Monday, 23 February 2015

These Are Not The October Grizzlies: Two More Big Wins

I wrote in a blog back in October 2014 about my theory of what the Victoria Grizzlies would look like in the month of February.  There were signs back in the Fall that this club possessed a lot of raw talent and potential. After leading by a sizable margin early in an October game, the Grizzlies lost a heart-breaker vs the West Kelowna Warriors on a Sunday afternoon.  I wrote at the time, that the game revealed to me a lot about the Grizzlies’ character and self-belief.  I felt that by the time of the playoffs, they would be more self-assured as a hockey club and that they would trust themselves to close out games much better.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
Well, don’t look now, but it’s almost March and the Grizzlies have just won 4 games in a row and are 7-2-0-1 over their last ten games.  Those games included a comeback (4-3 OT win) vs Alberni Valley last Wednesday and then a major triumph over the Powell River Kings.  Remember, they have managed to do all of this without Matt Kennedy, Garret Forster and Thomas Gobeil.  The Grizzlies of February 2015 are a very different team.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
If you were writing this up as a script on how to arrive at the Playoffs in top form, this is how you would do it.  I pointed out last week why I believe this team is the “#1 Most Dangerous Team” heading into the 2014/15 BCHL Playoffs.  The Grizzlies are that prototypical team you just don’t want to meet in the playoffs.  I was speaking to several unnamed opposition team officials over the last few weeks and several pointed out to me how much they hoped that the Grizzlies would end up playing the Clippers in the First Round.  They believe that probably no team in the Island Division is more capable of a First Round upset of the Clippers than the Victoria Grizzlies.  But now we all know that the Grizzlies will not face the Clippers in the First Round.
So where then does that leave the Grizzlies with one week left to go before the playoffs?
First of all let’s look at the bad news.  Matt Kennedy is still out of the lineup after only two weeks post surgery.  The good news is the fact that he will have a third straight week to convalesce prior to the playoffs.  The next bit of bad news is Garrett Forster being out of the lineup with another bothersome upper body injury.  But unlike Kennedy, his return is likely for Game 1 of Round #1.  Next is the issue are the minor injuries at this time of year. The Grizzlies no doubt have a few players who could certainly use a break.  The good news there is that quality AP players are available if needed.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
Now the good news: The Grizzlies just won a game in OT and while that should not be cause for a victory parade down Goldstream Avenue, it is a big psychological plus for the club.  Goaltending which has been good all year is actually becoming excellent down the stretch and Michael Stiliadis in the last several games has been impressive.  What is most remarkable for me is the team's goals against average in the 3rd period over the last 4 games, a grand total of 4 goals, thus averaging out to a 1.00 GOA over the last four 3rd periods.  Stiliadis and the defensive corps have been great at locking down the defensive end as of late. Saturday night vs Powell River was a prime example.
That brings me to the defensive core of the team.  You may have noticed a bit of swagger in the team around a small but equally tight group of defensemen, who have recently given themselves the moniker of “D Corps”.  D Corps and more specifically the play of D Corps has been impressive all year but now this group of players has begun to identify themselves as something of a key piece of the team’s overall identity.  D Corps is confident, loose and less inclusive than a group of Grade 9 girls in the school cafeteria.  In short, these 6-7 players really have each other’s back and it shows.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
Next there is the recent play of the supporting cast.  Coach Didmon recently called upon his 3rd and 4th line players to step up their play in view of the loss of the aforementioned players.  Ayden MacDonald has scored 3 goals in the last four games.  Cole Pickup has scored a pair himself in that span of games.  Add to that is the play of defensemen Zach Dixon who has amassed no less than 2 goals and 3 assists.  There is the support play of D-man Jake Emilio who has himself been on a tear over the last few weeks, with a clutch goal vs Powell River on Saturday and overall stalwart defensive play.  Meanwhile, Captain Shawn McBride has been a “Steady Eddy” type of leader throughout.
Next is the Penalty Kill.  Not only has it been excellent all year, but it was able to withstand a sustained period of 5 on 4 and then a 6 on 4 Kings Powerplay over the final half of the 3rd period during Saturday’s incredible 3-2.  This was accomplished while key PK specialists like P.J. Conlon and Zach Dixon were serving the very penalties in question.  That final portion of the game demonstrated team resilience and depth, not to mention guts.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
Then there is the play of the “Hands Line Modified”.  Dane Gibson at 84 points is flirting with a 90 point season this year.  With 3 games left to play, Gibson has already earned the distinction of being the highest scoring Grizzlies player since Tyler Bozak and his 128 points in the 06-07 Season.  Gibson at +19 along with Brett Gruber at +18, have lead the team in +/- since 1 Dec, 2014.  Linemates Jay Mackie, Matt Kennedy and Garrett Forster have all contributed to playing on this line throughout the year and each have been key.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
Finally there is the ultimate Wild Card and possible “Ace In-The Hole”, Thomas Gobeil.  Not since Steve Sigaty of the Fred Page Cup Champion 2000/2001 Victoria Salsa has there been a more impactful January Trade Deadline acquisition as Gobeil.  With no less than 10 goals in 14 games as a Grizzlie player, Gobeil has amassed this amazing goal scoring record in spite of two games in which he was ejected early.  To put it plainly, Gobeil is a lights out offensive dynamo.  He has a pro shot and hands which has seen him make countless BCHL defensemen look foolish at times.  His play has been remarkable and he could be the difference in a close series.
Photo Credit - Christian Stewart - ISN
In conclusion, I really like the look of this February Grizzlies team.  Now I wonder what it might look like at the end of March.

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