BROOKS, Alta - For the second time in their junior A hockey history, the Prince George Spruce Kings are going to play in a national championship final.
They eked out a 2-1 victory Saturday night over the Oakville Blades in a sudden-death semifinal playoff and will face the Brooks Bandits in the final Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. PT).
All of the scoring happened in the final four minutes of the second period. Nick Poisson and Ben Brar sandwiched Spruce Kings their goals around Kyle Lewis’s counter for Oakville.
The Kings got on the board first, 15:59 into the second. Poisson jumped on a loose puck that kicked out of the corner into the circle. The Kings left winger avoided the poke check of goalie Will Barber and dragged the puck wide and into the open side of the net for his team-leading fifth goal of the tournament.
The Blades responded at 17:02 with the equalizer. They caught the Kings out of position on a long line change and converted on a 3-on-2. Lewis was wide-open in front when he snapped in the pass from Harrison Israels to tie it up.
Forty-two seconds later, Dustin Manz fed Brar a lead pass and he broke in on the left side and had a stride on Peyton Reeves as he cut towards the crease, then stretched out his long arms to tuck the puck in around Barber.
“I just kind of looked, like I had a step, and drove wide and made a hard play and it worked out for me,” said Brar. “It’s absolutely huge, getting that momentum going into the intermission and we could just build off that going into the third.”
That goal, Brar’s third of the week, stood up as the gamewinner.
“Ben Brar has really brought his game here,” said Kings head coach Adam Maglio. “He’s been outstanding and you can just see it in his eyes, his pregame, shift in and shift out, he’s been phenomenal and that whole line (with Manz and Patrick Cozzi) has been good. They inspire their teammates and that’s what you need in tournaments like this, they really want this thing.”
The Blades had the Kings pinned in their own end for much of the final 90 seconds with Barber on the bench, but limited the quality of Oakville’s shots down the stretch, except for a point-blank volley from the slot off the stick of Kyle Potts that Neaton blockered away.
Holding onto leads is old hat for a Spruce Kings team that did that often while winning the Fred Page Cup and Doyle Cup titles. Now they have a third trophy in their sights and all that stands in their way are the Alberta Junior Hockey League-champion Bandits.
“I was confident in our team, we’ve been in that spot and our guys know how to play in those moments, said Maglio. “I can’t tell you how many one-goal games we’ve had this year. We were battled-tested for it and they got it done. A couple big blocks and face-off wins and wall battles at the end and you come away with a win.
“That Oakville team did a real good job in that tournament. They were improved, they played hard and it was a tight game. It was a game of inches and our (penalty) kill came up huge killing that five-minute penalty.”
Kings general manager Mike Hawes, who sat with his wife Anita five rows up in the corner behind the Kings’ net, couldn’t bear to watch at times when the Blades were pouring on the heat, threatening to derail what’s been a magical season for Prince George. The Blades outshot the Kings 18-6 in the third period.
“I was facing forward but sometimes my eyes were closed,” said Hawes.
“It’s been a long haul to get here and this has always been the goal all along, to make it to the last junior A game of the season and here we are. Our guys are gassed and Oakville played a heckuva game. They played a lot different than when we played them in the round robin and the guys buckled down. This one was a bit of an ugly one but at this point of the season you’re going to take any win you can get.”
The Kings beat the Blades 5-1 in their first game of the tournament Sunday night and many observers predicted it would be a similar outcome. The Blades got better as the tournament progressed and came in to the game well-rested, having won their last two games, which evened their record at 2-2.
“They’re a very good hockey club and we knew that, I thought we learned from the first time we played them,” said Blades head coach Mike Tarantino. “Obviously the difference was they made one more save than we did. I thought our guys battled and Barber on net was excellent and Neaton on their side made some big saves late, on the power play, when it was 2-1 there. A couple pucks scrambling around and we just couldn’t find a way to put it in.”
