Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Grizzlies New Year For 2015

Well its New Years Eve and the Grizzlies have now formally opened the final chapter of their dramatic 2014/15 regular season. I say dramatic because their story thus far has featured no shortage of drama. The early part of the season saw a whirlwind of games, some good and some not so good and then we all stood shocked with the sudden departure of the GM and Head Coach at the end of November.

Chapter Two witnessed the re-emergence of Craig Didmon behind the bench and a restoration of confidence throughout the organization. Fans started coming back and team sponsors felt the confidence of ownership again. In his first 7 games as Head Coach, Didmon had amassed a record of 5 wins, 0 losses, 1 OT loss and a tie, not too shabby.

For this sportswriter and from a purely personal standpoint, the New Year would also see the unveiling of a Bubble Hockey Q Centre at the house as a tribute to the Grizzlies and all that they have done and will continue to do in 2015. After many hours of hand painting and detailing the game would bless Christmas morning with a Grizzlies vs Powell River Kings matchup awaiting anyone who dared.

The non Bubble Hockey version of Chapter Three opened officially on Monday night for the Grizzlies with the visit of the Powell River Kings to the actual Q Centre. The Kings were 1-2 vs the Grizzlies coming into last night's action, so you would have to have been hopeful especially considering the fact that Powell River were on the back end of three straight road games, having lost the first two to Alberni Valley and Cowichan Valley respectively.

But the 8 day break for the Grizzlies sure seemed to have left some rust on the skates. At the end of two periods, the Grizzlies found themselves down 3-0 to the Kings and facing the prospect of their first regulation loss of the season under Coach Didmon. The third period would see more Powell River offense and a score of 5-0 before the Grizzlies would answer with three straight goals of their own. The first two goals were on the PP by Brett Gruber and Dane Gibson and a third one by P.J. Conlon only a minute after the Gibson marker made it suddenly 5-3 with about 6 minutes left to play. You could almost hear the cars coming back into the parking lot for the fans looking to find the early exits on a bitter cold sub zero night in Colwood.

But it was a case of too little too late and with the net empty, the Kings would score and finish off the Grizzlies setting the season series squarely at 2-2. The Grizzlies would have to lick their wounds and resolve to do better just some twenty odd hours later, as the surging Cowichan Valley Caps were to visit the Q Centre the following night.

And things looked promising early in the second period on Toonie Tuesday #2 vs Cowichan one night later. It started with Justin Sadler jumping into the slot and putting away his 2nd marker of the year after a Dane Gibson and Brett Gruber charge on the net which left the puck on the stick of the Ohio native. With Sadler's goal the Grizzlies were suddenly in the lead, only to find themselves on the PK for no less than four straight man disadvantages over the remainder of the 2nd and 3rd periods of play. While the Caps were unsuccessful on those Power Plays, they nevertheless did tie the game late in the 2nd period while on even strength when Kade Kehoe would put a quick snap shot over the left shoulder of Goalie, Sean Cleary who got the start on the evening.

The 3rd period would see a flurry of goals by both teams, but each time the Grizzlies took the lead, whether it was Jake Emilio or later Brett Gruber's goal, the Capitals would answer right back. And so it was on to overtime for the two clubs, just as they did two weeks earlier on the last Tooney Tuesday at The Q Centre.

The OT session would witness the first moment of serious controversy in the hockey game. Only two minutes into the OT, the Grizzlies would appear to have won the game after Matt Kennedy made a nifty move at the top of the point and after moving into the high slot to take a wrist shot, his shot would fly off either the back post or the crossbar. Referee Jarrett Taylor would quickly call no goal and wash out the play but after looking at the video post game, there was a clear and distinctive shadow inside the net when played in slow motion. Regardless, the play was ruled no goal and after the teams traded several close chances the Grizzlies would be called for Too Many Men after the linesman called the Grizzlies during a line change which took just a moment too long for his liking and he was able to count 5 Grizzlies skaters during the change.

Facing a 4-3 man advantage for the Capitals, the Grizzlies would block shots, including one off the left shin pad of Meirs Moore, only to see the stalwart defenseman stay in the play while in obvious pain. But it wasn't enough and too many penalties was what in the end would cost the Grizzlies the game after Sean Harrison would sneak in from the left faceoff circle and fire the OT winner past Cleary, 4-3 would be the final.

So 2015 will see the Grizzlies enter the New Year on a two game home ice losing streak with the Cowichan Valley Capitals returning in just three nights to play the Grizzlies in a second back to back visit to the Q Centre. With that said, the team did earn one of those ever so valuable single points with the OT and it was enough to keep the Grizzlies ever so slowly edging their way up the Island Division standings; the Grizzlies sit alone in 2nd Place at 40 points with games in hand on both Nanaimo and Powell River who sit in 3rd Place chasing the Clippers.

On to January and February with its 12 and 11 games left to play respectively, there are plenty of points out there as the Grizzlies embark on the run up to the playoffs. Tighter defensive zone coverage, a continued commitment to excellent Special Teams play and solid goaltending have been the hallmarks on the season thus far and with the renewed confidence on the bench, I like where this team is trending heading into the final chapter of this dramatic regular season. Happy New Year everybody. -CC

Monday, 22 December 2014

Dead Poets Hockey? Maybe Not So Dead

I used to love that movie Dead Poets Society.  Three months removed from Robin Williams' far too early death, there are many people remembering that great old film of the late 1980s. The film depicts Williams, an English school teacher on the faculty of an esteemed New England Prep School. Williams' students are young adolescent boys around the same age as many of the Victoria Grizzlies players. His character introduces them to poetry and life but most of all he teaches them to be human and to trust one and other. The film evokes all these beautiful themes. Its not very often that you get the privilege of witnessing young men brave enough to read poetry aloud as Williams' character managed in the film.  Its even harder to do it in front of each other or in public. Well I just happen to know a group of young hockey players who are more than capable of doing precisely that.

Photo Credit Garrett James
A lot can change in 3 weeks.  Stocks can climb and fall.  The Canadian dollar can lose ground to the Greenback and Hollywood movies can get shut down by "unnamed foreign powers" who are apt at computer hacking. Lots can also change or so it seems in the BCHL.  And while change was the plan for Craig Didmon and company when he took over Head Coaching duties on November 30th, could anyone have really deduced that there would be this much positive influence in such a short time? Well I didn't and I see these guys nearly every day.

But here is a secret for you: the team's strategic goal after Didmon arrived was to be in 2nd Place by Christmas. They were well outside of 4th Place at the time he set upon that lofty enterprise. I will be perfectly honest with you, when I first heard that I thought it was a bit of a case of A Bridge Too Far.

But let's move forward to the present. I mean, what can you really say about a three game road trip where you get 5 out of a possible 6 points and move up pretty much two full spots in your divisional standings in the space of three days?  Well I think I can think of something to call it: fantastic!  It almost makes taking a late Sunday night return ferry home a pleasure.

Photo Credit Garrett James
The Victoria Grizzlies currently sit in 2nd Place overall in the Island Division standings with 33 games played, 16 wins, 10 losses, 1 tie and 6 OTL for 39 points. Nanaimo sits at 49 points but has played 36 games, so the Grizzlies have 3 games in hand on them, while Powell River now sits behind the club for the first time in months and now has 37 points and we have a game in hand on them as well.

To sum up, the team is really on a roll.  Team morale is high, the players make adolescent fun of each other constantly and that takes trust.  Trust me, I was that age once too you know.  In our last 10 games the team is 6-1-1-2.  Dane Gibson sits at 13 goals and 29 assists for 42 points on the season. Brett Gruber who in a few hours will be on a plane flying home to Wisconsin sits at 18-18 for 36 points, while Jay Mackie is at 14-21-35. Garrett Forster's numbers are 12-20-32 and Matt Kennedy is at 13-16-29. Rounding out this offense is a defenceman, Meirs Moore who is at 4-22-26 on the season.

Photo Credit Garrett James
What does this all mean?  The Grizzlies have no less than two very potent lines who can score for fun and they are backed up by fast, confident puck moving defencemen who really are excellent, all of them.  But wait there is more.
Photo Credit Garrett James

Our goalies are very good too.  Cleary is 4-5-1 in 13 games played with a GAA of 2.91, Stiliadis is at 12-11 in 23 games with a 3.62 GAA.

Let's look at the last 3 games as a sort of microcosm of the season.  The Grizzlies have scored 11 goals with only 6 against.  That is good for a 2.00 GAA over that period of time and it tells me that the trends are improving, the goals against are coming down. The team just wins.

So what do we have here?  This is a confident team, a happy team. This team is full of ambition and trust, lost of trust. The players are lose, they are having fun, they are committed to each other and they have totally bought into the coaching system and method. Most of all they seem to all trust one and other. I am seeing lots of that. And I haven't even mentioned how well they move the puck, these guys can flat out play. Its not uncommon to see this team make five or six passes en route to a shot on net. Not many teams in this league can do that.
Photo Credit Garrett James

Trust, commitment, respect, hard work, fun, these aren't just words, they are the very tenants of this hockey club. This team cares deeply about one and other and they care deeply about their performances and the results. But perhaps most of all they trust one and other.

