When last we met the Terrace River Kings were mired in a 2-5-1 rut. They were routed by the league leading Smithers Steelheads.
Their pop-gun offense was not rewarding them for their consistent play all season long. They were already in serious trouble concerning a playoff spot.
Four weeks later the River Kings rattled off four straight wins and their spot in the playoffs is looking a whole lot more secure.
The River Kings “tomahawked” Lac La Hache in a spirited 6-5 win. The next day they took advantage of a travel-weary Williams Lake team, upsetting the Stampeders 5-2.
Williams Lake looked tired, disinterested, not hungry and probably not very thirsty after partying it up the night before in Prince Rupert.
Perhaps even more unexpected was the win over the Ice Demons in Kitimat on Dec. 7. Kitimat has been a league power as always again this season and have already clinched a playoff berth. But they hit a rough patch with upset losses to divisional foes Rupert and Terrace in consecutive games.
Terrace took a major step to securing their playoff destiny the following night, defeating Rupert 5-2 and leaving the Rampage firmly in the division basement. Eight out of nine teams make the CIHL playoffs. Terrace has pulled clear of Rupert, Houston and Omenica (Vanderhoof) and have joined the middle of the pack.
So what has spurred the River Kings turn-around?
The young team has really focussed on driving play with their speed. They skate hard. They finish their checks. They have been noticeably better at holding play in the offensive zone.
And they have improved their discipline, both in terms of taking bad penalties and in focussing on doing the little things that win hockey games. Getting the puck in deep. First man on the puck. Forecheck. Backcheck. Be a good teammate. Skate hard. Then skate hard some more.
Leading the way all season in all of these departments has been Tristan Murray. Kids, watch #14 at the two River Kings games this weekend and pattern your play after him. He skates hard every shift, plays the game cleanly, and, largely because he focusses his game on the little things, he is the teams’ leading scorer.
The versatile Murray has been the River Kings’ best and most consistent player night-in and night-out, shift-in and shift-out, all season long. He has set the tone for the team all year.
That being said, goaltender Garrett Muir may just get the team’s Most Valuable Player vote. He was not even in the crease mix at the beginning of the season.
But since joining the River Kings he has a record of 3 wins and 1 loss. He also secured the victory over Williams Lake in a relief appearance.
His goals-against-average is 4th best in the entire league and his save percentage is third best. Not bad considering the top goalie in most categories (Smithers’ Michael Wall) used to play in the National Hockey League.
The River Kings specialty teams play has improved in this recent 4 game stretch. In the eight previous games the Kings gave up 11 power play goals against in 41 attempts, a pathetic success rate of just 73%.
In the last four they have killed off 24 of 27 penalties, a much improved 89%. The Kings pop-gun power play has also improved. In the previous 8 games the team operated at just 7% success rate, scoring just 4 goals on 57 power plays. In the last 4 games the team has clicked a more respectable 14% rate, scoring 3 times in 21 attempts.
Chalk that up to good coaching. Roger Tooms has made subtle adjustments only this season. Usually those changes have been necessitated due to injury, suspension or unavailability. But Tooms has kept his lines together as much as possible this season.
Many of the new players have grown up in Terrace and played the game together. Tooms is trying to tap in that chemistry and let it grow here at the senior level.
It appears the coach’s patience may finally be rewarded.
The River Kings have big match ups against Prince Rupert and Kitimat on Jan. 4 and 5, respectively. Both games are at 8pm.
UPDATE: Since this column was first published, the River Kings have indeed clinched that playoff spot.