Rivermen survive first-round playoff scare from Eagles

Balanced scoring, strong defence, and stellar goaltending catapulted the Langley Rivermen to the top of the B.C. Hockey League during the regular season.

All three were on display in the final two games of the Rivermen’s opening round playoff series against the upstart Surrey Eagles.

After a 3-0 win over Surrey Monday at the Langley Events Centre (LEC), the Rivermen downed the Eagles 6-1 Tuesday at South Surrey Arena to win the best-of-seven series in six games.

The series featured the first and fourth place teams in the BCHL’s Mainland Division.

The first-place Rivermen (37-13-3-5) were also the BCHL regular season champions.

The Eagles (25-30-1-2) took the final playoff spot in the Mainland. 

Regular season record aside, Surrey proved to be a tough opponent, beating the Rivermen 4-3 March 5 at the LEC and then 7-5 March 8 at South Surrey Arena to even the series at two games apiece.

Rivermen head coach Bobby Henderson said the difference in the final two games of the series was his team’s mental approach. 

“I think in both losses we were over-prepared, perhaps,” Henderson said. “By this I mean guys were gripping their sticks a little hard.”

Henderson said he was “not at all surprised” by the play of an Eagles team that was led by their head coach, former NHLer Peter Schaefer.

“Playoffs means a clean slate,” Henderson added. “They [the Eagles] steadily improved all season, especially after the trade deadline. Their coach played almost 600 games in the NHL, so we knew they would be well prepared. He’s a guy who has seen it all.”

Rivermen 6, Eagles 1

Tyson Witala scored twice and added a pair of assists to pace the Rivermen’s offence in the series clincher.

The 20-year-old forward gave the visitors a 3-0 lead with 1:59 to play in the second period and tallied his second of the night on a Langley power play 38 seconds into the third frame to make it 4-0.

The Rivermen led 1-0 after the first period on a goal from Evan Anderson, and added two more markers in the middle frame courtesy of defencemen Viktor Dombrovskiy and Witala.

The Eagles spoiled Rivermen goaltender Brock Crossthwaite’s bid for a second shutout in as many nights, when Danton Heinen scored four minutes into the third period.

The Rivermen ran away with the game after Langley forwards Austin Azurdia and Darien Craighead (on another Rivermen man advantage) scored to make it 6-1.

Rivermen 3, Eagles 0

Monday at the LEC, Azurdia scored even strength goals 1:39 apart near the midway mark of the second period, while Crossthwaite stopped all 36 shots he faced as the Rivermen took a three-games-to-two series lead.

After a scoreless opening period, Azurdia scored his first two goals of the post-season at the 8:09 and 9:46 marks, respectively, of the middle frame to stake the Rivermen to a 2-0 lead.

The third period was scoreless until Langley defenceman Tanner Johnson put the puck into an empty Eagles net to make it 3-0 with 2:12 remaining in regulation, after Surrey pulled goaltender Bo Didur out of the net for an extra attacker.

The Rivermen successfully killed a five-minute Eagles powerplay after Langley captain Mitch McLain was slapped with a major and game misconduct for goaltender interference after running into Didur at the 16:06 mark of the second period.

ICE CHIPS: Next up for the Rivermen is another upset-minded Lower Mainland rival, the Coquitlam Express.

The Express, who finished third in the Lower Mainland with a 27-26-2-3 regular season record, scored a mild upset by upending the second-place Prince George Spruce Kings (32-20-4-2 during the regular campaign) in six games.

Game one is Friday (March 14) at the George Preston Recreation Centre.

The second game of the series is Saturday (March 15) also at the GPRC.

Junior A hockey returns to the GPRC for the first time in five years because the LEC’s arena bowl is being used for the B.C. senior boys Quad A basketball championships, which wrap up late Saturday.

If the series goes to a fifth game, it will be played this coming Thursday (March 20) at the LEC with a 7:15 p.m. start time.

Asked about players who elevated their play during the series, Henderson mentioned two players specifically: Matt Ustaski – who leads the team in playoff goals (six) and points (nine) – and Austin Azurdia.

“Matt Ustaski has taken his game to the next level – he put up six goals in the series. More impressive was his defensive play. He was strong on faceoffs and hard on the body every game,” Henderson said. “Austin [Azurdia] had an up-and-down season and has really got it together down the stretch and through the first round. He has done a great job killing penalties and is finding the back of the net.”

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