Surrey, BC – Maybe the Surrey Eagles should play more games that start before noon. Maybe they should play more often in a rink near full of happy and loud elementary school students. Maybe they should play clinching games on home ice more often to boot.
It was all part of the mix on Thursday at the South Surrey Arena as the Eagles emphatically claimed third place in the BCHL’s Mainland Division with four games to play in the regular season via a 3-0 victory over the Prince George Spruce Kings.
The final score would have been lopsided if it hadn’t been for the play of Spruce Kings goalie Carter Woodside, who although not named a star of the game, easily could’ve been. The loss was his team’s fifth straight and leaves them mired in the division basement the season after winning the Fred Page Cup.
His counterpart in the Surrey goal, Reece Klassen, was dialled in from the opening puck drop. The shutout was his second straight over the Spruce Kings, and fourth win against them in as many games since the Eagles acquired him at the Jan. 10 CJHL trade deadline. Klassen stood his ground, even from the seat of his pants in the crease when he had to, and looked near unbeatable. Since joining the Eagles, the 20-year-old Surrey native and WHL veteran is 7-3-1 with a 2.23 GAA and .925 SV%.
He was buoyed by perhaps the best 60-minute team game the Eagles have put together this season. Surrey held Prince George to 21 shots on goal while taking 29 of their own and were a perfect 6-for-6 on the penalty kill. Nine different Eagles skaters earned a point. As Eagles head coach Cam Keith proudly put it, “We had a complete game today. I never felt like we didn’t have control. We didn’t allow them to generate any momentum other than through what I thought were some undisciplined penalties at times. But they were also all hard-working penalties, so … We had all four lines rolling today and our D played great. The boys all showed up to work today.”
After a scoreless first period the Eagles took control early in the second. With captain and second leading scorer Hudson Schandor out due to injury, Brandon Santa Juana replaced him on the top line with Cristophe Tellier and Gabe Schovanek and the trio scored a beauty at the 2:31 mark. After an extended stretch of puck possession in the Prince George zone, Schovanek finished the play off with a hard wrist shot that Woodside got his glove on but still couldn’t keep from going into the net.
Four minutes later, with Surrey on the powerplay, defenseman Jimmy Darby one-timed a slapper from the point past a screened Woodside to make it 2-0 for his first goal of the season. Surrey’s third of the period came at 14:34. Christian Fitzgerald put in some excellent board work near the blueline to get the puck deep in the corner to Buddy Johnson who spun a quick pass to a wide-open Kenny Riddett in front of the net. Woodside made the first save but Riddett was able to quickly slap home the rebound.
As the “School Day” game wore down, the only question mark was whether Klassen would be able to post the back-to-back shutouts against the visitors. His teammates both didn’t, and then again did, make it easy for him. Twice in the final seven minutes Surrey took minor penalties, but then held the Spruce Kings without a shot on either powerplay.
“I give a lot of credit to our D today,” said Keith. “They played hard, they closed space in the defensive end, they blocked shots, they activated and Jimmy Darby came through for us with that big powerplay goal. Definitely, our D and our goaltending were the key tonight,” before then adding the crowning touch, “and our forwards created a lot of scoring opportunities as well.”
“The main thing we’re talking about now is playoff hockey and doing things the right way, so it was a fun one to watch.”
As of mid-November, the Eagles were sitting where the Spruce Kings now find themselves. But Surrey has since played better than .500 hockey and on Thursday were rewarded for it. “We did it, everybody did it,” said the rookie head coach of the youngest team in the league clinching third place in their division after failing to even qualify for the playoffs last season. “After our tough start to the season our goal was just to stay within our division for playoffs. I don’t really know what to say. I’m just very happy we were able to get there.”
Thursday’s resounding and uplifting victory ensured the team a first-round playoff series with the long-time Mainland Division powerhouse Chilliwack Chiefs, who are locked into second place in the division behind runaway division- and league-leaders Coquitlam Express most of the season. However, the Eagles will have scant time to just enjoy the achievement as lo and behold Surrey and Chilliwack not only face-off on Friday night in the South Surrey Arena, but then again on Monday afternoon as well.
“It’s going to be a feeling out process for both teams to establish how they want to play against each other,” said Keith of the two pre-playoff games as the regular season enters its final two weekends. “They’re still learning about each other and creating that rivalry. It’s been a really good season series so far. I think every game could pretty much have gone either way.”
“We’re going to have to continue to play good solid hockey all-around. It’s going to be an exciting challenge for us because of all their offensive ability,” said Keith, noting that the Chiefs boast the league’s best powerplay. “We can’t give them the same opportunities on the powerplay that we gave Prince George today. Playing disciplined hockey is going to be very important for us going forward.”