Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Secret Formula: Grizzlies 7-0

Ask any hockey coach in any league and the formula is simple.  Combine great goaltending with a strong defence and timely goal scoring and you have the makings for winning hockey.  Throw in solid Special Team play and you pretty much have the whole package.  It is a formula for winning which can take you very far. 

Well guess what?  That's the 2015/16 Victoria Grizzlies.  Well now it is anyway....

The Grizzlies have great goaltending and not only that but it is a very deep position.  Mitchell Benson was likely not expecting to start in Nanaimo last night after getting the nod vs Red Bull Salzburg on Wednesday.  But with a precautionary rest to Matt Galajda, the versatile back-up came in and stopped 44 shots out of the 47 he faced and stonewalled the frustrated Nanaimo Clippers for the very first time this season.  Dam Buster Benson as I like to call him did it again.  On 27 Sep he registered his team's first very BCHL win and broke the win-loss dam wide open.  Last night he blew open the dam on the (previously 6-0 vs Victoria) Nanaimo Clippers in front of almost 1,700 screaming fans at the Frank Crane.  The atmosphere there was electric!  Best BCHL game I have watched in years.

Benson, first to register a win vs Clippers this season
One week earlier it was Galajda in a 36/37 stop performance vs the superb Salmon Arm Silverbacks at The Q Centre in a game which gave the net minder 1st Star honours in the come form behind 4-1 win.  I have been saying this all year: for 18 year old goalies, Galajda and Benson are easily the best 1-2 punch in the entire league.  They stack up almost even statistically vs the older and more experienced pair of Brodeur and Driscoll in Penticton. And they do this in spite of being on a Victoria team which started the year 1-11.  Think about how hard that is to do?  That's an incredible turnaround.

Then you add to that formula, the uber strong Grizzlies defensive corps this season and things soon get very tough on opponents. Last night is a case in point.  After retaking the lead for the second time on another patented Kevin Massy walk-in play from the point, the Grizzlies had a problem. Suddenly finding themselves down to 4 defensemen with injuries to Drayson Pears and an ejection to KMass early in the third, the Grizzlies needed help on D.

#2 Bennis and #4 Stevens key to win in Nanaimo
And what did the Grizzlies D-Corps do?  Well for starters, Team America World D, Jake Stevens and Chuck Bennis, they just flat out put the entire Grizzlies team on their back at one point and basically said:  "Don't worry everyone all the terrorists are dead." The D-pair simply blocked shots, made huge hits, cleared pucks and made countless smart defensive plays all night.  At one point in the game The Undertaker, Chuck Bennis on a Lucas Finner breakaway chased the Clipper player so hard that with one hand and that classic 9' reach of his, he managed to dislodge the puck from Finner and send it harmlessly to the corner while avoiding a penalty which 9 times out of 10 would occur to a lesser defenseman in that situation.

Stalwart Defensemen like Chuck Bennis, are a big part of the Grizzlies Secret Sauce in 2016
But it didn't end there.  Brett Stirling who lead all Grizzlies last night with a +4 rating on the evening had no less than 2 back to back solo rushes ahead of his forwards in the third period alone. He did this knowing full well that not only was his team down to only 4 defensemen for the entire 3rd period in a tight 5-3 game on the road but that trusty Equipment Man, Mel Smith had forgotten to bring the team's Oxygen tank on the bus. Cody Van Lierop was equally outstanding with a +2 rating and an assist on Dante Hahn's late first period go-ahead goal.

Could #6 Brett Stirling's "Boy Band Good Looks" and rock hard play soon be signing a deal with Boost Oxygen as their new franchise spokesperson?
Offensively, it was a night of late back breakers for the hapless Clippers.  No sooner would Nanaimo take the lead when an unlikely Grizzlie player would answer.  A perfect example was #61 and red hot Alex Peck, jumping on a lose puck and burying his 4th of the year with just 1.9 secs left in the 2nd period.  Timely goal scoring indeed.  That's been the formula since The Mid Island Meltdown and the forwards are bringing it every night.

I would bet that preparing to face Victoria must be very tough for opposing coaches on most nights.  You just never know which Grizzlies forward is going to step up and hurt you.  Mitchell Barker, who has scored 4 goals in his past 5 games, assisted again last night on Massy's tying goal in the first period.  Barker who unfortunately was later ejected for a Hitting From Behind Minor Penalty has been as good as any of the suddenly white hot 3rd and 4th Liners for the Grizz.

