PORT McNEILL—In the first period of Saturday’s Tier 3 playoff hockey game, a wayward bird flew onto the ice of Chilton Regional Arena.
It might have proven a better omen had the bird been an eagle.
The North Island Eagles bantams jumped to the early lead on a pair of Matthew Cahill goals, but the Powell River Kings fought back for a 4-2 win that left the Eagles one game away from elimination in the Vancouver Island Championship series.
The best-of-3 series now moves to Powell River, with game 2 scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday. If the Eagles win, they would force a deciding game 3 Sunday at 8:45 a.m. on the Kings’ home ice.
Both of the bantams’ playoff victories this season have come on the road. If they can extend that success with a win in Powell River, it will be the first for the squad in five tries this season.
Both clubs played in Division 2 this season with several Tier 2 programs. Powell River finishing in second place, while the Eagles were 0-10 in last place.
“We’re closing in on ’em,” Eagles coach Dan Wilson said, noting an 8-1 blowout loss to the Kings in the teams’ first meeting. The second game was a 1-0 league loss in Port Alice. In the third meeting, during the Vancouver Island North round-robin playoff, the Eagles led 2-1 into the third period before suffering a disastrous five-minute meltdown.
The Eagles again led 2-1 Saturday before the visitors tied it with a goal midway through the second period and went ahead to stay on a power-play goal with 7:19 to play in the period.
“When we’re out on the ice and all the guys are clicking together, we’re OK,” said Wilson. “But too much of the time we’ll have this guy clicking now, the a couple others clicking later.”
The Powell River program moved down from Tier 2 to Tier 3 this year, and boast a more experienced and deeper squad. Essentially, Wilson said, the Kings have more room for error than the Eagles, who must be on the top of their game — as a group — from start to finish.
“They have more legs,” Wilson said of the Kings. “They just keep coming at you. They move the puck well and they skate well.”
They were especially hard on the bantams’ penalty killers. Powell River opened scoring on its first man-advantage chance, at 4:01 of the first period, and got the game-winner on a textbook power-play goal on a pass from behind the net that found Colby Shelton in stride in the low slot for a snap one-timer.
The Eagles came out hard in the third period and had several quality opportunities to tie the score, but were turned aside by Kings goalie Chase Krompacker and his defence. The visitors finally got an insurance goal by turning the tables, using a long lead pass while the Eagles were crowding the offensive zone to free Tristen Hackett for a breakaway goal at 13:16 of the third.
“We had a good jump in the third period, but it always comes down to that next goal,” said Wilson. “If we go in and score there it’s a different game. But then they take the puck and put one in the other way, and it completely changes the momentum.”
Cahill gave the Eagles the momentum to close out the first period, scoring twice to erase the Kings’ early lead. Darryl Coon and Alexander Stavrakov assisted on both goals as the bantams carried a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.
The Eagles bounced back from their previous loss to Powell River by traveling to Kerry Park and upsetting the Islanders, the top seed in the Island’s South Division, in the semifinals. Earlier, they opened the playoffs with a 5-2 road win at Campbell River.
They will need to find that road magic two more times to earn the Island’s berth into the Tier 3 provincial championships. The Eagles bantams have won the past two Vancouver Island Tier 3 titles, but only four players on the current team were part of last year’s provincial team.
“These guys have made huge improvement from the start of the season,” Wilson said. “But there are still more steps to go.”