It’s been a somewhat rocky few weeks for a Giants team that’s looking at their first playoff appearance in four years.
The team holds a record of 6-5-1 in February with four of the month’s losses coming in the past two weeks. Contributing to the Giant’s recent struggles is a slew of injuries that kept key players, particularly on the team’s defence, out of action.
Despite the unfortunate results of late, Coach Jason McKee hasn’t had complaints about the way his team has played, praising their work ethic after a tough loss to the first-in-the-west Everett Silvertips.
“I think the message [from coach McKee] was that we played hard. We didn’t shy away from a good team. I think you can take positives away from a game like this,” said Giants rookie defenceman Bowen Byram after his team’s loss to Everett. “Obviously we didn’t get the result that we wanted, but we definitely put the work in and if we keep doing that we’ll start getting results.”
The Giants dropped three games in a row between Feb. 17 and 23, beginning with a heartbreakingly close game against Victoria in which, once Ty Ronning tied the game with 36 seconds remaining, Royals forward Dino Kambeitz was able to clinch the win in the last 10 seconds.
The Giants went into that game missing six roster regulars including defenceman Alex Kannok Leipert, Darian Skeoch, Dylan Plouffe, and Matt Barberis.
Leipart returned to the lineup against the Red Deer Rebels on Feb. 18 but the Giants’ depleted blueline continued to hurt as they played their fourth game in five days. Despite being faced with 15 shots in the first period, Goaltender David Tendeck managed to steer his team through with a one goal lead. The Giants would fall 4-2 after three periods, however.
After a much needed five-day break, the Giants faced the formidable Everett Silvertips with the benefit of Darian Skeoch back in the lineup. Still, without top defencemen Plouffe and Barberis, the Giants’ defence managed to hold the Silvertips to just 28 shots on the night, but the team failed to generate offensive chances on the team’s four power plays. The Giants Ultimately fell 2-1.
“We were right there. We were one shot away. Our effort and our execution was good. I liked our game,” said Coach McKee of his team’s play after their loss to Everett. “We were obviously disappointed with the loss, but we did a lot of good things against this team and they kind of had our number a bit and tonight it could have easily went the other way.”
Throughout a season wherein the Giants have developed into legitimate playoff contenders, the team has relied on a fast-paced, puck-moving defence to generate opportunities in their end. It’s not surprising, then, that the team’s recent injury troubles have come with a rash of tough losses just as the Giants attempt to overtake the Victoria Royals in the Western Conference standings to secure home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
McKee hasn’t been concerned by the recent losses. 16-year rookie defenceman Byram has looked excellent under the pressure in the absence of his more experienced teammates and has provided stability to the Giants’ blueline. Byram has been projected to go high in the 2019 NHL draft and the way he’s stepped up over this rocky February has helped his case.
Additionally, McKee has expressed confidence in his call-up defenceman coming into the lineup, as well as a few remaining regulars.
“Plouffe and Barberis are guys that play big minutes for us but our other guys have stepped in and played well,” says Mckee. “We held this team to less than 30 shots and we only gave up two and defencively I liked our game too, and we competed extremely hard. It’s a good team and it was just a well played game. I thought our defence handled well.”
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming in and out of the lineup and whenever we need them they do a good job,” says Byram. “Obviously Barbs and Plouffe are really good players but we got good guys that can fill in for them so I don’t think it matters who’s in the lineup. We got a really good chance to win.”
Barberis returned to the lineup just in time for a back-to-back against the Kamloops Blazers and Seattle Thunderbirds. The Giants shut out the Blazers before earning a point in a hard-fought overtime loss to Seattle.
With the blueline nearly back to full health, the team should be in good shape moving into the final month of the regular season. If they can stay healthy, they’ll likely have a solid chance at a deep playoff run.