Mario super for Rivermen
Mario Puskarich was three years old and had probably yet to get on the ice.
That is how far back it goes since a Langley junior hockey player won the Brett Hull Trophy as the top scorer in the B.C. Hockey League.
But that is exactly what Puskarich has done for the Langley Rivermen.
Just a few short weeks ago, the scoring race was in question with a pack of players all tied atop the scoring race.
But a strong finish down the stretch helped put the race out of reach and it became official on Saturday — with Puskarich not even in the line-up — that the Rivermen’s leading scorer had won the scoring title with 41 goals, 46 assists and 89 points in 55 games.
The last — and only — Langley junior player to win the title was Jeff Antonovich, who scored 133 points for the Langley Thunder back in 1995.
Puskarich’s 41 goals were also tops in the league, three ahead of Surrey’s Brady Shaw. And his 89 points gave him a 16-point advantage over Chilliwack’s Austin Plevy, who finished with 73 points.
In fact, Plevy — a Langley Minor Hockey Association product — and Puskarich were Rivermen teammates last season before Plevy was traded in the off-season.
“It is a huge accomplishment; it means a lot,” Puskarich said.
“It was one of my goals at the start of the year.”
Not surprisingly, Puskarich was named the team’s most valuable player at their awards banquet on March 6.
“It has been brilliant,” said Rivermen coach and general manager Bobby Henderson.
“I think he has done a great job of silencing the critics.
“There were a lot of people who questioned how he would produce, if he was going to be a legit top three guy.”
Puskarich finished the season strong with 11 goals and 28 points in the final 13 games to run away with the title. He had points in 12 of those games.
It was right around the Christmas break, and Puskarich was leading the league in scoring, when the 20-year-old realized he was having a good season and just needed a strong second half.
“My junior career started OK, hit a few bumps, but to finish if off like this is just a perfect ending,” he said.
Last year, his first in the BCHL, Puskarich had 31 goals and 59 points in 60 games.
He had considered playing back in the U.S. with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. But ultimately Puskarich thought he would be better served to return to Langley.
“I felt more comfortable here with the coaching and we had a lot of returning players,” he said. “We felt we could really do something this year.”
Henderson said Puskarich trained hard in the off-season, shedding a dozen pounds, and has been great all year.
It also helped that he developed great chemistry with line-mate Evan Campbell. Campbell had 20 goals and 46 assists in 51 games.
His assist totals were third in the league.
The Rivermen improved on 2011/12 when they had 44 points in 60 games and missed the post-season.
This edition of the team had 54 points, with the regular season also decreasing by four games, and made the playoffs.
Puskarich admits the scoring title would not have meant as much had Langley missed the playoffs.
A major reason for the team’s success has been its offence, which was fifth in the league with nearly 3.5 goals per game.
And it wasn’t all Puskarich, either as the Rivermen boasted balance and depth with nine players scoring double digits in goals.
“There are just more guys that are contributing every night and it has helped our success,” Henderson said.
“It is always nice to know that if our top line doesn’t have the best night, that we have three other lines who are capable of scoring,” he said.
“We can roll four lines; not a lot of other teams in the league have the depth that we have.
“It is definitely a plus.”
The Rivermen now face the tough task of a best-of-five playoff series against the Surrey Eagles, the top team in the BCHL with 78 points.
Surrey beat Langley eight out of nine times during the regular season.
“Heading into the playoffs, you throw out the regular season records,” said Surrey coach Matt Erhart.
“Every team is tough once playoffs start. It’s a short series, a real grind playing almost every day, so anything can happen.”
“And Langley’s been playing well lately,” he added.
“Since Christmas, really, I think the only team they’ve had trouble with is us.”
As for facing Puskarich, the coach said you have to be aware of where he is.
“He led the league in scoring, so we know he’s a very dangerous player,” Erhart said.
“He gets a lot of points on the power play, too, so our penalty killing is going to be pretty important.”
The series begins at South Surrey Arena with games one and two on Friday (March 15) and Saturday.
Game three is at the Langley Events Centre on Monday. If necessary, game four would be at the LEC on March 19 while a fifth and deciding game would be back in Surrey on March 20.
—with files from Nick Greenizan/Black Press