It was another difficult day on the ice for the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears hockey team as they were defeated again by the West Valley Wolfpack Sunday afternoon at TreadwellArena.
The 8-4 score was not exactly a reflection on the team's play, however. In fact, it looked like the Bears played their best hockey of the season with playoffs nearing closer by the day.
Head coach Dave McKenna, though not happy with the loss, said his team is growing stronger with each game played, especially against the tough opponents from the Mid-Alaska Conference.
"It's hard to feel good about games that you lose 8-4, but at the same time, our guys played better defense than they ever have before and had some smart puck movement," he said. "It's a step in the right direction, especially after four games in four nights.
"We still have some adjustments, but that's a really, really good team. They don't have a weakness and they have lots of different strategies, so we'll try to find consolation in that and try to bounce back and assume we might see them in the playoffs and give it a better effort."
Both Saturday's and Sunday's games were very competitive, despite the final scores. McKenna said the team can't afford to relax at any time when playing a squad with the abililty of a West Valley because they will capitalize on opportunities given to them. Midway through the second period, the score was tied 3-3, but the Wolfpack finished the frame strong taking a 6-3 lead into the third period.
"It shows what kind of scoring power they have when any time we have a let up - and we do, we're still pretty young as hockey players - they can put the puck in the net like that. The shots were very lopsided and that's an area of concern for us because we have to find ways to generate offense," he said. "The tough part is, we just play so few games at this pace, and so our guys aren't accustomed to making things happen that quickly. It's tough to make a transition from a slower paced game to a faster one.
"West Valley plays all the big teams in Anchorage, they have a really tough schedule and they've been playing really well this year so the game probably seemed like slow motion to them out there and it seemed like the fastest thing we've seen."
As McKenna said, the shot disparity on the JDHS side is definitely a cause for concern after West Valley got off 43 shots to the Bears' 14 shots. Juneau-Douglas' goalkeeper Matt Noreen had 35 saves while West Valley's goalie Katrina Lydon only needed 10 saves in the win.
Senior forward Chris Budbill, who finished Sunday's game with a goal and two assists, said while the team played well, there were moments when he felt the team let their intensity drop a little, and they paid for it.
"We're starting to come together as a team, it's really good. We've never played this well in the four years I've played," he said. "We just lost it a couple of times (Sunday). We had our intensity way up and they scored a couple of goals and it started going down. So, we just need to get a little bump up to get our intensity back up and skate hard.
As far as what the team needs to do to keep their focus steady, Budbill said the team knows what they need to do.
"We can't make the small mistakes - we have to get the puck up and just try to bounce back as fast as we can. The first minute after a goal is the most important and it can change the momentum of the game from just one goal. That's the best way to show them that we can compete with them," he said. "Even though the score doesn't show it, we were with them for most of the game."
McKenna also said the experience from the competition and the time off will be beneficial to his squad when they make their trip to Fairbanks for the playoffs.
"I'm optimistic in the sense that I know our legs will be fresh. We have some time to make some adjustments before we go up there, which is nice because last year we didn't," he said. "We all know we have our hands full with whoever we play, but I think we learned a lot this weekend.
"And again, we played some of our smartest defensive hockey and that's where it starts. When you take care of your own end, then you can make the offense happen."
The Crimson Bears have one more home series Jan. 29-30 against Delta Junction. It is not yet clear whether some key players will see full action, if any, in order to avoid injury or fatigue for their playoff trip to Fairbanks.
"If some of our guys don't play those games then they'll have gone two-and-a-half weeks without playing, so we have to have a discussion as a group and decide what's best for us," he said. Some guys might have bumps and bruises that need to be rested, but at the same time you can't take any teams lightly. It's one of those instances where - is it really going to make us better to go out and play a slow-paced game right before playing a team like West Valley."
One thing is for sure, the team is ready to prove themselves in this year's playoffs.
"I think they're going to underestimate us again, just like last year. They were obviously the better team (last year) but I have a feeling they may come out over-confident judging by the scores and they're probably going to forget about how close we had them until the last little bit," Budbill said. "Fairbanks teams don't even take us seriously. They don't even think we should have a team in Juneau, but we all have to start somewhere.
"But that gets us amped up and ready to show them that we are a team and we deserve to be respected."
Notes: In the recap of Friday night's game, Chris Budbill was credited with a goal in the second period. In fact, it was Matt Whistler who scored, not Budbill, with 3:43 left in the period off an assist from Dillon Tamaro and Christian Jacobson. During Sunday's game, Bill Holbrook scored a goal and also assisted on two goals. Zander Hoke scored off an assist from Eric Verrelli and Zane Chapman, while Tod Basedon also contributed an assist in the third period.
Matthew Tynan can be reached at ph. # 523-2267 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.