Craig Puffer (middle) is congratulated by Chief teammates after scoring against the Surrey Eagles. Puffer had four goals

Chiefs rookie makes mark in early-season action

Craig Puffer's BCHL career is off to a stellar start, with five goals in his first four regular season games.

A pair of weekend wins over the Surrey Eagles have the Chilliwack Chiefs 4-0 to start the 2014-15 BCHL season.

And a rookie forward is showing himself to be an elite junior A player. Craig Puffer scored both goals in a 2-1 overtime win in Surrey Friday night.

He added two more in a 6-2 home-ice win Saturday.

Only Prince George sniper Justin Rai has more goals (seven) than Puffer, and he’s played one more game. The 19 year old couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Puffer is the latest Connecticut kid to make an impact for the Chiefs, a group that includes grads Ben Masella, Luke Esposito and Andrew Silard.

This year’s roster includes three of them, with Puffer joined by Mark Esposito (Luke’s little brother) and Liam Ferguson.

“I talked to Luke a lot before coming here and he had an unbelievable experience,” said Puffer, who hails from New Caanan. “All us Connecticut guys came out for spring camp and really enjoyed it. It seemed like the right place.”

Puffer had another familiar face on his journey to Chilliwack. Winger Tipper Higgins flanked him last year at Berkshire School in Sheffield, MA.

“We had two years together in our junior and senior years, and we built a lot of chemistry,” Puffer said. “We both have great vision. He knows my instincts and I know his. We hang out a lot off the ice too and we both lived in the same dorm at Berkshire.”

Through four games, Puffer has displayed the 200-foot game that coach Jason Tatarnic talked up in the offseason.

Higgins, a big-bodied forward from Vermont, hasn’t scored a goal yet, but has four assists.

“He’s a strong guy with good speed who works hard in the corners and along the boards,” Puffer said. “He knows where I am at all times and he usually finds me with the puck.”

Puffer and Higgins played with a variety of wingers through the preseason (Jake Hand, Mason Boh and Jordan Kawaguchi among them). In early regular season action, Tatarnic hasn’t always kept them together.

When they do skate on the same line, Puffer said they look for a linemate who hounds the puck and looks to be creative.

“I feel we can work with any guy on the team,” Puffer said. “A big part of us coming here was Jason’s plan to be structured in the D zone and let us be creative in the offensive zone. We’re able to do what we want offensively, which feels great. I like to be as creative as possible.”

Puffer isn’t the biggest guy in the world at five-foot-10 and 175 pounds.

He doesn’t have blinding speed, but he’s shifty and sneaky quick. He uses his wheels and vision at both ends of the ice and has shown himself to be a back-checking demon.

“D zone is huge for any team and Berkshire really taught me to be a two-way player,” he said. “I matured a lot and got better in all three zones.”

Puffer will almost certainly be a one-and-done player in Chilliwack, heading off to the NCAA ranks next year. He’s committed to the Vermont Catamounts, a team playing in the Hockey East Conference.

His individual goals this year are geared towards getting ready for the rigors of college hockey.

“Playing another year of junior will get me stronger, quicker, more mature and ready to handle that level,” he said. “Being at the gym every day will help me prepare to face older and bigger guys.”

Puffer and his Chiefs hit the road for a trip to Prince George this weekend, taking on the Spruce Kings on back-to-back nights (Friday and Saturday).

The Sprucies are 4-1 so far this year.

Prince George and the Langley Rivermen figure to be Chilliwack’s biggest rivals in the Mainland division.

As mentioned earlier, Justin Rai is on fire to start his third year of BCHL hockey. He is the cousin of former Western Hockey League standout and one-time Vancouver Canucks draft pick Prab Rai.

Get info at bchl.ca

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