The North Island Bantam Eagles arrived back home to celebrate the rest of their Christmas holiday season with a shiny new trophy.
The Eagles chose to venture south to Port Alberni for a post-holiday minor rep hockey tournament, which ran from Dec. 27-29, where they drew the very first game of the tournament against the Nanaimo Clippers.
“It’s always a bit of coin toss going into these post-Christmas tourneys as you haven’t had any practice time for a week or so and your focus is usually a bit off,” said head coach Ryan Handley, who added the Eagles, however, didn’t look out of sync at all as they ended up cruising to a 9-0 win over the Clippers.
The Eagles second game of the day was against their league rival, the Tier Two Juan De Fuca Grizzlies.
It ended up being “a close game with not a lot of room to do anything — both teams were playing well defensively,” said Handley, who noted it was the Eagles who struck first with a goal from Liam Norman off a nice feed from Tye Morash.
The Grizzlies came right back just six seconds later to tie it up 1-1. The Eagles then kicked things into high gear, scoring three times in a row to take a commanding 4-1 lead into the ice clean, with the goals coming from Morash (x2) and Tyler Roper.
The second half was tight with both goalies standing their ground and trading third period goals, but the Eagles managed to hold on and skate away with a strong 5-2 victory.
“We dictated the flow and played a sound defensive game and when called upon, Griffin Handley (Eagles’ goaltender) was there,” stated assistant coach Glenn Moore.
On day two of the tournament, the game everyone had been waiting for all season finally arrived, namely, a matchup against longtime rivals the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.
“It’s no secret when it comes to the ice we don’t like each other,” said Handley. “The trash talk is high, the emotions are high, and it seems every single time we play them something big is on the line.”
Assistant coach Steve Verbrugge agreed, noting, “it was a measuring stick game for us, they are in third place in the Tier Two division and it was a game we needed to see where we were at.”
The Bulldogs jumped out to an early lead with a couple clutch power play goals, and by the ice clean they had a solid 3-1 lead over the Eagles.
“We haven’t had to face a lot of adversity this year, and this is where you find out what kind of team you have mentally,” said Handley. “We had to make an adjustment on the penalty kill as they like the low, below the goal line feed, sneaking a shooter into the low slot for the one timer — so we tightened up our penalty kill box and gave them the point shot instead, because if Griffin can see it from there, 99.9 per cent of the time he’s stopping it.”
The Eagles regrouped after that and came out a completely different team, scratching and clawing their way back into the game to tie it up 3-3, with goals courtesy of Cole Klughart and Morash.
Morash would then net the game winner by converting off a nice passing play from Captain David Klatt and Tristan Mardell.
“It was a tight game the rest of the way and Kai Verbrugge iced it with ten seconds left into an empty net,” said Handley, who added while the win secured the Eagles a spot in Saturday’s final as the top seed, they would still have to play one more round robin game against a team they hadn’t seen this year, the Sooke Thunderbirds.
“We went down there (to Sooke) last year for a semi-final playoff game and it was a high scoring, nail biting game that we won 11-8,” Handley noted. “They lost some kids to the zone teams(a residential zone area Tier One team program that VIAHA is running now), while we lost one of the most gifted players I’ve ever coached in Ethan Bono.”
The Thunderbirds had been beaten earlier in the tournament, and this game turned out to be no different, as the Eagles rolled over them 9-1.
“It was a game where we had to challenge ourselves to stay within our system, do the little things right, and most of all, keep everyone healthy,” Handley said, who then pointed out the final on Saturday was a rematch with the hometown Bulldogs. “You have to throw everything away from the week and prepare for what we knew would be a tough game — they didn’t like getting beat and wanted to win their home tourney.”
According to Handley, the game turned out to be an instant classic. “The first period was back and forth with both goalies making some big early stops,” he stated. “Their goalie is big — probably 6’4 on skates — so we had to get traffic and get him moving side to side to open him up.”
While the Eagles were up for the challenge, it was the Bulldogs who struck first in the second period with a goal from captain Blake Moore at 16:10 that fired up the hometown crowd and seemed to put the Eagles on their heels a bit.
The Bulldogs kept coming with the pressure from that point, and at 11:36 of the second period, Grayson Erickson picked up a lose puck and beat a sprawling Griffin Handley to take a 2-0 lead into the ice clean.
“We needed to do a better job moving the puck and our feet, take some lessons from the round robin game when we were down and draw from those,” noted Moore.
