BROOKS, Alta - The Brooks Bandits are national junior A hockey champions and they have the Prince George Spruce Kings to thank for showing them how to get there.
The Bandits thrilled their fans among the capacity hometown crowd of 2,294 that packed into Centennial Regional Arena Sunday afternoon when they beat the Spruce Kings 4-3 in the championship final.
Simon Boyko scored two goals, including the winner 16:13 into the second period. The Bandits led 4-1 at that point and had to withstand a determined comeback attempt from the Spruce Kings, who came close to forcing the game into overtime.
After nearly nine months of hockey, dating back to the start of training camps in late August, the Spruce Kings and Bandits, who had never played each other, developed a heated rivalry over the past three weeks which culminated in Sunday’s final. Leading into the national tournament the Bandits lost a six-game Doyle Cup series to the Spruce Kings for the Pacific region title.
“I believe losing the Doyle Cup is the only reason we won this tournament, and that’s the credit that Prince George gets,” said Bandits head coach and general manager Ryan Papaioannou. “We’re a way better team because of Prince George. They beat us four times in nine days and we’d only lost six times in nine months before that.
“I honestly believe they’re the reason that we won. They’re the best team we’ve seen all year and going into this weekend I was sceptical that we’d be able to beat them two times
“We had to hang on at the end, it was a good thing we had a 3-0 lead.”
Bandits defenceman Brandon Scanlin said coming home to familiar surroundings in Brooks after the Doyle Cup loss and playing in front of their fans for the national trophy provided comfort to his team and brought out the best in them.
“We had a little trouble in the Doyle Cup series in Prince George but we just refocused and came back and it’s a great feeling,” said Scanlin. “We knew we weren’t going to play there in (the national tournament). They really showed us that there’s better, faster teams and if we don’t adjust it could be a tough competition.”
The Bandits could not have asked for a better start. They scored their first of the game just 93 seconds in. Boyko skated out from behind the net with the and filed a high backhander in over Logan Neaton’s shoulder.
Six minutes later, Randy Hernandez fed a pass across to AJHL scoring champion William Lemay and he fired a laser from the point that rippled the mesh.
The Kings’ attack looked slow and disorganized with passes missing their targets and players caught out of position the Bandits made them look bad. Shots were 9-2 in
their favour through 13 minutes when they struck again.
Brooks captain Nathan Plessis scored his first of the tournament, taking advantage of a poor clearing attempt by the Kings that was picked off at the blueline. Nick Hale let go a shot that Plessis tipped on goal and he got to the rebound and put it in.
By the time the shooting stopped for the first intermission the shell-shocked Kings were down 3-0, looking for a solutions. Their power play provided that glimmer of hope, 2:22 into the second period.
Max Coyle took the shot from the point and the puck bounced off goalie Pierce Charleson right to Patrick Cozzi and he scored with a wrister from the slot. Cozzi, one of the leading scorers for the Kings, suffered a high-ankle sprain in the Kings’ 2-1 semifinal win Saturday night over the Oakville Blades and that required a tape job from trainer Rick Brown just so Cozzi could play Sunday.
After skating in quicksand much of the opening period the Kings picked up the pace considerably in the second period and matched the Bandits’ speed, resulting in plenty of offensive zone time and scoring chances.
But Boyko restored the three-goal lead late in the second period, cashing in the only quality chance the Bandits could generate in the period. He took Hale’s perfect stretch pass just over the blueline, applied the brakes in the face-off circle and snapped a high shot in behind Neaton.
If that wasn’t tough enough for the Kings to swallow, 33 seconds later they lost Ben Brar, their leading goalscorer, for the rest of the game. Brar nailed Ray Christy from behind with a hard hit into the boards and was handed a major penalty for boarding and a game misconduct. Not long into the five-minute penalty kill, Ben Poisson stripped the puck and took off on a shorthanded breakaway but missed the net.
“To be honest, killing that five-minute penalty gave us some momentum and that might have helped us get back in the game,” said Kings head coach Adam Maglio.
