It's been a long, winding road with plenty of twists and turns and peaks and valleys, but the Langley Rivermen made it to the Promised Land.
For the 'Men, their divine destination is the B.C. Hockey League playoffs.
It took until game 54 of the 56-contest campaign for the Rivermen to clinch the fourth and final playoff spot in the BCHL Mainland Divison.
An 8-4 win over the host Prince George Spruce Kings Sunday afternoon at the Prince George Coliseum made it official.
This marks the first time in the Rivermen's two-year history that they have made the playoffs.
The win improved the 'Men's record to 24-24-1-5.
There is now no way the fifth-place Coquitlam Express (2330-1-0) can catch Langley in the remaining two games of their respective seasons.
With 14 rookies without a trace of junior 'A' hockey experience in his team's lineup, Langley head coach/general manager Bobby Henderson knew the Rivermen would have their ups and downs over the course of a six-and-a-half month season.
"I think there was some expect-
ation out of our team because there are a lot of good pieces," Henderson said. "But all in all it was a pretty inexperienced group and it took these guys a little time to gel. We knew right away there was going to be a learning curve. Our gauge was, are we improving?"
That question was answered as the calendar flipped over to 2013. In the new year, Henderson saw noticeable strides in the Rivermen's overall play, and especially their cohesiveness.
"I think they [the players] are pretty damned close, to be honest with you," Henderson said. "You
throw away the games against Surrey, they've been unbelievable since Christmas."
Rivermen goaltender James Barr has been a workhorse, appearing in 46 games and winning 21 of them, with a 3.44 goals against average and .907 save percentage.
Barr said the Rivermen are happy to make the post-season. "The boys worked really hard
to be here; we've been working really hard all year," the 19-year-old puckstopper said. "To finally get rewarded for it and make the playoffs for
the first time in the franchise's history is definitely something special, and we'll be looking to make a little bit of a deep push, here."
In the opening round, the Rivermen will be facing the Mainland Division frontrunning Surrey Eagles, who have beaten the 'Men seven times in their eight meetings this season.
"We're kinda going in as underdogs, and no one really expects too much out of us, but that's what I love about it," Barr said. "The playoffs is a whole different beast. Once you're there, you're there. That's all you have to do, you've just got to get in."
A big reason why the Rivermen made the playoffs has been the play of sophomore forward Mario Puskarich, who leads the BCHL in goals (41) and points (87).
Puskarich's 87 points are 16 more than the league's second leading scorer, Chilliwack centre Luke Esposito.
"We're real excited to make the playoffs," Puskarich said.
"Last year [when the Rivermen missed the post-season] was a disappointment. We knew at the beginning of this year that our goal wasn't just to make the playoffs, it was to make a deep run, so once we clinched, everyone from top to bottom was pretty excited."
Puskarich, who scored 59 points as a BCHL rookie last season, said his eye-popping point totals wouldn't mean a thing if Langley didn't make the playoffs. "Being a 20-year-old you want to lead your team and definitely play in the playoffs in your last year of junior," he said.
Rivermen 8, Prince George Spruce Kings 4
Puskarich and his linemates James Robinson and Evan Campbell eviscerated the Spruce Kings, scoring two goals and six points each during a wild and high-scoring affair.
The win catapulted the Rivermen into the playoffs.
Henderson called his players "a prideful group."
"They didn't want to eke into the playoffs," he said. "They wanted to do it with an exclamation mark, and that was a pretty good exclamation bar, there."
The tide turned in the second period and the teams tied 3-3, as Robinson shoveled in a rebound off a Puskarich shot.
The Rivermen took their largest lead of the game shortly after on Robinson's second of the period.
This time Puskarich directed the puck near the net.
It tipped off Robinson's stick and then popped straight up in the air over the head of Prince George goaltender Liam McLeod and into the goal.
Thirty-four seconds into the final period, Matt Ustaski whipped a shot towards McLeod that hit a skate and bounced right to Trevor Cope, who had a wide open net and made no mistake for his 12th goal of the year.
The next shift, Puskarich notched his second of the game on a great cross ice pass from Robinson on an odd man rush to make it 7-3 for the visitors.
Langley's Derek Sutliffe and PG's Mitch Eden traded goals before the final buzzer sounded. Prince George Spruce Kings 4, Rivermen 1
The Rivermen arrived in Prince George the morning of game day after travelling on the bus all night after Friday night's home win over Chilliwack.
Before the puck dropped, you had to wonder what kind of start the Rivermen were going to have after a long night on the bus.
That question was answered right away as the Spruce Kings came out flying and the 'Men seemed to be stuck in quicksand.
Down 2-0, the Rivermen started the second period on the right foot.
Puskarich fired home a shot in the slot off a great pass from Campbell on the right wall.
The Rivermen started finding their stride after that goal and had plenty of opportunities to tie the game, but Spruce Kings goalie Kirk Thompson stopped every shot he faced.
The Kings built off their goaltender's strong play and got their two-goal lead back courtesy of Coltyn Hansen. With time winding down, Hansen went on a two on one in the Rivermen end and elected to shoot.
The decision paid off as he beat Barr top corner above the glove.
The Langley visitors ran out of gas in the third period, and Chad Staley put them away by scoring the Spruce Kings' fourth goal of the game.
Rivermen 4, Chilliwack Chiefs 3
Friday was a great night all around for the 'Men.
A large crowd of 2,013 showed up to the Langley Events Centre to watch The 'Men edge the visiting Chiefs 4-3.
Chilliwack goaltender Mitch Gillam was tested early and often, and made a few key saves in the opening 10 minutes of action.
The Rivermen eventually snuck one by him on a goal from Nathan Craft at the 10: 47 mark. The goal came courtesy of Ben Butcher, who took the puck into the Chiefs' zone with speed before spotting a streaking Craft going to the net. Butcher put it off Craft's stick and past Gil-lam.
Less than four minutes later, Azurdia put away his 18th goal of the year. Sutliffe took a pass in the slot and fired a shot that rebounded right to Azurdia, who put the puck into the empty goal.
In the late stages of the period, Langley found itself in penalty trouble and was down two men for close to two minutes.
Chilliwack's Trevor Hills put away the Chiefs' first of the game off an Austin Plevy rebound to cut the home team's lead to one.
In the second period, the Chiefs erased the two-goal deficit on a goal from Josh Hansen, who was able to jump on a rebound off a long point shot and bury his 21st of the year.
The Rivermen would continue to make their way to the penalty box as they were handed six straight penalties in the middle frame.
During his teammate Turner Popoff's four-minute penalty, Mitch McLain had two shorthanded breakaways on the same shift, but could not sneak one by Gillam.
On the next shift, Campbell received a breakaway pass from Puskarich and the Port Coquitlam native finished off a pretty move to put his team up 3-2.
The lead would be short-lived as Chilliwack's Spencer Graboski scored the equalizer on the next shift as he wired home a shot from the slot on a great feed from Phil Zielonka behind the goal.
In the third period, the Rivermen capitalized on their fifth chance on the power play. Mark Whiteley flicked a long shot from the point through a maze of bodies, and the puck drifted into the net.
The Chiefs were pretty much held at bay for the remainder of the third period and came up short as Barr turned away all nine shots he faced.
The Boatmen have two games left in their regular season, and both are against Chilliwack.
They host the Chiefs tonight (March 7) at the LEC, with a 7: 15 p.m. opening faceoff.
The teams rematch Saturday at Chilliwack's Prospera Centre.
The Rivermen open the BCHL playoffs next Friday, March 15, when they travel to South Surrey Arena to take on the Eagles in game one of their best-of-five