First off apologies in the delay in posting this. And thank you for everyone's concern this past weekend about my voice and my well being. I'm starting to get better and my voice is coming back and should be ok for Saturday.
Last Thursday, the Express hopped on the bus to open their 3 game northern road trip. It would take them through Merritt, Prince George and Quesnel.
The trip opened up with a number of players facing their former teams for the first time. Johnny Mahovlich, Dylan Herold and Cameron Brodie would face the Merritt Centennials for the first time, while Alex Valenti and Jordan Soquila would face their former Express teammates since the trade that sent them up the Coquihala highway about 10 days earlier.
The trip was an important one for the Express. They were facing the 6th, 7th and 8th place teams in the Interior respectively and it was a great opportunity for the Express to pick up some much needed points.
Merritt got off to a quick start and carried the play for most of the first period. Jordan Grant opened the scoring midway through the period when he was sent in the clear by Alex Valenti and made no mistake scoring on the breakaway by deking to the backhand on Richie Virtanen.
The Cents continued their strong play into the 2nd. But the momentum swung in Burnaby's favour 8:29 into the 2nd when Tim Holloway tipped home an Ilya Kravtchouk point shot to tie the game. Moments later we saw the first of 3 fights on this night when Garrick Perry got into a scrap with Cody Kightley. That was followed by a fight between Anthony Collins and Casey Fratkin after Fratkin layed a big hit on Max Grassi and Collins came to his teammates defence.
The Express started buzzing regularly around the Centennial goal. But the game would remain tied heading into the third period. Merritt had a chance to break the deadlock just 10 seconds into the third when Express goaltender Richie Virtanen was called for delay of game. The Express penalty killing stepped up to the plate and killed off what would be the only power play of the game for Merritt.
That was followed moments later by the third fight of the game when former Centennial Johnny Mahovlich dropped the gloves with Kevin Philp.
The deadlock would finally be broken midway through the third period when Garrick Perry scored with the Express on the power play as he showed patience and roofed a backhand past Kyle Nielson to give the Express their first lead of the game. The goal was the first in 8 games for Perry. Anthony Collins would also end a lenghty drought by scoring his first goal in 11 games into an empty net to seal the deal for Burnaby.
The game winning goal for Perry is already his 4th of the season.
Richie Virtanen stopped 30 of 31 shots for only his 2nd win of the season.
Final score Express 3 Centennials 1.
3-Garrick Perry (GWG)
2-Richie Virtanen 30 saves (W)
1-Kyle Nielsen 35 saves
The next night the Express continued to trek up north to visit the Prince George Spruce Kings.
Burnaby knew they would need a great goaltending performance in order to come away with 2 points. In 3 of the the last 4 games for Prince George, they had 40+shots in a game. Including the last 2 where the Spruce Kings flirted with cracking the 50 shot plateau.
So on this night, Richie Virtanen would probably have to have his best game of the season for the Express to pick up their 2nd straight win.
A quick glance at the Spruce Kings roster showed that they had a very small team. They had only one player on their roster for Saturday's game that weighed more than 200lbs. But for what they lacked in size, they more than made up for in speed. And that proved to be the case in the first period. The Express had trouble keeping up with the pace and Prince George had out shot Burnaby 13-4 in the first period.
The Express continued their struggles generating offence in the 2nd period but Richie Virtanen was definitely up to the task playing one of his best games of the year. As the second period progressed, the Express finally started to turn the tables and generate some chances of their own. John Bokla had a breakaway but lost control of the puck when he deked to his backhand. Moments later, Dylan Herold re-directed a centering pass of the post. Then with the Express shorthanded, Tim Holloway was stopped on a breakaway as he bid for his 4th shorthanded goal of the season.
On top of Richie Virtanen's strong play between the pipes, another reason why this game remained tied through 2 periods was the Express ability to block shots. Part of their preparations was they had to get into shooting lanes because the Spruce Kings generate a lot of their offence from the point.
Off to the third, Richie Virtanen came up with what may have been his biggest save of the game midway through the period as Sean Ambrosie was sent in the clear on a breakaway after stepping out of the penalty box. He tried to deke to Virtanen's stick side, but layed down his right pad to keep the game scoreless.
Now as the 3rd period ticked by, it seemed like this game would be destined for overtime. But Sam Muchalla had different plans as he picked up the puck from behind the Express net and scored on a wrap around as he banked the puck in off the Express netminder. The goal was deflating on so many levels. Just considering the way the game was playing out, it wouldn't seem right for such a great game to be decided that way.
With just over a minute left, Burnaby called their time out. From our broadcast location, Gord and I were directly above the Express bench and could look over the shoulders of the coaches and see what they were drawing up on the board. It appeared they were looking to get the puck deep and work it in front from behind the net.
