It’s a classic Canadian matchup: the Wolf against the Trapper.
The top-ranked North Van Wolf Pack will meet the fifth-seeded Langley Trappers in the championship series of the junior B Pacific Junior Hockey League starting Friday at Harry Jerome Arena.
The Pack booked its place in the PJHL final by scoring a 4-1 semifinal series win over the Grandview Steelers. North Van wrapped up the series Saturday night at Harry Jerome with a tight 1-0 win over their rivals from Burnaby. Lucas Barker scored the game’s only goal late in the first period and then it was a goalie show the rest of the way, with North Van’s Niklas Hoem making 28 saves for the shutout win while Grandview’s Cale Dolan took the loss despite stopping 45 of the 46 shots he faced.
“That was one of the better games I’ve been a part of in junior hockey,” said Wolf Pack general manager and assistant coach Matt Samson. “It was really well played, excellent goaltending from both sides. Hats off to Grandview – they played really well.”
The goal came on a two-on-one with Barker opting to shoot, ripping a wrist shot bar-down for a worthy game-winner.
“I knew he was going to shoot. He’s a shooter,” said Samson. “It was an awesome shot, and that was the only one we got past their goalie. We needed it.”
It was the second straight 4-1 series win for the Pack, coached by Bayne Koen, who topped Ridge Meadows in Round 1 of the playoffs before getting by Grandview in Round 2.
The Pack’s top line of captain Justin Lee, Jacob Fournier and Barker has led the way through the first two rounds, scoring five goals each and combining to put up 41 points through 10 games.
“Those three guys really complement each other well on the ice,” said Samson. “They know where each other are, they like playing together and they’re having a lot of success.”
Both Wolf Pack goalies, Hoem and Spencer Eschyschyn, have four wins apiece in the playoffs. The pair also had a fairly even split in the regular season, giving the North Van coaches options that can come in handy during a gruelling playoff run.
“When you play in a back-to-back or three in four … we have the luxury that if one guy is tired or we go to an overtime game, we can go back to the other guy.”
Defencemen Jacob Callas has led the way from the point, putting up 11 points through eight playoff games, although Callas will miss the first game of the final as he serves the final game of a mandatory three-game suspension that resulted from a match penalty during the series against Grandview. Samson also noted strong play from rock solid defenceman Nathan Haaksma throughout the playoffs, as well as forward Jacob Lacasse, a 20-year-old who has experience at the junior A level and joined the Pack in the middle of this season.
“He’s a guy that you’d hate to coach against, you’d hate to play against, because he chirps a little bit, plays with an edge,” said Samson. “He’s a clean player but he gets under the opponent’s skin. He adds a dynamic that we needed. He leads on and off the ice, he’s our hardest working player in practice.”
The Trappers are an interesting foe for the best-of-seven final. Langley is in their second season in the league, having joined as an expansion team in 2017-18, and finished in the middle of the pack during the regular season this year. They’ve caught fire, however, in the playoffs, starting with an opening round 4-2 series win against the higher-seeded Abbotsford Pilots. The Trappers lost the first two games of the series and were trailing in Game 3, but fought back to win the game and then didn’t lose again in the series. In the second round they faced the Delta Ice Hawks, who tied with North Van atop the standings with 69 points during the regular season, and the Trappers again fell behind, losing the first game. They rallied again, however, winning four straight to book their spot in the final.
“They’re embracing a bit of the underdog role right now” said Samson. “Two of the games against Delta, on the road, they were down 3-0 and they managed to win. There’s no quit in these guys.”
Langley’s Casey Whintors and Braden Warburton are first and second in the league in playoff points, racking up 21 and 17, respectively, through 11 games. Samson said the Wolf Pack will not underestimate the Trappers.
“They’ve got buy-in, they’ve got good coaching, the belief is in the room, they work hard every shift, they’ll take advantage of your mistakes and they’ll play pretty disciplined,” he said. “Playoff hockey is different. It doesn’t mean the first-place team is going to win. They’re riding a bit of momentum right now and they have a lot of belief in that dressing room, so we definitely can’t underestimate them. It’s going to be a good series.”
The Wolf Pack and Trappers played four times during the regular season, with North Van winning three games and Langley one. The most recent meeting was a 5-1 win for North Van in Langley on Jan. 16.
The Wolf Pack won the PJHL title in 2015 but haven’t made it out of the first round since. They’re looking to make the most of their opportunity now that they are back in the final.
“You don’t take it for granted,” said Samson. “These opportunities are not going to be handed to you. As coaches, as ownership, we just want to enjoy it. It’s fun. We’re looking forward to trying to win again and this time we want to get a provincial championship out of it.”
Games 1 and 2 will be at Harry Jerome Friday and Saturday night, with puck drop both nights scheduled for 7 p.m. Games 3 and 4 will be at Langley’s George Preston Recreation Centre Monday and Wednesday with a possible Game 5 scheduled for March 22 at Harry Jerome. Game 7, if necessary, would be held March 27 at the North Shore Winter Club. Samson is hoping to have strong crowds for the finals.
“If anyone is curious about checking out a junior B playoff game, or what we’re all about or what the level is about, we’d love to see some new faces at the rink,” he said.