Last February, at the conclusion of the White Rock Whalers’ inaugural season in the Pacific Junior Hockey League, head coach Jason Rogers had a pretty simple goal for Year 2: make the playoffs.
“The reality is that anything short of the making the playoffs next year would be a disappointment and I’d take personal ownership of that,” he told Peace Arch News at the time, adding that a fifth or sixth playoff seed seemed like a reasonable expectation for the second-year team.
Turns out, it was a pretty good guess. Not bad considering that, at the time, he didn’t even know what his 2019-20 season roster would look like – an offseason of trades and signings still loomed.
The Whalers, who are 30 games into their second season, sit exactly where Rogers predicted – in the sixth playoff spot in the 12-team PJHL, with a record of 17-12-0-1 (win-loss-tie-overtime loss). They’re fourth in the uber-competitive Tom Shaw Conference, but have more points than all but one team – the Ridge Meadows Flames – in the league’s other group, the Harold Brittain Conference. With the league’s crossover rule, it’s possible that five of the six Shaw conference teams qualify for the post-season.
With a 5-1 victory Monday over the Port Moody Panthers, the Whalers are winners of three straight games, and seven of their last 10 dating back to mid-November. They lost a road game to the Grandview Steelers Wednesday.
“There’s so much parity in the league this year, except for (first-place) North Vancouver – they’re really running away with it, so you have to be ready to play every night,” Rogers said Monday, a few hours before his team hit the ice against Port Moody.
While there are plenty of reasons for the Whalers’ improvement – the team already has three more wins than they had all of last season – Rogers pinpointed two: goaltending, and the fact that the players, especially returnees from last year, have had more time to figure out how the coaching staff wants them to play.
“Playing the systems and the structure we want, that’s part of it for sure,” Rogers said.
The goaltending duo of Christopher Akerman and Jonathan Holloway has also provided a strong defensive backbone, the coach added. The games-started split has been relatively even – Akerman has appeared in 16 games, Holloway 14 – and each netminder has a save-percentage above .900.
“Our goaltending has been very, very consistent,” Rogers said. “We’ve kind of split the duties, so there’s been a nice competitive balance there. So a large part of our success has been goaltending, but also just a commitment from our group to play the way we want them to play.”
That game plan, Rogers explained, is to forecheck hard, get the puck out of their own zone quickly, and make it difficult for opposing teams to carry the puck through the neutral zone.
“We want to make it difficult for other teams. We don’t want to give up a lot of scoring chances, and I don’t think we do,” he said. “Getting the puck and getting it (up the ice) quick, that’s our plan.”
Where the team needs to improve if it’s to keep pace with the rest of the playoff pack, Rogers said, is on special teams. The team ranks eighth out of 12 teams in power-play success rate, and ninth on the penalty kill.
“That’s going to be our focus moving forward. We need to be better… because (special teams) is a huge part of the game. We have a tendency to be in a lot of one-goal games because of the way we play, so it means the penalty kill and the power play are even more important,” he said.
“Some of our one-goal losses have been as a result of losing those special-teams battles… and if you’re losing those battles every night, you’re not going to win in this league.”
Looking ahead to the second half of the season, Rogers was buoyed by the fact that they have a string of home games on the schedule. The Whalers have played more road games than any other PJHL team thus far, but in the new year, have a stretch where they’ll play 10 of 13 on home ice at White Rock’s Centennial Arena. In the meantime, the goal is to put as many wins as possible on the board before the league breaks for Christmas.
“We’re talking about this month being ‘moving month,’” Rogers said. “Because typically, you don’t see a lot of movement (in the second half). Where you sit going into the break, that tends to be about where you end up. There can be change, of course, but we aren’t looking too far ahead, except to know that our home games are back-loaded, which is a positive.”
This weekend, the Whalers head to North Vancouver for a Saturday tilt against the Wolf Pack, who have just one regulation loss this season – “That’s a good test for us,” Rogers said – and next week, play a midweek game against the Langley Trappers. The team’s last game before the holiday break is Dec. 21 at home against the Steelers.