Sockeyes celebrate Hockey Day in Canada with massive win
Had he not missed nearly half the season with a concussion suffered in early December, Justin Rai's name may well be atop the Pacific International Junior Hockey League scoring list.
As it is, the Richmond Sockeyes' 17-year-old has still amassed some impressive numbers in his rookie campaign: 15 goals and 27 points in 23 games.
Rai has only been back with the Sockeyes for two games, but already he's padding his point total and that of the team's. He scored a goal in his first game back, a 6-2 Richmond win over the Aldergrove Kodiaks last Thursday. Then on Saturday, in a game celebrating Hockey Day in Canada at the Richmond Olympic Oval, he earned four assists as the Sockeyes routed the North Delta Devils 7-1.
"He's played well (in the last two games)," says Sockeyes' coach Judd Lambert. "He looks fresh and has fit in well again with the two guys he was playing with before (Kevin Kilistoff and Carter Popoff)."
All rookies, Rai, Kilistoff and Popoff are all in the top five in Sockeye scoring. Rai is fifth with 42 points in 23 games, Kilistoff third with 55 points in 40 games, and Popoff second with 57 points in 37 games. Jeremy Hamaguchi leads the Sockeyes in scoring with 61 points through 40 games; third best in the PIJHL behind Delta's Spencer Traher and Aldergrove's Thomas Hardy.
"They're talented and they work hard and those are the two keys to their consistent play," says Lambert. "A lot of times you find one of those two things. It's when you put them together that you're going to be an effective player."
Efficiency has been synonymous with the Sockeyes this season. They lead just about every statistical category, including a league-best record of 34-6-0. But as impressive as their numbers is a commitment to continue to improve, notably away from the puck.
"It's easy to get complacent with the defensive numbers (58 goals against in 40 games or an average of 1.45 per game) we've been able to achieve," says Lambert. "But when you break it down there are still areas we need to work on, especially without the puck. I thought we did a better job of that (at the oval) where it was even more challenging because of the Olympic-sized ice. (The oval is an additional 10 feet in length and 15 feet wider than the standard North American rink).
Lambert says the Sockeyes maintained position, without giving away too much space to North Delta, and seemed more aware in our defensive end than in some previous games. He acknowledged that perhaps having to be more disciplined on the larger ice surface helped his team to focus better.
"A big key is not turning the puck over," he says. "We're not the type of team to bang the puck around the boards. We get the puck out of end with speed and the threaten offensively."
The style has worked, as the Sockeyes have scored 216 goals in 40 games, or an average 5.4 per game. And when they face a bit of adversity, it seems their intensity only increases. It's strong penalty killing is an example of that.
"But we're always focusing on tidying things up," says Lambert, whose team maintains a nine-point lead over second-place Delta Ice Hawks in the Tom Shaw Conference and the league overall.
The Sockeyes, who played in Delta on Tuesday, have games remaining against the Grandview Steelers here Thursday (face-off is 7:30 p.m. at Minoru Arenas), Feb. 23 versus the Ridge Meadows Flames, and Feb. 26 at Grandview.