Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Too Soon To Be Talking Playoffs? I Don't Think So

Well folks, it is officially on.  I am talking about the run to the playoffs.  And yes, I am aware that it is December 16th. 
Coming off a solid run in November but with two recent weekend home losses, if there was anyone who thought that the Grizzlies would simply stroll their way into 2nd, 3rd or even maybe 1st place in the Island Division anytime soon, those people are now pretty quiet.  But its not all bad.  The Victoria Grizzlies are now officially embroiled in what may be the most exiting playoff race in years.  Frankly, I think the whole thing is good news and is something to embrace.
With the Alberni Valley Bulldogs' huge Monday Night Hockey win a few days ago vs the road trip beleaguered Trail Smoke Eaters, the Grizzlies now stand precipitously close to falling out of a playoff spot as they sit just one point ahead of the Bulldogs.  It sets up a literally massive road game on Thursday night for the Grizzlies.
And that is my point in this week's blog, this year is all about the season, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  This is arguably one of the most exiting regular seasons I can remember in years. Sure the Grizzlies have had their struggles, but man this is fun.  The Grizzlies are literally fighting for their playoff lives each and every night and so too are many of the other clubs in this amazing Island Division.  Somebody will miss the playoffs on the island, but who?  Alberni Valley?  They could miss out but they just keep winning, they just won't go away.  The Grizzlies?  Maybe, but the team is just way too good to not qualify for the post-season in my opinion.  Could it be Powell River which ends up in that 5th spot?  I don't see that frankly, they play way too well at home.  Cowichan Valley?  No way, not unless something really bad happens at the ISC this season and that just isn't in the cards in my view.  And the Clippers, well they are well ahead in first place and going nowhere soon.
I see this as a simple two way race for that final 4th spot in the island Division.  The race is squarely between the Bulldogs and the Grizzlies and frankly I expect it to come right down to the wire.  With a 2-0 shutout loss to the Wenatchee Wild on Saturday night at the Q Centre in front of a sparse and nearly silent Q Centre crowd, the Grizzlies opened the playoff door for the Bulldogs.  After losing again the next day to the visiting West Kelowna Warriors, that playoff door opened even more.  And with no less than 3 games in hand by Alberni Valley heading in to Thursday's crucial showdown at the Weyerhaeuser  Arena, the pressure on the Grizzlies is mounting.  But that's what the regular season is all about.  Frankly, if I was a Grizzlies season ticket holder, I would be so exited, you couldn't drag me away from the Q Centre.  This year, literally every game, every point counts.  That 2OT home loss to Nanaimo two weeks ago and the single point the Grizzlies earned as a result is all which separates the two clubs in the standings.  And that's where the average fan comes in, the average fan can actually make a difference this year.  The noise in the Q Centre could be a key factor as we approach the stretch run.
Look, let's not mince words, it was a bit like a library in the Q Centre on Saturday night for the Wenatchee Wild and that was disappointing for everyone.  The fact is that there were just way too many fans (6,600) downtown at The Royals game enjoying their Teddy Bear Toss Night, full stop.  That’s what happens on certain nights in a town like Victoria with no less than 7 junior hockey teams.  So all I will say is great job to the few die hard Grizzlies fans who did show up on the weekend, well done to those fans.
Now here is a stat which might surprise you:  the Grizzlies are 7 wins out of 21 attempts vs clubs with a better than a .500 record.  That's means that the Grizzlies have no better than a 33% chance of beating teams with winning records.  That’s not so good.  When the Grizzlies play teams with records less than .500 they are a little better but not much, 6/15 which is a winning percentage at around a 40% clip.  Maybe none of that is very good, but does any of that really matter now? 
The fact is that the Grizzlies are very competitive as of late vs the teams which really matter, the Powell River Kings (4-1) and the Cowichan Valley Capitals (3-3).  And with recent dominant performances vs the Alberni Valley Bulldogs including last Tuesday’s 4-2 win on home ice and the 28 Nov 4-2 Q Centre win, the Grizzlies should be able to keep this going and make those win/loss stats mean very little.  But it’s going to be tight.  I truly believe that this season will likely come down to the final week to decide all the playoff spots in the Island Division.
The Grizzlies now have an open roster spot for a forward now that #9 Haydn Hopkins has departed for the OHL's Erie Otters.  Luckily Head Equipment Manager, Mel Smith had only stitched a single Home jersey for the player who only played but a single game as a Grizzly at 1 GP, 0 G, 0A, -1.  The question now will be who will Coach Didmon sign, an impactful 20 year old or a young player for the future?  My guess is that he will probably first call up a few AP forwards like Cory Hatcher or Nathan Gelsinger from the Westshore Wolves to help get a handle on his local prospects.  Both players are lighting it up in the VIJHL.  Watch this space.
This season wearing #26, Mitchell Barker, could be a key veteran vs the Bulldogs down the stretch
So the club is now less than 24 hours away from what is easily the biggest game of the season, the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Thursday night.  The Grizzlies haven’t had a lot of success at the Weyerhaeuser this season in two early season visits, both losses, so they will  have to bring their A game on Thursday if they expect to get anything out of this huge 4 point game.
Oh BTW, if you haven't seen this Grizzlies Christmas video yet, give it a gander:  Roy our video guys did more of his magic.  Great job Roy and to everyone in the organization who participated again this year! -CC 

Monday, 7 December 2015

A Sherpa's Guide To Plan B Travel: Grizzlies v Kings

After a well earned single point on Tuesday night vs the Nanaimo Clippers, the Grizzlies braced themselves for visit #2 to The Sunshine Coast.  The area's local rink, The Hap Parker Arena, known to some readers of this blog as "The Fortress in The Forrest", is a building which witnessed but a single Grizzly victory in all of last season.

