Saturday’s game against the Delta Ice Hawks was a must-win for the struggling Squamish Wolf Pack, which had yet to post a win against a team in the Tom Shaw Conference of the Pacific International Junior Hockey League.
Eight out of nine Wolf Pack wins to date have been against teams from the rival Harold Brittain conference. But to have a chance of making the playoffs this year they had to earn some points in their conference as well.
The Wolf Pack rose to the challenge, getting on the board first in the opening period. They were outscored 3-2 in the second period, but added an unanswered goal in the third to take the game 4-3.
“That was a big game, that was four points for us,” said coach Matt Samson. “We were treating it like a playoff game. We said going into that game that we had seven games left before the break, and that our goal was to make 10 points minimum. We already have the first two and we figure we need eight to stay in the hunt.”
Goalie Graham Hallenbeck was once again a big part of the story, turning aside 40 out of 43 shots. Another big story was the play of forward Dustin Urdea, who scored two goals.
“We scored four goals against Delta, which is a pretty good team, and it was the first time this season that we’ve scored four goals at even strength,” said Samson. “I’m pretty happy about that.”
The Pack are now just eight points back of Delta for fourth in the conference with 20 games remaining and a record of 9-16. The Wolf Pack will need to finish fourth out of the five teams in their conference to make the playoffs, but it won’t be easy — the top three teams in the league this year are in their conference, and they play each of those teams several more times.
The Wolf Pack are also having injury trouble. Their top scorer, Ross Pattison, has been sidelined for the past four games, and will be out of the lineup for a little longer. Josh Schaubroeck, one of the Whistler players with the team, also broke his collarbone against Delta and will be out of the lineup for at least a month.
“That was on a hit from behind that wasn’t called by the ref, which I’m still ticked off about,” said Samson. “It’s tough for Josh, because he’s been one of our better players recently and he’s part of the reason we’re playing better.”
Samson points to a recent game against the league leading Richmond Sockeyes, which have a record of 25-2. In their last matchup, the Wolf Pack were up 1-0 after the first period and could have been up 2-0 if a goal wasn’t disallowed. The Sockeyes went on to win that match 4-1.
The Wolf Pack can pick up six points this week with games against the Aldergrove Kodiaks on Wednesday and Ridge Meadows Flames on Friday — both Harold Brittain Conference teams the Wolf Pack has beaten previously — and a home game against Grandview on Saturday night. The last time the Wolf Pack hosted Grandview — second in their conference with an 18-8 record — the Wolf Pack lost 4-3.
“The season doesn’t get any easier for us, but I’m glad we’re more competitive and having more competitive games with the really good teams,” said Samson. “Hopefully we’ll be able to steal a point here and there. Grandview is a big game for us, and it’s a good opportunity to get that point.”
There are a few areas that the Pack can improve. They are currently the lowest scoring team in the league, averaging 2.5 goals per game while allowing an average of 4.7 goals. The good news is that both stats are moving in the right direction for the team, said Samson, and that all four lines are contributing.
“At the start of the season we made a commitment that we would practice every day and travel together on a bus to games, and all the hard work is starting to pay off,” he said.
Samson and the other PIJHL coaches also met with the league governors this week to discuss issues like league parity, evening up the teams after the regular season and the playoff structure. Samson would like to see the top eight teams go to the playoffs in the future, based on their record and not on their conference. Based on their record, Samson believes the Wolf Pack could qualify as high as sixth in the league this year, but because of the conference structure there’s a chance they may be left out.
“I understand why the league is set up the way it is, east versus west, but the driving times are really not all that different, maybe 20 minutes longer,” he said.
Saturday’s game against Grandview gets underway at 7:15 p.m. at Brennan Park Arena. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for youth and seniors.