And if you don't believe me, just wait until you watch them recite that most famous of Christmas tales, Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 classic poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas. We should have it up very soon by our video guy, Roy and when he does finish it off, I am certain it will look splendid on Facebook or YouTube or wherever Roy decides it should go.

And that about sums up the present condition of these talented Grizzlies, they get stronger every day. This group is so strong in fact that they are comfortable enough to read poetry aloud in a busy restaurant, on a Sunday afternoon, in front of one and other and a couple of hours later pound the South Surrey Eagles 6-1 on the road. Suddenly the Dead Poets Society doesn't seem quite so dead anymore.  Merry Christmas everybody. -CC 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Don't Poke The Bear: Tough 3-2 Double OT loss vs BCHL Champs Poco Express

I used to dislike rather intensely when my parents would talk about silver linings. They would do that when I would come home from school and tell them things like the time I got cut from my middle school basketball team.  "Well Clayton, maybe there is a silver lining in there somewhere? You really are a talented mogul skier, maybe that should be your focus?" I mean what the hell is a silver lining anyway?

Try telling that to Michael Stiliadis or Cole Pickup or Jake Emilio or any of the Grizzlies players last night as they boarded the team bus heading back to the hotel after a heart breaking Double OT loss in the final second of 2OT.  I didn't and don't worry, I don't plan or trying to during any of my interactions with the team today. Have you ever poked a grizzly bear?  Well I haven't tried yet but I have heard that its a very bad idea.

But from purely a practical hockey standpoint, you kind of have to step back a try and see the forest through the trees in a moment like this.  I mean, you can sit around and feel sorry for yourself all you like, but at the end of the day, you are going to only end up where you started, alone, with nobody really giving two "You Know Whats".

The game last night was full of reasons to feel aggrieved though with a Garrett Forster 2nd Period Goal being ruled "No Goal" after what was a picture perfect rebound follow-up on a Matt Kennedy breakaway move. But the Goal Judge at that end of the ice with his Coquitlam Express jacket would be no end of trouble for the visiting Grizzlies all night at the Poirier Centre in Port Coquitlam. The game was the first of three consecutive road visits for the Grizzlies on the weekend before the team breaks up (temporarily) on Sunday for the Christmas Break. With the puck clearly in the net, the impartial and professional Goal Judge failed to depress the goal light and instead chose to interpret the play in the favour of the other team wearing white, black and yellow, the home team Poco Express.

After giving up a first period goal to the Express in the first period, the Grizzlies would fight through a tough series of penalties, some involving 5 on 3 situations and answer late at the end of Period #2 with a Brett Gruber PP goal to make it 2-1. The Grizzlies would be so strangely penalised in the game at one point in the middle frame, Justin Sadler would find himself sitting in the Penalty Box for an apparent hook only to be pulled out of the box to watch a Penalty Shot be awarded to the Express' Brendan Lamont. You could almost see the referees deciding that the penalty call wasn't severe enough, so maybe we better make it a Penalty Shot.  It was just a game of madness last night in North East Vancouver.

The Third Period would see the Grizzlies tie the game (again on the PP by Gruber) and send the game into OT for yet more drama. This of course all occurred in a season which frankly couldn't have possibly squeezed another drop of drama into the Drama Tank.  Both Goalies were excellent on the night with Michael Stiliadis turning away all shots except 3 of the 38 shots he faced on the night. But the other story on the night were the 48 shots by the Grizzlies and the performance of goalie Braden Krogfoss.  Krogfoss, (try saying that name on the air fast while you are angry) apparently, according to Express officials, played his best game of the year on Teddy Bear Toss Night for the Coquitlam Express. He was the game's Third Star.

The game would go to the final second of Double OT before the Express would score on a Buzzer Beater 2 on 1 play while enjoying the more open ice afforded by 3 on 3 Double OT Play. An obviously disappointed Grizzlies Team would leave Coquitlam with technically a loss on the night. But few of the players would know that both Powell River and Nanaimo would lose on the evening, thus giving the Grizzlies one more of those ever so small baby step points as they slowly but surely chip away at the leads enjoyed by their rival Island Division opponents.  Road points are ever so hard to come by, but this one was extra hard.

So it may have been one of those dare I say the words, silver linings games?  Well with Craig Didmon behind the bench, yes, they have technically now lost a hockey game, but the Grizzlies are still undefeated in Regulation Play after 5 games with the new Bench Boss calling the shots.  The team has very quietly earned 8 points out of a possible 10 since Coach Dids has returned to his old office at The Q Centre.

And its funny, because when you get to talk to fans and players through the relative safety of a hockey blog site or on Twitter, you tend to get brave. And I may just be brave enough to tell anyone who takes the time to read this story that last night's game was full of silver linings. The team's goals against are down, the offence is still potent, Grizzlies Specail Teams are very good and there is balance up and down the lineup whether at home or in the unfriendly confines of barns like The Poirier Centre.

So I am going to take my big long electronic stick and do something which is not very risky, at least not here in my hotel room on the road with the team. I am going to poke this Grizzly Bear and tell it something that it secretly knows but is not happy about at all.  That is the simple fact that getting points, any points, even after a heart breaker loss can have some good news attached, especially when you work your tail off.  The Grizzlies play the Langley Rivermen away tonight at the Langley Events Centre.

And now that I have poked the bear on the safe side of the cage, I suspect the Rivermen won't enjoy the fact that at 7pm tonight they will find themselves on the wrong side of that very safety barrier. Because I think I read somewhere that bears don't like being poked. -CC

PS: My parents were right, BTW, even at my advanced age, I can still crush moguls.


Sunday, 14 December 2014

Gonna Fly Now: Grizzlies 5-2 Over Kings

Remember that scene in Rocky?  You know the one.  His life is in the toilet but he wants things to change. He gets up in the dark, drinks down that cup of raw eggs and sets out alone into the cold Philadelphia streets to run alone, to try and get back in shape.  Set to a melodic piano, that famous theme starts ever so slowly but you can't quite make out the tune, not yet anyway. Ultimately the scene ends with Rocky out of breath and in pain. He is bent over and in self-disgust at the top of those steps, as he accepts the sad state of not only his fitness as a prize fighter but over his life as a whole.  That was Rocky's bottom.  And its funny because you ask most fans of that movie and they can't remember that scene, but in many ways, it was the most important moment of the film.

Well forget that scene, because that's not where the Grizzlies are at the moment, that scene is well in the past and may have happened for the team several weeks ago.  Maybe it was that 10-4 loss in Trail, maybe it was the 4-1 loss in Vernon and that long Sunday bus ride back to Victoria. Maybe that depressing scene in Rocky, at least for the Grizzlies this year, might have been that last loss in Nanaimo, that OT loss where after the game then Head Coach Brad Knight collected all the water bottles and towels himself and walked down the player's tunnel alone, for the last time. But make no mistake, somewhere, at some point, that sad scene in Rocky has already occurred in this 2014/15 Grizzlies campaign.

I was reminded of that scene again last night. In fact, I haven't told anybody this yet, but I have been hearing that piano and that famous melody in my head a lot this year as I have watched this team struggle. Later in the movie comes that even more iconic scene. It takes place after Rocky does a lot of training and work. That's the scene everybody remembers. Rocky finally reaches the top of the steps of The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the building with all those steps. Few who visit Philadelphia today pass up the chance to climb those steps known affectionately as the "Rocky Steps".  There are 72 of them in case you were interested. The top of the steps offers a commanding view of the city itself and of course,  Philadelphia City Hall. When you jog to the top of them and I have BTW (pretty sure I am not the first geek to try it), you feel pretty winded, but you always hear that music, from the song Gonna Fly Now in your ears.

You can't explain it, you just sort of hear it.


But I don't see the Grizzlies at the top of the steps.  Not yet anyway.  They are indeed somewhere in that movie's running montage, but definitely before the part where Rocky gets to the top of the steps. Maybe its that part of his jog where that Philadelphia street merchant, calls out to him and tosses him a piece of fruit as the hero, runs faster and faster through the city streets. "Getting strong now".

And that was the Grizzlies team I saw last night. Down 1-0 early after a Jordan Burns Power Play goal, the Grizzlies would answer quickly. On the PP themselves, it would be Matt Kennedy scoring his 12th goal of the year after a nice set up by Dane Gibson and red hot defenseman, playing forward on the night, Kevin Massy. Just three minutes later the Grizzlies would take the lead themselves and this time for good. It was Duluth Minn native, Meirs Moore with the go ahead goal after his laser beam point shot found the top of the net over the shoulder of Kings net minder, Stefan Wornig. Newcomer, forward Nick Guiney would pick up an assist on the play, recording his first ever point in the BCHL. "Won't be long now".

