Friday, April 5, 2013

Batch's Breakdown: Conference Final vs. Alberni Valley

After sweeping the Chilliwack Chiefs in the Mainland Division Final, the Eagles had three days off before starting the Conference Final against the banged up and tired Alberni Valley Bulldogs. The Birds went on to sweep the Dogs in a hard fought series that featured three one-goal games -- two of which went to overtime. Surrey has now strung together an impressive nine game winning streak and is 10-1 in the playoffs.

Friday, March 29th - Game 1

The opening game of the series was a hard fought, albeit defensive affair. The two goaltenders -- Michael Santaguida and Jay Deo -- were both strong between the pipes. The Birds found the lone goal of the game when Demico Hannoun scored on a breakaway with less than two minutes remaining in the third, and the Eagles went ahead 1-0 in the series.

Saturday, March 30th - Game 2

The Bulldogs came out with purpose in the second game of the series, and Evan Tironese opened the scoring early in the middle frame. Adam Tambellini equalized for the Eagles on the power play, but Tironese returned serve with a shorthanded goal to give Alberni a 2-1 lead after two. Brady Shaw pulled the Birds back onto even terms in the third with a highlight reel goal, sending the game to overtime. Nic Pierog scored the winner on a deflection for Surrey.

Monday, April 1st - Game 3

Game 3 was another close one with the goaltenders battling at either end of the ice in Port Alberni. Shaw put the Birds ahead with a breakaway goal in the dying seconds of the middle frame, and Tambellini extended the Surrey lead to 2-0 with an early goal in the third. But a desperate Bulldogs team rallied to tie the game, getting back-to-back power play goals from Jared Wilson and Teal Burns, and the game needed more than 60 minutes. Pierog played the role of hero once again when he scored on a wraparound after Deo came out of the net to play the puck and turned it over, giving the Eagles a stranglehold in the series.

Tuesday, April 2nd - Game 4

The Eagles took the lead in the fourth game, scoring a goal in the first period for the first time in the series when Shaw beat Deo off the rush. Surrey added three goals in the second period from Michael Stenerson (2) and Craig Wyszomirski. Alberni Valley rallied again in the third to make it 4-2 thanks to goals from Burns and Ryan Buse, but the Eagles held off the late charge from the Dogs. Stenerson added an empty netter to complete the 5-2 win.

Positives from the Series

The Birds fought hard throughout the four games and got the job done, giving them a nice long rest ahead of the Fred Page Cup Final. Surrey's ability to squeak out victories in close games will serve them well going forward -- as it has all season long. I said it after the Chilliwack series, but I will say it again; the Eagles got a complete team effort to win this series. Every single player chipped in to help the team advance.

Looking at a few individual performances, Pierog was simply clutch. The hulking centreman scored the two OT winners but was also incredibly strong in the face-off circle. I've talked a lot about how Pierog has really blossomed in the second half of the season, and in this series, he showed that he can be a high-end contributor in this league. Stenerson had another big game when it mattered most as well, tallying a hat-trick in the series clinching win. 

Devon Toews was a warrior in the series too, chipping in offensively with a handful of points, but more importantly staying strong in his own zone. Matt Erhart often talks about how Toews might not get enough credit for his defensive play, and I completely agree with him. The Abbotsford native was a rock in the defensive end of the ice and was a big part of a Surrey blue line that held the Bulldogs to six goals in four games.

Between the pipes, Santaguida was phenomenal again. He made a couple of gigantic stops in Game 4 including a late save on Burns in the third period on a chance that would have pulled the Dogs to within one goal. As the playoffs carry on longer and the games get more important, Santaguida has stepped up his game to another level, and it's been an pleasure to watch.

Negatives from the Series

For the second straight series, the Birds gave up a shorthanded goal. As Erhart said when I chatted with him before Game 3, "You can't give up a shorthanded goal in the playoffs." While Surrey has been strong at even strength, the power play was 16.67% in the series. A couple of extra goals on the man advantage could have meant the difference between overtime and regulation wins in a pair of those games.

The team's play in the third period of Game 4 was a bit worrying as well. The Eagles had a 4-0 lead, but allowed the Dogs off the mat and gave them a chance to get back into the game. It's kind of funny to say that the team needs a little more of a killer instinct after sweeping a series, but I think more urgency in scenarios like that could be important when you look ahead at the prospect of strong competition from Penticton.

Eagles Goal of the Series

Brady Shaw's Goal in Game 2. Watch it here.

Eagles Save of the Series

Michael Santaguida's Stop on Teal Burns in Game 4. Watch it here.

3 Stars of the Series
1. Nic Pierog
2. Michael Santaguida
3. Brady Shaw

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