This is in the Prince George Citizen newspaper:
Spruce Kings look to slay the Vipers
Ted Clarke / Prince George Citizen
April 11, 2019
The B.C. Hockey League finish line is in sight.
Four more wins is all it will take. Either the Prince George Spruce Kings or the Vernon Vipers will wear the crown as Fred Page Cup champions.
Bill Baldridge figures it's the Spruce Kings' turn. Since joining the league in 1996 they've never won the BCHL championship. After coming close last year, losing in a five-game final to the Wenatchee Wild, the Spruce Kings' longtime equipment manager says he wants to see his name engraved on the same trophy as his son Kevin, a Fred Page Cup champion in 1989 when he was the backup goalie for the Vernon Lakers.
The Lakers became the Vipers in 2005 and that season they doused the Spruce Kings' title hopes in a five-game opening-round series, the last time the two teams met in the playoffs. Vernon is a perfect 4-0 against the Spruce Kings in BCHL playoff history and 7-0 if you count the three years the Kings, as Peace-Cariboo/Rocky Mountain Junior Hockey League champions, played Vernon in the Mowat Cup.
Vernon is 12-7 in BCHL championship series history, which dates back to 1970 when they were known as the Essos. The Vipers last won it in 2011 when they swept Powell River and they haven't been to the final since 2014, when they lost 4-0 to Coquitlam. The Vernon franchise has won six national junior A championships, more than any other team in Canada.
Both teams have had lengthy breaks to prepare for battle in the best-of-seven final, which starts tonight (7 p.m.) at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena.
The Spruce Kings are standing in the Vipers' way and seem to have everything going for them. They lost just 13 of their 58 games in the season in regulation time and finished just one point behind the Chiliwack Chiefs for first overall. In the playoffs, the Kings and their tenacious defence have been almost unbeatable, going 12-1 heading into the final. Dating back to late-January, they've won 20 of their last 22 games.
Last year at this time the Kings had already played 19 playoff games when they hit Wenatchee for the final and they knew right away they would be hard-pressed to keep the Wild from winning. The feeling is different now. This time they are the favourites, having swept Chilliwack and Victoria, the respective Mainland and Island Division regular season champions, after silencing Coquitlam in a five-game opening-round series.
"Obviously we've had an easier path this year and I think we're ready for the finals, we're well-rested and I think we're going to handle Vernon well and I think we'll win," said Kings centre Dustin Manz.
"They're pretty physical, they're kind of a dump-and-chase team, rather than the previous three teams we played who were kind of a little more skilled. They have good goaltending and they play the right way so we have to match them with our intensity and play fast and we'll be fine."
In their season the Vipers (26-21-8-3, fourth in Interior Division) suffered a few key injuries and last-minute recruiting woes and few observers expected them to get this far, but they got hot at the right time. Aside from their seven-gamer with the Trail Smoke Eaters, the Vipers haven't had much trouble advancing in the playoffs. They opened with a 4-1 series win over the Salmon Arm Silverbacks and wrapped the Interior Conference title last Friday in Wenatchee when they took out the defending champs in a five-game affair.
"Obviously we had a lot of adversity and went through a lot of players this year," said Mark Ferner, the Vipers head coach and director of hockey operations. "We lost five guys to the Western Hockey League and when that happens you don't get to recover those players, but it gave other guys opportunities. Injuries put other players in situations to play more but we were losing some of our veteran players for long periods of time. We finally got healthy and after the trade deadline stayed relatively healthy. I always knew it was a good group and they believe in each other and when things started to happen for us they started playing with more confidence."
The Vipers lack the firepower of the BCHL's elite teams but still found the net with enough frequency in the playoffs to get to the final. They're a bigger team that defends well and the Kings are expecting a physical series. The Kings won both games against the Vipers during the season, pulling out a 2-1 decision at home Dec. 5, then beat them 4-1 in Vernon on Jan. 19.
"In ways we're similar teams, but in ways we're not," said Kings head coach Adam Maglio. "We're going to try to get in on their D pretty hard here and be aggressive on them and use our footspeed to our advantage.
"We're a better team today through the playoffs, and they are too. We have a little more polish today than when we played them last. I hope we can push a little harder offensively this time. It's the league finals and every player is going to get up for this and it's going to be tighter for sure. We're preparing for a hard series and I'm sure they are too."
Here's how the teams stack up against each other:
As good as he was in 47 regular season games, Logan Neaton has been even better in the playoffs as a game-saver. He's dropped his league-leading goals-against average from 1.92 in the season to 1.47 in the playoffs.
The UMass-Lowell recruit has played every minute of every playoff game, has two shutouts and his .936 save percentage is only a couple thousandths of a percentage point behind the league's best. The Vipers have leaned almost exclusively on Aidan Porter and the Princeton University-bound Boston native was spectacular in the Wenatchee series, earning player-of-the-week status with three wins while stopping 61 of 65 shots in those three games. That brought his goals-against average down to 2.22 in the playoffs and he has a .910 save percentage.
The Vipers had the third-stingiest defence in the BCHL in 2018-19, allowing 160 goals, 40 more than the league-leading Spruce Kings. Former Spruce King goalie Bradley Cooper, traded to the Vipers in November, has played just 35 minutes in the playoffs, relieving Porter in their only loss to the Silverbacks.
Advantage: Spruce Kings
The blueline has been a pillar of strength for the Kings all season and there's no reason to doubt Layton Ahac, Dylan Anhorn, Max Coyle, Jay Keranen, Liam Watson-Brawn and Nick Bochen will falter in the final. Ahac tapped into his offensive abilities late in the season and cranked it up a notch for the playoffs.
