The Smithers Steelheads defeated the Kitimat Ice Demons and the Prince Rupert Rampage to claim their second straight Challenge Cup last weekend in the annual, preseason tournament that serves as a tuneup for the CIHL season, which begins in just under two weeks.
“I thought we played really well,” head coach Tom DeVries said. “It was good to see us come out, almost like it was last year, and not miss a beat.”
The Steelheads iced a similar lineup to the one that captured the CIHL championship a season ago.
On Friday night Smithers took on the Kitimat Ice Demons, with the winner advancing directly to the final on Saturday evening.
Smithers jumped out to an early 3-0 lead within six minutes on goals by Mark Arnold, Adam DeVries and Darryl Young.
It looked like they would cruise to victory, but the Ice Demons came storming back.
Kitimat pulled within one goal by the end of the first period and tied things up early in the second off a scramble in front of the net.
The Steelheads responded to go up 4-3, but Kitimat had another answer, tying the game up at four on a goal by Ben Rumley in the waning moments of the second.
In the third, the Steelheads upped their intensity and their effort. Brad Goss put Smithers up 5-4 and Darryl Young added an empty netter to seal the deal.
With the win, the Steelheads moved on to the final the following night against Prince Rupert.
On Saturday, Smithers opened the scoring early and controlled much of the play in the first frame. The Rampage had their chances, but couldn’t get on the board.
Rampage forward Kory Movold had a penalty shot, but Steelheads keeper Steven Andrade made a pad save after a failed poke check attempt. It was1-0 Steelheads after one.
The Steelheads continued to put pressure on the Rampage in the second.
Matt Arnold finishing off a tic-tac-toe passing play with 16:47 to put the Steelheads up two.
The home fans came alive halfway through the frame when Jonathon Hunt found the back of the net to pull the Rampage within one.
But the excitement was short lived.
A minute later, Steelheads forward Calvin Johnson beat Rage goalie Blake Buckham after a turnover behind the net and less than two minutes later Ryan DeVries deflected home a point shot to give Smithers a 4-1 lead.
The Smithers offence was unstoppable in the third.
Mark Arnold, Ian Smith and Brad Goss scored within the first five minutes to drive Buckham from the Rampage net. With the result of the game no longer in question, the Rampage gave the hometown fans something to cheer about late in the third when Jordan Aubee handily won a fight against Ryan Green and Ryan Fuzi went five hole with 13:09 left for a respectable 7-2 final.
Even thought it was a preseason tournament, DeVries was happy with both the final outcome and the way his team played.
“You always play to win,” DeVries said. “We were pretty relaxed, and confident, but you never know.”
As defending league champions, DeVries has noticed that other teams are gunning for the Steelheads already.
“Other teams were really playing us tough. They were hitting a lot and playing physical. We don’t play that way, but other teams seem to want to.”
The Steelheads played the tournament with only 12 players. A few skaters played out of position, including goaltender Mike Wall, who suited up on defence to give DeVries a chance to take a look players vying for the back up goalie job.
It looks like the Steelheads will be shorthanded at times this season. Tryouts for the club didn’t draw as many players as DeVries had hoped.
“We didn’t get a lot of bodies out this year,” DeVries said. “I was surprised. Some guys that thought they might come out didn’t have the time or want to make the commitment. But we’ll have another good, competitive team this season.”
The Steelheads have a few practices left to prepare for their season opener in Houston against the Luckies on October 5. The home opener goes on Oct. 11 against those same Luckies.
“These guys are such a close knit bunch, they had a lot of fun getting back on the ice. But I suppose if you’re winning, you’re always having fun.”
-With files from Shaun Thomas