It’s playoff time

As Brad Swanson (right), captain of the Richmond Sockeyes
As Brad Swanson (right), captain of the Richmond Sockeyes' Alumni team, looks up ice, members of the current Pacific Junior Hockey League Sockeyes (including acting captain Jeremy Hamaguchi) also have their eyes on the puck during Saturday's annual Sockeye Alumni Game at Minoru Arenas.
— image credit: Don Fennell photo

For the third straight year, Richmond Sockeyes have recorded the best regular-season record in the Pacific Junior Hockey League.

But they’ve little time to celebrate, with a first-round playoff series versus the North Delta Devils set to begin Thursday night (7:30 p.m. faceoff) at Minoru Arenas. Game 1 will be followed by three games in five nights, including Game 2 Friday at North Delta’s Sungod Arena (originally scheduled to begin at 9 p.m. but since changed to 8:15 p.m.); Game 3 Saturday, also in North Delta, at 6:45 p.m.; and Game 4 next Wednesday starting at 8:15 p.m. at Minoru Arenas. If needed, Game 5 will be played Feb. 28 in Richmond; Game 6 March 2 in North Delta; and Game 7 March 4 in Richmond. The winner will face the winner of the Delta Ice Hawks-North Vancouver WolfPack. Delta, which finished just two points back of Richmond in the standings, defeated the Sockeyes in the second round of last year’s playoffs.

North Delta secured the fourth and final playoff spot in the Tom Shaw Conference with a 21-18-4-1 record, but it was their play against Richmond during the regular season that has earned them the respect of the Sockeyes. While Richmond won four of the five games, only one was decided by two or more goals.

“There’s no question they have our attention,” said Richmond coach Aaron Wilbur.

“They play to their strengths and seem to have a good sense as a group when to push and when to hold back. They really clog up the neutral zone and don’t give you a lot. You really have to earn you chances.”

The play of Richmond’s leadership group, which includes veteran forwards Jeremy Hamaguchi and Rudi Thorsteinson, will be key in determining how far the Sockeyes go this post-season. But it will take the full commitment of every play on the roster if the team is to realize its ultimate championship goal.

“At this time of the season things happen really fast,” said Wilbur.

“If you try to manage everything you can over-coach. This is a time when your leadership is so critical and the message has to be to keep an even keel. If things are going well, you want to be able to keep your foot on the gas, but if they’re not going well you also need that same level-headedness.”

Despite winning the regular-season title, Richmond actually slumped in the final two weeks before capping the schedule with an emphatic 11-2 rout of the Ridge Meadows Flames last week. The Sockeyes lost four games in a row, albeit one in which every game was decided by a single goal and three in overtime. The games were also played in a stretch of 10 days, including three in four days—certainly a good prelude of the playoff schedule.

“Every team is going to go through a period when they face some adversity or don’t play their best,” said Wilbur.

“But that said, there were times during that stretch when I thought we played extremely well, like when we allowed only eights shot in two periods (but lost in overtime to Abbotsford).”

Richmond’s final tuneup prior to the playoffs came last Saturday, when the Sockeyes outscored their alumni 8-5 in the club’s annual scholarship fundraiser at Minoru Arenas. More than the victory, however, was perhaps a growing appreciation among the current players for the contributions made by those who came before them. Wilbur hopes that inspires the players to give more of themselves in the playoffs.

“It’s easy to say you’ve got to buy in,” Wilbur said. “You hear the message so often it almost becomes a bit of a clichė But it’s through commitment and sacrifice that you build a culture where people are willing to play for something bigger than than themselves.

“The alumni game spoke to the culture of our franchise and the togetherness that exists,” Wilbur continued. “We’ve got really good people in our (dressing) room and a lot of guys for whom this will be their final games as Sockeyes. I think our group really wants to leave a mark on this program.”

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