen and get them trapped.
- I have not seen or heard about the line-up for tonight’s clash-yet. Hunter Miska made his second straight start on Tuesday in West Kelowna but I have yet to receive word on which goaltender goes tonight. Other than that, things seem to being sorting themselves out. Blake Butzow is looking better with every game he plays and Cam Amantea looked like his old self on Tuesday after sitting out Saturday. Clint Filbrandt and Jarod Hilderman didn’t play Tuesday and will be eager to get back into the line-up. With eight defense on the roster, it breeds competition among the Vees rear-guards and I for one think they’re better for it. The only injury on the Vees roster right now is Josh Blanchard, who is still recovering from a lower-body inquiry he picked up on the Island road trip. I imagine we will see the traditional 12 forwards and six defensemen against Langley; a coin flip for who goes in net; call it in the air.
- Yes, the Rivermen are big upfront and are physical but by no means are they slugs. They have plenty of skill and speed for a team of their stature. Mitch McLain, the Captain, is the team’s leading scorer with 14 goals and 31 points in 27 games. The Baxter, Minnesota product has a good frame, standing at 6′ and weighing in at 190. He’s not easy to stop once he gets going, as he wastes little time playing an east-west game; headstrong skater
- Bobby Henderson’s team isn’t going to be the type of team that zigs-zags up the ice and tries and out finesse you. No, they rather skate hard in a north-south direction and jam the puck right down your throat. Guys like McLain, Matt Ustaski (6’6 / 225) and Jakob Reichert (6’5 / 220) are a handful and are guys with decent speed and a good net presence.
- What I think helps get the Rivermen going is the push from the blue-line, as they have a couple of D that can move the puck up ice in a hurry or who will lead a breakout on occasion. Viktor Dombrovskiy is a defenseman that can go from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ in mere seconds and can be the one of those guys who will break it out of his own zone. He doesn’t have offensive numbers that will “wow” you but Dombrovskiy is one to keep an eye on when he climbs over the boards. Another one or two, good skating defensemen are Tony Bretzman and Chris Forney. Bretzman is undersized at 5’10 and 165 but has great feet. Forney is 6’2 and 188 but is another smoothing skating rear-guard who’s name I will be saying a lot on the broadcast.
- The Rivermen are coming in on a bit of a roll, as they’ve won three in a row, including Wednesday’s hard-fought 2-1 win in Prince George. That win helped them claim first place in the very competitive Mainland Division. They won Wednesday without the services of Austin Azurdia, who was injured in the their win against Salmon Arm. Still, this is a very talented squad with a good handful of skilled players. No Azurdia possibly tonight but there still will be Mitch McLain (14-17-31), Will Cook (6-16-22), Matt Ustaski (11-8-19 and James Robinson (8-11-19). All four know how to put the puck in the back of the net and now it’s time to see if they can do away from the LEC and Lower Mainland games.
- The Riv’ can’t help where they are geographically located in respect to their fellow Mainland Division’ers but driving to a road game outside of the Lower Mainland is a test itself, let alone facing two pretty good Interior teams this weekend, before returning home for a Sunday matinee. Looking ahead a week, they are back in the BC Interior, going to Trail and then Salmon Arm next Friday and Saturday. That’s a pretty good run of Interior Division road games in two weeks, against the likes of the Vees, Warriors, Silverbacks and Smoke Eaters.
- The Rivermen continue to press on with the goalie tandem of Brock Crossthwaite and Steve Myland. Both have good records, a combined 14-9-0-1 and both have respectable goals-against averages and save-percentages. Right now it looks like Corssthwaite is the 1A, as he has the better goals-against average and save-percentage. But, Bobby Henderson isn’t afraid to rotate the two ‘tenders, depending on the schedule ahead. I would bet it’s Crossthwaite against the Vees tonight with Steve Myland getting the call tomorrow, as he faces his old team for the first time. Both have unheralded numbers but Crossthwaite and Myland are still getting “W’s” for a team that’s in a fight with PG for first.