Two teams coming off roller coaster seasons will match up in the opening round of the B.C. Hockey League playoffs.
Just which squad — the Langley Rivermen or the Surrey Eagles — falls off the rails will be decided over the next couple of weeks.
Not much separates the two Mainland Division rivals. The second-place Rivermen (25-20-10-3) finished one point ahead of the Eagles (26-22-8-2) in the division standings.
Front-runners Prince George Spruce Kings (33-17-4-4) will take on the fourth-place Chilliwack Chiefs (26-26-3-3) in the division’s other best-of-seven, opening round series.
The Rivermen, injury-plagued since the calendar turned to 2018, went 3-1-1 in their final five regular season games.
The Eagles were 2-3 in their final five outings to close out the regular season.
The teams split their season series at 3-3-1. When the teams last met Feb. 10 at South Surrey Arena, the Rivermen outscored the Eagles 7-6.
The schedule: Friday, March 2 and Saturday, March 3 at the George Preston Recreation Centre (GPRC), 7 p.m. start times both nights; Monday, March 5 and Tuesday, March 6 at South Surrey Arena, 7 p.m. opening puck drops; Thursday, March 8 at the GPRC, 7 p.m. (if necessary); Friday, March 9 at South Surrey Arena, 7 p.m. (if necessary); and Saturday, March 10 at the GPRC, 7 p.m. (if necessary).
Rivermen players to watch: Langley native Brendan Budy led the Rivermen with 22 goals and 56 points in 49 games. Angus Crookshank matched Budy’s 22 goals and ended up with 45 points in 42 games. Budy, the Rivermen’s captain, and Crookshank were ranked 138th and 139th, respectively, when the NHL Central Scouting released its midseason rankings for the 2018 Entry Draft last month.
Anchoring the Rivermen’s defence is 20-year-old Colin Bernard. The Stamford, CT., native was recently named the Mainland Division nominee for top defenceman, and chipped in 25 assists from the blue-line.
Braedon Fleming handled the bulk of the Rivermen’s goaltending duties, making 50 appearances with 21 wins, a 2.74 goals against average, and one shutout.
Eagles players to watch: The Eagles have a potent attack led by White Rock’s Ty Westgard, who finished second in the BCHL in both points (70) and assists (55). The goals came off the stick of 20-year-old Vancouver Giants alum Johnny Wesley (36 goals and 31 assists) but the offence doesn’t end there. Centres Desi Burgart (22 goals) and Jeffrey Stewart (20 markers) both finished with 50 points.
A four-year BCHL veteran, Daniel Davidson handled the bulk of the goaltending duties, appearing in 32 games with a 3.41 goals against average and .901 save percentage.
Rivermen head coach Bobby Henderson says: “Surrey’s got a couple of pretty high-end forwards and we’ve got to make sure we neutralize guys like Johnny Wesley and the Westgard kid. We’ve got to get pucks to the net and get at their goaltenders. They’ve got two capable goalies, there, so we’re going to have to generate a lot of shots and create a lot of traffic. We’re going to have a balanced attack, so we need other guys to step up. We’ve played four lines all year and we expect to do the same in this series. There’s a mutual respect, there, but they are two teams that love to hate each other and it’s a great, competitive rivalry.”
Eagles assistant coach Linden Saip says: “They’re a really good team, high energy, a big, strong, physical team and we’re going to have to be able to match that physicality and be able to out-skate those guys. They’ve obviously got some highly skilled players that we need to watch and get some match-ups agains. It’s going to be tough the first couple of games not having home-ice advantage with the last change. We know the guys that we need to shut down and we need to know it’s going to be a physical game and be ready to play that. We feel like we’re quite deep and have the ability to score and it’s just being able to out-compete the opponent. That’s going to be the biggest thing because we know Langley’s got a hard-working team.”
Prediction: Too close to tell, other than it will likely go the full seven.