Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Fortress In The Forest Part Two, A Study In Geology: Kings v Grizz

With Game 6 only hours away and the entire series now hanging in the balance with the Kings up 3-2, the Grizzlies know that their backs are literally up against the proverbial wall. After completing the middle three games of the series at The Hap Parker Arena in Powell River, the Grizzlies might take solace from the fact that they managed to win at least one game on the road, the Saturday night 6-1 victory.

That victory would provide the Grizzlies with a good deal of hope left in a series which has witnessed just about everything thus far. The victory, the first of the entire season for the Grizzlies at "The Hap" allows Victoria with an opportunity to finish the series at home.  Game 6 and 7 (if necessary) will not fall under the usual Away-Home model as seen in the traditional BCHL hockey playoff model, not this year.  Instead, due to an interesting and somewhat curious decision, the Grizzlies took a considerable calculated risk by choosing to play 3 straight games at what I like to call "The Fortress In The Forest."  Had the Grizzlies lost all three weekend games at The Hap, the series would already be over. But the Grizzlies held firm and got that one vital win.

And after Friday night's game, a 5-2 loss in spite of 49 shots on Kings goaltender Brett Magnus, the Grizzlies looked like that decision to play games 3, 4 and 5 in Powell River might prove fatal.  With the smaller ice surface and the chip and chase style of the Kings, the hometown advantage looked to be perhaps insurmountable after Game 3.

But I predicted on Saturday that the winner of Game 4 would win the series and the Grizzlies did just that. Tom Gobeil, held pointless so far would provide a spark by cleanly hitting Kings defenseman Ross Hnidy into the boards in the second minute of the opening period. That hit would end Hnidy's night and likely his series but it would provide a lift for the Grizzlies who continued to pour on the fore-check in the smaller rink.

Moments later, taking the lead in a series hockey game for the only time so far through 5 games, Cole Pickup would snap a wrist shot past Magnus. Pickup's unassisted effort would lift his team's bench in spite of a Nick Halagian tying goal before the end of the period. But Period #2 would prove the pivotal moment of the entire weekend. Four unanswered Grizzlies goals, with two on the Powerplay, would be more than enough offense to provide the Grizzlies with the assurance that a Game 6 would take place on Tuesday at The Q Centre. Ayden MacDonald, Brett Gruber, Garret Forster and Jay Mackie would all score and in the 2nd period and Captain Shawn McBride would finish off the scoring with seconds left in the 3rd, sending the Grizzlies back to the hotel with a 6-1 win but more importantly with the series tied at 2-2.

On Sunday however it would be Magnus again leading the way with 26 saves on 27 Grizzlies' shots and a 5-1 Kings victory for Game 5. But the Grizzlies would leave the Fortress In The Fortress for the very last time in the 2014/15 season with a crucial single victory in seven attempts.  If you had told the Grizzlies at the beginning of the season that they would be 1-7 at the Hap Parker on the year, few would complain if that one solitary win would come during the playoffs. The win might be all the Grizzlies will need now. It could prove fatal for the Kings.

But Magnus has been nothing short of incredible and the Grizzlies must find a way to beat him in Game 6 Tuesday night at The Q Centre. Having faced 166 shots in the series and conceding only 13 goals, Magnus now sports a formidable .922 save percentage. It is a figure which is truly impressive, coupled with the fact that he has held talented forwards Dane Gibson and Thomas Gobeil to only a single assist between the two 20 year-olds in 5 straight playoff games thus far.

After scoring only two goals on 49 shots on Friday night, I first started thinking about the film, The Shawshank Redemption.  We all remember that famous prison movie in the early 1990s with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins. With Robbins' character, Andy Dufresne free and on the run, Morgan Freeman as narrator gives an account of the prison break.

"In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank Prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, damn near worn down to the nub. I used to think it would take six-hundred years to tunnel under the wall with it. Old Andy did it in less than twenty. Oh, Andy loved geology. I imagine it appealed to his meticulous nature. An ice age here, million years of mountain building there. Geology is the study of pressure and time. That's all it takes really, pressure and time."

