The North Island Bantam Eagles knew they were in for a dogfight Saturday at the Chilton Regional Arena.
The undefeated Eagles (9-0) had clinched the league banner the previous weekend with a 2-0 win over the Powell River Kings, but they still had one game left to play against the Tier Two Juan De Fuca Grizzlies, who arrived for the showdown in Port McNeill with a stellar 6-1-1 record of their own.
To make matters worse, the Eagles were also down four key players (Mannie Browne, Cole Klughart, Kai Verbrugge, and Kale Hunt) thanks to injuries, vacation, and suspensions.
Head coach Ryan Handley noted the coaching staff talked to the team before the game about “the importance of working hard” and “stepping up and playing a big role to show everyone what you have.”
Handley added the team knew missing those four players was going to make it tough. “You just don’t replace those kind of guys in your lineup, but it also gave others a chance to play a bigger role.”
The game kicked off at 4:00 p.m. with some fast paced, back and forth action right from the drop of the puck, and at 17:10 of the first period, Eagles’ forward Liam Norman ended up getting the breakaway feed from defenceman Josh Nielsen and then buried the puck five hole past the Grizzlies’ goaltender.
With the first goal of the game secured, the Eagles continued to pressure the Grizzlies from there, and it was Tristan Mardell who turned on the afterburners, split the defence, and flipped the puck in backhand past the Grizzlies’ goaltender to go up by another point (assists went to Nielsen and Tye Morash).
The Grizzlies, now down two goals, refused to roll over and play dead. They quickly regrouped and came storming back down the ice, jamming the puck past Eagles’ goaltender Griffin Handley less than 30 seconds later.
Into the second period the game went, and Handley noted he could tell the team’s adrenaline “had kind of worn off and we looked a bit flat and tired.”
The Eagles still managed to find the back of the net at 17:51 to give them a 3-1 lead, thanks to Morash banging home the trash off a nice shot from captain David Klatt, which was also assisted by Brandon Brotchie.
That was when disaster struck.
The Grizzlies scored at 9:13, again at 7:21, and then finally once more with one second left on the clock to make it 4-3 going into the third period.
“The late goal they got to go up 4-3 at the buzzer really got us rattled,” said Handley, who added the coaches tried to get the team to refocus during the break “because it’s a 20 minute game now and we weren’t out of it — they needed to know that.”
With their undefeated season in jeopardy, Handley said that he told the team before they went back out there that he didn’t want “one period to define their season.”
The Eagles knew they had to dig down deep to pull out the win in front of their hometown crowd, and it was the unlikeliest of players who came through for them when they desperately needed it the most.
Matthew Datos, an AP (alternate player) defenceman called up from the Port McNeill bantam house team to fill in on a short bench, got the pass at the Grizzlies’ blue line and fired an absolute rocket of a shot top shelf, glove side, into the twine at 12:13, tying the game 4-4. It was Datos’ first ever goal as a rep hockey player, and the team swarmed him in celebration. Assists on the play went to William Grant and Brotchie.
“Matty’s goal was huge for our group and huge for him, he really stepped in and played well for us and you can see the confidence rising in him,” noted Handley.
With the score all tied up, it was Mardell who came up clutch thanks to his natural instinct for driving to the net. He picked the puck up off a rebound and backhanded it through the Grizzlies’ goaltender’s five hole with 4:16 left on the clock, giving the Eagles the lead back 5-4 (assists went to Norman and Garrett Beek) as the passionate hometown crowd went wild in the stands.
With time winding down on the clock, the Grizzlies fired one last desperation shot down the ice, but they couldn’t get the puck past Griffin Handley, who had played exceptional all game, stopping roughly 20-25 shots by the final buzzer.
“Griffin was huge, and it was maybe his best game this year,” Handley said, adding, “he looked calm and his anticipation was bang on — he’s been a big reason for our success and really hasn’t had a bad game all year.”
Handley also pointed out “Klatt, Tristan, Roper, and Tye always come ready to play, and William, Josh, Garrett and Matty played big minutes on defence. Kufaas and Brandon played some key minutes for us too, and it was probably the grittiest game I’ve seen from any team. To do what they did was amazing. This game was something I will always remember and I’m sure they will too — I appreciate them all coming to rink every day because spending time with them is so rewarding — these are memories to cherish forever.”
After the game, Datos said when he got the puck from Grant at the blue line, he was thinking the whole time in his head “oh my God I gotta shoot they’re coming at me — so I just shot it and it went in.”
Datos added he’s hoping to play for both the bantam house team and the Eagles if they need him during playoffs.
The Eagles finished the regular season 10-0 with 69 goals for, 13 goals against, and 139 penalty minutes.