Victoria Grizzlies head coach Craig Didmon was busy in Boston and Buffalo last weekend checking on the progress of some young B.C. Hockey League prospects.
Before he left he chatted with the News Gazette on the team’s season to date and his sense of how the players are responding to the systems put in place since he was restored to the job in late November.
“To be a champion in this league is a difficult task; it just takes a 24/7 work habit,” he said after his team dropped its second game of the week at home, 4-3 in overtime to Cowichan Valley on Dec. 30. “Some guys are taking for granted how good this league is … We have to learn how important every shift is; a strong back check is critical.”
The speed of the game and the skill level of players on every team can see momentum shift in a heartbeat, and the Grizzlies have certainly experienced their share of turnabouts this season.
With 21 games to go in the regular season, the playoffs are not so far away. And there’s plenty of talent in the lineup, from veterans Dane Gibson and Garrett Forster and rookies Brett Gruber and Matthew Kennedy up front, to offensive minded blueliners to the netminding duo Didmon considers a solid 1-2 punch.
No. 1 man Michael Stiliadis, 20, is the 2014 Royal Bank Cup MVP with the Manitoba junior league’s Dauphin Kings, while 18-year-old Sean Cleary has shown he can be competitive, the coach said.
“We’ll be leaning on (Stiliadis) down the road. His game has just got better and better as the season’s gone on. Sean is a very respectful backup and will be a number one goaltender in the BCHL next year.”
Some tweaking does need to be done in the defensive zone, Didmon noted.
With a number of defencemen who can generate offence, players like Miers Moore (four goals, 25 assists), Jake Emilio (6-11-17) and Kevin Massy (4-12-16), it’s almost like having four forwards out there, he said. However, it can sometimes leave the team in the tricky spot if there’s a turnover.
“We’ve got so many offensive weapons that they want to leave the (defensive) zone,” he said. At the same time, he adds, “I don’t want to stifle their creativity.”
Playing a better game in the neutral zone, making good decisions and practising better puck management is going to serve the grizzlies well down the stretch, Didmon said.
“It’s going to be a tough second half. If we can continue to stay in second place, I think we’ll be in good shape come playoff time.”
Last weekend, the Grizzlies followed up a 6-3 home loss to Powell RIver and the OT loss to Cowichan Valley with a 6-3 home win over the Caps here Friday and a 4-1 road loss to the Kings on Saturday on the Sunshine Coast.
The results left the Grizzlies (17-12-1-7) two points back of Powell River (18-14-0-8) in second place in the Island Division, but with three games in hand on the Kings.
A bizarre twist in the schedule sees the Grizzlies head to Powell River for two more games this Friday and Saturday (Jan. 9-10). The Kings have won three of five against Victoria so far and the teams play just once more after this weekend, Feb. 21 at The Q Centre in the fourth-last game of the season.
But it’s certainly not a two-way race for second spot. Entering this week’s play, Alberni Valley (18-13-1-3) sat just two back of Victoria with two games in hand on the Grizzlies. The last-place Capitals (15-24-1-1), who have gone 11-6-1 since Nov. 22 and beat front-running Nanaimo twice after a dreadful start, sat eight back of the Bulldogs.
Nanaimo, the highest-scoring team in the BCHL, enjoys a nine-point bulge over Powell River.