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


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