The B.C. Hockey League extended its provincial tentacles to the northwest coast for the first time in in its 58-year history this past weekend in Kitimat and the defending-champion Prince George Spruce Kings were at the centre of it all.
They gained three of a possible four points in their two-game LNG Canada BCHL Road Show series against the Langley Rivermen.
Prince George minor hockey product Corey Cunningham continued to produce points and had two goals and an assist to stake the Kings to a 5-1 win on Saturday in front of a crowd of 1,207 at Tamitic Arena in Kitimat. But the Rivermen exacted their revenge Sunday afternoon in a 2-1 overtime victory decided by a Hunter McCoy goal, 2:03 into OT.
The Kitimat tour marked the end of a week-long roadtrip for both teams.
"We're obviously a British Columbia hockey league so we certainly want to have interest and involvement from communities outside the 18 teams that we have in the league, said Kings general manager Mike Hawes. "That whole northwest region out there is now more familiar with our league and our players and the style of hockey you can come to expect from our league and it was a great experience for everybody.
"The crowds were great and loving the action and the fans really absorbed the experience. Both teams brought up a whole bunch of merchandise and set up tables and almost sold out of all their stuff with hats and jerseys everywhere. The fans really embraced it in Kitimat."
The two games were the culmination of a three-day visit for both teams. Before the games, the Rivermen and Spruce Kings coaches and players joined Canucks alumni Jirki Lumme and Dave Babych to engage elementary school students in group activities and share their hockey knowledge on the ice in skill sessions with Kitimat minor hockey teams.
"I thought it was a fantastic weekend, I was really impressed with not just our players but Langley, I think both teams did a great job integrating themselves in the community and being a role model for the youth," said Kings head coach Alex Evin.
"Both teams had a lot of fun that weekend. It was a bit refreshing, it was nice to see our guys have some fun and give back, it was an enjoyable weekend."
In Friday's game the Kings set a physical tone and jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on goals from Andrew Seaman and Haydn Delorme, then scored twice in the first six minutes of the second period to double the lead. Fin Williams picked up his 11th of the season, set up by linemates Cunningham and Nolan Welsh, and Cunningham followed with his team-leading 24th goal at the 5:29 mark.
Daniel O'Neill countered for the Rivermen 15 minutes into the second and Cunningham scored the only goal of the third period, on a Prince George power play.
First-star-of-the-game Jett Alexander made 32 saves in the Kings' nets, his first win since Dec. 20.
The Rivermen proved much tougher opponents in Sunday's game, outshooting the Kings 31-13 through two periods and 47-21 in the game. Carter Cochrane put the Kings ahead with the only goal of the first period, 9:13 in, and the lead held until Sean Bunting found the net behind Prince George goalie Carter Woodside with eight minutes gone in the third period, setting the stage for McCoy's game-ending shot.
"We knew Langley was going to come back a lot harder in the second game, which they did and some of our guys didn't respond overly well to that and we had a few passengers in that game," said Hawes. "Our goaltending, in both games, was tremendous, and Carter was real good in the second game, which kind of saved our bacon in that game and eared us the point."
The Kings were without top-line winger Nick Poisson, who got banged up in the Surrey game, and were missing injured defenceman Brendan Hill but Evin is optimistic they both will be ready for the playoffs. Special teams were a bright spot for the Kings in the two games. They scored two power-play goals on six chances on Saturday and their penalty-killers held the Rivermen without a goal in eight opportunities in the two games.
"I wish we'd played a bit better on the Sunday but it was definitely a positive weekend for us, we liked a lot of things in our game we can build off going forward," said Evin.
The Spruce Kings started the week with a 4-1 loss in Chilliwack on Tuesday, followed by a 3-0 defeat on Thursday in Surrey, while the Rivermen were on Vancouver Island, losing 4-3 in Victoria and 4-1 in Cowichan Valley. Both teams flew from Vancouver to Terrace on Thursday and took a bus to get to Kitimat, 62 kilometres south of Terrace.
The Spruce Kings close out the season at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena this weekend with games Friday and Saturday against the Coquitlam Express. The Express (45-8-1-1-0) has already been crowned regular season champions of the regular season and will be the top seed when playoffs begin next week.
Prince George (18-31-3-4-0) will finish fifth in the Mainland Division and will cross over into the Interior Conference to open the playoffs against the Trail Smoke Eaters. Trail (35-16-2-2-1) will finish second in the Interior Division.
The Smokies host the first two games of the best-of-seven series on Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, Feb. 29. The series then switches to Prince George for the next two games on Monday March 2 and Tuesday, March 3. If necessary, Game 5 would also be played at RMCA on Thursday, March 5. Games 6 and 7, if needed, are scheduled for March 7-8 in Trail.
"I think (the schedule) give us a little bit of an advantage, to be honest," said Evin. "It's an opponent we haven't played that great against yet, but I think certain things we match up well and certain things we have to be careful of. They can definitely score and they obviously have had a great season. It will be a good test for us and we're going to need to be solid in all three zones of the ice."
The Smoke Eaters have beaten the Kings in all three meetings this season - 3-0 Sept. 28 in Prince George, 7-4 Oct. 5 at the BCHL Showcase in Penticton, and 9-2 on Jan. 29 in Trail.
Three of the league's top five pointgetters - Kent Johnson, Michael Colella and Owen Ozar - play for Trail. Only Penticton and Coquitlam have scored more goals than the Smoke Eaters.
This Friday's game is Fan Appreciation Night and Kings will pay tribute to their community sponsors at Saturday's game.
Tickets for playoff games are now available at the Kings' office at RMCA. Season ticket holders and five-game plan holders will have until noon on game days to buy their tickets. After that, the reserved seats will be released to the publiuc. Playoff tickets will cost $10 (adults and seniors, $5 (youth).