There were moments over the past week where, for the Langley Rivermen, containing some of the Wenatchee Wild’s fleet-footed skaters was about as easy as grabbing a greased-up garter snake.
The Wild are moving on to the second round of the B.C. Hockey League playoffs after defeating the Rivermen in five games in the teams’ best-of-seven, opening round series.
The final blow came Friday night at the George Preston Recreation Centre, where the Wild downed the Rivermen 3-1 to seal the series win.
“We definitely didn’t quit,” Rivermen winger Matthew Graham said. “A lot of games we came back and made it close, and they could have gone the other way, for sure. We showed a lot of resiliency. I’m proud of the guys for never quitting.”
The Rivermen suffered a major blow when, in game one of the series, they lost forward Justin Fregona, who finished tied with Graham as Langley’s top goal-getter during the regular season with 24 tallies each.
Fregona sprained an ankle on his first shift March 5 in Wenatchee.
“We didn’t have him all series,” Rivermen head coach Bobby Henderson said. “That hurts.”
Even with the early loss of Fregona, the Rivermen got off to a good start to the series, edging the Wild 4-3 at Wenatchee’s Toyota Town Centre.
After that the Wild went on to take four straight, including a wild 7-6 overtime win in game three March 8 at the GPRC followed by a 5-0 shutout of the Rivermen the very next night.
Wenatchee also needed overtime to win game two by a 4-3 count on March 6.
“It was really close,” Graham said. “It definitely didn’t feel like a 4-1 series. Those OT games could have gone either way. I think their speed and depth was really key for them. I don’t want to say they wore us down but they kept coming and maintaining and played a complete game. They were tough to play against.”
Henderson agreed with his leading scorer.
“They were pretty tight, all the games but one but I attribute that to the hangover you get from losing back-to-back OT games,” Henderson said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Friday at the GPRC, the Wild led 1-0 after the first period and 2-0 after 40 minutes of play before Rivermen defenceman Cameron Ginnetti scored on a power play at the 10:11 mark of the third period to bring the home team to within one.
With about a minute-and-a-half to go in regulation, the Rivermen pulled goaltender Bo Didur from the net in favour of an extra attacker as they pushed for the tying goal to keep their season alive.
But in the final minute, the Wild’s Kyle Stephan, who terrorized the Rivermen all series (he scored the OT winner on March 8 and leads Wenatchee in playoff scoring with four goals and nine points), sidestepped a Langley defender and slid the puck from his own blueline into the yawning cage to seal the victory with 14 seconds to go in the game.
Henderson said he “couldn’t be more proud” of how his players showed resilience especially in game three where they overcame a 4-0 deficit in the first period to tie the game, only to lose 7-6 in overtime.
“A lot of teams would have folded their tent but we managed to take it to OT,” Henderson said. “It showed great character.”
Looking back at the season as a whole, Henderson said, “We had a relatively inexperienced group of guys and they stepped up in the second half and played some pretty good hockey.”
Graham, who is heading to Robert Morris in Moon, Pa., to play NCAA Div. 1 hockey next season, said he’ll miss Langley.
“A lot of teams don’t make playoffs so I’m definitely glad we made the playoffs,” he said. “I really liked it here in Langley. I have great memories, great friends, and great teammates. I don’t regret anything.”
ICE CHIPS: The ’Men and Wild played games three, four, and five at the GPRC because the Rivermen’s usual home, the Langley Events Centre, was occupied by teams competing in the B.C. high school boys basketball championships.