CANMORE – After six periods of play against the nation's top junior A club, the Canmore Eagles earned a pair of confidence boosting victories.
“We just played six of the best periods we’ve played in a long time," said a jovial Eagles head coach, Andrew Milne after the Eagles 5-4 win against the Brooks Bandits on Tuesday (Feb. 4).
"It’s one thing when you play hard and don’t get rewarded … the guys played really well, aggressive, in-your-face hockey against a really great hockey club, and when you get rewarded like that, your confidence just sky rockets.”
In the first game of the home-and-away series with Brooks, the Eagles weathered the storm and held out to a thrilling 7-6 win in Brooks on Saturday (Feb. 1).
Milne said the team’s week-long preparation for the games was vital to his side's success.
“Having the opportunity to focus on playing six periods against Brooks and only think about one opponent is rare, and we took advantage of that,” said Milne.
Another important factor in the week leading up to the pair of games, was the ability for the Eagles to recover and get healthy.
Drae Gardiner who has suffered from a nagging injury since the start of the year, returned to the lineup on Tuesday and put in a gritty hard-nosed effort on the blue line.
The Eagles had eight different goal scorers against the Bandits. Michael Spafford led the way with three goals, and was a constant offensive threat.
“The team’s rolling right now. We’re getting scoring from all areas top to bottom in the lineup and we’re a confident bunch right now,” said Spafford.
“The belief is there in this group and we believe we can beat any team on any given night.”
Since the trade deadline (Jan. 10), the Eagles have changed gears and played the team's best hockey of the season. Canmore is 7-3 in the last 10 games and has won three games in a row for the first time this season.
“Everyone has really bought-in since the trade deadline, we’ve got a great group of guys and everyone is on the same page out there,” said Eagles captain Connor Lyons.
“We’re are really focused on what needs to be done on a shift-by-shift basis and that translates to our recent success.”
The Eagles recent success can also be attributed to the improved special teams. Since the deadline, Canmore’s penalty kill has been the third best in the league over the past 10 games, running at an impressive 84.3 per cent, a drastic improvement from their roughly 75 per cent average throughout the season.
“Our penalty kill has been unbelievable lately. We have so many guys that are willing to take a sacrifice and putting their face in front of pucks and want to block everything,” said Lyons.
The Eagles have relied on the power play throughout the season. After a slight dip midway through, the team seems to have found its stride again operating at more than 25 per cent efficiency.
Goaltender, Devin Chapman got the nod in both games against Brooks, straying from the coaching staff’s original plan of splitting the games between the Eagles goalies.
“You want to be playing hot at the right time and Devin is doing that right now," Milne said.
"He’s put us in a position to win over the past three games. That being said, the position for starter is always up for grabs and I know Kadin [Kilpatrick] will want to be that guy too.”
With three wins in his last three starts, Chapman now has a 10-10 record and a 3.94 GAA.
“I’m playing with fire right now," Chapman said.
"My confidence is the highest it’s been this season and I just want to continue to give our team a chance to win games. I definitely like to think that I am the starter, but there is still a lot of hockey left. I just have to continue on the track I am.”
Milne said he is happy to let the team celebrate the pair of wins over Brooks and wants to build on its confidence looking froward to the next two games this weekend against Okotoks.
“We’ve got some time before we play another good team in Okotoks, but we are going to let them enjoy the wins. They deserve it and we will bring them back down by the time we play Okotoks, but for now we’re going to keep playing off the high,” Milne said.
The red hot Oilers are on a 13-game winning streak and have over taken Brooks as the top club in the league, and Lyons is looking forward to the challenge.
“We’ve got Okotoks back-to-back on Friday, Saturday coming up here, so we need to understand what made us successful against Brooks and take that into Okotoks,” said Lyons.
The Eagles will host Okotoks on Saturday (Feb. 8) at the Canmore Rec Centre.