He and Anhorn and Coyle are all in the top-10 in team scoring. They've been monsters all season standing up at their own blueline to prevent teams from launching attacks and that separates them from the rest of the league. The Vipers have been receiving offensive production from their pointmen, led by 20-year-olds Michael Young (6-7-13), Jack Judson (4-8-12) and Carver Watson (1-6-7). Landon Fuller of Williams Lake (six-foot-5.5, 225 pounds) had WHL seasoning with Tri-City and Vancouver and he can be a punisher on the back end. Ferner, who played 15 years of pro hockey as a defenceman, has helped turn rookies Trey Taylor and Brendan Kim into capable BCHL'ers.
Ferner preaches low-risk breakouts from the defensive zone and while they are more prone to giving up the defensive zone the Vipers' defencemen protect their own net well, clear the zone quickly and don't often get caught out of position.
Advantage: Spruce Kings
Manz led the Kings in scoring with 70 points in the season, playing on a line with Ben Brar (61 points) and Patrick Cozzi (58 points), who were second and third in team scoring. Not surprisingly they've drawn the other team's best checkers in all three playoff series. They're still getting their points, but so are the Kings' other two scoring lines - Nick Poisson-Ben Poisson-Chong Min Lee and Corey Cunningham-Lucas Vanroboys-Nolan Welsh. That scoring balance among the forwards, supported by a group of mobile defencemen, has made it especially tough for opponents to key on just one line with their shutdown units.
"It's definitely nice to have a balanced attack." said Brar.
"Sometimes it almost felt like if (his line) didn't score we might not win the game because nobody else was kind of producing. It's nice to have that even load.
"Ben (Poisson) has been playing great all year and he's stepped up his game for playoffs and he's been scoring goals. It's not just his offensive play, he's physical and hard on the puck, he plays the right way. We're used to the physical play. We played Langley all year and we're a physical team ourselves so that doesn't really scare us."
Centre Jagger Williamson and left winger Jesse Lansdell, who play on the Vipers' top line with Logan Cash, each missed two months with injuries which dropped their regular-season numbers but they've been deadly in the playoffs, each with 16 points in 17 games. Matt Kowalski, acquired in a midseason trade from West Kelowna, put up 43 points in the regular season and Vernon has three 40-point men - Teddy Wooding, Josh Latta and Connor Marritt - now making noise in the playoffs. Wooding centres a line with Ben Sanderson and Lane Zablocki, a former Prince George Cougar draft choice picked in the third round by the Detroit Red Wings in 2017. Zablocki bounced around a few WHL teams before he landed in Vernon.
He collected seven goals and 12 points in 11 regular season games but has struggled to find that pace in the playoffs with a goal and six points in 15 games.
"Not disrespecting him by any means but at times he can be the best player in the league," said Ferner. "We're just fortunate to get him and he's been good for us. He's a great kid and when he's going and feels good, he can be a handful."
Through 13 playoff games the Kings have scored 51 goals and given up just 21 for a plus-30 differential.
The Vipers in their 17 games have 54 goals and have allowed 42 goals for a plus-12 differential. Four-line depth and speed is the difference and the Kings have that in abundance.
Advantage: Spruce Kings
The Kings have been slightly better on power plays, scoring at a 25 per cent clip (12-for-48), as compared to the Vipers 20 per cent (9-for-45). Vernon's 87 per cent penalty-kill rate (seven goals allowed in 54 times shorthanded) is better than Prince George's 82 per cent (7-for-40) kill rate.
Maglio is coaching career began seven years ago when he went to Hong Kong to run a minor hockey club program and his star has steadily risen since he joined the Spruce Kings in 2015 after a season as assistant at UBC.
Two years as an associate in the BCHL led to his hiring last year as head coach and together with assistant Alex Evin their progressive techniques have taken the Spruce Kings into uncharted territory as league finalists two years running.
He's a career coach climbing the ladder to bigger and better things and the Spruce Kings will have a hard time keeping him beyond the length of his contract, with two years still to come.
Ferner, 53, has 21 years on Maglio and has seen and done a lot as a former NHL player with the Sabres, Capitals, Ducks and Red Wings, with stops in the AHL, IHL, WCHL and Germany. His 14 seasons as a coach have taken him to the WHL (Kamloops, Everett) and he's learned what it takes to win in the BCHL in nine seasons with the Vipers.
"I've always proclaimed that you need good goaltending, you need good defence and you need good luck," said Ferner. "Both teams have had the first two, for sure, and maybe we've had a bit of luck along the way as well."
Advantage: On experience alone, Ferner gives the Vipers an edge behind the bench.
The Kings have had home ice to start the playoffs in all four series and nobody's been able to take that away from them. The fans at RMCA are right on top of the action and when there's a full house, like there will be this weekend, it's an intimidating place to play. The Vipers can pack 3,000 or more souls into Kal Tire Place in Vernon and when it's chock-a-block, like it will be in the final, the road team has to find a way to channel that energy in feed off it. Both teams have found ways to win in enemy buildings. The Spruce Kings are 5-1 on the road in the postseason while the Vipers went 6-2. The Kings are the most remote team in the BCHL and love playing on their shorter rink at RMCA. They're well used to the travel, especially if the series goes long.
The Spruce Kings have gotten progressively better in the playoffs and are playing with the confidence that comes with being the consensus pick as best team in the league. This series is theirs to lose. It won't be as easy as their previous three series but it will take a colossal upset for the defensive-minded Vipers to beat the Kings at their own game and extend this one to the limit.