The North Island Eagles cruised to the Vancouver Island Tier 3 hockey title with a team that seemed built for a run at a provinicial championship.
Unfortunately, that team didn’t show up at last week’s Tier 3 provincial tournament in Smithers.
The Eagles were knocked off pace in a penalty-plagued, 9-3 loss to Revelstoke and never recovered, finishing 1-3 in four pool-play games to miss the playoffs.
“We just didn’t play as well as we had all season, as a whole,” bantam coach Mike Bell said. “As a team, we just didn’t step up and have a complete game the entire tournament.”
With numerous players tested in last year’s bantam provincials and back from the team that placed third in the peewee Tier 3 provincials two years ago, and after having played at the Tier 2 level through the recent regular season, the Eagles (24-14) had high hopes entering the tourney.
But, climbing off the bus after the two-day trip to the interior, the Eagles probably played their best hockey of the week in their pre-tourney practice at Civic Centre Arena.
The team flew through the practice at high intensity, raising eyebrows among onlookers that included the teams who took the ice before and after the Eagles, Bell said.
“Rene (McCarrick) and I were just shaking our heads,” Bell said, referring to one of his assistant coaches. “After practice we thought, ‘These guys are ready.’ Looking back, I think maybe they were too jacked.”
Things went sour for the bantams quickly.
They were tied 2-2 with Revelstoke early in the second period Mar. 20 on a pair of goals by Curtis McCarrick and were still within 4-3 midway through the period after Chad Bell’s score. But the Eagles were assessed 38 minutes in penalties to just 12 for their opponents, and Revelstoke pulled away with the help of five power-play goals in their last six scores.
And next up was a second-round showdown Mar. 21 with Terrace, a top seed and largely the same squad that won that 2009 peewee tournament in which the Eagles placed third.
“You get behind by losing that first game, and you’re in trouble,” Bell said of the team’s predicament. “It’s a little bit of a panic thing.”
Still, the Eagles started strong, jumping to a 2-0 lead over Terrace as McCarrick and Brandon Pelletier found the net. Disaster struck in the final minute of the period, though, when Terrace capitalized on mental errors to score two goals in the last 49 seconds to tie the game and steal away the momentum.
“I guarantee that game would have been different if we’re up 2-0 at intermission,” Bell said.
Instead, Terrace built on that momentum to score three straight second-period goals to take command. The bantams regained their footing and fought back with two more goals from McCarrick and another from Bell, but the team came up short in a 7-5 loss.
It was the closest game of the tourney for Terrace, which averaged eight goals per game and rolled to the title with a 9-2 win over Quesnel.
In the early morning game Mar. 22, the Eagles finally got into the win column, riding Bell’s hat trick and the combined goaltending efforts of Clayton Ellis and Riley Mathieson to a 6-4 win over Whistler.
McCarrick, Brett Walker and Nick Klein-Beekman added goals in the win, and McCarrick had two assists to go with single helpers by Coltton Slater, Cole Rennie, Tyson Cadwallader and Klein-Beekman.
What the coaches knew and didn’t share with the team was that they were already eliminated from medal consideration by then.
“Basically, they were playing for pride and to not lose all four games,” Mike Bell said.
The Eagles’ tournament ended with a 6-3 loss later that afternoon to Whitehorse, which had played to ties in each of its three previous pool games.
“It was definitely good competition, and there were a lot of close games,” said Bell. “We didn’t play as well as we had during the season, but the guys never gave up.”
Matthew Cahill opened the scoring for the Eagles in their final game, and McCarrick added two more tallies to finish with eight for the tournament.
In fact, one of the bantams’ trouble spots was getting scoring spread across all their lines. The line of McCarrick (8 goals, 3 assists), Bell (5 goals, 3 assists) and Cadwallader (5 assists) amassed 13 of the team’s 17 goals and 11 of 23 assists.
“Overall, for the week our goaltending was good,” Bell said. “I think defensively we struggled all week, and we had limited offensive support. If we would have gotten more shots, we would have beaten Terrace.”
Note: North Island Eagles Hockey held its annual general meeting and awards dinner Tuesday night at the Port Alice Community Centre. Award results and officer elections will be published in next week’s Gazette.