They might be the defending champions of the B.C. Hockey League but nobody, not even the most optimistic fan of the Prince George Spruce Kings, expects them to run the table in the playoffs like they did last season.
Playing in a league in which 16 of the 17 teams make the playoffs, the Spruce Kings (18-32-3-5-0, 44 points) got in by the skin of their teeth as the 15th seed. If they get through their first-round series, which starts Friday night in Trail, it would be a major miracle.
"I don't think that being an underdog is a bad thing, I kind of like it," said Kings centre Preston Brodziak. "I think they're going to take us for granted. We know we can play hard and we can play with them. I think it's going to be a good series and I'm looking forward to it."
The Kings finished fifth in the Mainland Division and cross over into the Interior Division to play the Smoke Eaters, the second seed in the Interior. With 77 points, Trail finished 13 points behind the first-place Penticton Vees.
The Smoke Eaters (36-17-2-2-1) won all three of the head-to-head regular season games with the Spruce Kings in regulation time. It started Sept. 28 when they beat the Spruce Kings 3-0 in Prince George and continued Oct. 5 with a 7-4 win over P.G. at the BCHL Showcase in Penticton.
The most recent encounter, a 9-2 shelling in Trail, happened on Jan. 29.
Trail hosts the first two games of the series on Friday and Saturday and the series comes to Rolling Mix Concrete Arena for games next Monday and Tuesday and, if necessary, a Game 5 on Thursday. The next two games, if needed, would be played in Trail Saturday and Sunday, March 7-8.
The Spruce Kings finished the season with a pair of losses at home to the regular season-champion Coquitlam Express, who took Friday's game 4-2 and won 4-3 Saturday in a shootout. Kings associate coach Colin Minardi liked what he saw out of his team in both games as they picked up where they left off after a three-point weekend in Kitimat against the Langley Rivermen.
"I was pretty proud of our guys to stick with it and show a bit of resiliency, which we lacked at times this season," Minardi said. "It's perfect to see that right before playoffs. We battled hard right to the end of the game and it was great to see from our guys."
Home ice has not been kind to the Spruce Kings. They went 7-15-3-4-0 at Rolling Mix and their seven wins were the fewest of any team in the BCHL - their lowest total in the past 15 seasons.
"It's weird," said Brodziak. "It's tough to win on the road so we're happy with how we've performed on the road on most nights but we definitely want to give back to the community. They do a lot for us and we want to start getting some wins at home for the fans."
Injuries plagued the Spruce Kings this season, especially on defence, and there was a revolving door in and out of the locker room which saw a dozen players come and go. Not one Spruce King played the entire 58-game schedule and losing top-line 20-year-old winger Chong Min Lee to shoulder surgery after just 24 games hurt the bottom line.
But there were some bright spots. Poisson led the Kings with 47 points and had 21 goals in 49 games as the team MVP. P.G. minor hockey product Corey Cunningham thrived in his second full season with his hometown Kings. He scored a team-leading 26 goals and was second on the team with 44 points. Captain Nolan Welsh, in his 20-year-old season, provided 39 points and Nick Bochen led the defence with 33 points. Rookie Fin Williams, despite missing 18 games with a leg injury, still managed 11 goals and 20 assists.
In a season that's had a lot more downs than ups, probably the best find for general manager Mike Hawes was 19-year-old defenceman Mason Waite, who anchored the left point and had seven goals and 29 points in his first BCHL season since coming to the Kings from the Lloydminster Bobcats.
Just-turned 19-year-old Carter Woodside joined the Kings in late-November and seized his chance to take over the role as starting goalie from 20-year-old Jett Alexander, who played well in the season-ending loss to Coquitlam. Either way, head coach Alex Evin, has a reliable backup if the other falters in the series.
"We think we match up pretty good," said Minardi. "If we stick to our strengths and play a strong simple game I think we'll have success against them. Obviously they're a fast, skilled team but if we work hard and bring our game I think we'll have a good chance."