The second period would see that Grizzlies lead extended further just a minute into the frame with another defenseman contributing to the offense. This time it was Cody Van Lierop, scoring his 4th of the season, his goal coming via even strength after more Grizzlies slick passing by Dane Gibson and Brett Gruber. This goal would see Kings Coach Kent Lewis elect for a change in net, swapping out Wornig for veteran Brett Magnus. But slick Grizzlies passing was the story of the entire evening, as the 3rd period would see the home team do more of the same, this time scoring two more goals on the Powerplay. The first was Jake Emilio with one of his trademark left sided one timer slap-shots which beat Magnus. Then Jay Mackie doing the same late in the period on the PP with an open net available to him after a Garret Forster rebound.  That Mackie marker put the game out of reach. It was his 12th goal on the season and it came just one minute after a "too little too late goal" by Powell River forward Liam Lawson which at the time had temporarily made the score 4-2.  "Gonna Fly Now".

But 5-2 was how the game would end to the delight of the 972 fans on hand.  It was the second consecutive Grizzlies home game to see another modest bump in attendance.  This much maligned but financially vital statistic has been the source of much local media concern over the first half of the season.  But the nearly 1,000 fans who filed into the Q Centre were there to support their home team as they do every year. Plus, it all occurred on a Saturday night with the Vancouver Canucks hosting the New York Rangers on Hockey Night In Canada. On most nights that can hurt the size of the walk up crowd. But not on this night. Instead, a very loud and well attended game was what the evening held for everyone involved and all left the building properly entertained. "Getting Higher".

The Grizzlies went 3 for 6 on the PP and looked dangerous all night including when they were at even strength.  The team's PP now sits at 26.66% which is good enough for 2nd Place in league standings.  Meirs Moore, Michael Stiliadis and Jake Emilio were all game stars 1st through 3rd respectively, along with P.J. Conlon as the Fortis Energy Player of the Game.  But the real unsung hero in my view was #5 Chris Harpur who pounded bodies all night and had arguably his strongest game of the season. "Getting Higher".

So that's about how I see the Grizzlies right at the moment in mid December. They aren't at the top of the steps just yet but they are getting there, one step at a time. I was always a big fan of the theme of redemption in films, it just kind of grabs something inside me and I am not sure why. Rocky along with the 2014/15 Grizzlies are both stories of redemption and I would put this club right now somewhere around step #53 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Not a bad place to be, two weeks before Christmas."Gonna Fly Now".

And a special shout out and thanks to last year's Team Captain, Mark McLellan who joined myself and Scott Didmon in the Broadcast Booth during the Second Period Intermission to share his thoughts on the Grizzlies, hockey and his new life in the NCAA. Thanks again Mark. The Grizzlies host the Cowichan Valley Capitals at The Q Centre on Tuesday night. Don't forget it will be the club's first "Tooney Tuesday" and that means that anyone can get in as a walk-up fan for only $2.

Now if you will excuse me but its a picture perfect Sunday afternoon in Langford today. And I am not sure why, but I suddenly had a craving for a big glass of raw eggs followed by a quick jog up Mill Hill behind my house. There is a great view when you get to the top.

I won't forget my MP3 Player either, I think I know just the song. -CC

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Grizzlies Mid-Season Report Card: B

General Overview:
After winning the Island Division Championship last year and only narrowly missing out on advancing to the Fred Page Cup, expectations were high for the Victoria Grizzlies coming into this season.  Yet it starts to become clear that the Grizzlies are a team full of contradictions.  On the one hand the team is 13-10-0-5, good for a .554 winning percentage, and in 4th Place in the Island Division, still in contact with the division leaders, but they have let too many games slip away all year. At first glance you might say that a record like that is one of an underperforming team, especially when you consider where they were last year.  But looks can be deceiving.

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
Remember that the Grizzlies have already completed two road trips into the Interior to play those statistically superior teams, a feat no other Island Division club has done thus far.  Remember also that this team lost not one, not two, but all three of its top point getters from last year. Remember too that the Grizzlies changed almost all defensemen from a year ago and lost both goalies, including LA Kings NHL draft pick, Alec Dillon to the USHL’s Tri City Storm.
So there is the first major contradiction. They may appear  to be underperforming to some degree, but to seasoned BCHL analysts, its pretty clear that the team has faired well considering. Remember this Grizzlies team has faced the BCHL’s runaway favorites, the Penticton Vees twice this season already. Yes they lost both games, but it was with a combined aggregate score of 6-4. And in the second game they went to Double OT and earned a point. With all that in mind, here is how I see the club at the hallway point:
When I speak of offence, I am mostly talking about forwards but not exclusively. A quality attack is usually only as good as the first pass out of the zone, so the defensemen do fall under this heading to a degree.  The Grizzlies boast four players, Gibson, Mackie, Gruber and Forster all of whom are averaging over a single point/game and there are two more players who are very close, Matt Kennedy (0.9pts/gm) and D man, Meirs Moore (0.8pts/gm).
Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
With 100 goals scored in 28 games, the team is averaging 3.57 gls/gm and on track for a goal total in the neighborhood of around 207 goals. In comparison, last year with the Fitzgerald triplets and breakout rookie forward, Jesse Schwartz, the Grizzlies scored 212 times. In 2012-2013, the team only scored 189 times. In other words, one year removed, the Grizzlies offence hasn’t missed a step and in fact is more potent that the 2012/13 squad under then first time Head Coach Bill Bestwick. Both those teams were strong in the BCHL playoffs. In short, the Triplets have been capably replaced and this team spreads scoring around its roster very well.
Statistics aside, the team has two very capable lines who can often score for fun when they want. The third line has changed many times, but recently has featured what I call “The Rookie Kid Line” with 16 year old Spencer Hunter centering Mitch Barker and Ayden MacDonald. The line I am really keen on however is the 4th line. I predict that this recently assembled line of P.J. Conlon, Cole Pickup and Nick Guiney will play a significant role in the playoffs as they have shown great promise so far. They are not a typical grinding 4th line, this group can score and could move up a slot to earn 3rd line duties.
Defensemen Meirs Moore, Zach Dixon, Kevin Massy and newcomer Jake Emilio have all contributed well offensively from the blue line. Moore is silky smooth and Dixon has a cannon.
Grade A- (Trend: Status Quo)
The only defensemen remaining from last year’s squad is Kevin Massy. That depleted group alone should be cause for serious concern. But in September, then GM and Head Coach Brad Knight though different.  He chose to deal Victoria natives Brandon Egli (53-11-24-35) and Mitch Meek (45-1-18-19) to Vernon for 20 year old offensive D-Man Jake Emilio and former Richmond Sockeyes rookie forward, Ayden MacDonald.  It would take weeks to get a look at Emilio who arrived injured in the deal, but in time he has proven to be a capable and confident puck moving defenseman.
The remainder of the players on the blue line have done remarkably well considering how almost none of them really knew one and other before Main Camp in August.  Enter 20 year old Duluth Minn native and BCHL rookie, Meirs Moore, a smooth passing and skating defender who oozes confidence. The talkative, Moore has quickly become one of the key Quarterbacks on the PP along with the more subdued but hard hitting and hard shooting Zach Dixon. Chris Harpur, Cody Van Lierop and Justin Sadler round out the D Corps well, with solid stay at home play. They are all solid.
Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
The knock on the defense though is really an admonishment of the entire team this year, the goals scored against. At 107, it is simply too high for a team this good, a team which only averages 10.86 penalty minutes per game. That GAA is too high and represents the Grizzlies biggest challenge in the stretch run to the playoffs. The GAA has slowly been trending upward all season and this trend must change. Fire Wagon hockey games like the 8-7 OT win over Merritt may please the fans, but it won’t win anything over the long term. The 10-4 road loss to Trail was clearly unacceptable, but so too was the defensive performance they showed when they hosted Trail two weeks later, albeit winning 6-5. 
While goals against are obviously not entirely a function of the defensemen alone, the Grizzlies have a bad habit of scrambling in their own end when fore-check pressure is heavy and sustained.  The new coaching regime of Craig Didmon will no doubt address much of that in the coming weeks, but a holistic team approach to this problem is required.
Grade B (Trend: Improving)
With the departure of 6’6” Alec Dillon in the offseason along with his heir apparent Nick Renyard, the Grizzlies literally had a big hole to fill in net. Returning from the 12/13 Season, the Grizzlies re-acquired Michael Stiliadis and then picked up 19 year-old newcomer, Sean Cleary. Cleary has shown moments of brilliance in 11 starts (3-5), especially his 15 Nov start at West Kelowna where he faced the daunting task of leading the team on the road after the aforementioned 10-4 loss the night before in Trail. In spite of the loss, Cleary was very strong and kept the team in the game late, helping earn the team’s only point during that forgettable Interior swing. Cleary needs more starts and he should get more as the team moves into the stretch run.