#26 Barker, is just one more veteran getting hot at the right time of the year

And the leaders continue to just do their business night in and night out.  PJ Conlon (+2) sporting what Moe from Slap Shot would have called  "a very deep cut" after getting a stick to the face, just skated back to the bench and let Steph Tamboline patch him up and send him right back out again.  He never missed a shift.  Conlon who is quietly rocketing up the scoring stats with another 3 points last night is leading players like Cole Pickup (also 3 points and +3), Brayden Gelsinger (1 assist and +1) and Dante Hahn (1 goal, +1) with a quiet and understated leadership style which reminds me at times of a younger Brian Skrudland.

PJ Conlon (right), alongside Cole Pickup (left) in the Frank Crane Dressing Room last night after getting repairs

The Grizzlies will take on the Alberni Valley Bulldogs tonight in the hopes of pushing this 7-0 BCHL winning streak to 8 wins tonight in front of what will hopefully be a very big crowd at The Q Centre.  In the meantime, we will await any league supplementary discipline which could get handed out to Massy or Barker in view of the aforementioned ejections from last night. We shall see. 

Regardless, my sense is that this Grizzlies team is starting to seriously turn some heads around the league.  With Alberni HC Kevin Willison and A/HC Adam Hayduk both in attendance scouting the game last night, in Nanaimo, it was clear to me that important people are definitely starting to pay attention.  With a night off, it would not surprise me at all if I saw Clippers HC Mike Vandekamp and AC Blake Clement in Colwood this evening.  I think it is safe to say that a lot of hockey officials and fans are becoming very much interested in this Grizzlies Secret Formula.  See you tonight. -CC

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Call The Plumber, Grizzlies On a Roll

How much do you want to bet that when the Surrey Eagles coaches were preparing for the Grizzlies on Sunday, Joey Visconti wasn't a huge part of the pregame speech?  I doubt you would have heard:  "And no matter what, watch out for #17, Visconti.   He is flat out crazy good and he can kill any team, sometimes almost single handed on any given night.  That's Visconti V-I-S-C-O-N-T-I, #17"  My guess is that the Eagles coaches failed to mention Visconti or for that mater, any of the Grizzlies Plumbers.  The truth is that they probably should have.  That's because if they had bothered to read any of the team's recent box scores they would have noticed that as of late, the Grizzlies have had no issue in picking up the phone and calling the plumber.

Caps Killer Visconti has 3 goals this season vs Cowichan
In the span of just 20 minutes of play from the 3:47 mark of the first period, the white hot Visconti, who scored at the ISC last Tuesday would score two goals and set up two more vs Surrey.  That was just for starters.  By the third period Visconti would score his third of the game and give his Grizzlies team its third Hat Trick in 5 games.  Moments later he would make another of his trademark slick moves on the PK.  He would steal the puck and go in all alone on Surrey net minder Justin Laforest, and nearly score his fourth goal of the game.  In the broadcast booth, the Eagles' score keepers were inconsolable, pounding on the table in disgust as Visconti nearly single handedly broke the spirit of their club in front of their home town fans.  Visconti would earn his first ever BCHL First Star of the Game honours in the decisive 7-2 win.  It was a big weekend for The Plumbers.

On Sunday vs Surrey, Visconti was 3G, 2A and a +3
SNL back in the 1970s used to run this great skit where Dan Aykroyd would play the role of this hilarious and incompetent plumber.  Aykroyd would always find the most horribly grotesque ways of bending over in pants and t-shirts which were far too tight to inspect a broken appliance like a fridge or a stove.  "Look at that, an old Nord!  I haven't seen one of these babes quite in a while."  I am sure that through the magic of YouTube you can probably find some of those old sketches, but if not the Grizzlies have a bunch of plumbers themselves you may want to check out.  The difference is that these are highly competent Grizzlies plumbers and they are contributing to recent team success in ways Dan Aykroyd would be most proud of.