“Ben’s a huge loss to us and it’s his last junior game and he cares so much. It was a tough play, the guy turns at the last second and he finishes his hit and I felt awful. The guys love him in there and they got the kill and it built some momentum in there.
“That’s the story of our group all year, we’re a resilient team, they fight. I don’t think that’s the start you want, to put yourself behind, maybe a bit too far behind. We clawed and we fought back, a couple bounces away maybe from tying things up.”
The Kings made it a two-goal game just past the 10-minute mark of the third period. The Poisson brothers – Ben and Nick - finished off a sustained attack in the Brooks end when Nick deflected in his older brother’s slapper from the point. It was Nick’s tournament-leading sixth goal.Two minutes later, Anhorn hailed the crossbar with his shot from 30 feet away.
Maglio said his defencemen were tired from playing the semifinal less that a day earlier, while the Bandits rested from their afternoon playoff game and the 20-year-old Dylan Anhorn, in his last junior game before he heads to Union College, was better able to rise to the challenge in the final. Having played a strong game, Anhorn was relentless in the final minute and that resulted in the final Prince George goal of the season with 45 seconds left when he banged in a shot from the point after defence partner Nick Bochen made a skilled play to keep the puck in the zone. The Kings had puck possession in the dying seconds but could not muster another shot on Pierce Charleson.
The National Junior A Cup was presented to Plessis, the Brooks captain, and that made him forget the pain of losing the 2017 national championship, when it was known as the RBC Cup, when the Bandits gave up the tying goal with two seconds left in the final and lost to the host Cobourg (Ont.) Cougars in overtime.
“It’s just jubilation,” said Plessis. “I feel for those guys on the other side, I was in that exact spot two years ago, but I couldn’t be happier (now). I was just so excited to pick it up.”
The city will host a reception for the Kings and their fans Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the Civic Centre. By that time the sting of losing the biggest game of their lives will have subsided and the team can sit back and realize how successful they were while winning the first BCHL championship in the team’s 23-year-history in the league.
“It hurts but we’re so proud of our group,” said Maglio. “There’s a lot of guys playing with significant injuries there. They battled for each other and we had a great year. We’re not going to discredit the BCHL championship and the Doyle Cup. It’s tough to swallow right now but I think we’ll put things in perspective in a couple days.
LOOSE PUCKS: Brooks went 6-0 in the tournament, including a 3-1 victory over Prince George on Thursday in the last round-robin game, then went on to defeat the Ottawa Junior Senators 4-3 in the semifinal… The community-owned Bandits, who joined the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2000 as an expansion team, have now won two national titles. They captured their first in 2013 in Summerside, P.E.I … Newly-elected Alberta premier Jason Kenney dropped the puck for the ceremonial opening face-off.
National Junior A Hockey Championship
In Brooks, Alta.
Prince George Spruce Kings 3 Brooks Bandits 4
1. Brooks, Boyko (Lee) 1:33
2. Brooks, Lemay 4 (Hernandez) 7:36
3. Brooks, Plessis 1 (Hale, Hancock) 13:20
Penalties – Anhorn PG (hooking) 18:20
4. Prince George, Cozzi (Coyle) 2:22 (pp)
5. Brooks, Boyko 3 (Hale, Ceulemans) 16:13
Penalties – Mashie BKS (tripping) 1:22, Cozzi PG (holding) 8:50, Christy BKS (hooking) 9:13, Brar PG (boarding major, game misconduct) 16:46.
6. Prince George, N.Poisson 6 (B.Poisson, Anhorn) 10:26
7. Prince George, Anhorn (Bochen) 19:15
Penalties – None.
Shots on goal by
Prince George5 10 14 29
Brooks 16 8 5 -29
Goal – Prince George, Neaton (L,4-2), Brooks, Charleson (W,6-0).
Players of the game – Prince George, Max Coyle; Brooks, Simon Boyko
Attendance – 2,294.