The Surrey Eagles clawed back atop the B.C. Hockey League’s Coastal Conference on the weekend, after winning both games of a two-game homestand.
On Friday, Surrey edged last year’s Royal Bank Cup finalist Vernon Vipers – national champions in 2009 and ‘10 – 3-2, and followed that with another low-scoring, one-goal victory, beating the Alberni Valley Bulldogs 2-1.
One third of the way through the 60-game regular season, the Eagles now sit one point up on the Cowichan Valley Capitals for first place in the conference, with 29 points and a record of 13-5-0-3.
“This year, more than any other it seems, the standings are so tight. After every weekend, you look at the standings and you could be first, could be third, or fifth – it’s pretty crazy, how close it is,” said Eagles coach Matt Erhart.
“But that said, we’re in first place right now, and got a couple wins at home, so there’s not much to complain about.”
Surrey goaltender Andrew Hunt was the star Friday, backstopping the Eagles to victory despite the fact the home team was outshot 35-22 by the visiting Vipers. Hunt’s 34-save performance earned him first-star honours.
“(Vernon) had a huge push at the end of the game and threw a lot at the net and Andrew was able to stop them,” Erhart said.
“He was big when we needed him to be.”
Hunt also benefited from the team’s tighter defensive approach – allowing just three goals in two games – which Erhart said has been the team’s game plan all season.
“We got away from it there a little bit the last few weeks, but this weekend, that’s more of the style we want to play,” he said.
The lone goal Hunt did let slip past him came on the power-play 8:55 into the second period – off the stick of Marcus Basara to briefly give Vernon a 1-0 lead.
Less than five minutes later, however, Colton Mackie tied the contest with a power-play goal of his own.
“Colton’s been playing really well lately, both he and Brett Mulcahy have really stepped up their games and taken advantage of some bigger opportunities,” Erhart said.
Tied heading into the third period, Surrey captain Tyler Morley scored a shorthanded goal – his 14th of the year, and his second shorthanded – just 18 seconds into the final frame, and Robert Lindores made it 3-1 two-and-half minutes later.
Vernon made it close as the clock ticked down – Darren Nowick made it 3-2 with 1:09 left in the game – but the Eagles managed to escape with the win.
On Saturday, Hunt again earned first-star honours after stopping 38 of 39 shots on net.
Mulcahy gave the Eagles a 1-0 lead near the end of the second period, with assists going to Charles Orzetti and Brandon Morley, and the lead was extended to 2-0 early in the third, when Orzetti scored his seventh of the season, with Brandon Morley again picking up an assist.
Bulldogs’ Brandon Halls scored the lone goal for the visitors midway through the third period, on the power play.
The power-play marker was a rare one against the Birds, who own the BCHL’s best penalty-killing percentage at 86.4 per cent. They’re also second in the league with eight shorthanded goals.
One-third of the way through the season, Erhart said that has been among his team’s best qualities.
“It’s definitely been a major strength of our team so far,” he said. “It’s never our game plan to take that many (offensive) chances when we’re killing penalties, but sometimes you get the opportunity, and we’ve been taking advantage of them by scoring shorthanded.”
With two Eagles, Michael Stenerson and Brandon Morley, now returned from the World Junior ‘A’ Challenge, Erhart is looking forward to having a full lineup together for an extended period.
The last few weeks have been “a little bit of mix ‘n’ match” according to the coach.
“The biggest thing for us to get all the guys back, and get some lines combinations sorted out,” he said.
The Eagles also have one open roster spot, but Erhart said he would be patient with regard to bringing in a player to fill it.
“We’ll just try to get the best player available – could be a forward or a defenceman,” he said. “But that being said, defencemen are usually harder to come by later in the season.
“We won’t rush into anything though. We want to find the right type of player to fit into our group.”