Spruce Kings hit playoff road to Chilliwack

Muhammad Ali had it down to a sweet science.

The heavyweight champ would go into his rope-a-dope defensive stance and let his opponent burn himself out, then finish with flurry of punches strong enough to escape the ring with a victory.

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Kind of like what the Chilliwack Chiefs did to the Langley Rivermen in Game 7 of their first-round BCHL playoff series Sunday in Chilliwack. Outshot 45-21 and outplayed by an even wider margin, the Chiefs beat Langley where it counts, winning 3-2 to complete a remarkable comeback after falling behind 3-0 in the series.

The Chiefs looked dog-tired through extended stretches of their series-clincher. But the Prince George Spruce Kings won't be using that as a gauge of what to expect when they take on the regular-season champions in Game 1 of their best-of-seven Mainland Division final series tonight in Chilliwack.

The Chiefs have had five days rest and anybody who thinks they aren't a dangerous threat to the Spruce Kings' title ambitions is living in a dream world. This is the same Chiefs team that waltzed through the regular season with a BCHL-best 42 wins and a league-low 16 losses which allowed them to finish one point ahead of Prince George in the overall standings.

At stake is a trip to the third round against the Island Division champions, either Victoria or Powell River, and whichever team comes out on top in the Mainland will have home-ice advantage for the rest of the playoffs as long as they keep winning.

The Spruce Kings are better defensively than Chilliwack and boast longer playoff resumes with half the team remaining from their 24-game ride to the BCHL final that stopped three wins short of a championship.

The Chiefs have just four holdovers from last year's team that won the RBC Cup as national champions - forwards Harrison Blaisdell and Skyler Brind'Amour, defenceman Marcus Tesink and goalie Daniel Chenard. Chenard bailed them out on a big way in the Langley series, backstopping them to four one-goal wins, including an overtime nailbiter in Game 6.

"They're a momentum team, (scoring) in the first and last minutes of periods or in the third for comeback wins or they come back late and win it in OT or scoring in bunches," said Kings head coach Adam Maglio. "That's what they did in Game 7 against Langley, they got two real quick ones and a shorthanded goal and the game's over.

"Their goalie (Chenard) has certainly been very good in many games since he returned and that's very important in the playoffs. Maybe he wasn't at his best in the first three games but he was pretty damn good for their four wins there."

The Spruce Kings dispatched the Coquitlam Express in a five-game series that was much closer than it would appear. The Express threw a few wrinkles in the Kings' gameplan and came close to extending it to the limit. They took the Kings out of their comfort zone in four of the five games and that might not be such a bad thing for a team that's trying to win its first-ever BCHL championship.

"It's good having the extended time off but it can also hurt a little bit because you're away from that intensity of playoff games," Maglio said. I think having a hard-fought series certainly is going to help us. Coquitlam had that older group that kind of dialed it in in the playoffs. We just have to make sure we don't fall asleep for the first (period) and we're ready to play. It'll take a shift for the guys to get back into it.

"From what we've seen from Chilliwack, they stuck with what they used in the regular season through that Langley series and they've stuck to their style of play and haven't changed much. They have some good offensive players up front, as did Coquitlam. Chilliwack's younger and maybe has more pace as a forward group and overall with maybe a little more skill. We just have to make sure we don't fall asleep for the first (period) and we're ready to play. It'll take a shift for the guys to get back into it."

Both teams leaned on the top line for the bulk of their scoring during the season. For Chilliwack, those go-to guys were Matt Holmes (28-40-68), Kevin Wall (31-33-64) and Blaisdell (33-25-58). Wall and Blaisdell each have a goal and two assists in seven postseason games but Holmes is still looking for his first point.

"One hundred per cent they've got to be better and they know that," Chiefs head coach and general manager Brian Maloney told the Chilliwack Progress. "They're young kids, and nobody is going to put more pressure on themselves than them, but they are hockey players and if they want to move forward in hockey they have to learn how to play all the time and be consistent."