The Grizzlies proved the theory around that particular science on Saturday night as they made Magnus look human again with no less than 6 goals on only 26 shots. Magnus on that night sported a save percentage of only .770. Pressure and time.

With sustained effort and constant pressure on Saturday, the Grizzlies finally broke through and scored with relative ease on Magnus. On Sunday that pressure lessened somewhat in spite of a 4- minute 2nd period Powerplay, I doubt that will happen again. But remember also that the Grizzlies Powerplay was attempting to operate in the tighter confines of the Hap. Games 6 and 7 will provide the Grizzlies with the much needed extra real-estate to operate their offense.  Pressure and time.

So off to the biggest game of the season, Game 6. The Q Centre will be buzzing and I expect that the Grizzlies will come out with a desperate effort for a full 60 minutes. If they can maintain that pressure and sustain it for a long enough period of time, say a full 60 minutes, they can and will be ultimately successful against the Kings.

That's all it takes really, pressure and time. -CC


Friday, 6 March 2015

Survive and Advance: Grizzlies v Kings Games 1 & 2

A couple of years ago the surviving members of the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack were getting together to have a 30 year reunion from their National Championship season and it occurred to ESPN Films to make one of those 30 for 30 documentaries about the iconic event.

If I was ever asked, I would often say that the only thing which could ever instantly bring me to tears was the final 15 minutes of To Kill A Mockingbird.  Well in 2013 when ESPN 30 for 30 released Survive and Advance, I had to add that film to my short list.  It's still the finest documentary I have ever seen.

The Wolfpack's Head Coach in 1983 was a funny and outgoing young Italian American from Queens New York named Jim Valvano.  Jimmy V was a lot of great things, but what he was most known for was his ability to trust his convictions and lead his team in the only way he knew how, by being himself.

Literally against all odds, the 83' Wolfpack won College Basketball's most coveted prize, the NCAA Men's National Championship.  The 30 for 30 Episode which commemorates that moment talks about the highs and the lows of that entire 82'/83' season, but most of all it captures Coach V's constant pre-game message during that Final Four:  "Survive and Advance".

Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
Just survive the next game and then advance to the next one.  That was his message.  Just find a way to win and we will advance, somehow, some way and we will worry about the next game when it comes.  That 83' Wolfpack team saw him invent tactics in the spur of the moment.  He called timeouts and issued instructions for his players to commit intentional fouls.  It was done only to get the ball back and put pressure on the opposition.  It had never been done before.  Yes Coach Jimmy V invented the intentional foul.

Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
The Grizzlies in many ways are right in the middle of their very own "Final Four".  Well actually the BCHL somehow managed to invent a "Final Three" but I think you get what I am getting at.

After a miserable 7-2 opening game loss in front of a sparse crowd at the Q Centre on Tuesday night, the Grizzlies looked like a truly emotionally beaten team.  Nothing went right.  Pucks bounced off sticks, passes went wide or were too long and ended up in an icing call, shots were deflected into the Q Centre netting by the dozens all night.  With only 6 games left in the series and the Grizzlies needing to win 4 out of the 6, the task was looking tall going into the Hap Parker Arena for three straight games this weekend.

Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
And that's when I started thinking about Jim Valvano.  After a one year fight with cancer, Coach Valvano would die in 1993 shortly after the 10th year anniversary of the 83' Championship.  On Tuesday night I started to think about what he would if he were alive to the Grizzlies during this treacherous road to the Fred Page Cup.  I started to think long and hard about Survive and Advance.

Down early in Game 2 on a Powell River Johnny Evans goal, the Grizzlies looked like they were on their way to another long night.  But before the period was out, Ayden Macdonald, fresh off a two game suspension, would tie the game at 1-1 on a beautifully crafted play by Kevin Massy.  Best of all, the tie game held firm as both goalies turned away shot after shot.

Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
With less than 3 minutes to play last night and with the score all knotted up at 1-1, I literally saw first-hand the principles of Survive and Advance.  Michael Stiliadis faced Brent Lashuk literally 5 feet in front of his crease, alone with the puck. One shot, a save, a second shot up higher, another save, a Grizzlies defenseman to the rescue, a sudden clearance and the danger had passed.  Or so it seemed.  Only moments later another wide open blistering shot, this time from the left D man and another huge stop by Stiliadis.  Survive and Advance.