Aykroyd in 1976 would have made a fine Plumber for the Grizzlies
It was a big weekend for The Plumbers as I like to call the 4th Liners.  It was a weekend full of offense which came from all sorts of unlikely sources in fact.  On Sunday just two days after finishing off the Prince George Spruce Kings with a long range EN goal, Mitchell Barker would open the scoring for Victoria.  Barker put the Grizzlies ahead leading the attack vs Surrey in the first frame.  Then it was Dante Hahn's turn on the backhand and Tyler Welsh on the PP.  Both players, much more used to scoring, would add 2nd period goals for Victoria and it was 5-0 when play started in the 3rd period. 

Defenseman Cody Van Lierop would exit the game early after laying out one of his patented trademark hits.  Unfortunately as he finished the check he would somehow earn a nasty cut to his lower lip and require a short visit to a local area hospital for repairs.  But the Grizzlies would just keep pouring on the power with a massive shot advantage along with both strong physical and finesse play.  Later Conlon would score his 14th goal on the season from Brayden Gelsinger and Kevin Massy.  But The Plumbers were the story on Sunday night with Alex Peck, a 2nd Game Star earning a pair of assists and Jared Virtanen having a great night himself.  Mitchel Benson would earn his 3rd victory in net turning aside 27/29 Surrey shots.

About 25+ Grizzlies fans travelled to Surrey to cheer on Drayson Pears and the Grizzlies
On Friday night, the Grizzlies were also able to rise to the challenge of a road game with their one and only trip to the Prince George Coliseum in a 4-2 victory.  Tyler Welsh playing well on that top line would score after only 6:34 from a resurgent Cole Pickup and the BCHL's Player of the Week, Captain PJ Conlon.  But it was another night of unlikely scoring for the Grizzlies as Brett Stirling would fire home a hard shot from the point on the man-advantage, tying the game at 2-2.  This would come only moments after the Sprucers had gone ahead in front of their 1,087 fans.  Van Lierop would restore the lead for Victoria late in the 2nd period from what looked like a fairly benign shot from the point which somehow found the back of Liam McCloskey's net.  The goal would come after more fine passing from the Langford connection of Massy and Pickup, both of whom are putting up some serious points since the New Year. 

The always trusty Stirling would be called on late to help hold the 3-2 lead for his goalie, Mitchel Benson with a defensive stand facing an empty Prince George net with just seconds remaining in the contest.  Stirling would help fight the puck off the boards for his centreman, the aforementioned Barker who had just pulled off yet another of his Guy Carboneau like draws and fire home the insurance goal via the empty net. The game would finish 4-2.  Benson, who got the start would earn his 2nd victory in the win.  Benson was solid all night and was 2-0 on the weekend and now sits at 3-10 on the year.

#31 Benson has owned the Spruce Kings (2-0) in 2015/16
Don't look now but the Victoria Grizzlies are 5-0 in the calendar year of 2016 and are now the only team in the league who can boast that perfect record.  So while many fans were obviously disappointed with the cancellation of Saturday's game vs the Chilliwack Chiefs due to a broken bus in Boston Bar and a road closure, one very good thing might have come out of the experience.  With rookies Keyvan Mokhtari and Drayson Pears both down with illness on Friday night vs Prince George, their participation in the Chilliwack game was very much in doubt anyway.  So really, maybe not playing the Chiefs on Saturday wasn't such a bad thing after all, an unscheduled night off may have helped in the big picture.

The Grizzlies are certainly a different team in 2016 and it harkens back to some hopes and predictions which I made a few blogs ago about the prospects for this plucky team.  In the Mid-Year Report Card, I talked about the balanced scoring, the fantastic goal tending along with big but equally mobile and gifted defensemen.  I also talked about the Plumbers.  I discussed the fact that I felt that should they get even a modest amount of offensive support from The Plumbers that the bigger scoring lines would continue to perform well.  That along with the excellent goal tending would prove vital to future success.  I suggested that a combination of all those factors could make the Grizzlies a potential Cinderella in the run up to the playoffs. 

