Could the Langley Rivermen be turning the corner?
Possibly, if this past weekend was any indication.
The ’Men hosted three home games at the Langley Events Centre and came away with a 1-1-1 mark. They skated to an 8-3 win over the Coquitlam Express Friday, lost 6-3 to the Chilliwack Chiefs Saturday, and battled the Powell River Kings to a 2-2 tie Sunday afternoon.
The weekend results gives Langley’s junior A squad an 11-14-1-5 record. The Rivermen remain in fifth-place in the five team, B.C. Hockey League Mainland Division.
The ’Men are 2-3-1-1 in December, heading into their 12-day Christmas Break.
“I was pretty happy with the weekend, overall,” Rivermen head coach Bobby Henderson said. “Obviously, we didn’t get the result we wanted on Saturday but the guys played hard all the way through it. They were pretty good, technically speaking, from a structure standpoint.”
With 12 rookies in his lineup, Henderson, who doubles as the Rivermen’s general manager, expected the ’Men to experience some growing pains during the first half of the season.
The top four teams make the playoffs in each of the BCHL’s three divisions, and the Rivermen are aiming at overtaking fourth-place Coquitlam to earn a spot in the post-season.
“[We’re near] the .500 mark, which was our goal going into Christmas,” Henderson said. “Having said that, we’re going to have to push harder in the second half get in [to the playoffs].”
The Rivermen possess arguably the most lethal line in the BCHL, led by the league’s leading scorer, 20-year-old winger Mario Puskarich, who leads all players in goals (22) and points (44), while averaging 1.4 points-per game.
He’s joined by linemates Evan Campbell (with a team leading 27 helpers) and James Robinson.
“Our team is playing better as a whole and it has a lot to do with those guys and the way they are producing,” Henderson said.
The unsung hero on the line, in Henderson’s opinion, is 18-year-old Robinson.
“He has stepped up his game and is really making that line click,” Henderson said. “Robbie brings speed, and combine that with his compete level, he gets in on the forecheck and creates turnovers for the other two guys.”
As for Puskarich, he has an elite skill set and is working hard on ramping up his skating speed.
“Mario just has that touch [around the net],” Henderson said. “He continues to get faster.”
The Rivermen return to action Dec. 28-29 with a home-and-home set with the Coquitlam Express.
The teams meet Friday, Dec. 28 at the Poirier Sport and Leisure Centre starting at 7 p.m., then rematch Saturday, Dec. 29 at the LEC with a 7:15 p.m. opening faceoff.
Henderson expects his players to be ready to compete after enjoying their Christmas break.
“The guys will be working out,” the bench boss said. “We have two games against Coquitlam right when we get back. These are huge. We’ve got to be ready to hit the ground running.”
Powell River Kings 2
Playing their third game in two-and-a-half days, the Rivermen battled to a low-scoring tie with the Kings.
Rivermen goaltender James Barr was tapped for his third straight start of the weekend, while Jonah Imoo got the call for the Kings
“We had a couple of opportunities to score,” Henderson said. “Barrsy played pretty good. It was his ninth straight game [as a starter], so we’re pretty proud of him.”
The first 15 minutes was a feeling out process as both teams were very stout defensively and not a lot of shots were fired on either goal.
With fewer than three minutes to go in the opening frame, Rivermen forward Mitch McLain got the scoring started.
The Minnesota native drove hard to the net and took a pass from Evan Anderson before firing a shot along the ice that beat Imoo between the legs.
Powell River answered back in the waning moments. With three seconds to go and a faceoff in the Langley zone, the Kings’ Evan Richardson won the draw back to Luke Ripley at the point, who then fired a last-second shot towards the net that beat Barr up high with one second remaining.
The third period was almost a carbon copy of the second – that is, until the 16 minute mark.
Just when it looked like overtime was going to be needed, Anderson ripped home a deadly backhand shot top corner over the left shoulder of Imoo. The play happened due to good hustle from Derek Sutliffe, who chased down a loose puck in the attacking zone and then found Anderson down low near the goal.
However, Sutliffe took a penalty 28 seconds later and the Kings cashed in on their man advantage opportunity.
With 1:38 to go the Kings capitalized as Luke Nogard squeaked a shot past Barr along the glove side to send the game to overtime.
During that shift, the Rivermen had a chance to clear the puck down the ice, but could not get it past a Kings’ defenceman, which proved to be costly.
The two teams traded opportunites through during both overtime sessions to come away with the win, but nothing was solved.
