The Surrey Eagles’ official return to the playoffs is just days away, though their opponent has been set for awhile.
This Friday and Saturday (Feb. 28 and 29), the Birds will hit the ice in Chilliwack against the Chiefs, in the opening two games of a best-of-seven battle between the second and third seeds in the BC Hockey League’s Mainland Division.
The Chiefs earned home-ice advantage in the playoff series with a 7-0 win over Langley on Sunday (Feb. 23), meaning the Eagles will host Games 3 and 4 on Monday and Tuesday (March 2-3) at South Surrey Arena. Check www.bchl.ca for the schedule.
When the puck drops for Game 1, it will mark a reversal of fortunes for the suddenly surging Eagles, and officially put to bed last season, in which the team rifled through three head coaches, countless players – especially goaltenders – and were the lone team out of 17 that did not qualify for the post-season.
The team did qualify for the playoffs in 2017-18 under then-head coach Brandon West, and advanced to the second round, but there was a considerable dry spell prior to that, with the team having made the playoffs just twice in the last six seasons.
In 2020, the Eagles will enter the playoffs as one of the league’s hottest teams, with eight wins in the last 11 games, including an impressive 3-1 victory Wednesday (Feb. 19) over the regular-season champion Coquitlam Express, who have mostly run roughshod over their competition this year; the loss to Surrey was just the team’s ninth regulation-time defeat of the season.
But on Friday night (Feb. 21) the Eagles fell 3-2 to Langley in overtime, on home ice, in a game where two points would have secured second seed over Chilliwack.
“We were awful in the first period,” Eagles head coach Cam Keith said in a story published to the team’s website. “We thought it was going to be an easy game. We looked at the standings, we’d just beat Coquitlam, it was our last home game of the season, second place was on the line, it looked like it was all meant to be.
“There were a lot of factors that could have led to their mindset being where it was but the fact of the matter is that Langley came to work and just outplayed us in every single aspect of the game,” Keith continued. “We got outworked and that’s what it takes to win at this time of the year. This has to be a learning experience for them. There are no easy games time of year.”
Last Wednesday’s win in Coquitlam pushed the Eagles into a tie with Chilliwack for second place in the Mainland Division, and the Birds hold the tie-breaker by virtue of their season-series success against their Fraser Valley rivals.
In the end, the Eagles finished the season with 62 points, one back of the Chiefs.
At points throughout the season, both Keith and general manager Blaine Neufeld have said chasing down the Chiefs was the team’s late-season goal – Neufeld told PAN in January it was “our focus” – but to have finally reeled them in still came as something of a surprise, especially considering the Eagles were mired near the bottom of the division during the early portions of the season.
“Even as coaches we’re continually getting surprised here. I don’t think anyone really thought this was a possibility,” Keith said.
“We talked about (finishing second) as a goal, especially after once we got clear of Langley, but we had to absolutely run the table. We won a lot of four-point games against Chilliwack.”
Surrey certainly held an advantage over the Chiefs in regular-season action, winning six of eight head-to-head matchups. Chilliwack won the first two back in October – by 3-2 and 6-3 scores – but the South Surrey squad has held the upper hand of late, winning the last six, and four since Jan. 31.
While the Eagles boast a potent top line anchored by the BCHL’s second-leading scorer in Christophe Tellier, Keith pointed to the goaltending tandem of Tommy Scarfone and Reece Klassen, as well as a more well-balanced offensive attack, as the reasons for the team’s latest surge up the standings.
Scarfone – who missed most of January with an injury – stopped 29 of 30 shots in the win over the Express last week. He also stopped a penalty shot. Klassen, meanwhile, has a 9-3-1-0 record (win-loss-overtime loss-tie) since joining the team at the trade deadline.
“Goaltending has carried us through our streak, but our secondary scoring has also really been a big factor,” said Keith. “Guys like (Carter) King, (Kenny) Riddett, (Logan) Schlaht, (Christian) Fitzgerald, their emergence has given us a balanced attack so other teams can’t focus on just one line.
“In those games where our top line was maybe sputtering the other lines carried the momentum and given us an attack where we’ve been wearing teams down more than we were before.”
After the team’s most recent win over Chilliwack, 5-2 on Feb. 17, Keith said he felt the team was as ready as it could be for the post-season – especially on home ice, where they’ve won four straight.
“It took a long time, but I feel like we are as close as we we’re going to be, we’ve reached our full potential as far as that element goes. You’ve got to give the kids a lot of credit. They just keep playing.”