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
Stiliadis (10-10) is your prototypical BCHL net minder, quiet, prefers to be out of the lime light, but works hard in practice and can be relied upon night in and night out. He is also capable of making the really big save. But Stiliadis sports a save percentage of .874 and while that is very close to his 12/13 numbers as the Grizzlies #1, his GAA this year (3.90) is almost a full goal higher than that of Cleary (3.15). Stiliadis is much better than those numbers bear and he along with the rest of the team in front of him need to bring those numbers down moving forward.
Grade C+ (Trend: Improving)
Special Teams:
The Grizzlies' PP lead the BCHL in efficiency for nearly the entire first half of the season. It now sits firmly in 3rd position at 25.42%, an excellent number, especially considering the departure of the Triplets who often made PK units look foolish over the last two seasons. This PP unit is simple, it doesn't get too fancy, it moves the puck very well and involves the point appropriately, never holding on to the puck too long before taking an intelligent shot on goal.

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
The Penalty Kill (10th in BCHL) is also a sound unit, even without PK specialist Storm Wahlrab who is sidelined for the next 2-3 weeks. The PK sits at 78.33%, which is OK, but remember this year the PK boasts no less than 7 SHGF and last year the club could only muster 4 SHGF on the whole season. This unit could easily score well over 10 short handed goals before the playoffs start. And remember, when they think of the PK unit, most people forget to subtract those "Shorties" from the totals for Goals Against on the PK. That correction changes the math around significantly and it is what most coaches use to properly assess a team's PK in the pros.
Grade A (Trend: Improving slightly)
Coaching and GM Moves
The elephant in the room which nobody wants to acknowledge is that the Grizzlies, aside from the Vipers's quiet pre-season Head Coaching change, were the first team to change coaches.  The move was a massive shock to many, myself included. I wish Brad Knight well and he spoke well recently to local media in his departure interview, he will be back in this league one day. That said, I wasn't at the Nicola Valley Arena on 19 Oct, 2014 when the Grizzlies lost in the dying seconds in OT. I will never know what really happened after the game, but the team's Head Coach was suspended 3 games by the BCHL after that game and that fact is simply unacceptable for any Head Coach in any league.  A leader must always keep his head.  In summation, clearly things were not all well "down at the Circle K" and a regime change was inevitable.
Now let me preface everything I am about to say by acknowledging the fact that I don't see the team books. But simply from a business model point of view, I wasn't initially a big fan of the trade with Vernon and I am still not. I like Pete Zubersky as a hockey man, but when he came in to take over last December in the wake of Bill Bestwick's sudden departure, the team promised a return to recruiting local island talent and bringing the team closer to the Westshore community.
Then quick as a flash the club did two very strange things. It went out and immediately brought in a large number of off island talent.  But then it made a very strange trade moving two local products away. Those were local players who would not incur billet fees and they were traded for two out of town acquisitions who do indeed cost the club billet funds. True, Zubersky is no longer with the team, and the trade I question was a Brad Knight move. But the effect on the team budget both from new billet fees and a departure of the Egli/Meek family and friends must be felt to some degree.  To sum up, I criticise the move from a business model point of view and also because it sent a mixed message of "Say one thing, do another".

Photo Credit: Christian J. Stewart
Now GM and HC Craig Didmon is back, technically for the third time and already he has brought in Nick Guiney, a local JDF product. Good start. In just two games he has demonstrated an ability to right the ship and has shown the capacity to quickly restore confidence and fun on the bench and I suspect the Dressing Room. That is huge.
Players are smiling again and while it is only a 2-0 record under Coach Didmon, the team has already seen a modest bump in attendance.  And that last statistic, attendance, is really the most important stat of them all in many ways and could tell the tale of how this team does moving forward.
Grade: F (Trend: Improving significantly)
For a change I will be brief. This team has an identity now. The Grizzlies are now officially "that team I sure hope we don't face in the playoffs."  I guarantee every Island Division team, aside from Cowichan (unlikely to make playoffs) now feels that way about the Grizzlies. Nobody wants to run into this team, which is slowly but surely improving in every area of performance and has a restored confidence throughout the entire organization.
If the goals against can drop even just a bit and if the scoring keeps up, the Grizzlies will catch most of the leaders in the Island Division and will likely finish well above 4th spot before the playoffs start.
Overall Team Grade: B (Trend: Improving) -CC

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Drama Kings Return On Teddy Bear Night: 8-7 Grizzlies Over Cents

On the bus ride home from Cowichan on Friday night, there was a moment where I though that my Drama Kings narrative was perhaps dead. If you read this blog, you know the narrative well: big leads become small leads or tied games, late goals force Overtime situations, huge Grizzlies comebacks which don't seem possible end up happening, shutouts and EN goals are few and far between, coaches lose hair or they turn prematurely grey and lost of goals, lots of constant high drama.  That's been the narrative this season. And I gave it a name: I call them the Drama Kings.  They are literally the Kings of Drama.

But late on Friday night as the Grizzlies Team Bus Driver Jason leaned hard on the bus horn exiting The Island Savings Centre I had other thoughts. Jason of course was doing this as a point of formality and ceremony to inform any living soul within miles of The Big Stick that the victorious Grizzlies were leaving town. Right then as the horn finally stopped blaring, to the shock and horror of the local townsfolk, but to the school boy giddy delight of the twenty-one young men in the back of the bus, I suddenly though: 6-0 Grizzlies? This isn't the Drama Kings? This isn't the narrative?

No, this was supposed to be Game #1 under returning Head Coach, Craig Didmon and clearly, Coach Dids was having no part in all of this Drama Kings nonsense. Apparently the game plan going in featured Five Big Points and each and everyone was fully met. Oh well, I thought, I will never complain about a win and it sure was nice to see Michael Stiliadis pick up his first Shutout of the year. It was in fact the team's first Shutout on the season as well. Far less dramatic teams usually have more than a few Shutouts by the mid season mark, but not the 2014/15 Grizzlies. Maybe it will just have to be ok if the Grizzlies develop a new identity and if it involves less drama and a few dominant performances, well that's ok.

But last night after the Merritt Centennials visit to the Q Centre, as I stared down at the ice and watched the Grizzlies pour over the bench to mob a celebrating Garrett Forster, after his incredible OT game winner, I started thinking about the Drama Kings again. Because there if there ever was a word to describe the hockey game I had just witnessed, dramatic would certainly be the word.

In a fifteen goal game, its kind of tough to describe all the scoring but I will do my very best. Here is a quick synopsis of how the game went: Grizzlies score and teddy bears rain down from the rafters, Cents answer, Grizzlies retake the lead and Merritt ties it up, Grizzlies score again and Merritt comes back again with a couple more to take lead for the first time. And that was just the first two periods! You didn't know it at the time but that was only half of the scoring you would see in this wild barn burner down at The Q. Seven more goals would be scored in the 3rd Period. It short this game was nuts, absolutely crazy.

This hockey game witnessed three lead changes and seven game tying goals including a shorthanded goal by Merritt forward Gavin Gould with no less than 9 seconds left in regulation time to force the OT. The game was a wild firebrand style of hockey which if word gets out, could soon restore the typical 1,300-1,400 fans you tend to see on normal game nights in the Westshore. You kind of knew something was up when Cliff Lequesne missed his "One Minute Left In The Second Period" call at the end of Period #2. He never does that. Who knows, maybe he was a little busy down there in the Centre Broadcast Room.

You think?

Yeah, I think I am going to give my buddy Cliff a bit of a Hall Pass on this one. He was very likely just as busy as myself and my Play-By-Play partner Scott Didmon up top. You might say that we had a little bit on our minds at the time. We actually ran out of room to write, there was that much game information flying around. On several occasions in the third period, we both looked at each other in total disbelief about what we were seeing. As for Storm Wahlrab and Cody Van Lierop both in the Press Box on the evening, those players, powerless to affect the outcome, were simply beside themselves throughout the game. I kind of felt bad at times to tell you the truth, they're both just great young men. By the time of the OT it was almost cruel.

Here are some stats which tell the tale: This game featured no less than 16 of 18 Grizzlies players registering at least a point, both opposing goalies with nearly identical save percentages at around 76%, 13 different goal scorers in the hockey game and can you believe it, four goals scored within 60 seconds of one and other.

This game had everything. I say that because I am usually one of the last people to leave the building on game nights. It comes with the job. And I am pretty sure I saw the Q Centre Zambonie driver, Tom, clearing up a kitchen sink which had somehow managed to find its way onto the playing surface during the melee after Garrett Forster finally dispatched the visitors with his eventual game winner in OT.

