After splitting a pair of road games with Doug Birks division teams on the weekend, the Beaver Valley Nitehawks will switch to playoff mode as their remaining eight games are against Neil Murdoch division rivals beginning tonight when they travel to Nelson to tangle with the Leafs.
The Hawks dropped a 4-2 decision to the fourth-place 100-Mile House Wranglers on Friday before taking an exciting 2-1 victory over the Doug Birks division-leading Kamloops Storm, a team the Nitehawks beat in six games to claim the KIJHL title last year.
“I thought the way the weekend went was indicative of our play,” said Nitehawks assistant coach Kevin Limbert. “I don’t think we put our best foot forward on Friday and I thought we were much better on Saturday.”
Hawks goalie Drake Poirier was all but unbeatable on Saturday night in the close victory over Kamloops. The Trail native stopped 17 shots in the third period and 44 on the night to ensure the two points over the Storm on what was the Nitehawks final road trip of the season.
“Drake was phenomenal,” said Limbert. “There were times when they pressed hard and we weathered the storm, and if it wasn’t for a couple of big, big saves by Drake we probably don’t come out on top of that game.”
With the score tied at 1-1, B.V.’s leading scorer Mitch Foyle beat Storm netminder Jacob Mullen with assists from Spencer McLean and Ross Armour to net the winner at 16:45 of the third period.
Allan Pruss opened the scoring at 13:55 of the first for the Hawks, finishing a play from Reid Anderson, before the Storm’s top scorer Ian Chrystal tied it with 5:40 remaining in the middle frame.
Mullen stopped 32 shots in the Storm net while B.V. went 0-for-1 on the power play and Kamloops 0-for-2.
“It was a very high-caliber, high-speed, very physical game, and obviously there’s quite a bit of bad-blood between us and Kamloops, so it seemed like we just picked up that rivalry from Game 6 of last year,” said Limbert.
The win follows hard on the heels of a disappointing loss against the Wranglers on Friday night.
B.V. outshot 100-Mile House 41-31 but couldn’t find the equalizer despite 20 third-period shots.
Tyler Garcia scored what proved to be the winner at 4:43 of the middle frame, and Tyler Hartman would put the Hawks within one with 8:42 left in the third. But Wrangler goalie Quinn Ferris shut the door after that and Garcia would ice it beating Poirier with under four minutes to go in regulation to halt a five-game losing streak for the Wranglers.
McLean counted the other marker for B.V. while Brett Harris and Stephen Egan replied for the Wranglers.
B.V. remains in top spot in the Neil Murdoch division with 61 points and a five-point cushion on the second-place Castlegar Rebels.
“We’re not too worried about standings, or cushions, or points we just want to make sure coming down the stretch here that we’re playing playoff hockey and we’re going to hit the ground running from Game 1.”
After leading the division for much of the season, the Nelson Leafs have struggled in January with injury and illness, winning just twice in eight games. However, the Leafs beat the Nitehawks 4-3 in their last meeting in Nelson on Dec. 31, and the return of forwards Dylan Williamson and Michael Crawford was a big boost to their lineup last weekend in a 5-3 victory over Spokane and a 3-3 tie with Creston.
“We are getting close to the playoffs,” head coach Dave McLellan told the Nelson Star. “It was good to get a lot of our guys back tonight. The last two weeks we’ve had very few guys at practice and it was good. We took the risk of not practising last week to get some energy back. We were fresh this week.”
Since the New Years Eve loss, B.V. has gone 6-2 and opened up an eight point lead on the third-place Leafs, but as last year’s epic run for the Hawks proved, winning the division is not the most important ingredient in playoff success.
“It’s more about making sure we’re playing our best every single night so that there’s no adjustment coming to the postseason . . . Last year it was more we were pushing in the right direction, as the season was closing we couldn’t quite catch up and close the gap, but we were gaming and getting better every single day, and that’s all we want to do this year too is just make sure we are getting better every day.”
Beaver Valley finished second in the Neil Murdoch division last season before it went on its run to a KIJHL title, and Cyclone and Keystone Cup championships.