In their final week of the hockey season, Surrey Knights have one tough test at home.
On Thursday night (Feb. 6) in North Surrey the team plays host to the visiting North Vancouver Wolfpack, who have just one regulation loss this season in the Pacific Junior Hockey League.
Contrast North Van’s dominant record with that of the Knights, who have just one win all season, and the odds of a home-ice win for the Surrey team are as low as they get.
Still, first-year Knights head coach Gerry Leiper says his team remains upbeat as their 2019-20 season comes to a close.
“We’re still excited to play,” he said Monday. “North Van is the top team in the province, and they’re basically a Junior A team, so they’re very tough and getting ready for the playoffs. We’re preparing how to handle that, and setting certain goals we want to reach. For us, it’s shots on goal and how to keep those shots down. It’s about playing a good, defensive-style game, and hopefully some good happens, you never know. We’re not going to roll over, that’s for sure.”
It’s been another tough year for the Knights, who have won just a handful of games since moving to Surrey at the start of the 2016-17 season.
Last fall, with an injection of optimism, the franchise moved into the new North Surrey Sport & Ice Complex and looked for better results on the ice.
The wins didn’t come, but Leiper said this season sure felt different than previous ones.
“I can’t recall the exact number, but it’s 14 or 15 games this year that were a one-goal loss for us, so if we had just one more guy to put the puck in, and we win even 50 per cent of those games, that’s a game-changer for us,” Leiper said.
“What you can’t take away from this group is hard work and good work ethic,” he added. “I’ve tried to appeal to that all year, and they’ve battled to the final minute in every game. A lot of the owners and other coaches in the league have said that to me, how this team never quits and fights until the last whistle. That’s an admirable characteristic to have. I mean, if you’re down by five or six goals after the second period, it’s not hard to quit, and these guys don’t.”
In the stands you never know who’s watching, and Leiper said he often reminded his players of that in between-period speeches.
“For these kids, the next stage could be a local university and playing hockey there,” he said, “and if there’s a scout up there watching and they see the hard work and extra effort, something, even though we might be losing, that’s a win for them, right.”
The Knights earned their only win of the 2019-20 season on the night of Dec. 19, in a 4-1 decision over Grandview Steelers in North Surrey. Video posted to the team’s Twitter account showed jubilant players streaming off the ice after the victory, to the “Star Wars” theme music.
— Knights Hockey (@SurreyKnights) December 20, 2019
It was the first official Knights win for Leiper, and first for the team at the new rink in North Surrey.
Last season (2018-19), with a rookie-laden lineup, the Knights won twice in 44 games, scoring 78 goals while giving up 344 along the way. In their final game at the old North Surrey Recreation Centre, the Knights lost 16-0 to Ridge Meadows Flames.
This season, in 42 games so far, the Knights have scored 75 times and given up 254 goals.
Leiper credits the mid-season addition of goaltender Malcolm Patry as a stabilizer for his team when the going got rough.
“He was unbelievable for us in most games, and in January he kind of kept us close in all those games, and I think he motivated the guys to keep givin’ ‘er, because he was in there just giving ‘er. That was great to see.
“We had a similar record to last year,” Leiper added, “but we were just in a lot more games this year, those one-goal games, and you could just feel that we were better, and there was no quit – these guys wanted to stick around and play.”
The Knights roster and stats are posted to their website, surreyknights.ca.
At season’s end, the Surrey team will lose a few players who are aging out of the junior circuit, including Evandeep Purewal, leading scorer Takumi Sakai and Malik Dhaliwal, and probably a few others.
For Knights management, the job this spring and summer is to recruit new additions for next season.
“It’s key for us being in that new building,” Leiper said, “and it sets us up for down the road here, because all the teams and players saw the rink and thought it’s a nice place. We have a core here that we can build on, a core group, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Thursday’s home game against North Van starts at 7 p.m.
The Knights will finish the season on the road Friday (Feb. 7) at Abbotsford’s MSA Arena, against the Pilots.