It was another do or die playoff game for the North Island Bantam Eagles this past Saturday, as they travelled south to take on the first seeded Sooke Thunderbirds at the Seaparc arena in the Tier 3 semi-final.
“Right from the start there was something about this game,” said coach Ryan Handley. “BC premier John Horgan was even on hand to drop the puck at a ceremonial face off before the game, and he wished both teams good luck.”
The game turned out to be a hardhitting barnburner filled with highlight reel goals, and it was the Thunderbirds who set the tone early by striking first at 18:32 on a shot from the corner that seemed to catch Eagles’ goaltender Griffin Handley off guard.
“They came out hard and we didn’t react well,” said Handley. “We wanted to start physical and it kind of took us a bit by surprise because we really hadn’t seen it from them before.”
The Eagles regrouped and tied the game up 1-1 off a huge slapshot from Cole Klughart, which was assisted by Joey Grant, and then kept coming on strong after that, taking the lead at 12:37 thanks to an Ethan Bono shot that the Thunderbirds’ goaltender kicked out into the slot, only to have Tyler Roper pick it up and score on the rebound.
The Thunderbirds would fire back and tie it up at 12:10, then jumped out to a 3-2 lead off a screen shot from the point at 8:33.
After that, it was the Eagles turn to find the back of the net.
David Klatt scored unassisted to tie it up at 6:55, and then just 30 seconds later, Bono banged in a Roper feed at 6:25 to give the Eagles a big 4-3 lead.
However, Sooke dug down deep and again answered back. With just 38 seconds left, a poor clearing attempt found the net to tie it up 4-4, and the period ended with a combined eight goals scored.
“Between periods we told them don’t look at the score, just know it’s tied through one period,” Handley said. “If you knew ahead of time that we would come down here on the road and be tied after one, you’d take it.”
The second period ended up being more of the same.
The Thunderbirds changed goaltenders and attacked first, scoring on the power play at 18:36 off a hard shot from the circle that caught the under side of the bar and went in, giving them the lead back.
The Thunderbirds kept pouring on the offence from there, and at 15:17 they scored again to make it 6-4.
The Eagles all of a sudden looked flat.
“We held back, we looked tired and needed to wake up,” said Handley, who pointed out the team did catch a break on a tip shot from Grant that squeaked through the Thunderbirds’ goaltenders pads and just trickled across the goal line at 10:14, which was assisted by Kai Verbrugge.
“Kai’s a second year peewee whose playoff season had come to an unfortunate end, so we brought him onboard to help out,” noted Handley. “We decided on Kai as he brings good speed and hockey sense to our team — we knew he would be nervous but he wanted to help the team out, and we didn’t want him to think too much so we decided to get him out right away and start the game.”
Before the Eagles could look to press for the equalizer, a seemingly harmless flip shot found its way through Griffin Handley’s pads and slid across the line, putting Sooke up 7-5 with 5:15 to go in the second.
Griffin Handley was visibly upset at the mistake and needed a minute to re-focus.
“I knew he needed a mental break, he usually doesn’t get too rattled, so I called our timeout — in a game like that you don’t want to burn your timeout in the second, but I felt this could very well be our season,” stated Handley. “I went right to him and said ‘hey, you can’t stop the ones that have already gone in, all you can do is regroup, get back in it mentally and know your team has your back.’”
It seemed to work, as the Eagles suddenly came alive after the break.
Connor Van Will converted on the power play in front of the net off a Tynan Klein Beekman pass, which was also assisted by Chelsea Noel, cutting the Thunderbirds’ lead to one.
With only 13 seconds left in the period, Griffin Handley was tested again. Sooke picked up a big turnover right in front of him and wired a shot for the top corner, but this time he was ready for it and turned the shot aside with his blocker.
“That was a huge stop for him and our team,” said Handley, adding that between the second and period, “the team started to really focus — they knew they had maybe only 20 minutes left in their season and vowed to have a big period.”
The coaches stressed commitment and energy, and to play like they wanted another game, “because if they didn’t, that six hour ride home was gonna sting,” Handley added. “And that was when our leaders really stepped up in the dressing room and banded together.”
As the third period got under way it looked like the Thunderbirds still wanted it more, and they scored early on at 18:01 to make it 8-6.
Once again the Eagles found themselves down by two. However, they didn’t panic and quickly answered back thanks to a goal from Klein-Beekman at 16:59, which was set up by Bono, and then Bono scored on the power play off a beautiful zone entry passing play.
“Ethan spun off the half wall and wristed a hard shot top corner to tie it up,” said Handley, adding, “You could see the momentum shift and Sooke really fell apart.”
The Thunderbirds would get into penalty trouble after that, and it was Bono who was there again to convert on a quick set up from Joey Grant down low to make it 9-8 for the Eagles.
“Ethan and I talked before the third,” noted Handley. “I told him to get off the perimeter and start using his speed and strength and make things happen — he is very talented, but it’s always the emotional side of the game he struggles with at times and he just needed to focus and do what he knows how to do.”
The Eagles kept up the intensity and quickly made it 10-8 off a Grant rebound goal from Roper, and then Bono gave the Eagles an important two-goal lead with 2:44 left.
Grant would then ice the Thunderbirds chances of a comeback by firing the puck into the empty net with 56 seconds left, sealing the deal and sending the Eagles on to the best of three finals and a shot at going to provincials.
“It was just one of those games where you just shake your head, it seemed like a last shot wins kind of thing — I know the goalies don’t enjoy those but they sure are entertaining,” Handley said, adding, “Griffin struggled early, but I thought he really battled after that, and he was thankful his teammates went to war for him and found a way to keep our season alive.”
Handley pointed out there were numerous players who had big games. “Tyler Roper, Koen Harwood, Cole Klughart, David Klatt, Tynan, and I can’t say enough about Kai — he played some important minutes for us, the team really accepted him with open arms and he didn’t disappoint. I’m really proud of what he was able to accomplish in such a big game.”
Handley felt the Eagles should be proud of what they’ve been able to overcome this season, “and it really is a pleasure to watch them all mature and grow as a group, I could not be more proud.”
Next up is a best of three finals against the Tier 2 league champs, the Powell River Kings.
“They are a big and fast puck moving team, but if we take away their transition game and limit our mistakes, I know we can beat them,” added Handley.