Three months from now, as the lot of us sit and dissect the Chilliwack Chiefs season that was, we may look to Jan. 13 as a very significant moment.
More specifically, we’ll look to a goal by David Bondra that might have saved the season for the Chiefs. Coming into that Friday night game, Chilliwack was mired in a five game losing skid, bleeding points in the tight Interior conference playoff race.
The visiting Spruce Kings held a 3-2 lead with three minutes to go.
Had they held on to that lead, they’d have pushed Chilliwack’s losing streak to six. A 5-1 road loss in Merritt Saturday night would have pushed it to seven and the reeling Chiefs might have found the accumulated adversity too much to overcome.
If Bondra’s goal saved the season, you can credit Prince George defenceman Ben Woodley with the assist.
The Spruce Kings blueliner put the Chiefs on the power play, tripping Garrett Forster behind the Prince George net.
Working on a must-score man advantage, Bondra scored in peculiar fashion, banking a sharp angle shot off Sprucies D-man Ben Matthews.
Twenty two seconds later, Chiefs forward Derek Huisman scored a much prettier one, camping in the slot to rifle a feed from Malcolm Gould and give Chilliwack the 4-3 win.
From teetering on the edge to celebrating the biggest two points of the year — enough to give Chiefs head coach Harvey Smyl heart palpitations.
“I thought it was a pretty big goal, though maybe not as big as you’re making it out to be,” the bench boss chuckled. “We are still in the middle of January, with lots and lots of hockey to be played. There will be lots more big goals like that.”
Up to that point the game had been sloppy, with blown coverages and turnovers aplenty at both ends of the ice.
After a scoreless first, David Thompson (Chilliwack) and Myles Fitzgerald (PG) traded second period strikes. Michael Spring gave the Chiefs the lead 2:23 into period three, but the Spruce Kings surged ahead on goals by Paul De Jersey and Fitzgerald.
If they were being honest, most of the 1,731 in attendance would have said Chilliwack’s goose was cooked. As the Chiefs went to that critical power play late in the third, you could feel the crowd holding its collective breath.
When Bondra’s bank job found its way past PG keeper Ty Swabb, they erupted, sounding more like a crowd of 5,000.
And when Huisman struck less than half a minute later… pandemonium.
“The thing is there was still lots of time to play and we had to make sure we were doing things right in the final two and a half minutes,” Smyl said of not getting caught up in the moment.
The Chiefs nursed the lead to the final whistle, did their center ice twirl at the end of the game, had a good night’s sleep and boarded a bus to Merritt.
The Centennials (24-10-2-5) dropped them 5-1, and it looks like Merritt can just about be locked into the second seed in the Interior conference.
Newcomer Kody Dhaliwal, from newcomer Anderson White, scored the lone goal for the Chiefs, who find themselves 11 points behind the Cents (albeit with three games in hand).
“I was really disappointed in our first period in general (Chilliwack trailed 3-0 through 20 minutes),” Smyl said. “After a win there’s emotion and you try to control it. But it didn’t register with us. You need to be ready for them from the start and you can’t get down on that team. They’re stingy and they choke you out.”
Smyl was happier with the second and third periods, and a Sunday night game in Trail provided the ideal way to end the weekend.
The sad-sack Smoke Eaters (6-21-1-4) put up a fight, helped by eight power play opportunities and two power play goals.
But a three-goal third period put it away for the Chiefs, who won 5-2 on goals by Mathieu Tibbett (two), Spencer Graboski, Trevor Hills and Garrett Forster.
“They compete extremely hard in their building and I thought that was one of the better games they’ve played against us this year,” Smyl said. “Their systems are better and they’re tighter defensively than they’ve been. When you’re in the kind of mode that they’re in, it can be difficult to play that way.”
A look at the standings Monday morning finds the Chiefs sitting fourth in the conference, two points back of PG with two games in hand.
The struggling Vernon Vipers 18-18-1-2) sit fifth and the possibility exists that they might miss the BCHL postseason for the first time since 2000-01.
Smyl now has three days to practice with his team before heading to Prince George for the next ‘biggest games of the season,’ playing back-to-back in PG Thursday and Friday night.
“They’re very important games, no question,” Smyl said. “We haven’t been to PG for a while and the fact we’re battling with them for a playoff spot makes these very important. We only see them one more time this season and we need to be at our best.”
l Two trade acquisitions made their Chiefs debuts on the weekend.
Anderson White wore No. 7 on defence, looking more like a Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker than a junior A hockey player.
Kody Dhaliwal wore No. 16 at forward.
“I thought Kody was pretty good for us defensively, won key draws, created some chances and competed hard,” Smyl assessed. “Anderson is a big kid who skates well and got better and better. Our second goal was a very good play by him to create a shooting late (Hills rebound goal). So they both contributed, as they should be expected to.”