Twelve months ago, the Surrey Eagles went into the BC Hockey League playoffs as the de facto favourites.
They’d breezed through the regular season as the top squad, routinely leaving good teams in their wake.
They’d loaded up an already deep roster at the trade deadline, too – specifically, by adding future NHL draft pick Adam Tambellini – and were primed for a long post-season run which eventually ended at the RBC Cup.
My, have things changed in a year.
Now, the Eagles head into the playoffs – which begin today (Tuesday) – as David, rather than Goliath, as they’re set for a best-of-seven series against the Langley Rivermen, who not only finished first in the Mainland Division, but won the Boileau Trophy for the first time in franchise history as the top team in the entire league.
The Eagles, meanwhile, finished fourth, 12 wins and 29 points back of the regular-season champs.
On the plus side, at least, travel should be a breeze.
Games 1 and 2 of the series are set for the Langley Events Centre tonight and tomorrow, and the series shifts to South Surrey Friday and Saturday for the next two games. Should a fifth game be necessary, it would be played at the LEC March 10, while Game 6 – again in necessary – is scheduled for March 11 at South Surrey Arena. If the series goes the distance, Game 7 would be played March 12 in Langley, but at the George Preston Centre, rather than the LEC due to a scheduling conflict.
And though the series may look like a mismatch on paper, it has the chance to, in fact, be a closely contested battle.
In eight regular-season matchups this season, the Eagles won just twice – both in overtime – but many of the losses were close, with two of the losses being by one goal, while a third game – a 3-1 loss Oct. 12 – had a one-goal differential until Langley scored an empty-netter with eight seconds left.
Last month, talking about a potential Langley-Surrey matchup, Eagles’ head coach Peter Schaefer commented that in the Mainland Division, anyone seemed to be able to beat anyone on a given day.
“Anything can happen, it seems,” he said.
“But if we get Langley, that’s OK. They’re a very good team, but we are very comfortable with that matchup.”
Rivermen head coach Bobby Henderson also likes the matchup.
“I think we match up well. I think we match up well against anybody,” he said. “We have good team speed. If that’s what they want to play, a high, uptempo game, I think we defend well.”
The two teams are similar in that neither has one offensive player that needs special attention. Despite finishing in first place, the Rivermen’s leading scorer was Mitch McLain, who had 60 points in 57 games – good for 14th in league scoring, 23 behind Salmon Arm’s Landon Smith, who finished atop the scoring table.
But on the flipside, they have a very balanced attack with five forwards – including McLain, Matt Utaski, Jakob Reichert, Austin Azurdia and James Robinson – capable of scoring goals.
Langley also boasts former Eagles Kevan Killistoff – who played a key role in the team’s RBC Cup run last year – among its ranks.
“Overall team balance,” said Henderson, when asked what the key to his team’s season has been.
“Collectively, we have a bunch of different pieces of the puzzle and they all bring something different.”
Where the Rivermen shine in on defence, led by goaltender Brock Crossthwaite. Langley was second in the league, behind only Interior-Division champion Penticton, in goals-against, allowing just 155 goals in 58 games.
“It starts from our goaltending out. If we have good structure defensively, then we will have success,” said Henderson.
“If we get loose and sloppy, Surrey is an opportunistic team that can get goals and will capitalize. It is just a matter of eliminating our mistakes.”
Surrey, by comparison, gave up 232 goals against and has struggled on defence at various points this year, especially early in the season, though they did score 201 themselves, while Langley scored 200.
The winner of the series will advance to the second round of playoffs – also a best-of-seven series – against either Prince George or Coquitlam.
– with files from Gary Ahuja