Barr was named the game’s first star, facing 43 shots.
Imoo earned second star honours, while Anderson rounded out the three-star selection on the strength of his goal and assist.
Chilliwack Chiefs 6, Rivermen 3
The Chiefs have the Rivermen’s number this year.
Head coach Harvey Smyl’s Chiefs squad is still perfect against the Rivermen this year, following Saturday’s victory at the LEC. With the win the Chiefs, who improved to 21-8-1-1, padded their lead in the Mainland Division standings.
Barr received his eighth straight start and went up against one of the league’s best in Mitch Gillam.
The game started out the way the Rivermen hoped as Nathan Craft opened the scoring.
Craft spotted a loose puck off a point shot and stuffed home his seventh of the year past Gillam.
The Chiefs answered back just before the 10-minute mark on a goal from Shay Laurent.
The Chiefs’ defenceman fired a shot towards the goal that bounced off a leg in front of Barr and beat him five hole.
A few minutes later Chilliwack’s Ben Masella notched the go-ahead goal off a pinpoint wrist shot from the slot.
The Rivermen evened the score in the second period on a powerplay goal from Anderson.
Matt Ustaski centered a pass in front of the goal and the puck ended up on the stick of Anderson, who made no mistake for his eighth goal of the campaign.
At the 13-minute mark, the Chiefs’ Trevor Hills scored his first of the game on a play set up beautifully by Luke Esposito.
Twenty-five seconds later, Jaret Babych tallied the Chiefs’ fourth goal on a quick snap shot in the slot that beat Barr just beneath the blocker.
Soon after, Chilli-wack had a golden opportunity on a five-on-three power play, but could not capitalize.
The Rivermen would build off a great penalty kill, and Puskarich cut the Chiefs’ lead to one goal on the powerplay before the period was finished.
Unfortunately for the Rivermen, that would be all they would get and the Chiefs put them away with back-to-back goals from Alexander Perron-Fontaine and Trevor Hills.
The Chiefs top line of Esposito, Austin Plevy, and Hills was a handful all night and combined for eight points in the contest.
Coquitlam Express 3
Home cooking was exactly what the Rivermen needed to get back into the win column.
The ’Men thumped the visiting Express at the Langley Events Centre Friday, which was teddy bear toss night.
The top line of Puskarich, Campbell, and Robinson had a game for the ages, combining for a mind-boggling 17 points.
Barr went up against Cole Huggins in between the pipes and it was home team’s goaltender getting the better of his counterpart by the end of the night.
Coquitlam opened the scoring on a goal from John Siemer at the 8:30 mark. Siemer found a loose puck at the side of the net and smacked home the first goal of the game.
Just before the 11-minute mark, Puskarich got the teddy bears flying onto the ice as he put away his 19th of the year on a nice set up from Campbell and Robinson.
The Rivermen continued to pour it on and ended up with their first lead of the game just before the 19 minute mark on a powerplay goal from Robinson. The Alberta native redirected a Campbell shot from the right wing for his second of the year.
In the second period, Robinson scored another goal off a rush down the right wing. His wrist shot hit a stick and bounced past Huggins, who was pulled from the game.
With backup Daniel Urbani in the net, Ustaski got in on the scoring with his family in town from Illinois. Sutliffe drove hard to the net and was taken down from behind and went sliding into the goaltender, knocking him down, out of position. Ustaski was on the doorstep and slipped home his seventh of the season.
The Express would not quit and scored a shift later from Philip Zielonka on a hard-working play down low.
Zielonka continued his great play of late, scoring in his 10th straight game and taking his overall point streak to 17 games.
The third period is when the fun started. With his team leading 4-2 lead, Robinson wanted to make sure, and scored his first career hat trick just 32 seconds into the final frame.
The three-goal lead would not last long as Mitch Fyffe stuffed home a loose rebound to cut the lead back to two.
Puskarich restored the Rivermen’s three-goal advantage by scoring his second of the night on a picture perfect snapshot top corner.
The Florida native bagged his hat trick goal on an effort that personified hard work. Puskarich chased down a bouncing puck and then stripped a Coquitlam defender of it. With the puck on his stick, Puskarich skated in and put a shot stick side past Urbani.
Trevor Cope capped off the scoring with a powerplay goal shortly after.
By the time it was all said and done, Puskarich recorded six points with three goals and three assists, and he took over the league lead in scoring.
Three goals and two assists went to Robinson and Campbell chipped in with a whopping six assists.