Dating back to the 1996-97 season, when they left the old Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League to join the B.C. Hockey League, the Prince George Spruce Kings have developed a history of intense battles in head-to-head encounters with the Merritt Centennials.
That trend toward heated hockey is likely to continue on the ice tonight at the Coliseum, where the Cents and Spruce Kings clash in their final meeting of the season.
The Cents (16-12-0-2) are fourth in the Interior Division, one point behind third-place West Kelowna. In the only other meeting with the Spruce Kings this season, Nov. 8 in Merritt, the Kings won 4-3.
"They're hard to play against, they're a physical team," said Spruce Kings head coach Dave Dupas. "We beat them down in Merritt earlier this year but it's a team we always battle against. They forecheck hard and they're always tough on the puck. If we want to win this game we have to stay out of the box because they have a good power play."
The Cents are sixth in the 16-team BCHL with the man advantage, clicking at a 23.78 per cent success rate, but could be hard-pressed to score against the Spruce Kings, whose 22.38 per cent penalty-killing rate is fourth-best in the league.
The injury-riddled Spruce Kings (17-12-0-2), who host the Cowichan Valley Capitals on Saturday, are still clinging to second place in the Mainland Division, three points behind first-place Chilliwack and one point in front of the Langley Rivermen.
The Capitals (9-21-0-1) were slow out of the gate but have been putting up points lately with wins over league frontrunners Penticton, Nanaimo and Powell River. Cowichan Valley lost 3-1 to Nanaimo Wednesday night in Duncan.
"They had some injuries earlier but they've got all their players back so now all of a sudden they're winning games," said Dupas. "Their record is not indicative of what they are right now. It looks on paper like a team with a bad record but over the last 10 or 15 games they've been beating some good teams."
The Caps will be bringing a familiar face on the blueline, 20-year-old Skylar Pacheco, who the Kings dealt to Cowichan over the summer for 19-year-old forward Taylor Allan and 20-year-old defenceman Valik Chichkin. Chichkin was sent to Camrose of the AJHL Nov. 29 in a trade for futures, while Allan was shipped to Lloydminster along with futures on Dec. 2 for 20-year-old defenceman Tyler Kunz. Pacheco, a native of Kitimat, ranks third in Capitals scoring with five goals and 20 points in 30 games.
Fans who flock to the Coliseum for the weekend games would be wise to purchase a program. Nearly half the Kings' roster players won't play this weekend, most due to injuries. That list includes forwards Jarryd Leung (sprained thumb), Riley Hawes (concussion), Chad Staley (sprained ankle) and Justin Rai (concussion-like symptoms). Rai and Staley have both been in the top-10 in league scoring and despite missing the past six games continue to rank second and third respectively in Spruce Kings scoring.
Four of the Kings defenceman won't be playing either, including Adam Clements (upper body), Alex Stoley (shoulder) and Karan Toor (groin). Toor got hurt near the end of last season, returned for a couple of playoff games, and was then out again. He hasn't played since.
Defenceman Viktor Dombrovskiy, acquired last week in a trade from the Trail Smoke Eaters, will miss the next five games while playing for Canada West at the World Junior A Challenge.
The Kings are also without forward Marco Ballarin, who begins serving a two-game suspension for taking part in the second fight during the same stoppage of play in a game last weekend against Chilliwack. They're also missing defenceman Raymond Grewal, who played well in his two-month stint with the Kings, collecting four goals and 13 points in 20 games. The former Prince George Cougar is back in the WHL playing for Prince Albert after the Cougars traded him to the Raiders a week ago.
LOOSE PUCKS: Through 16 home games this season, the Spruce Kings have drawn an average of 1,022 spectators in the Coliseum, seventh-best in the BCHL. Chilliwack leads the league, averaging 2,464, followed by Penticton (2,275), Vernon (1,737), Nanaimo (1,214), Alberni Valley (1,037) and Salmon Arm (1,025). The defending BCHL-champion Coquitlam Express are last, averaging 400 people in 15 games.