The Surrey Eagles are looking to fly in the British Columbia Hockey League playoffs as they have during the regular season.
In 2022, the Eagles were swept in the Coastal Conference quarterfinals by the Nanaimo Clippers. That came after a 28-26-0-0 regular season and a sixth-place finish in the Coastal Conference. Things are certainly different this time around. As of March 14, the Eagles sport a 31-15-2-1 record, have already clinched a postseason berth, and sit second in the conference behind the Clippers. What is the difference this season?
“The returning group of players from last year all kind of elevated their games,” said Eagles general manager and head coach Cam Keith. “(There are) a lot of kids taking steps forward in our veteran group. We’ve had some outstanding rookies that have come in and done things that you wouldn’t normally see from first-year kids. Combine that with your goalies who are having banner seasons, (and) it’s a recipe for a successful season.”
The former BCHL standout who went on to play at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and then in minor pro leagues and Europe believes his squad can thrive in the postseason. “The character that we have, the depth, the goaltending, and our D-corps.”
He stresses the Eagles’ balance and belief that if an injury happens, it will not derail their postseason chances. “We’re not dependent on any particular line or player to produce,” added Keith. “We kind of score by committee.”
Home ice advantage
In the playoffs, the Surrey squad plans to make the most of the home ice advantage their strong regular season record has earned them for the early rounds. The Eagles have the fourth-best home record in the BCHL this season. Surrey is 18-4-0-1 as of this writing.
The Eagles try to make the most of the South Surrey Arena‘s larger Olympic-sized ice surface. “We feel it is a huge advantage for us,” explained Keith, mentioning that his squad’s strength is moving the puck quickly to generate offense. “We kind of attack in a unit of five.”
However, the Eagles have shown they can play in hostile settings as the team is fifth in the BCHL with a 13-11-2-0 road record. “We’ve proven we can play some very tough road-style games and on smaller ice surfaces.”
Taking the next step
Keith’s belief is that the disappointment of falling in the first round last year helped fuel the returning players. “They came in with an improved mindset this group. It kind of bled into our younger guys. I think that’s a huge reason for our success – that leadership core.”
Many of the players back from last season are enjoying career years pointwise. As of March 14, Jacob Bonkowski leads the Eagles with 25 goals and 51 points in 49 games. Both of those numbers are a jump from the 11 goals and 31 points the University of Nebraska-Omaha commit had a season ago.
Jake Bongo, who is committed to play at Sacred Heart University, had 50 points through 49 games after posting 48 as a rookie. The duo leads the Eagles in scoring.
Defender Tate Taylor is fourth on the squad in points. With 43 points in 49 games, the Clarkson University commit has more than doubled the 18 points he posted in 2021-22, which was his first full BCHL campaign. Forward Cole Galata, also headed to SHU, has upped his points total in his second season to 40 from 29. At the other end of the ice, second-year goalie Eli Pulver is also enjoying a strong campaign.
The returning players are not only having an impact on the ice but also off it. Keith praised the veteran leaders for not putting themselves on a pedestal and being inclusive. The vets wearing letters this season for the Eagles include captain Brody Gagno (who has been limited by injury), Galata, Bongo, and Ross Roloson, the son of former NHL goaltender Dwayne Roloson.
Keith praised the veterans for helping a strong crop of first-year players. Three of the Eagles’ top 10 scorers are rookies.
“Sometimes you have older kids having (the) success that kind of shelters the younger players into not feeling the pressure and kind of following suit,” said Keith. “I think that’s kind of been the formula for success – the lead-by-example kind of thing.”
Rookie and Brown University commit Aaron Schwartz is third on the Eagles in scoring with 19 goals and 45 points through 47 games. He ranks fourth among first-year BCHL players in scoring.
Ryden Evers, committed to the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has 15 goals and as many assists for 30 points in his first season. Zachary Wagnon, a Yale University commit, has accumulated 25 points.
“(They have) really played like they have more experience,” added Keith. “They didn’t really ever show signs of adjusting.”
While the Eagles score by committee, they also have proven to be able to keep the puck out of the net. The team was tied with the Victoria Grizzlies for the lowest goals-against in the Coastal Conference with 134 as this writing.
The Eagles have been particularly effective on the penalty kill. They are fourth in the BCHL with an 84.0 percentage. At home, the Eagles kill off penalties at a league-best 91.2 per cent clip.
Keith was quick to deflect praise for the penalty kill’s effectiveness to the players. He jokes that there’s no secret sauce, adding that blueliners Ty Brassington, Rolson, and Gagno, when available, have been big on the PK.
“(It’s really) how well they defend and their commitment to defending. When it comes down to it, your PK is only as good as your goaltending. Our goalies make saves when we need them. They’re only going to score on second and third chance opportunities, especially on a powerplay, against us,” said Keith.
The Eagles feel they have a formidable tandem in net with Pulver and rookie Michael Sochan. Pulver plays the bulk of the games, but Keith said there’s no change in the team’s approach, regardless of who’s between the pipes. “You can tell our kids have a lot of confidence in both.”
The head coach noted that the 6-foot-1 netminders are similar in size and competitiveness, both being very aggressive, athletic, and having lots of energy.
Pulver paces the BCHL with a .930 save percentage and is ranked second with a 1.66 goals-against average. Pulver’s 25 wins are the fifth-most in the league. Sochan has seven wins, a 3.14 GAA, and a .905 save percentage.
“Every season has its story and our story is kind of (that) both goalies are intertwined into pivotal parts of games that we needed to have – where we relied on the goalie to win us a game. Both have done that, (and) not just once or twice, but consistently,” noted Keith. “Any time you have success as a team, you need your goalie to be your best player. Both these kids on any given night have done that (for us).”