The Chilliwack Chiefs opened the 2018-19 BCHL season last September with a two game road trip to Prince George.
They lost, 6-1 and 2-1, and that’s the way things were supposed to be this year.
The Chiefs were projected to be young and competitive but not contenders.
The Spruce Kings were supposed to be a veteran-laden powerhouse.
One of those things turned out to be true.
Prince George has been as good as advertised, with the second best record in the entire league, but the Chiefs have proven the other theory false.
A 2-1 win over PG Sunday afternoon at Prospera Centre clinched first in the Mainland division and first overall in the BCHL for this season’s most surprising squad.
“It’s a goal we set for ourselves at the start of the year and it feels awesome,” said happy captain Skyler Brind’Amour afterwards. “To get it done at home is a huge accomplishment and we’re very excited about it.”
Chilliwack got on the board first in this one, with Matt Holmes netting his 28th of the season.
Holmes and linemates Kevin Wall and Harrison Blaisdell spent a shift cycling the puck in the PG end, until it ended up on the stick of rookie defenceman Colton Kitchen on the left wing wall.
Kitchen sent a just-put-it-on-net shot into the goal mouth where Holmes got his stick on the puck, re-directing it through the legs of Spruce Kings goalie Logan Neaton.
Chilliwack’s Brett Rylance doubled the Chiefs lead 13:46 into period two.
Mitch Andres got the assist with an aerial flip pass from behind his own blue line that Rylance caught up to in the faceoff circle to the left of the PG net. Wasting no time, the rookie ripped a far-side shot that caught the top corner over Neaton’s glove.
“It was a great goal by Brett and the boys always like it when he puts one in,” Brind’Amour said. “It’s nice to have a two goal lead, but you can’t change the way you play against PG. You’ve got to continue to attack, and I thought we did.”
It was tough sledding all afternoon for the home team, facing a stifling PG team that is, by far, the stingiest defensive group in the league.
The Spruce Kings came into Sunday averaging 2.11 goals-against per game, and the Chiefs had no answer for their neutral zone clogging ways.
They managed 13 shots, total, in the game.
But Chilliwack dialed up their own D when protecting the two-goal lead in period three.
PG got within one with 5:33 to go when Dustin Manz scored on a power play, tracking down a puck behind the Chiefs cage and sneaking a wraparound attempt through goalie Daniel Chenard.
Otherwise, Chenard was a wall in the Chilliwack net, stopping 35 pucks and earning first star honours.
Neaton came to the bench for the extra attacker with 1:28 to go and PG had three offensive zone draws. But one final clear by Holmes sealed the deal as Chilliwack clinched first overall in the BCHL for the first time in 17 years.
“The third period plan was to be hard on pucks, get them out of our zone, get them deep in their zone and forecheck hard,” Brind’Amour said. “We didn’t want to just sit back and protect the lead.
“And Daniel, he’s been unbelievable and kept us in lots of games over the last little bit. We’re going to start putting some more pucks in at the other end and help him out a bit more.”
The Chiefs wrap up the regular season schedule with two road games in PG next weekend. The BCHL playoffs start March 1.