With the Grizzlies competing with the Westshore Santa Truck Parade in full force outside and all along the Old Island Highway, the 945 fans who did make their way into the Q Centre on the night, certainly left the building happy as the noise in the arena was certainly the loudest of the season thus far. The Q Centre was rocking all night. And as for The Teddy Bear Toss, well it didn't take too long to rain down. Just 38 seconds in was when #8 Brett Gruber would score on the PP and get the building rocking. If you were paying attention, that early goal might have been a harbinger of good things to come on the night. Two and a half hours and 12 goals later, the fans would be on their feet in elation as the Grizzlies found their figurative Drama King crowns just in time and wore them with pride.

The Grizzlies will now get seven days off and likely enjoy the break before they are back in action next Saturday night at the Q Centre as they host the Powell River Kings. Three nights later on Tuesday 16 Dec, will be the team's first "Toonie Night" as fans can get into the building for only a Toonie. Now if you will excuse me, I would write more, but I just talked to my doctor and she wants me to come in for a quick blood pressure checkup. Apparently long term exposure to The Drama Kings is not so good for emotionally invested people like myself who have bought in hook, line and sinker on this amazing hockey team out in Colwood.

Do check out this great video by Roy Anthonisen and our crack Grizzlies Video Team at:

Oh and if any of you see Tom around the rink this week, tell him I will grab that kitchen sink off him if he still has it. I am in the middle of a kitchen reno at the moment and wouldn't mind saving a few bucks. See you next Saturday everybody. - CC

Saturday, 6 December 2014

What's Old Is New Again: Grizzlies 6-0 Road Dominance Over Caps

The Victoria Grizzlies are back. If you don't believe me, just take the short drive on Saturday over the Malahat and talk to the first Duncan resident you see wearing any Capitals gear. Chances are they will tell you a story of high skill, power, speed and total hockey domination.  And the team they will be talking about isn't their beloved home team Caps, those descriptions I guarantee will be reserved for the visiting Victoria Grizzlies.

And total domination was the order of the day as the Grizzlies outshot the Capitals 20-5 and lead them by a score of 2-0 and all in the first period alone. It was a period which seemed to reflect a team which was determined to demonstrate to the coach who recruited them, the coach who developed them and the coach who returned as their boss just days ago this simple truth: that they still were the same talented players he once knew so well.

That coach, they all seemed to be trying to impress of course was none other than newly appointed GM and Head Coach, Craig Didmon. Didmon was called back into service with the surprising and rather sudden departure of Brad Knight on Sunday morning. And judging by some of the new/old coach's pregame comments, it wasn't clear to the coaching staff exactly what sort of performance they were going to see on a foggy and wet fall evening in the Cowichan Valley. There was an honest admission, that the return of the former coach might confuse some of the habits and tactics developed so far.

But by the end of the 1st period, many if not all of those questions or concerns harboured by Craig Didmon were quickly answered. In the final minute of the period, after a Meirs Moore steal and headman pass to Jay Mackie, the flashy winger streaked into the Capitals end and with a head fake and burst of speed found his line mate, Dane Gibson to his immediate left. Mackie calmly laid a picture perfect pass to the former Capital and Gibson made no mistake in burying his 10th goal of the season.

By the second period, the defensemen on the team must have gotten the idea that they too needed to remind the returning coach that they had game as well. The second period would witness no less than two back to back Grizzlies goals, both by defensemen and often set up by D-men. The first goal was by way of a solid point shot on the Powerplay by Meirs Moore from Mackie and the second off a driving at the net Cody Van Lierop as he finished off a well played, pass/shot by fellow defenseman Kevin Massy, who would impress on the night with a two assist performance to bring the Victoria native to double digits in scoring on the season.

And all the while, there confidently stood Michael Stiliadis in net, turning aside all eleven of the shots he faced over the first two frames of the game. You wouldn't know it at the time and nobody wanted to say it out loud of course, fearing superstition, but Stiliadis looked like he was more than up for the task of posting his first shutout of this 2014/15 season.

The third period was simply more of the same. More goals, this time from who else, the talented forwards. Jay Mackie and Brett Gruber would put a one sided contest from what was already well out of reach, to the type of distance from a comeback that only one-way NASA spacecraft like the Voyager II tend to experience in the cold outer reaches of the solar system. This game was probably long over in the first or second period, but Mackie and Gruber would dash any final hopes of a Cowichan comeback with their 10th and 13th respective goals on the season thus far.

And that was how the game would end at 6-0. It would occur amid a flurry of Caps fans deciding on their own to toss their Teddy Bears in absence of a Cowichan goal in the game as few in the building including yours truly had remembered that tonight was of course "Capitals Critter Toss Night". That of course is the name the Caps affix to the team's annual Christmas toy drive for local charity. And so it was, with the puck barely out of the net after the Brett Gruber goal, that fans began to shower the ice with Teddy bears, only to turn and walk out the door to face the cold dark night.

So it was a bit of a "what is old is new again" type of a night for the Victoria Grizzlies. The old coach, who is not so old, felt brand new behind the bench. And so did the team he put on the ice who dominated their opponent, on the road no less, in a most impressive win which put the Grizzlies at 12-10-0-5 and 29 points on the season, just 4 behind the Powell River Kings who sit at third in the Island Division. Michael Stiliadis recorded his first shutout of the year in an impressive performance stopping all 19 of the shots he faced.

The Grizzlies will host the Merritt Centennials at The Q Centre tomorrow night. Merritt is coming off a 3-2 comeback OT win against the Nanaimo Clippers at The Frank Crane Centre on Friday night. Game time Saturday at The Q is 7pm. -CC

Friday, 28 November 2014

Grizzlies Edged In 2OT By Clippers

     The Victoria Grizzlies headed up to the Frank Crane Arena on a brisk Friday night on the heels of a dissapointing 5-2 loss to the Cowichan Valley Capitals earlier in the week. The Grizzlies looking to get some traction after ending their hot streak of three wins in four games. The Grizzlies would be without Quinn Thompson, as he was released by the team earlier this week. The Grizzlies didn't have it easy, taking on the Island Division leaders, the Nanaimo Clippers. This would be the sixth game between these two teams this season with the Grizzlies sporting a record of 2-3-0 against their rivals from up-island. This will be the last meeting between these two teams until February 4th, 2015 when the Grizzlies come back to Nanaimo late in the season before a home and home to close out the regular season.
Photo Credit: Tony Burrows
     Both teams came out strong, but it would be the Grizzlies getting the better of the home team early. It would be Jay Mackie opening the scoring in the first period, as Dane Gibson left a perfectly placed drop pass on the rush right on the tape of Mackie who snapped one glove side on Guillaume Decelles to give the Grizzlies an early 1-0 advantage. The Grizzlies would get some luck near the end of the first period after a big hit by Clippers captain Brendan Taylor on Matt Kennedy. It would be Justin Sadler dumping the puck in on a change, and Nanaimo defenceman Jordan Low would go back behind the net to start the breakout for the Clippers. Unfortunately, Decelles was out of his net a ways and Low didn't notice, as he tried to fire a cross-ice pass, but the puck deflected off the skate of Conlon and then his netminder and into the net for a (somewhat) own-goal. P.J. Conlon would be credited with his 5th goal of the season and a 2-0 Grizzlies lead heading into the locker room.
Photo Credit: Tony Burrows

     The Clippers would cut into the Grizzlies lead in the second, as it would be Jacob Hanlon on a 2-on-1 shorthanded sniping one past Sean Cleary, his second straight game with a shorthanded goal to make it a 2-1 Victoria lead. The Clippers would find the equalizer midway through the second after a Dane Gibson shot found the post, as Jake Jackson's centering pass from the corner went into traffic, and Cole Maier would find the loose puck in front and fire one past Cleary to knot the game at two a piece. The Clippers would press late, but some timely stops from Cleary would keep the game knotted at a 2-2 tie heading into the second intermission.
Photo Credit: Tony Burrows

     The third period would kick off with a bang, as both teams traded high-quality scoring chances in the first few minutes of the period. Both teams turned on the afterburners and the game began to open up offensively. Sean Cleary had to be sharp midway through the frame, as he fended off a deadly Clippers power play unit to keep the game knotted at two. It was nearly 3-2 late when Jay Mackie got open in front with a sprawled Decelles but the Grizzlies couldn't convert, but they did draw a late powerplay opportunity. The Grizzlies tried to convert on the man advantage, but couldn't manage to setup and get any chances. A timely stop by Sean Cleary on Sheldon Rempal point blank would keep the game tied with only two minutes remaining to force sudden death overtime.
Photo Credit: Tony Burrows
     In overtime, both teams had multiple chances to seal the deal. Sheldon Rempal had another point blank opportunity, but a sprawling Cleary was able to make the save and the Victoria defenders were able to clear the rebound. Shawn McBride came the other way with a good chance, but found no dice. Jake Jackson was the next Clipper with the opportunity to put the game away, but he put the shot over the top of the net to end the first overtime period without a winner with both teams having multiple chances to win the game.
     It would be the home team finding the final goal in three-on-three overtime just 49 seconds in, as Sheldon Rempal worked through the middle, took a shot, grabbed his own rebound at the side of the net and somehow put the puck past Sean Cleary from an awkward angle to complete the comeback and give the Clippers their third straight win with a 3-2 victory in extra time.
Photo Credit: Tony Burrows
     The Grizzlies manage to salvage a point in the loss, but the team really wanted this win, especially being up 2-0 after twenty minutes. The Grizzlies fall to 2-3-1 against the Clippers this season. Unfortunately, the Grizzlies don't gain as much ground in the Island Division standings as they could've and have to swallow a difficult loss to the best in the division. The Grizzlies will now get a full week's rest, as their next game isn't a week from today up in Cowichan Valley, as they seek revenge against the Capitals. It was a difficult loss for the Grizzlies, but they'll take the single point and move on. -TB

