Now at the 12 game mark, the Saanich Braves are learning what life is all about as a winning team in the Island junior B hockey circuit.
The club shot out of the gates with eight wins in the first 11 tries but is lamenting its most recent game, a 4-2 loss to the Kerry Park Islanders at home on Friday. The loss came 24 hours after the Braves biggest game of the season, a 2-1 road win over the Victoria Cougars in Esquimalt.
“You can get so high for one game, and we played so hard and so well [against the Cougars], we executed fantastically,” said Braves coach Brad Cook. “It could have gone either way, but they deserved to win and that feels good, because there’s nothing worse than putting out a good effort out and you deserve to win but you don’t.”
What the Braves of 2016-17 are learning is how to deal with being a first-place team in the VIJHL. The Braves are 8-4, four points ahead of the second-place Cougars (6-3) and third-place Islanders (6-4). And when you’re at the top, the other teams bring their best, as the Islanders did on Friday night.
The shots were about even on Friday, at 30-29 in favour of the Islanders, but Cook believes the Braves out-chanced the Islanders. The problem was a matter of focus, as the Braves took a series of unnecessary penalties, likely the result of an emotional drain, or hangover, as Cook puts it, after accomplishing a rare win over the Cougars the night before. (It was the Braves first win over the Cougars since a 4-2 win at Pearkes arena on Sept. 25, 2015.)
“We were distracted with the wrong things, worrying about referee calls, and that focus and energy on the wrong things cost us,” Cook said. “If we had the energy in the right place we could have probably greased out a home win there.”
Captain Nick Guerra saw Friday’s loss similarly.
“We had the chance to go up an extra two points on Victoria [in the standings] and we let it slip away.”
The Braves will get another chance to move up on the Cougars when they host them on Friday. It will be undoubtedly be another test for Guerra.
As the league leader in scoring with 19 goals and seven assists in 12 games, Guerra is receiving a lot of extra attention. After scoring 14 goals in the first six games of the season he’s slowed down to just five in the last six games. It’s in part because of the added awareness teams have of him. But the 20-year-old believes he’ll continue to produce offensively.
“We’re definitely seeing tighter checking teams now,” he said.
Guerra was in the Cougars’ sights all night last week, and has been swarmed by teams as of late, to which Cook gives him added credit.
“The thing with Nick is he changes his game,” Cook said. “Against the Cougars he was great defensively, he got physical, he got a little nasty, he led by example, and it let our other lines go out and chip in.”
Case in point, Guerra didn’t score in the Oct. 6 win over the Cougars. Instead, it was rookies Kyle Mace and Gavin Grewal.
To shake things up, Cook has dropped Drew Coughlin (10 points) from playing wing with Guerra and centre Dale McCabe (18 points) to centering a line of his own. Conversely, Scott Henderson has been moved off of centre and onto McCabe’s wing. It gives Henderson a chance to add even more on offence and gives Coughlin an opportunity to really learn a 200-foot game, Cook said.
“He’s learning to play without the puck, and I think it’s worked. He’s checked his offence at the door and is focused on a complete game, and that’s all we ask our from players.”
Returning this month to the Braves is another veteran on the junior scene, Brandon Fushimi, who’s back to play his final year of eligibility.
The Braves play Thursday night in Nanaimo and are home Friday, 6:45 p.m. versus the Cougars.