A lot of teams out there would be pretty content to be the Huskies position. After a 2-1 week, the pups remain comfortably in second place in the league, with a seven-point gap over Peace River (see http://www.northwestjr.hockeyleaguestats.com/?go=standings&order=pts&did=11&sid=11 for full standings).
But, Sunday’s loss in Grande Prairie has illustrated some problems and weaknesses the Huskies need to address.
Though Friday night’s 4-1 win over Peace River was a good performance from the pups, the consensus is, they haven’t deserved the results they’ve been getting. After Wednesday night’s 2-1 win in Dawson Creek, Coach BK said “We’ve got a good record right now, but we’re not a very good hockey club – we seem to be really struggling.” After the loss in Grande Prairie put an end to a six-game winning streak, assistant coach Jeremy Clothier said “We’ve been playing like this for the last little while, we’ve been squeaking out some wins, but this was bound to happen.”
So just what is it the Huskies are doing, or aren’t doing, to deserve this criticism? They’ve lowered their goals against substantially, averaging two goals against per game, including the five surrendered in Grande Prairie on Sunday. They’ve been getting top-notch goaltending. Their scoring prowess has stalled a little, but I don’t think that’s too big a concern for anyone.
Earlier this season, we were talking about the Huskies as a team that could play outstanding hockey for stretches, but never seemed able to do it for a full 60 minutes. And suddenly, the opposite is true. Now, the pups are playing consistent, 60-minute games, but not to the best of their ability. Sure, they had a 6-game winning streak, but not one of those wins came against a team with a better-than-.500 record.
Now, the absence of Payden Wongstedt on Sunday really hurt the team. The breakout seems like it was their biggest issue, and that’s somewhere Wongstedt really shines. But, much as we’ve all talked about how important Payden is, it may have been good for them. As JC said, Wongstedt plays on the edge, and that means there will be times he can’t be there. The pups need to be able to move the puck up ice without #27, and the loss to GP may have taught them that.
While I’m at it, I should point out how much the absence of Dylan Apsassin has slowed them down. Here’s a guy who was the NWJHL rookie of the year two years ago, and has consistently been atop the league in scoring, yet is never talked about for his point production. Here’s a guy who has the deadly combination of speed and quickness (acceleration and pure pace), yet he’s never talked about for his skating. Here’s a guy who protects the puck like no-one, and steals it from everyone, yet he’s never talked about for his physical play. Dylan Apsassin is irreplaceable. I’ve been there plenty of times when the bus is waiting for him to arrive, but the Huskies need to do something to get him in the lineup.
But, two players do not a team make. The Huskies are still loaded with talent, and they should be able to compete every night with or without numbers 10 and 27.
The thing is, when you play hockey in Fort St. John, second place often isn’t good enough. The Huskies set their goals high. They want to win the championship. They want to beat Whitecourt. They want to play in provincials.
When you play in that environment, even the smallest setback can seem disastrous. But, such is the nature of playing for the Huskies, and the pups know they can do better. So, look for the Huskies to spend the week working on their breakout. The two areas they’ve clearly improved in – team defence and the powerplay – will continue to be a focus until the day the season ends.
At the end of the day, it may be that the rest of the teams are just getting better. When the Huskies visited DC in the preseason, their Defence couldn’t handle simple crossing patterns, and now they’ve held FSJ to one goal. Grande Prairie was excellent on Sunday, and they’ve been consistently been playing with short-benches and without some of their best players. Peace River has gotten better, and with Jr ‘B’ provincials in the Navigators’ back yard, everyone knows they’ll continue to improve.
Now, the ball is in the FSJ court, and we’re waiting to see what improvements the Huskies will make. My sense, is that it’s not external changes that need to be made. Rather, it’s change from within. We’ve seen snippets of that in recent days – some big shot blocks, great forechecking shifts, etc. But, that’ll need to continue, or the Huskies reign as the second-best team in the league will come to an end. Which seems like the wrong direction to be heading.