“I stayed out of the room at the break as I wasn’t happy with the body language from some of our leaders, and once in awhile, nothing said from me is enough for them,” Handley added, confirming Moore and Verbrugge took the lead from there. “I have 100 per cent trust that they would get them ready and re-focused.”
After the talk, the Eagles came out ready to go to work. Kai Verbrugge put the team on the scoreboard with 5:50 left in the second period to cut the lead in half and gain momentum.
The Eagles would then get a late power play which featured some great looks from their shooters, but the Bulldogs’ goaltender managed to hold on and shut the door.
“We hit a post and had two pucks hit the knob of his stick and go wide, but he was playing very well and sometimes you get a bit lucky when you are working hard,” Handley said.
Then, disaster struck. A missed point shot sent Erickson in on a breakaway with Klatt racing to catch him. Just as Erickson pulled to shoot, Klatt closed the gap and got his stick in and it seemed to slow the shot and change the angle.
Griffin Handley reacted to the initial shot but seemed to stumble a bit as the puck slid under his leg into the net, putting the Bulldogs back up by two with 1:42 left in the second period.
“It’s one he’d like to have back for sure,” said Handley, who added “it looked like he got his stick kind of caught under his pad a bit and lost his balance — he hasn’t had very many mental lapses this season, but he was frustrated.”
The Eagles, however, refused to lay down and quit. Just 28 seconds later, Klatt came up clutch, scoring a huge goal that cut the lead to one before the game headed into the third.
“These are why we play the game,” Moore and Verbrugge told the team during the break.
The third period was tight, as both teams knew a goal either way would be the turning point in the athletic contest.
With 10:20 left, defenceman Josh Nielsen fired a wrist shot from the point that found its way through the maze of players to tie the game up 3-3. “Steady Eddie we call him, and 90 per cent of the time he gets the puck on net,” added Moore.
In what was turning out to be a game for the ages, it ended up going to overtime with the next goal winning the game.
“The format was five on five for five minutes, then four on four for five minutes, and then a shootout if needed,” noted Handley, who added that due to a late third period penalty on Kai Verbrugge, the Eagles found themselves killing off the last two minutes of the penalty in overtime.
“Our penalty kill stepped up huge, and Griff was there to stop any threat they had,” Verbrugge added.
The game would then go into a second overtime, and with roughly two minutes left on the clock, a point shot found its way to the net and a scramble ensued with the puck trickling over the Bulldogs’ goal line.
The bench errupted and emptied as the Eagles celebrated the win, but as the team mobbed Griffin Handley in celebration, the ref blew his whistle and waved the goal off for goaltender interference.
The Eagles were stunned and frustrated that the game was being forced to continue.
Handley felt it wasn’t goaltender interference, noting he actually rewatched the play thanks to a Facebook live feed from one of the parents, “and it was their own player who bumped their goalie and from the replay kicked the puck in his own net.”
Regardless, the game would end up going to a shootout to decide the winner.
As the designated home team the Eagles opted to shoot first, but with the loss of Kai Verbrugge, they had to change their shooting order.
Klatt ended up being first to shoot. He skated in on the Bulldogs’ goaltender and deked to the forehand, but was stopped by the left pad.
Erickson was up first for the Bulldogs. He skated in on Griffin Handley and squeaked a shot under the right arm to take a 1-0 early lead.
Roper was up for the Eagles after that, and he placed a perfect shot five hole to tie it up 1-1.
Robbie Steel went next for the Bulldogs, and he came in fast and deked left, right, and then fired a shot just under the bar glove side to make it 2-1.
It was now up to Klughart to keep the Eagles hopes of a win alive.
He crossed the blueline and fired a slapshot at the Bulldogs’ goaltender, who managed to somehow get his blocker on the puck and knock it away, securing the Bulldogs a shootout win.
The Eagles looked on in disbelief as they felt they had won the game earlier, only to have the win ripped from their grasp.
“It was tough, but we proved we can play with the top teams and maybe now we are looked at as ‘the bar’ that teams have to get to, I’m extremely proud of our group and to be honest we won that tournament in our minds and they know it,” stated Handley.
The tournament also turned out to be tough injury wise, as it was confirmed the next day that Kale Hunt had sustained a broken collarbone which will sideline him for about eight weeks.
“Kale is a big loss for our team, and he’s pretty upset about it, but other guys have to step up now as we’ve lost Kai to suspension also for our last two league games,” added Handley.
The Eagles will be heading to Powell River on Jan.12 for a game against the Kings, where they will attempt to secure the Tier Three league banner with a win and continue their quest for an undefeated league play season.