The Surrey Eagles have soared back into the BC Hockey League playoffs after four seasons spent on the outside looking in.
The first-place Birds – who sit tied with the Prince George Spruce Kings atop the league’s Mainland Division – officially clinched a berth in the post-season after two wins on the weekend: a 4-1 win over the Coquitlam Express Saturday at South Surrey Arena, and a 1-0 victory Sunday afternoon over the visiting Nanaimo Clippers.
The team has now won seven straight games at home.
And though this year’s BCHL playoff format sees all but one team in the five-team division qualify for the post-season, it’s no less of an accomplishment for the Eagles, whose struggles in recent years have been well-documented. Since a first-round, six-game playoff exit in 2013/14, the team has three last-place finishes, and two of those seasons finished with win totals in single digits.
This season, however, the team sits with a record of 24-16-4-2 (win-loss-overtime loss-tie).
“It’s nice to clinch…The players are excited, the organization is excited, the fans are excited,” said Eagles head coach Brandon West.
“We set a goal at the beginning of the season to make the playoffs, and once you make them, you reset your goals. Our focus right now though isn’t on the playoffs – it’s about going down this stretch (of the regular season) and continuing to build on good habits and fine-tune our game, and definitely get healthy as well.
“We want to make sure we’re doing most of the heavy lifting here now, before (playoffs) start.”
On the health front, the Birds are struggling, with a handful of players out of the lineup with a variety of injuries and illnesses.
Newcomer Dryden Michaud – acquired at the trade deadline after being cut from the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades – has been battling the flu ever since arriving on the Peninsula.
Another deadline acquisition, WHL defenceman Ty Schultz, is still rehabbing from a serious leg injury suffered a year ago, though West said his return is “getting closer by the day.”
Sunday against the Clippers, the Eagles – who were unable to round up enough affiliate players to fill-in for the injured regulars – played with just 10 forwards instead of the usual 12.
And though the undermanned offence managed just a single goal – a second-period tally from Ryan Brushett – the team still managed to secure the win, and two points, thanks to the play of new netminder Mario Cavaliere, who stopped 48 Nanaimo shots to claim his third shutout in four games since joining the Eagles from Ontario earlier this month.
“It’s still early – he’s only been here about 12 days or so – but he’s been a big part of our team these last couple weeks,” West said of his new goalie.
“He just brings a real good energy to our team. He’s always smiling, and excited to be here. Him and Danny (Davidson) are always competing in practice, and it’s been good, and the team is only going to grow from that.
“We want all 20 guys contributing in some way, but when you have good goaltending, you breathe a little easier.”
Though Cavaliere earned the shutout Sunday, Davidson was nearly equal to the task a day earlier, stopping 31 shots in the team’s 4-1 win over the Express, who sit fifth in the Mainland Division, 24 points back of Surrey.
Surrey jumped out to an early lead in the game, with Jackson Ross scoring just 32 seconds into the first period, and Ty Westgard, with his 11th of the year, scored just a minute-and-a-half later to double the lead. Westgard’s linemate, John Wesley, scored his league-best 32nd goal of the year before the first intermission.
Westgard scored again in the second frame – the lone goal of the period – and the game remained 4-0 in the home team’s favour until Coquitlam’s Eric Linell scored midway through the third.
The Eagles hit the road this weekend for a quick two-game trip through the league’s Interior Division.
On Friday, they’ll be in Trail to battle the Smoke Eaters at Cominco Arena, and Saturday they head to Salmon Arm for a date with the Silverbacks – West’s old club.
The Eagles’ next home game is Feb. 1 against the Coquitlam Express.
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