The Chilliwack Chiefs returned to their winning ways with solid victories over the Nanaimo Clippers and Langley Rivermen over the weekend.
Netminder Mitch Gillam stopped all 40 Nanaimo shots on goal Friday at Prospera Centre en route to his league-leading fourth shutout of the year and a 3-0 victory. The following night, Gillam didn't need to be as good as a four-point night by Trevor Hills helped the Chiefs outscore the Rivermen 6-3 in Langley.
The Nanaimo win snapped the Chiefs' brief two-game losing skid, while the Langley victory put Chilliwack ahead by four points atop the Mainland Division standings heading into the two-week Christmas break.
Three Chiefs-Jaret Babych, Alex-andre Perron-Fontaine and Mathieu Tibbet-returned from injury Friday night. And it was Babych who put Chilliwack ahead midway through the first period when he deflected a Tanner Cochrane shot-one intended for a redirection-past Clipper goalie Jayson Argue.
That goal would remain the only tally by either team through two periods thanks in large part to Gillam, who turned away all 31 Nanaimo shots through the first 40 minutes.
Garrett Forster gave Chilliwack some insurance 1: 07 into the third period when he went to his backhand after being sprung on a breakaway by a perfect David Thompson pass. Austin Plevy rounded out the scoring with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
On Saturday, the Chiefs got three goals from defencemen and two more from Hills to beat the rival Rivermen.
Langley opened the scoring, but markers from rearguards Shay Laurent and Ben Masella midway through the first period put Chilliwack up entering the second.
The Rivermen tied the game on the power play early in the second, but goals 25 seconds apart by Hills and Babych restored, and extended, the Chilliwack advantage.
Langley clawed themselves back to within one, again on the power play, late in the second period. But that was as close as the Rivermen would get, as Perron-Fontaine and Hills each found the net in the third period. Chiefs ranked 13th in country
The Chiefs maintained their 13th spot in the Canadian Junior Hockey League weekly rankings. The Victoria Grizzlies are the highest-ranked BCHL team, at number nine in the survey. The Penticton Vees are ranked ninth.
Tough to score on Chiefs
With a veteran defence corps guarding one of the BCHL's best goalies, Chilliwack was expected to be one of the league's hardest teams to score on. And as they head into the Christmas break, the Chiefs have mostly lived up to those expectations. Through 31 games, Chilliwack has allowed just 76 goals, tied for best in the league with the Vees, who have played two more games.
More surprising-to both observers and Chilliwack head coach Harvey Smyl-has been the output of the Chiefs' offence, which is tied for second-best in the BCHL, with 107 goals. Smyl was concerned at the start of the year about his offence.
"For us to put up the number of goals for right now, I guess that [has] surprised me the most," he told the Times last week.
At the start of the year, much of that firepower came from the line of Luke Esposito, Austin Plevy and Josh Hansen. But for the last couple months, the Chiefs have employed a more balanced attack, with Hills catching fire, Babych scoring regularly, Spencer Graboski increasing his production and Thompson adding firepower from the blueline.
The return of Perron-Fontaine-who has averaged nearly a point per game when he has been in the lineup-should help the Chiefs compensate for the absence of Hansen, who injured his knee earlier this month.
Ast has worked hard on power play
Smyl also points to his team's power play as a major ingredient in their early success.
Assistant coach "Doug [Ast] has done a great job with our power play," Smyl said. "He's worked hard at it and I think he and his group there really deserve some credit for getting that firing on all cylinders."
At the break, the Chiefs have scored on 22 per cent of their power play opportunities, good for fourth in the league.