PORT McNEILL—The little team that could was finally stopped in its tracks.
But the North Island Eagles atom development squad bowed out of the Vancouver Island Hockey League playoffs in most dramatic fashion possible, taking visiting Sooke down to the final second before the Thunderbirds claimed a 7-6 victory Sunday at Chilton Regional Arena.
“It was a great game,” Eagles head coach Marty Gage said. “They just wanted it more than we did.”
With goalie Kayden Jones pulled for an extra attacker, the Eagles had their final chance on a face-off in the T-birds’ zone with five seconds remaining. Captain Mathew Saunders won the draw and sent a pass to Ryan Patterson, who already had a game-high four goals. Patterson’s blast from the high slot was tipped by a defender’s stick, however, and sailed harmlessly wide of the net just before the final buzzer sounded through the shrieks of the crowd.
The loss ended the Eagles’ postseason chances at a Tier 3 league title, but Gage said it will not diminish the young squad’s accomplishments over the past six months. With only 12 rostered players — six of them first-year atoms — TriPort had to apply for an exemption just to play in the league this season.
Once approved, the team proved it belonged, posting a solid third-place finish in Division 3 to earn the home playoff matchup.
“We shouldn’t even have had a team,” Gage said. “All the success they’ve had is just phenomenal. The coaching staff was talking in the locker room about just how good a team we’ve become this season, and the camaraderie is exceptional, among the players and the coaches.”
The Eagles ran out to a 3-0 lead early in the second period behind goals by Patterson, Rhys Dutcyvich and Luke Gage. The visitors responded with three straight goals of their own in the second period to knot the score, before Patterson lifted home a shot from the left circle for a 4-3 advantage at 7:02 of the second.
That would be the Eagles’ high-water mark. Sooke tied it again at 11:11 on a goal by Kobe Knowles, one of two Thunderbirds to score hat tricks, and took its first lead at 1:23 of the third.
Next came a game-turning sequence. Saunders got free on a breakaway and beat Sooke goalie Matthew Ryan with a shot from the slot, but the puck caromed off the inside of the crossbar and back out onto the ice. Moments later, the T-birds’ John Richardson beat a defender for his own breakaway score and a 6-4 Sooke lead at 2:44 of the period.
Patterson jammed home the rebound of his own wraparound try at 4:11 to bring the Eagles to 6-5, but Sooke restored its two-goal advantage on a point-blank, short-handed goal after winning a face-off draw in the Eagles’ end.
Patterson had one more round in his chamber, however, and buried a wrist shot while skating through the left circle under heavy pressure from a defender to make it 7-6 and set up the wild finish.
For his efforts, Patterson earned the team’s Digger hard hat award for the game.
The atoms will continue to work out in preparation for a tournament appearance in Victoria March 22-24.
Men’s Commercial Hockey League
Through Mar. 6
Team W L T Pts
Warriors 10 5 2 22
Mustangs 9 4 1 19
Islanders 6 8 1 13
Bulls 5 13 2 12
Friday, Mar. 1
Mustangs 5, Islanders 2
Warriors 6, Bulls 6
Friday, Mar. 15
Warriors at Islanders, 8 p.m., Port Alice
Mustangs at Bulls, 9:15 p.m., Port Hardy
End of season
Port Hardy ‘B’ Hockey League
Through Mar. 5
Team W L T Pts
Stars 11 3 1 23
Whalers 11 3 1 23
Smokers 9 5 1 19
Pioneers 4 5 1 9
Mainline 3 3 0 6
Oilers 2 8 0 4
Rookies 0 15 0 0
Saturday, Mar. 2
Rookies 4, Mainline 3, exhibition
Sunday, Mar. 3
Whalers 8, Pioneers 0
Stars 8, Mainline 7
Saturday, Mar. 9
Whalers vs. Smokers, 9:15 p.m., Port Hardy
Sunday, Mar. 10
Stars vs. Whalers, 8:45 p.m., Port Hardy