Victoria Grizzlies Mid-Season Report Card

     It's hard to think we're basically at the midway point of the 2014-15 BCHL season, but with half of the season in the books, it's time to look back at what was the first half of the Victoria Grizzlies season. Head Coach / GM Brad Knight had a lot of work to do when he came into the job, and the team needed a big overhaul after the departure of the Fitzgerald triplets. The Grizzlies currently sit with a record of 11-10-4, good for 26 points and 4th in the Island Division standings. It's been and up and down season so far, but let's give the Grizzlies a report card for their efforts in the first half of the season. And yes, I'm a tough marker.

Photo Credit: Tony Burrows

Offence: B

     Coming into the season, the offence was the biggest question mark undoubtedly. With the gaps to fill with the Fitzgeralds aging out, it left those wondering who would step up and "fill the vacuum" for Victoria. Luckily, the three veteran forwards in Jay Mackie, Dane Gibson and Garrett Forster stepped up to the plate and became true leaders offensively for the Grizzlies. A good supporting cast is always helpful, and the veteran forwards have gotten just that from newcomers such as Matt Kennedy, Brett Gruber and Mitch Barker. The defence has also chipped in with potting goals, especially the Grizzlies top pair of Meirs Moore and Zach Dixon as part of a brand new defensive end. The return of Jake Emilio brought much more offence to the back end, and he's looked sharp since returning from his October injury. The Grizzlies have had patches where the offence ran dry, and they've also had stretches where they've scored at will. On the whole, the team has combined for 84 goals this season, which stands as average amongst the rest of the league. If the Grizzlies want to move up in the standings in the second half of the season, their offence will need to be more consistent.

Photo Credit: Tony Burrows

Defence: C+

     The Grizzlies came into the season with a brand new defensive unit that took a while to get clicking, but the majority of Victoria's struggles comes down to team collapses in their own end and some breakout troubles. While they've improved drastically since the beginning of the season, the Grizzlies have had times where the passes get sloppy and the feet stop moving, allowing for the opposing team take advantage. The Grizzlies have had some nice defensive efforts from forwards like Storm Wahlrab, Brett Gruber and Cole Pickup, but the Grizzlies forwards have lost too many battles down low leading to scoring chances, and most of it comes down to sheer size. If you look at the Grizzlies goals for/against differential, they currently sit at -10 on the season, which isn't ideal if they want to move up in the standings. Again, there's been patches where the Grizzlies defence has been outstanding and stretches where Victoria gets trapped in their own end for long periods of time. For the Grizzlies defence, it comes down to being more consistent as they move forward.

Photo Credit: Tony Burrows

Goaltending: A

     In this case, numbers lie. Although they both sport save percentages under .900 and goals against averages over three, the goaltending duo of Michael Stiliadis and Sean Cleary has been outstanding for the Grizzlies this season. While Stiliadis has been given the majority of the starts playing against playoff contenders, coach Knight isn't afraid to switch it up with Cleary against any opponent in the league. The Grizzlies netminders have made some highlight reel saves night in and night out and kept the Grizzlies in the game numerous times throughout the season. Between a sprawled out Stiliadis stopping a barrage of shots and Cleary diving left and right to make miraculous stops, the Grizzlies have relied on their goaltending heavily thus far. It's a common hockey code that you never blame your goaltender, but there's no sugar coating when it comes to the Grizzlies netminders, they have been the real deal this season.

Photo Credit: Tony Burrows

Overall: B-

     With a massive turnover both on and off the ice, the Victoria Grizzlies have handled their new personnel very well and in doing so have entered the mid-way point of the season with a record over .500. However, looking at the bigger picture, the Grizzlies currently sit in fourth in the Island Division and must move up in the standings if they want to make a serious push in the post season and get home ice advantage. For the Grizzlies, they should be satisfied with their position due to the amount of new faces and rust. The second half of the season brings a lot of opportunity for this Grizzlies team to make a move on the top teams in the league. There's been patches of unmatched glory, 10-goal collapses and everything in between for the Victoria Grizzlies, and the second half of the season should prove to be just as entertaining as the first half. It's been a rollercoaster season for the Victoria Grizzlies, and this rollercoaster isn't slowing down any time soon. -TB

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Home & Home Sweep Complete: Grizzlies 3-2 Over Clippers

Five games vs the same Nanaimo Clippers in less than 2 months may seem to some people as an unbalanced and unfair layout of the BCHL schedule is you were a Grizzlies fan. But from the detached and unbiased view of a hockey broadcaster I view it more as an unbalanced and unfair layout of the BCHL schedule.

Nevertheless the Grizzlies were completely ready to face the BCHL goal scoring leaders and high flying Nanaimo Clippers last night as the Clippers bus sailed into the Q Centre for no less than the third time this young season. And it was the dauntless Grizzlies who stood victorious at Centre Ice saluting the 700+ fans last night to thank those who braved a rainy Colwood evening for their support, each witness to a 3-2 comeback win by the home team.

It was the second game of a quick two game Home and Home Series with the Clippers before the Grizzlies kick off a three game weekend with Powell River on Saturday night and the Trail Smoke Eaters on Sunday. The Grizzlies had already won the first half of the series with a dramatic 5-4 win thanks in large part to a late Power Play goal off the stick of a defenseman, Zach Dixon on Wednesday night. Two days later it would be another dramatic win for Victoria. Once again the victory would come at the hands of a defenseman on a late Power Play, this time 20 year old Jake Emilio. And the veteran D Man would make no mistake wiring a point shot into the back of the Nanaimo net, past a lunging Jakob Severson after a set up pass by teammate Kevin Massy.

The win, in conjunction with Wednesday's remarkable comeback at The Frank Crane Arena would vault the Grizzlies back into the conversation in the island standings. Heading into tonight's matchup in Powell River, the Grizzlies now sit only 3 points behind both Powell River and Alberni Valley, with a game in hand on the former. A Victoria win tonight would place the Grizzlies just a single point behind the two Island Division Clubs and create a virtual log jam of teams all fighting for that 2nd Place position in the division standings.

Dane Gibson, back in the lineup last night was a key piece of the comeback after tying the game on a beautiful wrist shot which beat Severson over the left shoulder and drew both teams level after a painful Nanaimo goal put the boatmen up 1-0 with only 0.3 seconds left in the 1st period. Most teams could crumple and panic after going down 1-0 so late in a period, but no these Grizzlies, they literally thrive on this kind of  a challenge.

The night's #1 Star however was net minder, Michael Stiliadis, who stopped  30 of 32 shots he faced and only allowed two goals against the "103 Goals so far this season" Clippers. The Victoria goalie may not have been solely responsible for the win but without some of his dramatic late sprawling saves, the score would likely have been very different. Brett Gruber scored Victoria's second goal of the night off an incredible display of hands, batting down a Garrett Forster pass mid-air to score his team leading 11th of the campaign.

"The Kings of Drama", but hopefully not too road weary Grizzlies take their potent #1 Power Play on the road at 5pm Saturday to take on Powell River at the Hap Parker Arena and then return that evening on the late ferry to the island as they prepare to return to the Q Centre Sunday to face the Trail Smokeaters who will also be in action on Saturday night in Nanaimo. Game time sunday at The Q Centre is 2:00pm.  - CC

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Subtle Change or Hardly Subtle? The Grizzlies 5-4 Road Win Over Nanaimo

There is only one true constant in life, and that constant is change. I can't remember who said that first, it might have been Albert Einstein, but frankly I am too tired to Google it, so there you go. But its a famous saying nonetheless and most will agree with its accuracy. What is lost on most people however, is how subtle that change is most of the time. Oh we have terrible and often watershed, defining moments like, Pearl Harbour, the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. Events where at one moment we were one thing and seconds later we were something else. But most change comes in small little doses, like the little pills we often are prescribed by doctors take to ward off illness or disease. The change they tend to produce is often very slow and can be hard to notice. In a word, change is usually quite subtle.

