THE North Van Wolf Pack scored a pair of 4-3 wins on the weekend, gaining ground in a playoff race that they were in danger of falling out of.
The Pack faced a tough reality coming into their game against the Ridge Meadows Flames Saturday night at Harry Jerome arena. They were in last place and six points out of the final playoff spot in the Pacific Junior Hockey League's Tom Shaw Conference. A loss would have dropped them into a deep hole while a win would jump them right back into the thick of things. In the end, they jumped, but it wasn't easy.
Brett Gough opened the scoring for the Pack on the first shift but Ridge Meadows scored right back before the game was two minutes old. By the end of the first it was 3-1 for the Wolf Pack but the Flames, now with their backup goalie Robert Bruni in net and playing well, kept coming, chipping away to send it to overtime tied 3-3 despite being outshot.
In overtime the Wolf Pack's Ben McWilliams took a penalty for an inadvertent high stick, setting the stage for a heartbreaking loss. Gough, however, turned it into an inspirational win with a breakaway goal off of a shorthanded swipe at his own blueline.
"That's a nice way to win it for sure," said North Van head coach and general manager Matt Samson. "(Brett's) a streaky player. I think confidence is a big thing for him. He plays well when he has energy and he's got an active stick and he's moving his feet and going to the dirty areas of the ice. I think he definitely did that Saturday. He scored the first goal just going to the net and banged home a rebound."
With two points in the bag the Wolf Pack went hunting for an even bigger prize on Sunday in Burnaby against the Grandview Steelers, the team sitting just above them in the conference's fourth and final playoff spot. With the teams battling head-to-head in the standings and on the ice the contest turned into a classic four-pointer, the winner claiming two points while snatching two away from their rival.
The back and forth affair was finally decided midway through the third period when defenceman Christian Stephenson scored on a power play to give the Wolf Pack the victory. Goaltender Braden Krogfoss got the win and first star award, stopping 23 of the 26 shots he faced.
"That was a playoff type game - really physical," said Samson. "That was for sure our biggest game of the year and I think our guys knew it. . . . I thought that was the most physical game that our team has played all year. We blocked shots, we did the little things it took to get it done. That was a really, really big win for us."
North Van has road games at Ridge Meadows on Friday and at North Delta on Saturday before getting a 12-day break for Christmas. Samson said he wants to make sure there are no letdowns before the holiday.
"It felt good to get the win (against Grandview) and now we just need the guys to be focused for this week and make sure they know the Christmas break doesn't start until after the buzzer goes on Saturday night," he said.
So far this season the Pack have been led by the forward line of Marcus Houck, Quin Buckellew and Spencer Quon. Houck has scored in six straight games and leads the team in goals with 15 while Quon leads the league in assists with 29. With 39 points in 28 games he's on pace to set the club's record for points in a season which currently sits at 49.
"It's kind of a breakout year for him," Samson said about Quon, a big-bodied centre who joined the team from the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association partway through last season. "His vision is something you can't teach - he has really good vision on the ice, he finds his teammates, he uses his body. . . . He can really find good passing lanes. He's got good linemates playing with him but also on the powerplay he works the half wall and down on the goal line with just patience and vision. He's just a smooth player, there's no hesitation when he gets the puck."
The goaltending tandem of Krogfoss and Anders Ten Vaanholt has been solid, said Samson, as has the defense led by second year player Jason Hawkins and rookie Jivan Sidhu, a power play standout.
While the holiday break seems like a midway point of sorts, it actually comes two thirds of the way into the season. The Pack have played 28 games, posting a 13-13-1-1 record, and have 14 games left to try to vault into the playoffs. They now trail Grandview by just two points and have played two fewer games.
"If you asked me at the beginning of the year if this is where I wanted to be it's definitely not where we expected to be," said Samson. "I was hoping to make a push for top two - that's not what's happening right now but at the end of the day we've just got to concentrate on getting to the playoffs. . . . We're definitely going to be a threat once we get into the playoffs, but the first step is of course getting into a position where we will be in the playoffs."
The imbalance between the two conferences in the league isn't doing the Wolf Pack any favours. If they played in the Harold Brittain Conference their .500 record would have them in third place and in the playoffs comfortably. They're not, however, going to dwell on those numbers, said Samson, adding that if they keep improving and playing strong defence they'll earn their playoff spot regardless.
"It's going to be a grind. Our division is tough like it is every year - that's just the way it is," he said. "We're going to be ready for the playoffs and whoever we face in the first round it's going to be a good matchup."