The importance of providing an entertaining product for the Dawson Creek fans paying to watch wasn't lost on Head Coach Eric Fulton after a demoralizing 8-3 loss to the Fort St. John Huskies in the season opener. For the first time in a number of years, the team came into this season with a great deal of positive buzz, and rewarding the faithful was a priority.
Consider that faith rewarded. A pair of victories in Week 2 of the season could hardly have been more dramatic, as both required extra time. Saturday's tilt against the Beaverlodge Blades was won on a TJ Norris snipe in the shootout, while Spencer Gover powered the Junior Canucks to an overtime win over the Slave Lake Wolves on Sunday afternoon with consecutive goals -- first to force the extra frame with 3:01 to go in regulation, then to win the game just 46 seconds into OT.
While the games were great drama for fans in the building, the coach wasn't exactly biting his fingernails on the bench. "I was more concerned with the way we played, the score will dictate itself," said Fulton, with a laugh.
But the thrill of overtime wasn't lost on him either. "It is exciting obviously to get into the shootout, but we did talk about it earlier that we needed to give the fans something to get excited about and enjoy. I think the boys did a good job of that. ...not on purpose, by the way. We didn't mean to have overtime games, but it happened that way, and I think it was enjoyable for everybody. "
His captain certainly enjoyed himself. Connor Rose has worn the C throughout the year, but was officially named captain before Saturday's action, was right in his element in such close games. "I find those are the best games, when they're just nail-biters and can go either way," said Rose. "Our team showed that when it comes down to pressure, we can pull through."
If the dramatic nature of the wins wasn't in the coach's game plan, the way they came about certainly was. Offense from the back-end powered both victories, as the booming point-shots of Gover and Collin Mathieson figured large in the results. If defensemen weren't scoring themselves, their shots were being deflected in, or a loose rebound was scooped up and pounded home. Mathieson finished the weekend with two goals and an assist, while Gover got on the scoresheet five times, including a superhuman four-point effort against Slave Lake.
"If you've watched over the last couple years, the teams that are successful in this league have a good offensive presence from two or three of their defensemen every game," Fulton commented, on the bevy of defensemen factoring in the scoring. "For us, it'll be no different. We need to get those guys on the back-end to get up and get points for us. Mathieson's done it, Lazinchuk did a great job of holding the puck in... Actually, I thought Gover kind of struggled for most of the game (on Sunday). I didn't think he could stick-handle very well, but he got his hands back, so to speak, and it ended well."
Gover getting to play hero may have caught the coach by surprise, but he should have been more shocked by who his leading scorer was coming into Sunday's action. With a trio of assists, due in large part to an ability to keep the play alive at the blueline, defensive bruiser Brendan Lazinchuk was atop the scoring list after two games. Having coached Lazinchuk for three seasons, Fulton couldn't resist poking fun at one of his favourite players.
"He's changing his game around, he's becoming the Bobby Orr of our team," Fulton joked. "If you look at the end of the year," he added with a wink, "I think it'll be no different. He should be 1 or 2 in scoring for our whole team by the end of the year."
That's almost certainly not true, but this is still likely to be a career year for Lazinchuk offensively. The Junior Canucks' game flows through their back-end right now, and it will continue to if they keep enjoying this level of success.
"It really gives you the confidence to throw the puck back there," Canuck captain Rose noted. "If you have defensemen that are scoring from the blue line, that's a huge threat to most teams. Getting all that traffic to the front of the net with such high quality point shots, that's gonna be hard for a goalie to stop the puck. Having guys crash around the net, that's how we're gonna score the majority of our goals this year."
That's been the case so far, even with a couple guys switching positions on Sunday. Drawing back into the line-up following a one-game suspension for undisciplined fisticuffs, Mitch Palfi was used as a defenseman throughout the game against the Wolves. The move allowed Adam Huttema to shift back to forward, where the team would prefer he played having transferred him there at the end of last season. The seemingly unlikely duo combined to open the scoring Sunday, with defenseman Palfi's long slapper leaving a nice rebound for a buzzing Huttema down low. The goal came at the 4:05 mark of Sunday's first period. It was the first time all year that the Junior Canucks had scored first in a game.
Slow starts have long troubled this team, going back several seasons. The first period has rarely been the Junior Canucks' best period, but it was against the Wolves on Sunday. Rose said the previous night's action had a lot to with their hot start. "I was really impressed with how guys bounced back after our Saturday night win, to come and play Sunday. They really brought it."
"I think it's a lot easier coming into a game after a win, especially a win like that [6-5 in the shootout]," the captain continued. "Guys were just more focussed for the next game, after seeing how much fun winning is. It gave guys the fire to get excited to go back out there and get another win. That's what we're going to have to do all year, jump out of that gate, hold that lead and just keep building on it. A lot of the guys get down really quickly when we're down. It's a lot easier to keep moving forward on top than to dig your way out from the bottom."
Getting down when you face early adversity is something this team is very familiar with, having had to battle back in the majority of their games over the last several seasons. Rose has had to endure it, and he isn't alone. "There's six guys who have dealt with that stuff over the course of the last couple years, and they know what it's like." They've also learned what it takes to avoid it.
"They've all got the same mentality: they'd rather start out strong than have to work your way out, by digging in and climbing to tie it back up," said Rose. "A lot of the young guys came from a winning team last year too, so they know what it's like to keep 'er going instead of having to fight your way back. It's a lot easier now to get up in those standings early than to scramble later in the season. This year will be a lot easier if we can secure some home ice in the playoffs, and you have to be working towards that from the start."
For Fulton, seeing a strong start had to be gratifying. In his third season as the Canucks' head coach, he's watching years of teaching being put into action. "One of the big positives of this team is their ability to absorb information and then use it. That's why I wasn't really worried when we had some losses at the start of the year," said the coach. "These guys seem to gradually get better every time they step on the ice. Some things are bigger improvements right away, and the stuff that we need to improve on might be a bit of a slower process, but I think these guys will get there."
While the dramatic nature of the weekend's wins were great entertainment for fans, such wide-open play leaves plenty of room for improvement. "The main thing is just our consistency, our ability to put more minutes together and not have those lapses where four minutes go by and the other team scores two or three goals," Fulton noted. "We can bend, we've just got to stop breaking."
The captain, meanwhile, would rather not hear so many whistles next time out. "The biggest thing we still need to work on is our discipline on the ice, which has been hurting us all season already," said Rose. "If we can get that under control, we should be pretty fine this year."
BUBBA'S FIRST WIN: While he's been behind the bench for a number of fun wins in the past few years, the back-to-back victories of this past weekend were the first for Ashley Rude as a General Manager. "It was fantastic," he said. "I just hope we continue to do it."