With overtime looming the Grizzlies went to their Dressing Room with a 32-25 shot advantage.  No matter what happened in OT, the players would be able to look in the mirror with the full knowledge that they could do it, they could compete and play with the Kings.  The chances on net, not only the shots were far more in favour of the Grizzlies.

Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
The Overtime literally played out almost in slow motion. Three minutes in, facing the Kings top line of Keats, Lashuk and Lukosevicius and under serious pressure in the Grizzlies end, Cole Pickup would tip a pass to the point and through the legs of Tony DeVito.  The play would see Pickup stretched at arms length and sprawled on the ice in a full extension to knock the puck free.  Using every inch of his 6'1'' frame, the Langford native would get just enough of the puck to send it down the right side of the ice and down towards the Grizzlies bench.

Seizing the moment, PJ Conlon who had been stymied numerous times in both games would sprint down the ice at full stride and beat the Kings defenseman Colton Sandberg to the puck.  After battling to retain possession, Conlon would pass the puck back to the point to Pickup who had re-joined the play.  It was at that moment that Chris Harpur would power his way into the offensive zone and yelling for the puck, Pickup would oblige the Niagara On The Lake born defenseman with a smooth saucer pass.  Taking his time, Harpur would quickly fire off a trademark left handed wrist shot high and over the left shoulder and glove of Kings goaltender Brett Magnus.  The puck found the top right corner of the net.  It was the biggest goal of not only Harpur's career but the biggest for the hockey club all season.

Photo Credit - Christian Stewart ISN
The Q Centre erupted and the series was tied 1-1.  Survive and Advance.

With Games 3, 4 and 5 all set for this weekend, the Grizzlies will travel to the Hap Parker in an attempt to accomplish something which they have not done all series and that of course is lead.  Heck the Grizzlies have yet to actually lead in an actual game.  Yes, the Grizzlies have not yet won a game this year at The Hap, but that's OK, they seem to have a new mentality going and it is serving them well.