I have been thinking that way about this year's Grizzlies for a long time now. I have been thinking about how this band of mostly rookies is very slowly changing and growing into something very special, but more to the point about how slow they are changing their narrative. That changing narrative is at times is almost imperceptible to the naked eye. But today I also thought about it in my own circumstances in that today also just happens to be my birthday. Yes, I know, its a problem we all have once a year I am afraid. Well tonight I got my birthday present, which I may have mentioned the last time we spoke. So thanks there boys, but let's get down to what you read this blog for, not about a sportswriter's birthday plans: let's talk about tonight's game and what I think it all means.

You know here is why I just love the BCHL. Only in this league do you get a team like Victoria to come into a building like the Frank Crane Arena, fresh off a 3 game losing streak and while on the last game of a very tough 4 game road trip, you see the underdog Grizzlies pull off an away win to hand the mighty Clippers a 5-4 loss. That doesn't happen in many other leagues anywhere, but it happens in the BCHL. And why? It is because this game is played by brave young men from the ages of 16-20 and they are each about as hungry for success as a pack of starved dogs are for a bite to eat.

What league can see the Grizzlies with their #1 Power Play go 0 for 6 on Sunday, drop to #5 and only three days later, they score 3 on the PP and move right back up to #1 in Special Teams?  And they do it all during that stretch without power forward and PP specialist Dane Gibson. Instead they do it with heart and they do it with a total team first approach.  I will tell you what league sees that kind of madness, it is the British Columbia Hockey League.

And what kind of team does it take to give up two late goals in the 3rd period against a statistically superior opponent like Nanaimo and set themselves up for, let's be honest, yet another heartbreaking loss in a season with too many so far?  No its not the Grizzlies, its the "Drama King Kids From The Q!"  I just like the way that sounds and kind of jingles off the tongue, Drama King Kids From The Q, lots of great "K" sounds in there. 

The Drama King Kids, just keep turning a page and somehow, just when the naysayers are starting to say that they can't get the job done, they go ahead and score a Power Play goal in the final minutes of the 3rd period. Watch out BCHL fans, the Grizzlies are changing the narrative on the season, one page at a time. Yes, they have given up a lot of leads and lost games late this year, but they keep getting better. They don't lose games and then subsequently fail to learn from the experience. They give up leads from time to time and then learn how to avoid doing that, maybe not the very next time, but eventually.

But its very subtle you see. You really have to read between the tea leaves to see it.  Here let me try and give you an example.

Sunday 26 Oct, the Grizzlies give up a 3-0 lead at home and lose to a "better on paper" West Kelowna Warriors team. They lose 6-5 and the team is incredulous at the prospect of what had just occurred.  Then, a mere eighteen days later, this past Saturday, they hold off the same team with a narrow lead until the 60th minute of the contest when the Warriors score to tie it with 20 seconds left and force an unfair OT where the Grizzlies lose yet again. Subtle improvement?  I can see it, but just barely. Can you?

Now look at how subtly they are closing in on the #1 offense in the league, the powerhouse Nanaimo Clippers. This same Grizzlies team loses no less than 3 straight, one goal contests vs the Clippers over a two month period, coming into tonight's game in Nanaimo. 27 Sep, Grizzlies lose 4-3 at the Crane, then 4-3 again on 11 Oct this time at the Q Centre. Then one week later another 5-4 loss, this one again at the Q Centre. All regulation losses to a dreaded and powerful divisional opponent. Tonight, they go down a goal and everyone is thinking, oh boy, here we go again, we have no Dane Gibson, its curtains.  But change can be subtle sometimes remember.

And the Grizzlies answer back.  They get a break on a routine Chris Harpur point shot for his first of the campaign and its 1-1. Then they go down 2-1 and you are thinking, its the Clippers, put a fork in it, this game is over. But before the period is out, Jay Mackie scores on the PP. The Power Play?  I thought we were 0 for 6 or something in Vernon and dropped out of the league lead?  We did, but change can be very slow and deceiving at times. Game tied 2-2 at the break.

Period #2 starts and before you know it, Zach Dixon scores his first of the night on the PP no less. Then Ayden MacDonald with King Kong on his back scores a sublime marker to record his first goal in the BCHL. Funny, I never saw anybody grab him the puck. Oh well, I wouldn't worry about it #26, there will be many more where that came from. So the Grizzlies are up 4-2 and for me, what occurs next is the most subtle moment in this season long series so far: Nanaimo coach Mike Vandekamp, elects to pull Goaltender, Guillaume Decelles after Ayden MacDonald's 4-2 marker. As he does this, the Joliette Que native throws his stick down the Clipper's tunnel with words and epitaphs that would make a sailor cringe and trust me, I am a sailor and I was cringing. And so in goes his back-up, rookie Jakob Severson. OK, maybe not all change is that subtle.

But the Grizzlies would not be the "Drama King Kids From The Q" if they didn't have a little drama would they? The Clippers claw 2 goals back in the 3rd period and half way through the frame you are thinking, its either going to be another OT loss or we just cave late. Sorry but that's what you're all thinking, I know it. But the Grizzlies are one day at a time, one period at a time, one Special Team's play at a time, slowly evolving into that team you just pray you don't have to face in the playoffs.

First hint of Nanaimo trouble: Nanaimo hits a post late and then Clipper's Forward, Ryan Forbes (who is a Penalty Killer Expert but wait for it) gets a misconduct call by saying a naughty word or two/nine to the referee. Subtly getting under the Clippers' skin are these Grizzlies, they just keep getting a little better. Every game, every period. Oh they are so infuriating these Grizzlies! And those uber loyal visiting fans! Good grief shut it would you!

And then it happens, Nanaimo's Sheldon Rempal, with his team leading 29 points, loses his head and hits Meirs Moore hard from behind. Referee Jeff Eden has no choice but to call a minor for Boarding with just under 3 minutes to left to play. Brett Gruber then does what he and the other Centres have been doing all night, he wins the draw cleanly back to Meirs Moore and with a soft neat pass over to Zach Dixon, the right handed Dixon, playing on the left point no less, fires home his second of the night and 3rd on the season and the Grizzlies are up 5-4. Significant improvement, subtle, yes, but unmistakably there for all to see.

And that's how she would end folks, the Grizzlies finally shake off the Clippers in what I am calling the best overall win of the year so far. Ayden MacDonald and Chris Harpur each score their first goals of the campaign. And now, after removing the large primate which had been residing rather uncomfortably on Big Mac's rear loins, he enters the Grizzlies Rookie Forwards Goal Scoring Race with the likes of teammates Spencer Hunter and Quinn Thompson. 

And here I stand on my birthday, looking into the mirror, one year older than I was last year, brushing my teeth before bed. Just a middle aged man, reflecting on another glorious Grizzlies win at The Frank Crane Arena. But all the while, ever mindful of that little fact which I like to hide in denial just a little bit. That would be the fact that my "Movemeber" mustache this year has one or two more grey hairs in it compared to how it looked the last time my calendar read the 19th day of November. Oh well, I guess its a good thing after all, that most of the change we tend notice in life, is thankfully rather subtle. -CC



Monday, 17 November 2014

The Long Trip Home: A Recap of the Three-Game Interior Road Swing

     We have all experienced that strange feeling after a long trip. That sensation of not enjoying nearly as much the return journey as the outbound leg. There is just something a bit more special about any trip anywhere, whether by plane, train or automobile when its the first day. The car smells fresher, the clothes feel better, even the flight attendants seem nicer on the trip to London rather than the flight home. And no matter how much fun we had on the vacation, business junket, or Junior Hockey Road trip, that final leg home is always the least memorable. It just is. Well I didn't travel with the team this past weekend, so I can't say for certain, but my bet would be that the trip down the Coquihalla tonight for the Grizzlies will be an extremely quiet one as they try to make that last ferry to the island.

     Trust me, that is what a team bus sounds like after it has been outscored 18-7 in three straight road games, while the team collects 48 mins in penalties including 3 Game Misconducts and your leading scorer gets a two game suspension. Those bus rides are not very fun. They rarely feature team pranks with players being forced to sing Ariana Grande songs out loud at the front of the bus, in front of giggling fellow team mates and coaches. You know those fun acts of good natured personal humiliation in support of adding to the growing sense of high team morale, those ones? No, my guess is that the only Ariana Grande tunes on the bus were being played very quietly in a headset.

     It would have been so much better a trip home had the Grizzlies found a way to pull out a win or even a tie in Vernon today, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. 5-1 to the Vipers was how the final score read at the Kal Tire Place today before that aforementioned homeward journey began for the Grizzlies. Even the skate sharpening machine feels heavier than usual as you load it under the bus after a weekend like that.

     So what happened on a weekend of nine periods of hockey whereby the first period in Trail on Friday night ended with the visiting Grizzlies holding the home team to only two shots on net? If you asked me to assess how it was going at that point on Friday evening with the score at 0-0 in Trail and with the Grizzlies up 5-2 in the shot count, I would have told you that I thought the Grizzlies were on their way to having one heck of a great road trip. That's what I would have told you.

