STACEY PATTERSON PHOTO                                The North Island Atom Eagles faced off against the Sooke Thunderbirds for the playoff banner last Sunday.

STACEY PATTERSON PHOTO The North Island Atom Eagles faced off against the Sooke Thunderbirds for the playoff banner last Sunday.

North Island Atom Eagles push Sooke Thunderbirds to sudden death overtime in playoff final

Despite the odds stacked against them, the Eagles more than exceeded expectations.

Have you ever seen a minor hockey team receive a standing ovation after coming out of the dressing room?

The North Island Atom Eagles travelled down island to Victoria for playoffs last weekend, and they drew the hometown Ice Hawks in the first round on Saturday.

The Eagles would get out to an early lead in the first period thanks to a goal from Dakota Knighton, and then captain Kyle Rushton would score at 16:29 in the second to make it 2-0.

The Ice Hawks would find the back of the net with less than nine minutes left to go in the second to bring them within one of tying the game, but Rushton notched another goal at the start of the third period to make it 3-1.

The Ice Hawks would manage to get another puck past goaltender Matt Mercer in the third, but that was all she wrote for them as the Eagles held on from there to win 3-2.

With the semi-final win in hand, the Eagles advanced to a game against the undefeated Sooke Thunderbirds with the playoff banner on the line.

The Eagles had tied the Thunderbirds 4-4 and lost to them 7-0 in regular season play, and they knew this third go around was going to be a tough one to win, but they were more than up for the challenge ahead.

The first period saw some fast and furious action at both ends of the ice, but both teams kept the puck out of the net to keep things scoreless.

In the second, the Thunderbirds finally started to convert. Jackson Lewco scored at 14:30, assisted by Logan Gray, and then at 3:28 Lewco scored again, this time unassisted.

Down 2-0 now, the Eagles knew they needed to get on the scoreboard before the third period commenced, and it was Carter Henschke who found the twine with 38 seconds left, assisted by Rushton, to make it a one-goal game.

Into the third it went, and it was Henschke who once again found the back of the net at 18:17, assisted by Knighton and Rushton, to tie things up.

The game would remain tied after all three periods, which meant sudden death overtime, and the Thunderbirds were given a power play by the refs very early on.

That was when Kaelen Rusjan flipped the puck towards the net and it went off Hunter Coleman’s stick and over Mercer’s pad to bring the game to a 3-2 end, with the Thunderbirds stealing the banner from the Eagles’ grasp.

After the game, head coach Al Rushton said he has never seen “a group of kids come together like this” and that “there was a lot of heartache in the dressing room afterwards, but I’m very proud of them — when they came out of the dressing room everyone gave them a standing ovation. I’ve never seen that before in my life.”

He noted it has been a truly incredible year for the players, “and it’s been my most proudest moment as an Eagle.”

The Eagles started training camp with only nine players on the roster and they had to scramble at the last minute to find four more kids so they could actually form a full team to play.

Despite the odds stacked against them, the Eagles more than exceeded expectations.

They finished second in the league and took an undefeated Thunderbirds team right down to the wire with the playoff banner on the line.

Not too shabby, considering Rushton said at the start of the season he would have been happy to just win one game.

“Our goal this year was to win the battles and get better, and we did” he said, adding, “At the end of the day, it’s all about the kids.”

Rushton also stated he was proud of how Mercer played in the net all weekend, and he wanted to say a thank you to all of the parents, assistant coaches Shay Peterson, Jamie Harrison, and Kale Henschke, and team manager Xenia Peterson “who was unbelievable.”

The Eagles will be back in action next weekend in Richmond for their annual spring break tournament.