Survive and Advance.  Jimmy V would be proud. -CC

Monday, 2 March 2015

Numbers Never Lie: The Victoria Grizzlies Heading Into The 2015 BCHL Playoffs

I always liked math, there was some sort of honesty thing there for me I seemed to find.  Numbers are funny.  You can always count on them.  They may not always mean everything, but they almost always mean something.  On the eve of the playoffs, there are a lot of things going through my mind but most of all its the simple adage that numbers never lie.
I noticed a recent trend with the Grizzlies and it might not be what you think.  Everyone is of course very pleased with the team’s recent 7 game win streak. Its the longest of the year for the team and the longest current win streak in the BCHL.  When I crunched the math, I noticed that since the coaching change on 30 Nov, the Grizzlies have only lost 8 games in the “Outright Loss” column.  That is 8 losses in 32 games under Coach Didmon or exactly 25% of the time.  Under the old coaching regime, the Grizzlies were losing games via the outright loss stat at 38.46% of the time.     
Thus prior to December, there was almost a 40% chance that a Grizzlies game would end in a loss and not even get to OT.  Since that time, that figure has been cut almost in half.  And most of all, for large chunks of that time, the Grizzlies have been doing it without the services of Thomas Gobeil, Garrett Forster or Matt Kennedy.  Frankly, I find that astonishing. 
Here is a fun and  great trivia question for you: Who was the last player in BCHL history to record back to back Double OT game winning goals?  The answer is of course Kevin Massy of the Victoria Grizzlies.  Yes, "K Mass" as I like to call him is a lot of things: The Undisputed Captain of The Bus, a dominant power forward and crushing D Man, but he is now the answer to a great BCHL trivia question which I will assume could stand for a long time.  A long time.  Numbers, especially crazy numbers do that sometimes, they linger.
So the Grizzlies enter the 2015 BCHL Playoffs in less than 24 hours and we know who they will face, the Powell River Kings.  The Kings are team the Grizzlies haven't fared well against all year, let's be honest.  But I don't think any of that matters right now to anyone who will be wearing black on the ice tomorrow night at the Q Centre.  Nope, not with the week they've just had.  Not with these numbers.
The Grizzlies did have quite a week.  On Wednesday it was up to The Island Savings Centre where they dispatched the Cowichan Valley Capitals in a relatively routine performance and they even trailed 1-0 early. Chris Harpur showed flashes of his not yet fully tapped future pro talent again with a goal and a helper while Dane Gibson scored a pair and so did the resurgent Ayden MacDonald.  Most significant and sadly for Caps fans however was the signature moment of the game.  That of course was Thomas Gobeil, their former star stamping out any hope with an Empty Net goal to close out the night.  It was a seminal moment where you could actually see two hockey organizations going in two completely different directions.  But that's hockey, that's math.
Then on Friday night in Nanaimo, with about a minute left in the game, Gibson would set up Meirs Moore with a clutch game tying goal and keep that "8 losses in 32 games" stat safe for the time being.  Then in Double OT, Kevin Massy would remind everyone why he should shoot more, booming a one time slap shot from Team Captain Sean McBride past one of the top goalies in the entire league. The goal brought the magic number from half a game to zero for the Grizzlies to earn home ice advantage in Round 1. That was a reality which seemed impossible when Didmon took over in December.  Yes in November the math looked impossible, at least it did for me.
One night later, with 3 AP players in the lineup, Massy would do it again, score in Double OT, setting a BCHL record in so doing.  But not before the lightly heralded supporting cast around the club brought a packed Q Centre to its feet on numerous occasions. At times it was the quick hands of Nick Guiney stealing pucks and feeding Penalty Kill Specialist P.J. Conlon.  At other times it was Spencer Hunter doubling his season goals tally in a single game, scoring two goals, one in the North End of the rink and then a second goal in the South End.  It was the proverbial coming out party of the year for Hunter, his confidence brimming, the 14 and 15 year old girls in attendance all swooning each time the handsome winger tapped the glass in elation after his goals.  Those numbers, the  swooning numbers, they actually mean something.
Back to Kevin Massy.  His Double OT winner was huge and for a somewhat and perhaps unimportant but nevertheless significant footnote on the season.  It marked the Grizzlies 219th goal on the Regular Season placing the team alone in 2nd Place in the league in goals scored.  Only Nanaimo had more goals scored at 235.  Had the season gone on another week or two, the Clippers would likely have fallen behind the Grizzlies in that category as well.  And in assists, the team finished the season with a league best 392 "apples", more than even the Clippers at 378.  Maybe its not just another number.
Meanwhile in net Michael Stiliadis was excellent on his two nights of work as was Sean Cleary on Saturday in a game which on paper didn't mean much in terms of points, but in terms of maintaining playoff momentum, it might have meant the world. 
So off we go into the bright blue yonder of the Playoffs tomorrow night at the Q Centre.  There won't be a Matt Kennedy in the lineup, although every day that goes by however, his shoulder gets stronger.  In the meantime, the team is peaking at exactly the right time.  Not even in the 2000/2001 Fred Page Cup Championship Season did a Grizzlies/Salsa/Warriors franchise go into the post season this hot.  I haven't seen this once since 1991 when I first started watching the Warriors out at The JDF.
And that brings me to my final stat of the night, before I sign off and put the 2014/15 Regular Season officially in the books with the most important number of them all. That is the number zero.
There are literally now twenty two players all pulling on the same rope, night in and night out of this Grizzlies hockey club.  There are zero passengers on this hockey club.  Zero.  Everybody matters, everyone, even the 4th line players have a voice in this team and each player will have a verse or two to write in this post season.  Each know they will have a chance at "their moment" when the time comes.
And that in the end I think is the number Coach Didmon has been seeking all year, the number zero.  If he could get that "passenger number" to zero and get everyone to buy in to his way of playing and his system, the team could maybe pull off one of the most remarkable comeback seasons in league history.  That is of course if its true what they say about numbers.
You know?  How numbers never lie.