The North Island Bantam Eagles had a do-or-die playoff game against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Saturday, and the Eagles proved to themselves they aren’t ready to quit on their dreams of earning a Tier 3 playoff banner just yet.
The showdown took place at 4:00 p.m. in Port McNeill at the Chilton Regional Arena, and you could tell from the atmosphere during warmups both teams were more than ready to leave it all out on the ice.
The Bulldogs took the action right to the Eagles from the first drop of the puck, striking early with back-to-back goals, one coming from Jackson McKean at 9:29, and the other courtesy of Brett MacLean with 4:27 left in the first period.
The Bulldogs peppered first year Bantam Eagles goalie Griffin Handley with big shot after big shot, but Handley kept his composure and held tough, making sure the game was still close by the first intermission.
Eagles head coach Ryan Handley fired the team up in-between periods by telling his players “to stay within the system,” and “to leave it all out on the ice.”
It must have worked, because the Eagles were a brand new team by the start of the second period.
Defenceman Cole Klughart got things started for the Eagles with a nice breakout pass to captain Tynan Klein-Beekman.
Klein-Beekman skated with the puck into the Bulldogs zone and made a quick pass across ice to Connor Van Will, who was parked in front of the net, for the easy tip in at 18:25.
The Eagles, now trailing by one, kept pressuring from there. Klughart again made the breakout pass to Klein-Beekman, who this time fed the puck to Joey Grant. Grant wasted no time absolutely burying the puck past the Bulldogs goaltender Quinton George with a hard wrist shot, tying the game up 2-2.
The Eagles kept control of the puck and poured on the offence. Tristan Mardell scored on a tricky breakaway shot while the Eagles were shorthanded, and then Grant banged in his second goal of the night off a big rebound at 11:05 to make it 4-2.
The Bulldogs weren’t about to go home quietly, though. Grayson Erickson found the back of the Eagles’ net at 10:15 to cut the lead to one, but the Eagles returned the favour at 10:05 thanks to Klughart passing the puck to Grant, who completed the hat trick with a beauty of a deke around a sprawled out George.
The Eagles would get into penalty trouble at the end of the second period, and the Bulldogs capitalized at the start of the third with the man-advantage, thanks to Blake Power finding the twine and cutting the Eagles lead down to one.
Grant wasn’t done scoring just yet, though. He knocked in his fourth goal of the game off another rebound at 11:52, giving the Eagles a 6-4 lead, but Power answered back with 9:05 left on clock, netting his second goal of the game to bring them within one of tying it up.
The Bulldogs pulled their goalie for the extra attacker, but Ethan Bono managed to intercept the puck near the Eagles net and passed it back to Klein-Beekman who fired it up into the air, sending the puck all the way down the ice and into the empty net with 16.5 seconds left on the clock.
The hometown crowd roared as the game came to an end 7-5.
Coach Handley was pleased with the team’s performance for the most part. “I thought we looked nervous early and weren’t dictating the play,” he said. “Getting down 2-0 against a quality team like Alberni is not a good game plan. We didn’t lose focus though – Griffin made a couple clutch saves to keep it 2-0 and the team fed off of it from there.”
Griffin Handley noted it felt really good to finally beat the Bulldogs for the first time this year, adding the Eagles had to “work hard shift through shift.”
As for Grant’s four-goal performance, coach Handley said Grant “had his best game of the year and at a time when we really needed it. He’s grown a lot as one of the leaders on this team and he lets his on-ice play do the talking for him.”
Grant said after the game he’s scored four goals in a game before, but this was the first time he’s put in that many this season, adding that getting the win over the Bulldogs felt pretty good, “because it was probably the biggest game of the playoffs.”
He felt Mardell really stepped up for the team, and also pointed out how Griffin Handley had “the best game I’ve ever seen him play.”
All told, coach Handley confimed he’s “very satisfied with our work ethic and compete level. Now it’s back to work.”
The Eagles will be back in action for their second game of the playoffs against the Tier 3 Powell River Kings Feb. 3 at the Don Cruickshank Memorial Arena in Port Hardy at 4:15 p.m.