When it was discovered that Tropical Storm Poindexter was barrelling its way headlong into Vancouver Island early Saturday morning, the Grizzlies had to abandon their standard plan to take the Comox Ferry to Powell River and instead reverted to the dreaded Plan B route.  But the ad hoc trek would prove so long, arduous and fraught with bad weather, (not to mention the passing by of several road side accidents) that Sherpa guides will likely be assigned to the team bus should another Plan B be called upon in future visits to The Hap.

Grizzlies players Pickup, Mokhtari, Visconti and Krabben carefully negotiating their way to Powell River early Saturday
With the single ferry and normally five hour trip to Powell River suddenly turned into a three ferry, 13 hour Bataan Death March, the Grizzlies would arrive to face their Island Division rivals eager and ready to play at 7:15pm.  After a spirited first ten minutes which saw the Grizzlies give the Kings everything they had, the dreaded bus legs would soon appear and the Kings took the lead on a Liam Lawson goal near the end of the first frame.
Artist's rendition of Grizzlies arriving at Hap Parker just in time to play Kings on Saturday night 
Periods 2 and 3 would seem no better except for a single Kevin Massy marker as the big D Man who spent the game playing a bit of forward, would find the net and spoil Kings goalie Jeff Smith's shutout bid.  Several near scraps almost occurred during the contest between Kings' forward Nick Halagian and The Undertaker, Chuck Bennis, but incredibly no actual altercations took place.  The game would end 5-1 and the Grizzlies would vow to play another day.

And that moment would come at 2pm on Sunday afternoon, but not after a fully fuelled and replenished Grizzlies squad had an opportunity to sleep and eat a few solid meals.  The food and rest were good, but with Captain PJ Conlon back in the lineup after missing Saturday's game due to SAT requirements, the club would show up with its full complement of forwards, all ready to play.

It would not take the Grizzlies long either to establish their dominance, outshooting the Kings in a scoreless first period 10-5.  Funny enough the period was likely best highlighted by a miraculous Matt Galadja kick save on Liam Lawson. The NHL 94' inspired Kirk MacLean like save was so unbelievable that Powell River fans stood and cheered for the apparent Lawson goal, only to see that somehow the puck had remained outside of the Grizzlies' net.  

In the second period after some fine Tyler Welsh and Chuck Bennis passing, Jake Stevens, on his 19th birthday would dispatch a wrist shot to put the Grizzlies up 1-0.  With more scoring from Dante Hahn on a quick 2 on 1, the Grizzlies were soon up 2-0.  Austin Kamer would reply on a wrap around for Powell River soon enough but the Grizzlies would answer right back late in the 2nd period with Brayden Geslinger's, team leading 11th goal of the season. 

Kirk MacLean in 1989 looking much like #35 Matt Galadja for the Grizzlies on 6 Dec, 2015
The teams would skate hard in the 3rd period when tempers would finally explode between The Undertaker and the Kings' Halagian.  Bennis would land the majority of the connections in spite of the linesmen's interference which caused an early stop at which point Halagian would attempt to re-ignite the battle to no avail.  A long range, empty net goal by Conlon would wrap up the contest 4-1 and see the Grizzlies now 2-1 on the season at The Hap.  The tired but satisfied Grizzlies were exited to soon be boarding a single ferry back to Vancouver Island.

But unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Mother Nature had other plans.  With an approaching winter storm seen only in biblical references, the Grizzlies bus would find itself sitting at the Powell River Terminal, the team painfully hoping against hope that the near 100km/hr winds were not too much for the venerable BC Ferries Corporation to manage.  With a few hours to kill and a nearby bowling alley only yards away, the Grizzlies would bowl away the time.  Meanwhile outside, terrifying meteorological events seemingly inspired by world-wide CO2 levels which might surprise even Al Gore, pounded away at the tiny town famous for its beautiful sunshine and shiny glossy white paper.

Storm #2 on 6 Dec, slams Powell River (Grizzlies bus visible in right corner of storm's eye)
Facing a second Plan B in as many days, the Grizzlies would be stuck for the night in Powell River, trapped in a hotel which was nearly ripped from its foundations but safe in the knowledge that three new facts have emerged about this plucky team from Victoria:

a) The Grizzlies goaltending is as good as any in the league and can win on any night;
b) Avoiding Khumbu Ice Fall travel, the Grizzlies can now win at will at The Hap Parker; and
c) The legend of The Undertaker continues to grow throughout the BCHL.

Photo of Chuck Bennis, The Undertaker, "keeping it real" for the rookies during the "Post Win Team Bonding Session" at a local hotel in PR 
Failing any need for another dreaded Plan B, the Grizzlies will entertain the Alberni Valley Bulldogs tomorrow night at The Q Centre.  Sherpas not required.  Talk to you Tuesday night everybody. -CC