While there are many games left to play, the Grizzlies are very quietly starting to sneak up on their Island Division opponents, the Powell River Kings and the Cowichan Valley Capitals.  Surely both clubs must sense the Grizzlies approaching in the distance.  Just a month ago, there were very few who gave these Grizzlies much respect. Fewer gave them a chance of doing very much in the playoffs, if in fact they even made the playoffs.  But things rarely stay the same very long in the BCHL.  Now suddenly opposition coaches are perhaps thinking about mentioning the names of Grizzlies players in pregame speeches whom you might not have heard a few months ago, names like Virtanen, Peck, Barker and Visconti, The Plumbers.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Value of Momentum

It was a wet and cold night going over the Malahat on Tuesday night, but that didn't seem to worry the Grizzlies who were playing in the rubber match in a season long series vs the Cowichan Valley Capitals which was tied 3-3 at the time.  In less than three hours, the Grizzlies bus would be on its return trip, this time flush with two points on the road after a commanding 7-1 win over the Capitals who frankly looked shell shocked after suffering such a significant loss a home.

The game surprised everyone, but not the first period.  In spite to a pair of penalties against the Grizzlies, shots at the end of the Period #1 were 15-5 in favour of the visitors.  The Grizzlies had plenty of chances but the key moment in the entire game for me was a curious decision by Coach Craig Didmon to use up his timeout with only 51 seconds left in the period.  After an icing call which left his charges gassed, Didmon recognised the strategic significance of what it would mean to suddenly give up a goal so late in the period after dominating it so well.

The ISC, sight of the 7-1 Grizzlies victory on Tuesday night
The timeout worked and moments later the Grizzlies and Caps retired to their respective rooms tied at 0-0 but with Victoria still enjoying the full balance of momentum.  In my humble view, it was the turning point of the contest.

Just a minute and a half into the second period, that momentum would prove vital as the Grizzlies would score off a beautiful half spin move by #17 Joey Visconti.  The Ontario native found himself parked at the right side of Cowichan goalie Storm Phaneuf's crease after a long pass from Illinois D-Man, Jake Setvens who spotted Visconti heading through the slot.  Visconti, waited out Phaneuf and fired the puck over the former QMJHL goal tender and the Grizz were in front for the first time.

Late in the period the Captain, PJ Conlon, who was +5 on the night, would score what looked like a PP goal but with time expiring on the penalty to the Caps, Brayden Gelsinger would make a beautiful cross ice pass from the slot and feed Conlon who was beavertailing for the pass at the far right of Phaneuf.  Conlon dispatched a picture perfect one-timer and suddenly it was 2-0 Grizzlies on the road versus a team who won all three of the first meetings between the two clubs.

The PG Coliseum at -11 without wind chill will host the Grizzlies Friday night
But the bigger story of the game to that point however was Matt Galajda, once again turning back shot after shot and when necessary halting play when he felt pressure.  This goalie is starting to now garner the attention of the whole league.  His GAA numbers are now in the top 3 and his win-loss record in the last two months is as good as any goalie in the league.

But it was the third period which saw what is really interesting about this year's Victoria Grizzlies.  This team is truly a team of redemption.  After suffering through the worst start in franchise history, the Grizzlies now seem to have shaken off the past and are scoring at will on most nights.  They are also defending with a fierce determination.

Saturday night will see the Grizz return to Chilliwack, site of the team's frist win of the 2015/16 season

With two more quick goals, Conlon would earn a natural hat trick early into the third period which would be his first as a Grizzly but more importantly would represent the team's second hat trick in three games after witnessing Gelsinger's 3 goal performance on Friday night versus the Kings.  The period would continue to go all Grizzlies with Pickup scoring a goal along with his three assists but only after Gelsinger (my pick for BCHL Player of the Week BTW) would score his 6th goal in three games.  The game would end with a Nick Guiney unassisted goal on a breakaway created by the Langford native who timed a wayward interception in the neutral zone perfectly.

Sunday, the Grizzlies will close out the 4 game road swing on the Olympic size surface in Surrey
The Grizzlies now get set for three big games on the road in the longest road trip of the year in Prince George, Chilliwack and Surrey.  In PG, the Grizzlies will see A/HC Tyler Matheson behind the bench for the very first time as the Acting HC with Coach Didmon back in Victoria with school teaching duties.  We will now see if this surging Grizzlies club, the only BCHL team without a defeat in the 2016 calendar year can keep this theme of redemption and its incredible momentum on the rise as the month of January reaches the midway mark.  Talk to you from the Prince George Coliseum on Friday night everybody. -CC

Monday, 11 January 2016

Why We Play This Game

I just happen to be the father of three teenage hockey players.  One of the unwritten rules about raising adolescent young men, especially hockey players is that you should avoid the use of their language, especially their hockey language.  Words like, "sick", "awesome", and "epic" just don't cut it if you are in your mid-forties.  It really falls flat if you try using them around 14-19 year old hockey players who eat meals at your kitchen table.  You run the risk of hearing the proverbial:  "Dad, don't say 'sick' you sound so lame, you don't even know what it means."  Ah the joys of modern fatherhood.

