A lot of the excitement at Kerry Park Arena on Tuesday night happened even before the puck dropped for the Islanders’ first-round playoff showdown with the Saanich Braves, which the Isles eventually lost 6-3.
The team was presented with five awards prior to the game, including four for star forward Evan Easton and one for head coach Aaron Spotts.
Easton was named the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League’s MVP, Most Sportsmanlike Player and top forward, in addition to taking the scoring title, while Spotts was named the league’s Coach of the Year.
Easton led the league in goals with 35 and points with 74 in 47 games, and tied for second in assists with 39, nine back of teammate Brandon McClintick. Easton’s numbers improved exponentially after he recorded nine goals and six assists in 46 games the year before.
“It was a pretty special night for him,” Spotts acknowledged. “It goes to show how hard he worked over the summer. It’s a good lesson: if you want to get better, you have to put the time in. It’s nice for him to be rewarded for his hard work.”
Spotts guided the team to a record of 24 wins, 15 regulation losses, three overtime wins and six overtime losses, an improvement from 21 wins, 21 regulation losses and six overtime defeats a year ago. The Isles tied Nanaimo for third in the standings with 84 points, but were seeded fourth for the playoffs as the Buccaneers held the tiebreaker.
When the action began on the ice on Tuesday, the Isles found themselves on the powerplay after Saanich forwards Kyle Mace and Gavin Grewal were handed a 10-minute misconduct and two-minute minor penalty, respectively, for something that happened in the warmup. Spotts still wasn’t sure exactly what had gone on, even after the game.
“It was an unusual way to start the game, to go on the powerplay,” he said. “We only found out about it right at the puck drop.”
Brandon McClintick opened the scoring at 16:13, on a setup by Tory McClintick. Mace scored a powerplay goal for Saanich less than a minute and a half later. The Braves went ahead on another powerplay goal by Mace at 7:55 of the second and Grewal scored at even strength 11 seconds after that. Samson McLean replied for the Isles, but Mace completed his hat trick with another powerplay marker in the final minute of the second. Grewal added another early in the third, Easton scored on a feed from Brandon McClintick shortly after that, but the Braves iced it with a late empty-netter.
The Isles’ struggles on the penalty kill were a back-breaker as the Braves went 3-for-4 with the man advantage.
“It’s not a recipe for success when you do that,” Spotts admitted. “We knew special teams would be an important part going into the playoffs.”
Several Kerry Park players were getting their first taste of playoff action on Tuesday, and Spotts felt the team would be ready for game two on Thursday.
“I think, having a bit of experience now, we’ll be better prepared going into Thursday,” he said. “We’ll get a solid 60 minutes and tie the series back up.”
The Isles and Braves will play in Saanich on Friday and Sunday, then return to Kerry Park Arena for game five next Tuesday. Game six is set for Saanich next Friday, and game seven is set for Kerry Park next Saturday.