The Delta Ice Hawks head into the holiday break feeling a whole lot lighter and little bit better about their chances of taking a serious run at a Pacific International Junior Hockey League championship.
Despite a sparkling 196-1-1 record, the Ice Hawks had dropped all four games to the Richmond Sockeyes and were on the verge of letting the defending champions run away with first place in the Tom Shaw Conference. They carried the weight of that losing streak into Tuesday's tilt at the Ladner Leisure Centre where they finally broke through for a 3-2 victory in front of an estimated 400 fans.
Forget about the fact they moved to within four points of their cross-river rivals, the Ice Hawks desperately needed to show they were the Sockeyes' main threat this season like almost everyone pegged them to be. They came close in a spirited 2-1 loss five days earlier at Minoru Arena, setting the stage for their best 60-minute effort of the season.
"Any time you're playing top team in the league you want to get the win," said Ice Hawks head coach Dave McLellan. "I thought we were the better team the other night and didn't get the result. Tonight our system paid off for us. As a coaching staff, we did a good job in preparation too and our players executed it well."
That system, McLellan admits, won't produce the run-and-gun hockey these two talented and fast teams are more than capable of playing. From last year's heartbreaking seven-game playoff series loss, to this year's regular season dominance, McLellan has learned his club can't get into a shootout with the Sockeyes and expect to win.
"You just can't get behind a team like that because they really feed off their offence and get a lot of enthusiasm from their bench," he continued. "The last two games we really tried to slow the game down against them and take away their chip (transition game). I'm sure it's not the funnest game to watch but it's we have to do this against them."
Despite the Ice Hawks' conservative approach and each team missing some key snipers, the game was still played at an outstanding pace with excellent scoring chances at both ends of the rink.
The Sockeyes have been without three of their top scorers - Rudi Thorsteinson, Kyzen Loo and rookie standout Justin Rai - for an extended period, while the Ice Hawks were minus two of their elite guns - captain Cody Smith and John Proctor.
Last Thursday, it was Carter Popoff, another one of Richmond's impressive rookies, who delivered the game winner in the late going and the rematch saw one of the Ice Hawks key veterans re-discover his scoring touch at the right time.
Cody Fidgett, who missed over a month's worth of action after needing major dental work from a stick to the mouth, bagged his sixth and seventh goals of the season. The 20-year-old has been huge in the post-season the past two years, collecting 23 goals in 30 games.
"Cody had a pretty severe injury and had been snake bitten of late," added McLellan. "It was nice to see him get a couple tonight. We need him to keep it going."
Alex Anhert delivered his second impressive performance in the Delta goal, making 38 saves. The 18year-old South Delta Minor product was at his best in the dying seconds, making a pair of point blank stops to preserve the win.
The Ice Hawks won't see action again until Tuesday, Jan. 3 when the Grandview Steelers visit Ladner.