Most fans arriving at The Q Centre Friday night were probably a bit confused as to why only one club came out for the warmup, the Powell River Kings.  The reason for that was of course because the Victoria Grizzlies had much more important business at hand.  They were busy reminding all of us why we play this game.

As the Powell River Kings were skating their warmup and were likely wondering where the home team was, sitting beside each Grizzly player, in each of the Grizzlies' stalls was a member of the Saanich Braves Midget C Minor Team.  And frankly, while no one needed to say it, every one of them would have given anything to not be there on this occasion.  These were the teammates of Reid Kyfiuk.  Reid was the 15-year old Claremont Secondary student who was lost tragically on the ski slopes of Mount Washington in a skiing accident just days before Christmas.  Standing in the middle of the Dressing Room were Reid's parents along with his brother and sister.  The Grizzlies, lead by Team Governor Lance Black wanted to take a moment and pause to reflect upon what is really important in life and to celebrate Reid's life. 

The Kyfiuks along with the Braves wanted to share his life with the Grizzlies.  The Grizzlies in turn wanted to honour Reid by passing on the Captaincy for the game from Team Captain PJ Conlon to Reid.  This was done through Reid's parents who would wear a Grizzlies Jersey with the #20, Reid's Saanich Braves number, and his last name "KYFIUK" stitched into the name bar.   A few words were passed and I will leave that moment private, but I want all the Grizzlies Gazette readers to understand one key piece about this small private ceremony:  at 6:25pm pretty much everybody in that Dressing Room recognized the fact that the Grizzlies were very late for warmup and might not even get a pre-game warmup at all.

Grizzlies commemoration helmets
And nobody, not one player or coach budged or even flinched.  Not one.

As the ceremony ended and the players exited the Dressing Room for a very short 5 minute warmup, I briefly wondered if this would be of much issue for the Grizzlies.  Did they need this now or could this be a problem I thought?  Those questions were quickly dashed as I walked past the C5 Saanich Braves players, Reid's teammates, who were by this time all standing along the Grizzlies bench.  They were enjoying the opportunity of doing something which almost no Midget Team would ever get a chance to do: stand on a BCHL bench during warmup.  They watched these same-aged young men warm up in preparation for a league game, a league which all of them probably wished that they too could have maybe one day had a chance to have competed in.  Reid's teammates weren't feeling sad at that point or acting like they had just had their hearts' ripped apart.  No, at that point they had something else going on I thought.  They were enjoying the game we all love and they expressed it in that way which only adolescent males do in today's vernacular.

As I walked past the all of the Saanich Braves players on the bench on my way up to the Broadcast Booth, I heard the sounds you would hope to hear from kids who were truly celebrating the life of their lost teammate and the game he loved:  "Pickup and Guiney are pretty sick man, I played with them you know?" , "Check out the size of Bennis and Sterling, holly #$@t!  Epic man." , "Look at Mokhatari's hands man, they're unreal"  , "Benson and Galajda, frickin pros dude" and  lots of "This is f^%$ing awesome!"

#6 D-Man, Brett Stirling just one of the many Grizzlies who impressed the Saanich Braves on Friday
The game was even better.  It all started midway through the first period with Dante Hahn stealing the puck off Powell River's Chris Protopoulous who was trying to exit the defensive zone with the puck.  Hahn's steal soon found line mate Brayden Gelsinger in the crease.  The brand new Lake Superior State University committed forward made no mistake, quickly firing the puck over the shoulder of Kings netminder Jeff Smith to give the Grizzlies a 1-0 lead and put the Q Centre on its feet.  That one was for Reid.  I could almost hear the Saanich Braves players who were sitting below:  "Holly crap, did you see that steal and pass?"  "Yeah.  Did you see that F^%#ing roofer?"  "That was so sick!"

The 2nd period would see more of the same with Cole Pickup scoring quickly to make it 2-0.  Then moments later, Gels would score his second of the night and you were thinking it was going to maybe be a laugher for the Grizzlies in spite of a truncated pregame warmup.  Not so fast.

