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Spruce Kings finish on top of the pod

Prince George doubles Chilliwack Chiefs in season-ending battle to determine first place
13 Spruce Kings
The Prince George Spruce Kings celebrate after their first-place-clinching 4-2 win over the Chilliwack Chiefs Sunday in the BCHL Chilliwack pod. The Kings will travel overnight on the return trip to Prince George.

There’s no trophy for being the first-place team at the completion of the 20-game B.C. Hockey League season and so the memory of what the Prince George Spruce Kings accomplished on the ice Sunday in Chilliwack Coliseum will have to suffice.

Now that the strangest of seasons is complete, they know to themselves they’re champions of the BCHL’s Chilliwack pod after they defeated the Chilliwack Chiefs 4-2.

It was a sweet cap on a long month-and-a-half of COVID captivity for the Spruce Kings, who have spent the past 46 days living in hotel rooms and keeping themselves sequestered from the rest of the world in pursuit of their junior hockey dreams.

They’ll be coming home as champions, just as the 2018-19 Spruce Kings did when they returned from Vernon clutching the team’s first-ever Fred Page Cup championship. Because of the pandemic and the no-playoff scenario the past two seasons, no BCHL team has won it since.

The persistence of the dreaded virus into its second spring ruled out the postseason, so that meant the 20th and final game of the season for the Chiefs and Spruce Kings would determine the champions of the three-team Chilliwack pod.

The Kings made that happen, receiving goals from Christian Buono, Tanner Main, Killian McGregor-Bennett and John Herrington, while goalie Aaron Trotter made 27 saves to lock up the victory.

In an eventful opening period, they scored three times in the first 12 minutes of the period and with a bit of puck luck easily could have had a couple more before the intermission. Buono, one of five 20-year-old Spruce Kings, struck first and ripped a high wrister that fooled goalie Mathieu Caron, who thought he had the net well-covered.

For Buono, who joined the Spruce Kings in the off-season from the Merritt Centennials, it was his pod-leading 14th goal and 100th career BCHL point. Former Cent Hunor Torzsok, also playing in his last junior game, picked up the lone assist less than three minutes into the game.

The Kings had a chance to pad their lead a couple minutes later when Nick Rheaume was slashed by Trevor Longo as he broke in alone on the Chilliwack net. But Caron stood his ground on the penalty shot and made the save. On the ensuing face-off, the puck came back to defenceman Main and in his last game of junior eligibility the overager let go a wrist shot from the right point and scored his first as a Spruce King.

Mason Waite, the other 21-year-old Kings blueliner, was the instigator on the third goal. With the teams playing 4-on-4 he carried the puck into the Chiefs’ zone and drew two defenders, which left McGregor-Bennett wide open to accept the pass and his shot from the right circle found the net. It was the first career BCHL goal for McGregor-Bennett, an 18-year-old rookie from Surrey.

The Kings were killing their first penalty with about two minutes left in the period when Rowan Miller took off on a shorthanded breakaway and nailed the crossbar behind Caron. Before the penalty to Herrington expired, Chiefs defenceman Abram Wiebe walked the line and found a seam through a crowd in front of Trotter to narrow the gap to 3-1.

Just before the first intermission, Trotter stretched out and stuck out his glove to rob Ray Fust on a point-blank chance.

The teams traded goals in the second period. Caron got caught with the puck behind the net and delayed moving it long enough to get stripped by Buono and his pass from behind the goal line found the stick of Herrington for a tap-in into the open net. That came at 15:17 and Caron expressed his frustration by smashing his stick over the crossbar until it broke.

Less than a minute later, Sasha Teleguine forced a turnover just inside the Kings’ zone and used his speed to cut into the middle and tuck the puck into the far side behind Trotter to make it a 4-2 game.

The Chilliwack power play looked especially dangerous in two second-period chances and Wiebe twice hit the goalpost while Main was serving a tripping penalty at the midway mark of the period.

Trotter was the story of the third period as the Chiefs mounted a determined comeback attempt, making a series of superb saves when Chilliwack shooters were able to penetrate the Kings’ defence. The Chiefs outshot the Kings 14-6 in the final period and 29-21 in the game.

Buono finished his BCHL career with a goal and two assists.

Chilliwack came into the game having won five of the previous nine encounters this season with Prince George. Each team came into the game with 13 wins in their previous 19 games and the Kings’ one-point advantage was gained in a shootout loss to the Chiefs on April 18.

LOOSE PUCKS: RW Andrew Seaman, the fifth 2000-born Spruce Kings, was injured and did not plan Sunday. The Spruce Kings are boarding the bus right away from Chilliwack and will return to Prince George overnight, which will end their 47-day roadtrip.