As the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League season hits the home stretch, bus trips have become a little less ominous for the Westshore Wolves.
The Colwood-based team, firmly positioned in second place in the South Division, is finally learning how to win on the road.
“When we started the season, it seemed like every bus trip we made, we would lose, but we were really good at home,” said Wolves’ head coach Brian Passmore of contests against North Division teams.
After losing their first five games north of Mill Bay, the Wolves won their next two (their final true road trip of the season was last Friday against the division-leading Storm in Campbell River, after the ***Gazette’s early holiday deadline).
“We’re getting almost to .500 on the road, so we’ve got that somewhat figured out,” Passmore said. “Sometimes it’s mental and how you prepare for those games.”
The South-leading Victoria Cougars and the Storm have put distance between themselves and the rest of the pack. The Wolves are the only team that has reasonably kept pace, becoming the third-fastest team to hit the 20-win mark a couple of weeks back.
Westshore has taken points off every team in the league this season, including a big 6-5 win over perennial powerhouse Victoria. On the other hand, they’ve given up at least one point to every team but Peninsula, a fact Passmore says the top teams haven’t experienced.
Learning how to win on the road, especially against teams with worse records, is something the Wolves need to improve further on as the playoffs draw near, he said. That, and cutting down on the kind of turnovers that force the Cougars to score four or five goals to win.
“You learn from your mistakes. We’ve gone through our up and downs this season; we just ask that they not make the same mistakes over and over. And that starts with practice.”
Last week’s win over the Cougars saw both teams forecheck hard and show their speed in a high-flying game. The Wolves impressed by making the Cougars pay for sloppy play with the man advantage, scoring shorthanded twice in the second period.
Defenceman Rylan Ball, who played 30 games for Cowichan Valley’s BCHL team last year, had his best outing since being signed six games ago by the Wolves, scoring three goals and setting up another. It was another case of someone different coming through for the team at the right time.
“That was a really important game for us,” Passmore said. “The kids all really wanted to win and set the tone for the second half, letting (the Cougars) know that coming down the stretch we’ll be right there with them.”
Roster-wise, the team lost productive forward Brett Lervold to the Cougars last month when he asked for a trade, and Nick Guiney more recently when he was brought up the Victoria Grizzlies.
Westshore added gritty forward James Severs in a deal with Campbell River. Somewhat hidden in the Storm’s potent offence, he’s responded to more ice time by averaging better than two points per game.
Fellow newcomer Christian Brandt has nine points in six games so far.
Passmore said unlike last year, there’s been more player movement in the league, with teams jockeying for position a little earlier. The Wolves will be watching teams like Victoria and potential first-round playoff opponent Kerry Park to see if they move to strengthen their lineups before the Jan. 10 roster deadline.
While he’s happy with the character of his team and sees them heading in the right direction, Passmore said the team wouldn’t hesitate to make a move if the right deal came along.
“(Besides tightening up on defence,) we just want to be harder to play against. We know we’ll get our scoring chances, but we don’t wanna get into those 6-5 and 7-6 games like we did the other night. It’ll be more like 2-1 and 3-1 in the playoffs.”
The Wolves return from their Christmas break with a Jan. 7 game at home against Comox Valley.