But sometimes the world's best plans aren't always executed the way they were drawn up. With 38 seconds left, Prince George goaltender Alex Wright played the puck to the half boards and Max Grassi was there to intercept and fire it home and tie the game. So this game which desitined for overtime, was off to an extra session.
That's where Burnaby would play their best hockey of the night. They were dominant in overtime and finally broke through. They took advantage of a tired Spruce Kings defenceman Zach Davies who had been on the ice for most of the first overtime. He was forced into turning the puck over deep in his own end when Garrick Perry and John Bokla teamed up to steal the puck and John Bokla scored the game winning goal at 3:45 of the first overtime.
Bokla's game winning goal was his first goal in 13 games. Garrick Perry had played a role in the winning goal in both games of the road trip thus far.
The Express defence stepped up by cutting down Prince George's shots on goal to just 32 and Richie Virtanen played his best game of the season making 31 saves for his second straight win.
His strong play to begin the road trip cut his goal against average down by a half goal per game. And his save percentage went up by 2 full percentage points.
The win was Burnaby's 4th straight in the Prince George Coliseum.
The road trip wrapped up Saturday night in Quesnel. With the key word being night. The fact the trip started a day earlier than normal on Thursday, it allowed the trip to wrap up Saturday and it allowed the third game of the trip to be played at night. Normally the third game in 3 nights is played on a Sunday afternoon. The shortened time between the end of the 2nd game and the start of the third game usually has a impact on the players preparation and doesn't allow for a great game. But this time around, playing the third game on Saturday night allows the players to get their proper rest. Some extra sleep in the hotel and nourish themselves regularly throughout the day.
Richie Virtanen was rewarded with his third straight start between the pipes on this night. Quesnel opened the scoring when Virtanen went out of his net to play the puck but lost his footing and Eric Galbraith picked up the puck and walked in front of the open net and put it home.
Late in the period with the Express already shorthanded, Max Grassi slashed the stick out of the hands of a Millionaires player and Max was sent to the box giving Quesnel a 2 man advantage late in the first. Quesnel would capitalize before the period was done as Trevor Hertz picked the top corner from the right circle to give Quesnel a 2-0 lead before the first period was done.
Grassi would cut the lead in half with the Express on a power play on their own as he slid the puck home from the front of the net. Brodie and Bay drew the assists.
As the second period went on, it appeared the Express were playing more than just the Quesnel Millionaires, they were also facing referee Adam Hyatt. He called the Express for a bench minor.
Quesnel scored on that power play as Taylor Rovatti re-stored the 2 goal Quesnel lead.
Later in the period, Greg Bay was called for tripping when a Mills player lost his footing coming out from behind the net. And no Express player was near him. It was right in front of Hyatt as well. That penalty was followed by a Tim Holloway cross checking call. Then a Cam Brodie roughing after the whistle penalty late in the second period. But despite all the penalties and frustrations with the referee. The Express couldn't allow their frustrations to take over because they were still in the game as they went into the third down a goal as Todd Fletcher cut the lead back down to one before the period was done as he scored on a screened point shot from the line.
Quesnel built up their 3rd two goal lead of the night when Eric Galbraith scored his second of the game.
But the resilient Express cut the lead back down to one again when Cam Brodie scored on a screened point shot of his own with 6:27 to go.
In spite of Burnaby's best efforts to tie the game, the Mills would hold on and Rovatti sealed the game with his second of the night into an empty net.
Final score Millionaires 5 Express 3.
Burnaby finished their road trip at 2-1 picking up a 4 of a possible 6 points. The Express felt coming out of the Quesnel game, with some better officiating, they might have had a great shot to come home with 5 or maybe even all 6 points.
3-Cam Brodie (1G, 2A)
2-Taylor Rovatti (2G)
1-Eric Galbraith (2G) GWG
There are certainly a few positives coming out of the road trip. Possibly the biggest could be the emergence of Richie Virtanen. He appears to have taken over the number one role between the pipes for the Express.
Burnaby picked up 5 out of a possible 8 points without Brodie Reid in the lineup while he was away at the World Junior A Challenge. He will definitely give the Express a boost offensively. He had 3 assists in his 2 games when he returned from injury and will now go back on the top line along side Max Grassi who's been playing some of his best hockey lately. He had 3 points in Saturday's loss in Quesnel. And since returning from a shoulder injury he has 6 goals and 3 assists for 9 points in the 6 games since returning after missing 2 weeks.
This week, the Express have just one game on the schedule. They welcome the Victoria Grizzlies to town Saturday night. The Express will be looking for some redemption after getting hammered by Victoria 6-1 in early October. That game didn't allow the Express to get their game going as they seemed to be killing penalties all night long. They hope it's a much different story Saturday night.