The Kings' top trio - Ben Brar, Dustin Manz and Patrick Cozzi - has struggled to replicate its torrid regular-season pace. Manz led the team in scoring (33-37-70) and finished fourth in the BCHL scoring race, while Brar (35-26-61) and Cozzi (14-44-58) were consistent regular-season point producers. Through five playoff games, Brar has two goals and an assist, Manz has one goal and Cozzi is still seeking his first point. Being so closely-watched by the Rivermen was a learning experience for that forward unit.

"Our line has kind of struggled a bit and we haven't got the chances we wanted and haven't scored but I think we ended the series on a good note and I think we'll start scoring again," said Manz, whose parents from Michigan will be in Chilliwack for the first two games of the series tonight and Saturday. "I have to pick it up and start scoring a little more to help the team out."

Kings captain Ben Poisson, who centres a line with his brother Nick and Chong Min Lee, has been a man possessed in the playoffs with three goals and seven points in five games, while maintaining an intimidating physical presence. Lee has also shown his offensive touch (2-3-5), as has former Cowichan Valley Capital centre Lucas Vanroboys (1-4-5) and defenceman Layton Ahac (2-2-4). The Kings have three scoring lines which makes it difficult to key on them.

Cole Donhauser, who had two goals in Game 7, and Brind'Amour each have five points in the playoffs for the Chiefs. Jacques Bouquot, who scored all three Chiliwack goals in their Game 6 win, and Brett Willits, with two goals and an assist, have picked up the slack.

Over the course of the 58-game season the Chiefs got in the habit of quick transitions and scored more goals (209) than the Spruce Kings (181). But Prince George had the best goal differential in the league (+60) largely because defence has been their strength. They were the stingiest team in the BCHL, allowing 120 goals, as compared with the Chiefs, who gave up 169.

Kings defenceman Jay Keranen remembers how tough it was dispatching the Chiefs last year in a seven-game opening-round series and he knows his team will have to be at its best to repeat as Mainland Division champions. He and the rest of the Kings are looking forward to feeding off the big crowds in Prospera Centre expected the next two games.

"They're a bit less physical this year and a little more skilled, at least that's what we saw in the regular season so I can expect something like that, but it's going to be a fun series," said Kings defenceman Jay Keranen.

"Obviously we wanted home ice for the playoffs but we play well in their rink so it's exciting. In playoffs last year, you start to build a hatred for the team and it's going to carry on here. It's going to be a battle. I think we're playing a really good team game and we just need to bring intensity and we should be fine. Coquitlam played well against our top line, matching D and forwards, too, and that caused us some stress, but we got middle-pack scoring and that's always good having depth."

Maglio and his assistant Alex Evin have preached a defence-first strategy. That commitment to protecting their own net, from the forwards on down, combined with their consistent work habits, bodes well for the Spruce Kings.

"I think we're going to be fine, we've had a lot of rest and all the guys are fired up to play and we always play good in their rink too," said Manz. "They've got a lot of high-power offence but defensively they're not the best and we know that. They have a pretty good goaltender but we know what to do. We're playing pretty hard and really good in the d-zone with good goaltending (from Logan Neaton) and we ended on a good note last weekend. It's huge being rested up especially against a team that's played seven."

The series switches to Prince George for Games 3 and 4 at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena on Monday and Tuesday. If additional games are needed they would be played Thursday in Chilliwack, Saturday in Prince George and the following Monday in Chilliwack.

Defence and experience wins championships and it tough to argue those two factors give Prince George the edge in this one. They have to win at least one game in Chilliwack but the pressure is on the Chiefs to keep that from happening early in the series. Victims of their own geography, far from any of their league opponents, five of the Spruce Kings' 19 losses in the regular season came on the third day of a three-game roadtrip. They won't have to play more than two straight on the road in the playoffs and they're better accustomed than any other BCHL team to those long bustrips. If it does go the distance, that road-warrior mentality gives the Kings a psychological advantage.

Prediction: Spruce Kings in six.

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