Forward Tipper Higgins (left) and his Chilliwack Chiefs are in Prince George this weekend for two games with the Spruce Kings.

Forward Tipper Higgins (left) and his Chilliwack Chiefs are in Prince George this weekend for two games with the Spruce Kings.

Stingy D leads to fast start

The Chilliwack Chiefs can put the puck in the net, but defensive play is what's got them unbeaten in early season play.

The Chilliwack Chiefs are off to a 4-0 start this year, not because they’re scoring bushels of goals. It’s because they’re keeping pucks out of their net.

The Chiefs have surrendered a league low seven goals in wins over the Powell River Kings  (6-3), Merritt  Centennials (2-1) and Surrey Eagles (2-1 and 6-2).

A refreshing change from last year when Prospera Centre goal lights burned out from over-use.

Eric Roberts is the lone holdover from last year’s D corps, one that coughed up a league-high 285 goals in 58 games (4.91 per game).

The Abbotsford native wasn’t a big part of the problem last year, but he is a huge part of the solution this year.

He’s returned bigger and far more physical, leading a resurgent blueline crew.

“I think maybe everyone wasn’t on the same page last year,” Roberts said when asked what went wrong in 2013-14. “Not everyone bought in and there were breakdowns. It didn’t feel good, but that’s beyond us now. It’s a new year and the guys we have are able to ensure a successful year.”

They do look good.

Big Vinnie Desharnais has already been identified as a National Hockey League prospect.

Collectively, guys like Roberts, Evan McEachern, Brandon Tkachuk, Mark Esposito, Olivier Arseneau and Dennis Choloski are making life easy for goalies Mitchell Datz and Aidan Pelino.

Very few point-blank shots and no uncovered opponents cruising through the slot. Most of what Pelino and Datz have faced has come from the outside, and the netminders have shown a refreshing ability to make the first save.

“The most important thing is everyone is on the same page,” Roberts said. “Jason (head coach Tatarnic) preaches buying in and doing what it takes to get the win, and everyone is doing that.”

Roberts is wearing the captain’s C for the Chiefs, which tells you how highly Tatarnic thinks of the 19 year old.

“It’s exciting, an honour and a privilege,” Robert said after a recent practice. “This is my third full year here and I played four games as a 16 year old too. I definitely dreamed about being the captain and the dream has come true.”

Roberts has seen three captains (Ty Miller, David Thompson and Austin Plevy) do their thing.

“I’m a lead-by-example guy where I’m always trying to work my hardest, do all the right things and make sure I’m not slacking at all,” he said, describing his personal style. “I want to be a guy anyone feels comfortable coming to talk to, but being captain also means being the guy who sometimes has to deliver a kick in the butt if someone’s not pulling their weight.”

Most of that he learned from Thompson.

“Work ethic was the big thing with him, how hard he worked on and off the ice,” Roberts said. “I was a rookie looking to him in practice, and seeing him giving it his all rubbed off on me.”

Thompson’s off-ice demeanor also stuck with Roberts.

“Just being a nice guy, and Thompson was a super nice guy to all of us,” Roberts noted. “He never put anyone down. He took guys under his wing. You have to be the mediator of problems sometimes and not pick sides.”

It’s easier to handle locker room issues on a winner, and far more difficult when the season’s going south.

Roberts feels this year’s Chiefs will be able to handle the valleys of a long season better than some teams would.

“Everyone in our locker room is always excited and happy to play,” he said. “There will be slumps, but as long as everyone’s committed and working hard, teams can beat slumps.”

Roberts comes into the season with two career goals, but he says he doesn’t care one bit about numbers so long as the team wins.

“I’ve worked on the shot a bit so we’ll see what happens,” he smiled. “ut all I want is for the team to do well. If the team does well, I will get my opportunities.”

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