THERE'S an important hockey game Saturday night, playoff positions seemingly already in the balance even though it's only January.
And, oh yeah, those guys in the NHL are back too. During the lockout, teams like the Junior B North Van Wolf Pack picked up a few extra eyeballs of folks fed up with the squabbles of millionaires. If Twitter feeds or newspaper comment sections are accurate gauges, many hockey fans were prepared to swear off the NHL and spend their hockey dollars elsewhere. Well, now's your chance.
The Wolf Pack will host the Grandview Steelers Saturday night at Harry Jerome arena in a game with big playoff implications. With 10 games left in the PJHL season, North Van currently holds the fourth and final playoff spot in the Tom Shaw Conference with Grandview just two points behind. A win would put the Pack, who also have two games at hand, firmly into the driver's seat for that final playoff spot while a loss would bring them back into a neck-and-neck race. The question is, however, will anyone be there to see it? That same night the Vancouver Canucks will open their shortened season at home against the Anaheim Ducks. Wolf Pack head coach and general manager Matt Samson laughed when asked if disgruntled NHL fans should vote with their dollars and go see the kids who have been playing for free all season instead of the guys who have been arguing over fortunes.
"Yeah, sure, yeah that would be good - especially in such a big game for us," he said. "Come to the Wolf Pack game over the Canucks on Saturday for sure."
Joking aside, Samson said his team has a strong core of loyal fans but he hopes that the lure of the NHL doesn't mean an empty arena for his boys this weekend.
"It might be a tough sell but (Saturday's game) is a big one for us," he said. "That could kind of put us in the driver's seat in terms of securing a playoff spot."
North Van is riding high right now - last Saturday they knocked off Aldergrove 4-1 to end the Kodiaks' 10-game winning
streak. Aldergrove, who hadn't lost since November, took a 1-0 lead into the third period but the Pack scored four unanswered in the final frame to claim the win.
"It was a good win for us, they were playing some pretty good hockey going 10 in a row," said Samson.
The Pack's top line of North Vancouver's Marcus Houck and Spencer Quon and Minnesota native Quin Buckellew did all the damage in the game, accounting for all four North Van goals. Houck, in his first game back after missing time with an ankle sprain, scored twice and added an assist while Buckellew scored the other two. Quon assisted on all four goals to give him 51 points on the season, breaking the Wolf Pack's franchise record for points in a season with 10 games still left.
"They were good," said Samson of the high scoring trio. "They had a lot of chances in the second period and then in the third period they really turned it on. Spenny set up all four of those goals - three of them were first assists, great passes - and you have guys like Quin and Houck who can put the puck in the net, it's a good line right now. We've got to keep them healthy and we need them to score coming into the playoffs."
All three players were selected to play in the PJHL all-star game which was held Monday, although Houck didn't suit up because of his injury. Getting him fully healthy is a big priority for the team, said Samson.
"He's been scoring at an unreal clip for us. He and Spenny just have so much chemistry together," he said. "We monitored his ice time, he was feeling good and got a regular shift and obviously back on the power play and that helped us for sure. It was huge to get him back."
The Wolf Pack will be looking to keep Grandview in the rearview mirror in Saturday's showdown but North Van is also looking ahead at the North Delta Devils who are in third place in the conference, four points in front of the Pack.
"We've got our sights set on third place, we think we're in a position where we can catch North Delta," said Samson. "We've never finished higher than fourth in our division, so that's a team goal there."
Hockey fans who do chose to give the NHL a little silent treatment and instead check out a junior game will likely be pleasantly surprised, said Samson.
"It's a good brand of hockey, we compete every night," he said. "A lot of people come out and comment that it's a lot faster and it's better hockey than they expected. If you look we've got a lot of kids that will go on to play at a higher level, maybe they're just a half-step away."
Game time Saturday is 7 p.m. at Harry Jerome arena.