It’s been quite the rollercoaster ride for the North Island Midget Eagles.
After starting playoffs with a big 6-5 win over the Oceanside Generals, the Eagles travelled back home to play the Powell River Kings, where they were soundly beaten 7-2. With a 1-1 playoff record, the Eagles next game down island against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs was do or die, with the winner advancing to the best-of-three finals.
The showdown between the Eagles and the Bulldogs was held Feb. 15 at 4:45 p.m., and it was one for the ages.
The Bulldogs got out to an early 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Carson Steel and Colton Scott (assists going to Chase Nicklin and Jack McKean), but the Eagles returned fire at 5:32 of the first period with a goal from Tyler Roper, which was assisted by Kai Cyr.
The Eagles kept pressuring in the second period, and Luke Gage converted at 10:47 to tie things up.
David Porter would then score for the Bulldogs at 7:21 to give them the lead back, and Scott would find the back of the net at 17:18 of the third period to give them another two-goal lead.
The Eagles, however, refused to let their season go down in flames, and it was Joey Grant and Tristan Mardell who both scored twice in the third to give the Eagles a 6-4 lead, and that’s how the game came to an end.
“The heart and determination of this group is simply unmatched at times,” said head coach Ryan Handley after the game. “We got down early and the mood on the bench wasn’t good, I had to remind them of the process, ups and downs, and to not lose focus.”
Handley noted that before the game the team discussed “how we wanted to use our lines as we were down two skaters, so we decided as a group to run three lines up front and four defence. Keeping guys together and gaining some chemistry and familiarity was key.”
The Eagles were feeling sore afterwards, as “Alberni came at us physically but we didn’t back down, we hit back. We picked our spots and they didn’t like it,” Handley said, adding that everyone on the team “had a big game and we knew beforehand it would have to be that way if we were going to be successful.”
Defeating the Bulldogs was a great feeling for the group, Handley added.
“We have definitely had some bitter and tough trips home from that building, but it was a great feeling leaving on a positive note this time. I guess you could say after three years of countless battles and playoff games, we finally slayed the dragon.”
With the victory in hand, the Eagles moved on to the best-of-three finals against longtime rivals, the Powell River Kings.
The first game in the series went down Feb. 22 at the Don Cruickshank Memorial Arena, and it definitely did not go in the Eagles’ favour.
The Kings pounded them with seven goals over three periods, with the only highlight for the Eagles being Grant firing home a puck from the slot late in the third period to break the shutout.
All told, the Kings earned a dominant 7-1 victory.
“We had a couple good shifts early and had a good scoring chance the second shift out, but we didn’t really mount much of an attack for too many stretches of the game,” said Handley. “We didn’t move the puck like we needed to against a team like that. In order to beat that team we have to play near-perfect hockey and still get a couple breaks.”
Handley noted that if the Eagles aren’t willing to do whatever it takes to win their next game, “our season will be over — that may be harsh but it’s the truth. We’ve talked all year about puck movement, getting pucks in deep and getting in on the forecheck — when we do that we are successful, but for whatever reason we’ve lost sight of that. All we have now is two practices to try and regroup, it’s an uphill climb, but I’m not giving up and they shouldn’t either.”