A year after a disappointing campaign left them on the outside looking in come playoff time, the Victoria Grizzlies sit near the top of the B.C. Hockey League a third of the way into the season.
The Grizzlies (13-3-2-3) hit the 20-game mark with a 4-0 shutout of the Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Friday and followed that up with a convincing 3-0 win over the Vernon Vipers the following night to give themselves a share of the Island Division lead.
Further, the club sat just three points behind the surging Penticton Vees for the top spot in the league entering a weekend in which they’ll play back-to-back games in Powell River. The Kings (15-7-1-0) sat tied for first with the Grizzlies at press time.
The scenario represents a sharp turnaround from a year ago, when the Grizzlies stumbled out of the gate and failed to recover, but it would be a stretch to label the Grizzlies a surprise.
With returning veterans like Cole Pickup and Tyler Welsh up front, Cody Van Lierop and Jake Stevens on the back end and Matthew Galajda in net, the Grizzlies boast experience in spades and it’s shown in the team’s success thus far.
The Grizzlies have produced a solid 4-1-1-2 road record, an area that can often be a struggle for less experienced junior clubs.
“A lot of our veteran players came back ready to go and it’s allowed them to have a good start,” said head coach Craig Didmon.
“They have an expectation when they get on the road. Guys like Cody Van Lierop and Cole Pickup, they just take over and make sure that we’re competing hard.”
Pickup is among several Grizzlies to commit to NCAA programs for next fall and more commitments are likely in the near future.
“It’s a testament to their hard work and their commitment … it’s an early reward for those guys and now they can focus on their team success,” Didmon said.
Pickup, who committed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, said having his future settled has removed a lot of the pressure on him in his fifth and final season with the Grizzlies. It’s shown on the scoresheet, as the Grizzly forward sits an impressive fourth in league scoring with 31 points.
“I think in previous years I’ve maybe worried about it too much. This year, coming in as a 20 year old, I know there’s a lot of pressure, because if I don’t get (a scholarship) I may not be playing hockey next year,” Pickup said.
“This year, I just came in, wanted to have fun, work hard and be a big leader in that change room.”
Second-year Grizzly Galajda was the first team member to announce his 2017/18 intentions, committing to Cornell University. He has built on an impressive rookie campaign with a sparkling 2.14 goals against average and a 10-4-2 record.
“We definitely believe more in our team now. We have a lot of top players,” he said. “For me, I really don’t have to worry about much. I can just play and put the team first.”
Didmon also highlighted the rookie trio of Jamie Rome, Lucas Clark and Cameron Thompson for having a big impact at both ends of the ice.
“It’s not so much a surprise, but what a huge impact and boost in the arm they were. They came as advertised, all of them,” he said.
That’s not to say the Grizzlies don’t have areas that need improvement.
Victoria’s power play sits at 18.5 per cent – fifth-worst in the league – and has particularly struggled at home where it’s “firing” at just a 15-per-cent clip.
“At home, we’re trying to make it perfect, whereas on the road we’re just desperate to get goals. I think that’s a mind frame and I think that’s a good stat because that’s a good example … they’re a little more passive at home and much more aggressive on the road,” Didmon said.
Signs of separation are starting to show within the Island Division, as the Grizzlies and Powell River have a six-point lead on the Cowichan Valley Capitals and lead the Nanaimo Clippers by seven.
The Alberni Valley Bulldogs have struggled to a 5-12-3-0 start and will have an uphill battle to make the playoffs. Didmon sees that start as a result of playing in a difficult division. “I feel Alberni’s a lot better than their record. I think we’re the strongest division in the league. Standings-wise that’s very clear,” he said.
After playing tonight (Nov. 11) and tomorrow in Powell River, the Grizzlies return to The Q Centre for three home games the following weekend.