The Chilliwack Chiefs had many reasons to celebrate in late 2014

Lots to like as Chiefs embark on post-Christmas run

By win percentage the Chilliwack Chiefs are the second best team in the BCHL as the calendar turns to 2015.

After a 13 day break, the Chilliwack Chiefs are back in action Sunday, hosting the lowly Surrey Eagles at Prospera Centre.

Puck drop is 5 p.m. as the Chiefs try to pick up where they left off in mid-December.

The Chiefs last played Dec. 14, battling the mighty Penticton Vees to a 1-1 draw at the South Okanagan Events Centre.

The Chiefs are 22-9-1-1, already eclipsing their win (14) and point (35) totals from last year, with 25 games yet to go.

Coaches are never completely happy, even at the best of times. But Chilliwack bench boss Jason Tatarnic hasn’t had many reasons to be glum.

“If you look at our team its pretty balanced, with is one of the reasons our five-on-five goal scoring is so high,” he said. “We can roll four solid forward lines every night and our defence core is balanced as well.”

True to his preseason word, Tatarnic has assembled a forward group that lacks a superstar but compensates in depth.

Craig Puffer leads the team in goals (20) and points (36) in 30 games.

Five of his teammates have already hit double-digits in goals. Jake Hand and Jordan Kawaguchi have 13 apiece.

Luke McColgan and Jake Larson have 12 apiece and Kurt Black has 11.

Brandon Potomak (eight), Tipper Higgins (seven), Rory Bell (six) and Ryan Bowen (six) are good bets to get there.

Potomak has been a revelation as an early season addition from the Western Hockey League.

The 19 year old Aldergrove native spent parts of five seasons (116 games) with the Moose Jaw Warriors before joining the Chiefs.

He went through early injury woes, but in 17 games he’s collected  21 points.

“He’s a guy who adds speed and grittiness and his compete level is high,” Tatarnic said. “He’s a kid who gets more of an opportunity here. The biggest thing is the opportunity to play and play in important situations.”

Mason Boh, written off by many after a devastating early-season shoulder injury, has proven to be another solid addition.

Returning 11 games ago, the Colorado native struggled to find his form.

But he’s making plays lately, and is up to three goals and six points in 13 outings.

“We don’t get too tied up with point production from players, and we always know he’s trying his best,” Tatarnic said. “He did miss such a significant amount of time, and you know you can practice for a long time but it’s never the same as playing a game.”

Injury issues have prevented Tatarnic from having a healthy defence for most of the year.

Captain Eric Roberts has been the only blueliner to appear in all 33 games.

Mark Esposito, little brother of former Chilliwack star Luke Esposito, has been limited to just five games. Olivier Arseneau has suited up for just 14. It’s amazing in a way that the Chiefs are where they are with so much blueline attrition.

“It goes to show our depth back there and I think we have one of the better D corps in the league,” Tatarnic said.

The coach was forced into a desperation deal in late November, sending future considerations to the Salmon Arm Silverbacks for 18 year old Bennett Morrison.

“To be honest, we needed a body and he was available, so we did some research, watched video and liked what we saw,” Tatarnic explained. “He’s a 96, so he’s got a few years left. He’s a big body, plays physical, makes good outlet passes and has good offensive instincts. He’s just going to get better.”

The other saving grace for the blueline crew has been the emergence of Dennis Cholowski.

The 16 year old Langley native went through some early struggles as he adapted to the size and speed in the BCHL.

But Cholowski has three goals and 16 points in 31 games and has settled down defensively.

He also secured a scholarship to St. Cloud State, a division one NCAA program.

“He’s a talented player who’s very intelligent and skilled,” Tatarnic said. “He’s picking things up and getting better and better. I think getting that scholarship early on gave him confidence.”

The Chiefs do have a couple things to nit-pick, but only if you’re looking real close.

Goaltender Aidan Pelino was outstanding in the Penticton tie, earning second star honours against one the top offences in hockey.

But overall, the Ontario native’s been uneven.

He currently sports a 2.85 goals-against average and .904 save percentage.

If he smooths out the bumps in the second half, Chilliwack could really be in business.

“We knew there would be an adjustment period, and I think he’s been very good for us,” Tatarnic said. “There are some goals and games he’d like back. But one thing I can say is the last game he played he really asserted himself and showed what he’s capable of.”

New backup David Poirier looks unorthodox at times, but he’s gotten results since replacing the departed Mitchell Datz.

Poirier is unbeaten in five starts.

The other concern is special teams.

Excellent at even strength, the Chiefs have scuffled on the power play, clicking at an 18.35 per cent success rate.

That’s 13th in the 16 team circuit.

Their penalty kill is only 11th best at 76.97 per cent, though Tatarnic believes both units are making progress.

“Our special teams have been good at times and not good at others,” the coach acknowledged. “At the same time, how you play in game one has no bearing on how you’re playing in game 30. Over the last little stretch going into last weekend, we’re over 25 per cent on the power play and over 90 penalty kill.”

Sunday’s game against the Eagles (5-25-0-3) is Fill the Rink for the Food Bank Night.

All tickets are just $6 with the donation of a non-perishable food item.

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