Thursday, 22 January 2015

Grizzlies At The Final Turn: Four Hard Games On The Road

I always enjoy that moment in golf when you get to that portion of the round where you are at "The Final Turn on The Back Nine".  It is that moment in the round when you are farthest away from the clubhouse, usually at the 14th Green or 15th T-Box on most courses.  I reflect on it even more so when I am at "The Turn" while on the road.  I try and soak in both the moment, the round of golf itself and or the trip/business junket I am just about to complete.  I will often putt out on the 14th hole and look around and say something like: “Boy this sure has been a long but very productive trip and man am I ever glad that I will be flying home tomorrow.”  That moment of solitary gratitude is usually quickly replaced by other thoughts like: “Man do I ever need to work on my short game though, I can’t hit my Sand Wedge to save my life.”
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
A couple of nights ago I was throwing some used pizza boxes into the recycling bin outside the Prince George Coliseum as the team bus was just moments away from starting its long, snow bound return trip south to Victoria.  As I looked at the bus full of happy Grizzlies players, fresh off a 6-3 dominant performance, I thought to myself, “Wow, you are actually standing on the 14th Green for this season.”  That moment marked the absolute furthest away from home which any team in the BCHL can ever be during the season; that Victoria to Prince George trip is the longest in terms of travel distance and time and thankfully it is why the league only asks us to do it once per year.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
But as I threw out the last of the pizza boxes and started back to our bus, I thought about the “first 14 holes on this 2014/15 Victoria Grizzlies Season” and wondered what the final few holes would bring. It also got me thinking to what shape the team would be in by the time it got into "the clubhouse".
Fast forward to last night at the Weyerhaeuser Arena in Port Alberni.  It was no longer the “Philosophical 14th Green” I suppose, but it was the end of a brutal 4 game road trip for the Grizzlies, a road trip where the general theme throughout was Murphy’s Law: “If something can go wrong, the chances are, it probably will go wrong.”
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
And funny enough the game started great for Victoria.  Back to back Power Play goals by Dane Gibson and Tom Gobeil had the Grizzlies firmly in the driver’s seat at The Dog Pound just 2 minutes into this “Wacky Wednesday” game as we called it last night.  Best of all, the Grizzlies seemed to be getting the bounces, at least early on. Gobeil’s first goal was certainly proof of that as the Centreman fired a shot over Bulldog’s back-up goalie Nathan Warren, only to have the puck bounce square off his back, then off the crossbar and into the net for a 2-0 Grizzlies lead.  By late in the 2nd period, PK specialist, P.J. Conlon would set up Gobeil for his second goal on the night, a shortie to boot and the Grizzlies were up 3-1 heading into the final frame.
And that’s when Murphy showed up.
With Kevin Massy, fresh out of the box just seconds into the final frame, Mitch Makin would make the Grizzlies pay for poor D Zone coverage and it was suddenly 3-2 only twenty-two seconds into the last period.  There were still 20 minutes of hockey left to play.  And it just got worse from there in what could only be described as the Grizzlies poorest 3rd period of the year.  Michael Stiliadis who had been rock solid all game long, suddenly was leaving juicy rebounds around and nobody appeared ready to clear the puck and the rest was history. 4-3 to the Bulldogs was how it would end in front of a very healthy 931 fans on a midweek game in the BCHL.  But worst of all, the ice surface looked significantly tilted in favour of the Bulldogs in periods #2 and #3 and that hasn’t happened since the Trail game back in mid November.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
Back up eight days ago as the Grizzlies started their four game road trip at the Island Savings Centre vs Cowichan Valley last week. They would ice the puck in the final minute of the game and give up a tying goal and then lose in OT.  Remember that in that game the Grizzlies were 4-4 going into the final frame. 
Then two nights later, with the shock and pain of that loss shaken off, the Grizzlies rolled into a packed Prospera Centre with 3,007 fans on a Friday night in Chilliwack.  They would score the first goal of the game midway through the second period on a classic Dane Gibson tip-in off a gorgeous Brett Gruber pass.  Once again you would think, the Grizzlies are flying, they will win a road game, we got this.  They went into the 3rd period with a lead once again, this time up 1-0 and Stiliadis was looking at a possible Shutout.
Nope, Murphy’s Law was lurking in the rafters of that beautiful hockey building on the banks of the Fraser River.  The Grizzlies would give up 4 third period goals and end up losing 4-2.  They were outshot 13-5 in that 3rd period.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
Then the Grizzlies went up to Prince George on Saturday night and boom went the dynamite. They recorded a massive road win by stepping on the proverbial “throats” of the Spruce Kings and at one point in the hockey game scored 5 unanswered goals, two by Brett Gruber who ended the night at 28 goals on the season.  That was quite a performance.  You started to think, maybe those late losses in Chilliwack and Cowichan were simply anomalies.  But they were not.  It happened again last night.
Here is a fact which might surprise you, Victoria when leading going into 3rd periods this season have lost no less than 7 of those hockey games. With 44 games played so far that means no less than 16% of the team's games end in losses after leading going into the final period.  And that statistic does not reflect how many losses occur when tied after two periods, trust me its a big number as well.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
So what do we make of this?  The Grizzlies really need to bear down on team defence and support the goaltender much better down the stretch.  The goaltending also needs to improve, especially in terms of tracking the puck.  I called for this several weeks ago in my mid-season report card and it improved in December.  But surrendered 3rd period leads in Chilliwack on Friday and again last night in Alberni Valley have re-ignited that dangerous trend.
Is it repairable, can the team overcome this trend?  Of course they can, but time is running out on the regular season and the Grizzlies simply can't afford to keep shipping these free points to the competition, especially Island Division teams.  So the Grizzlies do make the proverbial "Final Turn" and start to head towards the clubhouse with only four holes to play.  My hope and my belief is that the Grizzlies won't reflect too much on their successes this season and what a great ride its been so far, but rather will spend a little bit more time working on the Sand Wedge. -CC

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