Lake Superior State committed #22 Gelsinger is lighting the lamp lately. (Photo credit: Bruce Stotesbury)
Just 11 seconds apart the Kings scored two quick goals by Kyle Betts and Liam Lawson respectively and by the end of the 2nd period it was an edgy 3-2 lead for the Grizzlies.  Huge saves by Matt Galajda, plus a second marker by Pickup would see the Grizzlies enter the final minutes of the game up 4-3 with the Powell River net empty.  And after a "No Panic" approach to D-Zone coverage by Cody VanLierop and Brett Stirling, the puck would be head-manned up to Gelsinger who would score on the EN and register the club's first Hat Trick of the 2015/16 Season.  The 1,206 fans in the Q Centre went wild.  As I looked down at the Saanich Braves C5 Midget team, they were all on their feet.  I could only imagine what they were saying.

But the best was left for the end of the game and it was the classy visitors, the Powell River Kings who deserve a ton of props in my humble view.  After losing a tight 5-3 game vs a club they have struggled to beat all year (now 1-5 vs Victoria), the Powell River Kings all stood on their blue line to commemorate one last time the memory of Reid Kyfiuk.  It seems that during the game, someone came up with the idea that each team should sign a stick and present the two respective sticks to Reid's family at the end of the game. 

Classy Kings Honouring Reid post game
You know I get to work with one of the best Play-By-Play guys in the business and Scotty Didmon always knows just what to say but even he had trouble getting the words out.  At that moment I was so proud of the Grizzlies, I was proud of the Kings and I was proud of the BCHL.  "Smart hockey folks, that's why they call the BCHL Smart Hockey" was how Scotty captured the moment, we were both struggling to keep it together, that is all I can tell you.  As I was leaving the building later, I walked past a bunch of Kings players who were stretching post game down in the south end of the Q Centre, a part of the building visitors rarely visit, especially after a loss.  I took a moment to thank them for what they did.  I told them something like "That's why you guys are playing in this league, because it takes special young men to have the character to do something like that after a tough loss, well done.  You reminded us all of why we play this game, thank you."  Trust me you don't need the details, but it is safe to say that the sense of occasion of that moment was not lost on any of those Kings players.

The Grizzlies would double down 48 hours later in the Q Centre on Sunday afternoon with another huge win, a 5-0 victory over the Langley Rivermen.  Galajda registered his 3rd Shutout of the year backstopping 22 shots.  He now sits one half-decimal point out of 3rd place in BCHL in Goals Against Average.  The Captain, PJ Conlon got the game winner and the red hot Gelsinger had another two goals himself.  Gels would have probably earned another Hat Trick on the night after being slashed hard on a last second breakaway, but referee Trevor Nolan decided that with tempers flaring a bit, it was probably wiser to just send both clubs to their respective rooms and avoid the Penalty Shot with the score 5-0 and almost no time left on the clock.

After Sunday's game, the Grizzlies announced the signing of the final and 22nd member of the 2015/16 Grizzlies, 96' born Forward, Brayden Cross from the MJHL OCN Blizzard.  Cross who lead the Kerry Park Islanders in scoring last season in the VIJHL with 61 points signed with the Grizzlies just hours before the Sunday night 8pm roster freeze deadline in the BCHL.  Cross will hopefully add a little bit of 2nd or 3rd line scoring to a Grizzlies team which is really starting to find its stride as the playoff stretch quickly approaches.

Now the Grizzlies will head off on its first major road trip of the 2016 calendar year for four big games:  Cowichan Valley, Prince George, Chilliwack and Surrey.  It will be an honour to watch this amazing group this coming week on the road.  I wonder what special moments are in store?  It is certainly a tight group of young men, these 2015/16 Grizzlies, now finally 22 in number and set for the remainder of the season.  They are a team who reminded us all over the weekend of why we play this game and why there are so many things much more important than hockey.  While I can't quite put my finger on precisely what that thing is that they play for and why they do it, something tells me that it has to do with the descriptive words often used by young, fifteen year old hockey players who simply just love the game.  Young players like Reid.  They are contained in the words which I am really not allowed to use, especially in my own house.  Words like "epic", "awesome" and "sick".  - CC