Neutral zone is key to defeating Demons

The Terrace River Kings host the arch-rival Kitimat Ice Demons on Jan. 26 – Joe Pelletier takes a look at their chances

The Terrace River Kings host the arch-rival Kitimat Ice Demons on January 26th in game one of their best of three CIHL playoff series.

The River Kings have looked solid most of the season but will enter the series as underdogs to Kitimat, as they so often do.

The Ice Demons won three out of four head to head match-ups this season, outscoring Terrace by a combined score of 16-10. Since 2009 Kitimat has won 15 times against Terrace in 21 games by a combined score of 87-65.

Yet it is Kitimat that is looking for a measure of revenge. These two teams met last year in the opening round of the CIHL playoffs with Terrace sweeping Kitimat in two games.

Can Terrace pull off the upset again?

If they are to do it, they are almost certainly going to have to do it without their highest pedigree player Josh Murray. Murray formerly played American college hockey, but suffered cracked vertebrae in his neck earlier this season in a game against Kitimat.

Last year’s leading scorer has only played 4 games this season as a result, and has been calling the forward lines as assistant coach instead. Murray’s absence has left Terrace with a pop-gun offense.

And it’s been a season of change in Kitimat, as several of the names of the past have passed the torch to the next generation. Here’s the keys to defeating the Ice Demons:

1. Terrace has to remain disciplined. Kitimat’s power play can blow games open. Terrace needs to eliminate all the chincy hacks and whacks and muzzle the yappers. Focus on the process (as Alain Vigneault loves to say) and keep from unravelling themselves.

2. Focus on defenseman Jeff Mildenberger. Kitimat’s #11 is a fantastic tactician with the puck, making excellent passes when he’s not outright rushing the puck into the offensive zone. He is one of the CIHL’s top defensemen. The River Kings need to be on him quick and force him to move the puck faster than he wants to. They should put the puck in his corner every time and wear him down. He quarterbacks the Kitimat power play so the Terrace forward covering his point needs to be quick and agile enough to hurry Mildenberger and not let him set up.

3. Make the goalie move. Kitimat has experimented with their goaltending all season but it looks as though the other Mildenberger, Thomas, will start in net. He’s small and cat-like. But if Terrace can move the puck with cross-crease passes he leaves a lot of room up top to shoot at. Of course Kitimat’s defense won’t cooperate, so quick puck movement in the offensive zone will open up Kitimat’s defense and allow for those quick one-timers.

4. Quick through the neutral zone. Kitimat may have beaten Smithers in the final game of the season, but the seriously undermanned Steelheads exposed Kitimat’s weak play in the neutral zone. With two or three quick passes Smithers was hitting the Kitimat blue line with speed and often with an odd man rush. Terrace prefers to slow the game down, and did so masterfully against Kitimat for two periods in their last match up. Defensively they should continue to disrupt Kitimat’s set plays but Terrace needs to surprise Kitimat by offering a new look on the transition offense. Instead of the all too often one-man rush through the neutral zone, Terrace needs to adopt Smithers quick 2 or 3 pass attack. No player holds the puck for longer than two or three seconds, followed by short passes and hitting the blue line with speed.

It seems odd to say but Terrace’s best chance to win might be by controlling the neutral zone. Game two of the series will be played in Kitimat on February 2nd. Game three, if necessary, will be played at a date yet to be announced.

Joe Pelletier is keeping hockey history alive online at Twitter: @HockeyLegends.