     But something funny happened on the way to a great road trip this past weekend and it happened right when everything was going just ducky too. That would be the moment that referee Ward Pateman put Cody Van Lierop in the box for a minor penalty for Holding after only 27 seconds of play in the 2nd period. The ensuing penalty kill for Victoria wasn't good enough but neither were the next twenty minutes of play, easily the worst period of hockey for the organization this campaign. It was a period of collapse for the Grizzlies, ending with a score of 8-2 for Trail and one which featured an Ayden MacDonald 5 minute major penalty and a Game Misconduct for a Blow To the Head.  Not what the coaches drew up in the game plan to be sure.

     The Trail game was effectively over at the end of the second period and while the contest included another inspiring Matt Kennedy shorthanded goal for the Grizzlies, it was little consolation for a team which was facing an opening night of a road trip with an ugly 10-4 loss on the books. The other long term issue though was Storm Wahlrab. He would not play on Saturday night vs West Kelowna or feature on Sunday vs Vernon due to an apparent injury picked up during a on ice hit in the Friday loss. So the plan was to get to bed, call it a night, shrug off the loss and look to West Kelowna on Saturday.

     A push back effort indeed was not only what the doctor ordered but what the Grizzlies delivered early on Saturday night at Royal LePage Place. The Grizzlies opened the scoring, just a minute and a half into the game with a beautiful Dane Gibson stickhandling no-move play in the crease to beat West Kelowna goalie Andy Desautels. The lead was soon extended to 2-0 by Jake Emilio. Fresh off two points in Trail on Friday night, the 20 year old defenseman scored after a long but accurate point shot on the Power Play, a shot which somehow found the back of the net. The Grizzlies were rolling after the first period, up 2-0 on the Warriors. And just like Friday night after one period, all looked well.

     But it would not last. The Grizzlies would once again get into penalty trouble in the second frame. By the end of the period in spite of 21 minutes of Grizzlies penalties and Game Misconducts to both Dane Gibson and Chris Harpur, Sean Cleary would turn away all 15 of West Kelowna's shots and the score would remain intact at 2-0 Grizzlies.

     However, the third period was better than the last time these two teams met on 26 Oct at the Q Centre. That was the day when West Kelowna stormed back to steal a win after being down 3-0 early. The 3rd period in West Kelowna on Saturday night would not see a home goal until almost 14 minutes into the final frame. At that moment Jordan Masters would strike after a scramble in front of Cleary. Masters who was victim to the previous Chris Harpur Checking From Behind penalty, had recovered from an apparent knee injury from the hit to grind out the 3rd period goal and put West Kelowna in a position to tie the hockey game.

     Sadly, with the net empty and only 20 seconds left on the clock, an away win in regulation was denied to Victoria as Jonathan Desbiens managed to beat Cleary with yet another mad scramble goal. So off to OT once again were the Grizzlies. In the first OT, after a hopeful P.J. Conlon rush was stopped, West Kelowna would end the contest when former WHL player and Team Captain Andrew Johnson repeated what he did to Victoria on that fateful 26 October home loss. He scored the game winning goal, this time in OT and for the second time in less than three weeks, he broke the hearts of the Grizzlies. But the performance as a whole was inspiring and Victoria could easily say that they deserved better, especially after the debacle in Trail the night before. In all honesty, even a heartbreaking OT loss, did not seem that bad, the Grizzlies played with heart.

     So off to Vernon on Sunday afternoon and a chance for the Grizzlies to face former players and Victoria natives, Mitch Meek and Brandon Egli, now dressed in the bright bumble bee yellow and blue 3rd Jerseys of the Vipers. Yuck! But remember, by then the Grizzlies were without the services of power forward Dane Gibson who had been handed down a BCHL 2 game suspension for his Blow To The Head penalty from the night before on Warriors forward Kylar Hope.

     Without the services of both Gibson and Wahlrab, the Grizzlies suddenly were facing a quick skating Vipers team without both its leading scorer and one of the team's primary Penalty Kill experts. And it didn't take long to notice the two big missing Victoria forwards. Not only did Vernon score first on a first period Power Play goal by TJ Dumonceaux, but earlier in the period two big hits on Grizzlies players Matt Kennedy and Jay Mackie went largely unchallenged and really set the tone for the rest of the game.

     Then in a scoreless second period, at the 14:40 mark, Colton McCarthy in a Vernon jersey for the very first time since being picked up off the Prince Albert Raiders, showed no signs of rust despite not playing in a competitive hockey game for over a month. McCarthy would make it 2-0 Vipers on a rebound off Michael Stiliadis from a Mitch Meek point shot. The goal would stand up as the only scoring in the period and the game still hung in the balance with the visitors only down 2-0 after two periods.

     But any question of a Grizzlies comeback was soon dashed early in the 3rd period as the Vipers would score just minutes in by way of a Trevor Fidler tally with a totally defensive Stiliadis off his feet in the crease. That would make it 3-0 and effectively finish off the game. But Vernon wanted more and they very soon added another, this time by Luke Shiplo at the 4:10 mark. After all five Grizzlies skaters found themselves at one point on the left side of Stiliadis's left face off dot, each chasing down Liam Finlay and Mitch Meek, Shiplo suddenly found both the puck and loads of room. He moved in from Stiliadis's undefended right side to pull off a toe drag move which launched Jake Emilio's stick into the crease and the ensuing goal put the Vipers up 4-0. Then just seconds after the faceoff, recent acquisition and former Penticton Vee, Finlay, would score as the "3rd man in" on an easy 2 on 1 after a Grizzlies giveaway in the Vipers end. The rout was on again.

     The Grizzlies would at least deny Vipers goalie Jarrod Schamerhorn his second shutout in as many games, with a tap-in back door goal by Brett Gruber. The goal would be Gruber's team leading 10th goal of the year after a nice bit of passing in the offensive end by PJ Conlon, Zach Dixon and Meirs Moore. But it was a case of too little too late and while the goal would make the score 5-1, that would be how it would eventually end. Incidentally, the Grizzlies went 0 for 6 on the PP on the night, which dropped the team out of 1st place in PP percentage and all the way down to 5th in the BCHL on the man advantage.

     So now you know how the weekend went, not good obviously but what trends and what lessons can the Grizzlies learn from this sour Interior swing? Three Game Misconducts in as many games and a two game suspension to anyone, let alone your top point getter is simply unacceptable. But what was more worrisome was that aside from a single Zach Dixon assist on that final Brett Gruber goal on Sunday, all the offence this weekend came from only 7 Grizzlies players. Each of those 7 players enjoyed multiple points over the three game stint, so that might be a positive and it is of course. But just remember that one of those players was Dane Gibson who had two goals and an assist, which is very good but he only played in five periods of hockey due to his Saturday ejection and follow-on suspension.

     So what does all this mean?  Well Homer Simpson once famously remarked: "You know Flanders, you can use statistics to prove any point you want, heck 3 out of 5 Americans know that", but the fact remains that no less than 12 Grizzlies skaters failed figure in any of the weekend's scoring. More to the point, none of those players were able to contribute offensively themselves and that must improve. And that is my point. 7 goals in 3 games averages out to only 2.3 goals/game. And yes, while it is a small sample size and all occurring during an Interior Division road swing, that kind of offense, just won't get the job done.

     So that sounds pretty bad, what's the good news coach? 

     The good news is that the road trip revealed the fact that this Grizzlies team has a short enough memory to quickly let a 10-4 loss go. They did that well and were able to get on with playing hard against a statistically superior opponent the very next night. That is good news and leaves me with lots of hope. The fact is that this team is vastly better than what they demonstrated this past weekend. But the lapses of self discipline must stop immediately. The Grizzlies simply cannot afford to lose points leader, Dane Gibson for any length of time. In only one and a half games this weekend, he figured in 43% of the team's offense. And guess what, he still has one game to sit for his suspension and you'll never guess who we play next?

     Which reminds me, I kind of glossed over a pretty major point. The road trip we just finished, well it isn't really over yet. Don't forget we play the powerhouse Nanaimo Clippers up at the Frank Crane on Wednesday night. And that's a Clippers team who just posted a score of 10-2 today on the strength of no less than 6 PP goals against an "Honourable Mentioned" Chilliwack Chiefs team in this past week's CJHL National Rankings.

     So one more bus ride on this road swing and a crucial Island Division matchup to boot. What the heck, Wednesday is the 19th of November and its also this sports writer's birthday. I do get one wish for my birthday don't I? So maybe after they shake off this weekend (remember they are good at that) they can beat the mighty Clippers Nation and I can enjoy a good singing of Happy Birthday here at home from my kids. And speaking of singing, maybe after the win, the Grizzlies can demand that Dane Gibson serenade the whole bus on the ride home to Victoria with some embarrassing rendition of an Ariana Grande song. I hear its good for team morale. -CC