Since a rough and tumble blowup with the Oceanside Generals on Nov. 24 the Saanich Braves (19-14-2) have gone 9-1-2 in its last 11 games.
The latest win, the Braves’ fourth in a row, was a 6-1 blowout of the Westshore Wolves (16-17-1) in the Q Centre on Wednesday. Kyle Mace led the team with a hat trick, with goals from Gavin Grewal, Michael Sproule and Elliot MacIsaac.
On Friday the Braves pit their four-game win streak against the Campbell River Storm, who carry a four-game win streak of their own, 7:30 p.m. in Campbell River’s Brind’Amour arena.
Prior to the Braves’ recent run the team had 10 wins in 23 games and was slowly sinking to the bottom of the South division.
So what happened?
Maybe the team bonded over that Nov. 24 game, a 7-3 loss to the Generals (14-17-1) that ended with 94 penalty minutes to the Braves (178 PIMs total) and a total of six ejections and six misconducts (that’s what happens when you fight in Junior B now). The Braves also gave up two shorthanded goals in that game.
(All stats in the story are as of Jan. 11. Inset photo of Gavin Grewal.)
Or, maybe it was the addition of a couple former faces. To start December, the Braves re-acquired Victoria boys Ryan Strange and Eliott MacIsaac. Strange is a 17-year-old forward who affiliated with the Braves for five games last year but left town to play for the Campbell River Storm this year. MacIsaac is a 19-year-old defenceman who left the Braves in 2015 and played last season for the Truro Bearcats, winners of the Maritime Junior Hockey League. He debuted in his return with a goal in the Braves’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Victoria Cougars on Dec. 7 and now has nine points in 10 games.
Either way, it’s safe to say the Nov. 24 forced the team to take a long look in the mirror. Since then, they’ve only lost once in regulation, 3-2 to the Kerry Park Islanders (the Braves then swept the Islanders in home-and-home date Jan. 5 and 6).
Whatever it is, something spurred the Braves, who are loving life at the rink and are confident they can win against any team in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League.
“I think the big part of this run is that by December our rookies start figuring themselves out and we’ve figured out how to play as a team,” said coach Sam Waterfield. “There’s an urgency and accountability from the start of every game, and instead of me holding the players accountable they’re holding themselves and each other accountable.”
“You can only use ‘we’re young’ as an excuse for so long,” said Gavin Grewal, third in team scoring with 16 goals and 13 assists.
Right now the team is having fun, and the worries are little, Grewal added.
“In the dressing dressing room there’s a lot of character right now. If someone’s not having the best night, another guy will step up and take that [role] on. Night to night right now, [we go into games with] everyone feeling comfortable, as long as we work hard we will keep it going,”
Overall, the stat line is well balanced for the Braves. Zach Guerra, 17, remains the standout rookie with 16 goals, one of four Braves with 15 or more. Guerra, a Grade 12 student at Spectrum, has played one game as a Nanaimo Clippers affiliate and was impressive scoring a breakaway in the recent VIJHL prospects game.
There are three more Braves between Guerra (24 points) and Dale McCabe’s team-leading 32 points.
“We trust in our teammates, all of our young guys are stepping into bigger roles,” Guerra said.
One stat that has emerged since November is Riley Mathieson’s save percentage. On Wednesday Mathieson made another 34 saves on 35 shots, bumping his save percentage to .928, second in the league. It’s an impressive number considering Mathieson’s faced the most shots in the league, 1,016 which is 793 more shots than the leader, Liam Murphy of the Campbell River Storm (26-6-2).
“Riley’s been unreal for us, he’s been the backbone of the team, kept us in a lot of games,” Guerra said. “We’ve picked up our defensive game to help him, getting in shooting lanes.”