The teams played the majority of the first period on the Oakville side of centre but the Kings had nothing to show for it. Barber looked sharp when he did get tested. The most dangerous chance came with 16 seconds left in the period during a Kings’ power play when Nick Bochen connected on a one-timer that nailed the goalpost squarely and sailed out of play.
Barber, lit up for seven goals in a 7-3 loss to Brooks in their first game of the tournament, found himself in a world of trouble after he lost his goal stick during an extended siege of activity in the Blades’ end which started about four minutes into the second period but the Ontario champions came out of it unscathed.
The Kings faced some major adversity 3:50 into the third period while nursing their 2-1 lead when captain Ben Poisson was handed a five-minute kneeing penalty and game misconduct for his hit on Blades defenceman Jack Lyons. Lyons had to be helped off the ice favouring his left leg and did not return.
On the extended power play, the Blades had sustained pressure the first minute and came close to tying it. Spencer Kersten, who had five goals in the four games, forced Neaton to make two pad saves in rapid succession with Kersten firing from just off the post. Dustin Manz finally carried the puck out to allow the Kings a much-needed line change.
“We were in it the whole game, a bounce here and there and we would have been taking it to overtime,” said Barber. “They played a great game as well and we left it all on the ice. I had a few ups and downs, I knew I had to come out strong in this game. My team really helped out, blocking shots and made it easy on me. It wasn’t enough but I’m proud of our guys.
“(The five-minute power play) was the turning point of the game. We came really closed and their goalie made some good saves. Credit to them, their defence is always really strong and they showed that with the amount of goals they let in (five) throughout the round-robin play. We were almost there.”
The Bandits edged the Ottawa Junior Senators 4-3 in the other semifinal Saturday afternoon and for the third time in their history will play in the national final. Brooks won the national title in 2013. They handed the Kings their only loss of the week on Thursday, beating them 3-1 to wrap up round-robin play.
The quick turnaround for the Kings means they will have less rest between games than Brooks, but Brar said his team is used to that. During the B.C. Hockey League season they had six three-in-three weekends on the road, playing the final game in the afternoon.
“I think it’s probably better we played a tight-checking game going into tomorrow, we don’t want to bring in any bad habits heading into the final,” said Brar. “We just need to hydrate, make sure we get fluids and put the phones away and get some rest. We’ve played three-in-threes all year so I think we’ll be kind of used to it.”
LOOSE PUCKS: Saturday’s win improved the Kings playoff record to 24-4… The final will be televised live on TSN 3, starting at 2 p.m. PT… In their only other national championship final appearance, when they hosted the event in 2007, the Kings lost 3-1 to the Aurora Tigers, hours after defeating the Camrose Kodiaks in a semifinal that wasn’t decided until the sixth minute of the fifth overtime period when Jason Yuel scored the winner for Prince George at CN Centre… Spruce Kings fans dressed in team jerseys made themselves visible and audible in showing their support for the Pacific champions. The tournament committee made about 125 unsold tickets available on game day and they were snapped up by Kings supporters.
National Junior A Hockey Championship
Oakville Blades 1 Prince George Spruce Kings 2
Penalty – Pyke PG (boarding) 17:47.
1. Prince George, N.Poisson 5 (Anhorn) 15:59 (pp)
2. Oakville, Lewis 2 (Israels) 17:02
3. Prince George, Brar 3 (Manz) 17:44
Penalty – Ricketts OAK (cross-checking) 14:49.
Penalties – B.Poisson PG (kneeing major, served by MacDonald, game misconduct) 3:50, Potts OAK (interference) 13:36, N.Poisson PG (high-sticking) 14:15.
Shots on goal by
Oakville 6 9 18 -33
Prince George9 17 6 -32
Goal – Oakville, Barber (L,1-3): Prince George, Neaton (W,4-1).
Players of the game – Oakville, Will Barger; Prince George, Ben Brar.
Attendance – 1,498.