THE North Van Wolf Pack junior B hockey team lost their last four games of the year and were bounced out of the PIJHL playoffs in the first round but the 2011-12 season was still the best yet for a young franchise that is continuing to grow.
On Monday the Wolf Pack were defeated on the road 3-0 by the Richmond Sockeyes, the loss ending North Van's season with the Sockeyes taking their bestof-seven series four games to one. But it wasn't all bad news for the Pack.
Thursday, March 1, actually held a couple of important milestones for the four-year-old franchise - their first ever playoff game and, a couple of hours later, their first ever playoff win. Massive underdogs against the No. 1-ranked defending league champion Sockeyes, the Wolf Pack traveled into enemy territory for game 1 of their playoff series and came away with a 4-3 win. After that great result the Pack were looking to earn at least one more win to force game 6 back at their home rink - the Harry Jerome recreation centre - but came up short as the powerful Sockeyes reeled off four straight wins to take the series.
"Overall it was definitely a successful year but we would have liked to extend the series, at least get another home game," head coach and general manager Matt Samson told the North Shore News after the loss. "Getting to the playoffs was the goal. Right now I'm still a bit bitter about the first-round exit - obviously it still stings a little bit . . . but big picture a success and we're just looking to build on that."
After three trying seasons based in Squamish, the Wolf Pack moved to North Van last summer and proceeded to put up their best results to date, finishing fourth in the tough Shaw Conference. Their win in Richmond to open the playoffs was the first victory against the Sockeyes after six regular-season losses.
Trailing 3-2 heading into the third period, the Pack got the tying goal from Brett Gough early in the period and Quin Buckellew scored the winner with 12 minutes to go.
"We played very solid hockey," said Samson. "We allowed a high number of shots but the quality of shots was fairly low and Jordan (Liem) is going to stop those."
From there the series went downhill for North Van. Game 2 Friday night at Harry Jerome was close with the Wolf Pack rallying from a 4-0 deficit to make it 4-2 before Richmond scored an emptynetter and one more late goal to make it 6-2. Saturday night, also in North Van, was the low point for the Pack as they were blown out 9-2 in game 3.
Game 4 Sunday night in Richmond got away early with the Sockeyes jumping out 3-0 in the first period and cruising to a 73 win. In game 5, Monday in Richmond, the teams played a tight, scoreless first period before penalty trouble - Samson might argue that it was referee trouble - caught up with the Pack in the second as the Sockeyes scored three times in the period and held on for a 3-0 win to end the series.
"We really caught a bad break on I thought a couple of really marginal calls that put us in a five-on-three and they scored quickly on the five-on-three and ended up scoring again on the five-onfour," said Samson.
The series was made tougher for both teams by the schedule - dictated by ice availability in both home arenas - that saw the first five games played in five straight nights. That left little time for rest, recovery or practise.
"It was tough - as a coach you like to try to make adjustments," said Samson. "Richmond is very systematic. We tried as coaches to exploit some of the things that they do but it's tough when you can't actually practise it. . . . But at the same time that's not the reason that we lost the series by any means. They're a much more skilled team and they showed that. In order to stay competitive we had to play good five-on-five hockey and good defensive hockey and I think we got away from that in games two through four."
A bright spot for the Wolf Pack was the play of Buckellew, an import player from Minnesota who racked up four goals and four assists, his eight points doubling the next highest total for a North Van player.
"He was the best player for either team in the series," said Samson. "He was unbelievable in the playoffs - every time he touched the puck he was a threat . . . every time he touched the puck you could see their coach was telling guys to take body."
Samson also singled out defencemen Jason Hawkins and Ben McWilliams, both North Vancouverites, for competing well against Richmond's strong offensive attack. McWilliams played despite missing games recently with a broken jaw and separated shoulder.
With the series over the Wolf Pack will now look ahead to next year. The move from Squamish to North Vancouver worked out very well, said Samson, with the North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association, the North Vancouver Recreation Commission and a group of other dedicated parents and volunteers combining to make it a smooth transition. The team is hoping to forge even stronger relationships with the North Shore hockey community and the talented players coming out of the local associations.
"If we lose a high-end player from the North Shore that ends up playing junior B (somewhere else), to me that's a disappointment and we didn't do a good enough job recruiting," said Samson. "For all that we have to offer, we should be these kids' first choice if they don't make it at a higher level."
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This week the team announced their year-end awards. Leading point-getter Brady Bjornson of Roberts Creek, the longest-tenured Wolf Pack member, was named team MVP. Squamish's Brodyn Nielsen, a player who had a stint with the Vancouver Giants this season, was named rookie of the year while Buckellew earned top goal scorer honours and McWilliams was named best defencman. Port Coquitlam's Brett Gough was named hardest working, Christian Stephenson of Burbank, Calif. earned most inspirational honours and goaltender Jordan Liem of Coquitlam was named most improved.