Hockey is a strange game.
The Prince George Spruce Kings can certainly vouch for that.
They did just about everything you’d expect a first-place team to do trying to win its last home game of the calendar year against the Surrey Eagles, who came north for a weekend series at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena ranked dead-last in the B.C. Hockey League.
After barely beating the Eagles 2-1 the night before, the Spruce Kings came out flying from the opening face-off with a renewed sense of urgency in the rematch. They were disciplined, they held a wide edge in puck possession and they were like jail guards keeping their opponents penned in their own zone.
The shot clock reflected that – an astounding 40-9 advantage by the time the final buzzer sounded. But the scoreboard told an entirely different tale – a 2-1 Eagles’ victory.
Surrey goalie Hayden Missler had a lot to do with it. Victimized late in the game Friday by a Dustin Manz shot that deflected in off his glove for the winning goal, Missler was given the chance to make up for that one little mistake, and did he ever.
His 39-save performance resulted in his first win since he was traded to Surrey in November from Powell River – a rare two-point occasion for the Eagles (8-25-1-2), who won for only the eighth time in 36 games this season.
Missler made life miserable for the Spruce Kings, cutting down the angles to make saves and rarely allowing rebounds of the juicy variety. His teammates rallied behind him with two goals late in the second period to provide all the offence they would need.
“The guys played good – they didn’t give up too many big opportunities and they cleared all the second chances, it was good, we needed that win,” said Missler, who turns 19 on Dec. 28.
“We’ve been playing progressively better the last few weeks and I think we’re going to pull a playoff spot out. I think we’re way underrated.”
The Eagles were held to just one shot in the first period and two shots in the third. Nursing a one-goal lead, Missler was under siege through much of the final period, especially in the last two minutes when the Kings were pouring on the pressure with goalie Logan Neaton on the bench.
“I was just thinking, don’t choke like I did last night,” said Missler.
Dawson McKay joined the Eagles for the trip to Prince George from the Bismarck Bobcats of the NAHL and in his second-ever BCHL game he scored what turned out to be the winner with 46 seconds left in the second period. Brayden Shaw started the play when he chipped the puck in behind Kings defenceman Liam Watson-Brawn. Neaton came out of his crease and tried to smother the loose puck but it slipped free and was left laying in the crease for McKay, who tapped it into the open net.
“It was just a bit of miscommunication, an unlucky bounce,” said Neaton. “Our defenceman (Watson-Brawn) gets his stick on it and makes a nice play and (the puck) was kind of right between us and hits my pad and everyone goes crashing in the corner and there’s their guy sitting in the slot with the puck.”
The goal came about a minute after Max Mohagen rapped in a rebound with five seconds left in Surrey’s only power play of the game.
The Kings’ power play struck earlier in the second period when Manz deflected in Nick Bochen’s shot from the blueline. It was the sixth goal in three games for the red-hot Manz, who tied Ben Brar for the team lead with his 21st goal of the season.
Neaton said there’s no explanation why his team was unable to pull out the win after such a dominating effort.
“It’s just a little bit of adversity and we’re going to have a good week of practice and then we get to play the same team next week,” said Neaton. “We’re going to learn from it and respond.”
In their only other meeting this season, Sept. 28 in Surrey, the Eagles beat Prince George 3-2 in a shootout.
“They’re obviously a good team and we knew that going in – we know how these guys have played in this rink, we had them last year in the playoffs,” said Eagles head coach Linden Saip.
“The guys played as hard as they could and even when we had adversity and were trapped in our own zone for minutes at a time the guys battled out and ended up getting the job done.
“We tossed Hayden back in the pipes tonight because (Friday) night he performed incredibly. The game-winning goal was one he wanted to have back and that’s why we put him in again. We believed in him and knew he could get the job done and that’s exactly what he did.”
Saip moved up from his assistant’s role Nov. 27 when the Eagles fired Peter Schaefer and despite a few key injuries the Eagles are playing better hockey lately.
“The last four games we’ve gone to shootouts and overtime so to have two close games again and to come out on top in this one is huge for the group,” said Saip. “We’re playing catchup here and every game for us now is a playoff game. The steps we’ve made the last month have been leaps.”
The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Spruce Kings (24-9-1-2), who remained one point ahead of the Chilliwack Chiefs, their Mainland Division rivals, for first place overall in the BCHL.
“We’re not upset with the effort, I thought we were way better tonight,” said Kings head coach Adam Maglio. “We had more urgency with the puck and our D were much better moving pucks up. We eliminated a lot of turnovers and we made a couple adjustments and our execution was there tonight – there were a lot of positives but the result didn’t go our way
“We have to find more urgency around the net. When you have that many chances you hope with a veteran forward group they’ll be able to find the back of the net a bit more. This is a bit tough to swallow but there are a lot of positives we’ll take from tonight. We wanted to be better tonight and we were better.”
LOOSE PUCKS: The same teams meet again Friday in Surrey, the second of a two-game road trip for Prince George that also stops in Langley Thursday night. The Kings will get back to business after Christmas with a three-game road trip, Jan. 4-6, which will take them to Merritt, Cowichan Valley and Victoria… Former Vancouver Canucks assistant coach Terry Bangen filled in for the two Surrey games for Spruce Kings assistant Alex Evin, who was away on a scouting mission to Boston. Bangen is a former assistant coach in the WHL with the Kamloops Blazers and Tri-City Americans who most recently coached last season with the Worcester Railers of the ECHL… Kings defenceman Layton Ahac just missed advancing to the World Junior A Challenge championship game, losing 3-2 in overtime to the U.S. in a semifinal Saturday night in Bonnyville, Alta. On Sunday, Canada West beat the Czech Republic 3-1 for bronze and Ahac assisted on the first two goals of the game, including the winner, 7:16 in, from Ethan Leyh of the Langley Rivermen. The U.S. defeated Russia 2-0 for gold… The Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League called up Prince George minor hockey product Michael Garteig from the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL for their two-game weekend road trip in Winnipeg against former Prince George Cougars forward Jansen Harkins and the Manitoba Moose. In his Marlies’ debut Saturday, the 27-year-old Garteig stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 5-1 win over the Moose. Garteig, whose BCHL stops included Powell River and Penticton, played eight AHL games last season for the Utica Comets, the Vancouver Canucks’ top farm team.
Hockey is a strange game.