Lake Cowichan Kraken head into break on a high

Goalie Jake Hebert makes a stop on Port Alberni scoring leader Jaydon Merritt during the Kraken’s 3-1 win over the Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)Goalie Jake Hebert makes a stop on Port Alberni scoring leader Jaydon Merritt during the Kraken’s 3-1 win over the Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)
Lake Cowichan forward Mitchell Billings tries to tuck the puck under Port Alberni goalie Callum Tung during the Kraken’s 3-1 win over the Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)Lake Cowichan forward Mitchell Billings tries to tuck the puck under Port Alberni goalie Callum Tung during the Kraken’s 3-1 win over the Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)
Lake Cowichan defenceman Ray Kelly leads the rush into the Port Alberni end during the Kraken’s 3-1 win over the Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)Lake Cowichan defenceman Ray Kelly leads the rush into the Port Alberni end during the Kraken’s 3-1 win over the Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)
Santa Claus sings ‘O Canada’ prior to last Friday’s Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League game between the Lake Cowichan Kraken and the Port Alberni Bombers at the Cowichan Lake Spots Arena. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)Santa Claus sings ‘O Canada’ prior to last Friday’s Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League game between the Lake Cowichan Kraken and the Port Alberni Bombers at the Cowichan Lake Spots Arena. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)
Young fans of the Lake Cowichan Kraken display their entries in a sign contest at the team’s game against the Port Alberni Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)Young fans of the Lake Cowichan Kraken display their entries in a sign contest at the team’s game against the Port Alberni Bombers last Friday. (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)
Young fans of the Lake Cowichan Kraken display their entries in a sign contest at the team’s game against the Port Alberni Bombers last Friday. The contest was won by five-year-old Emmy (bottom right). (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)Young fans of the Lake Cowichan Kraken display their entries in a sign contest at the team’s game against the Port Alberni Bombers last Friday. The contest was won by five-year-old Emmy (bottom right). (Kevin Rothbauer/Gazette)

With two more wins last week, the Lake Cowichan Kraken cruised into the Christmas break on a high.

The first-year Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League team went into the break with three wins and an overtime loss in their last four games, and a 4-2-1 record in the month of December, putting them near the .500 mark for the season.

The Kraken won 4-3 over the Buccaneers in Nanaimo last Thursday, then returned home on Friday to defeat the Port Alberni Bombers 3-1.

Head coach Dan Whiteford was pleased with his team’s play in both games. On Thursday, the Kraken held off a late push from the Bucs to claim victory.

“We out-chanced them; our PK was good: we got into some penalty trouble, but our PK took care of it,” Whiteford said. “We let them back in toward the end, but we controlled the majority of play and deserved to win.”

Rowan Zapisocki opened the scoring with a first-period powerplay goal, but the Bucs scored twice in the second to pull ahead before defenceman Dylan MacTavish made it 2-2 with his third goal in eight games since joining the Kraken. Captain Donovan Griffin put Lake Cowichan in front with his team-leading 15th of the year, and Kellan Brienan added an insurance goal that proved vital when Nanaimo found the net once again. Josh Robins made 21 saves as the Kraken outshot the Bucs 37-24.

The Bucs remain a distant last in the VIJHL standings, but they have always given the Kraken a run.

“I think we’ve had, in the past, maybe a letdown as far as guys taking things for granted [against Nanaimo],” Whiteford said. “Lately, I’ve been stressing that we don’t get to take anyone lightly. We have to play everyone like they’re [league-leading] Campbell River, and that has to go for 60 minutes. On Thursday, I don’t think we had as many lapses as we’ve had in the past.”

The Bombers are chasing the Kraken for fourth place in the North Division, so the Lake Cowichan players definitely knew better than to take their expansion cousins for granted.

“They’re a little bit more of an offensively gifted team,” Whiteford said. “But I thought it was one of our better 60-minute efforts of the season.”

The teams battled back and forth in the first, and the Bombers opened the scoring with 41 seconds left, but the Kraken pulled away in the second.

“That was part of our game plan,” Whiteford said. “We know they have a couple of guys in the top 10 or 20 in scoring in the league, and there are certain guys we’ve got to watch. We did a better job of knowing who we’re on the ice against. We knew we needed to be heavy against them and pressure the puck as much as we can. We wore them down.”

Zapisocki tied the score with a powerplay goal early in the second, and Brienan and Mitchell Billings had shorthanded goals to take the lead. Jake Hebert made 32 saves as the Kraken outshot the Bombers 35-33.

The Kraken finish the 2021 portion of their first season with 15 wins, 17 regulation losses, one OT loss and one shootout loss. Their 32 points are four back of the Comox Valley Glacier Kings and five ahead of the Bombers.

Whiteford is proud of the growth of the team from when he joined the team just in time for its first game in mid-September.

“We had some kids that could play hockey, for sure, but there’s been improvement in the structure, the compete, the buy-in,” he said. “It’s a good group of guys. After our first game of the season, when we lost 3-2 to Victoria, I had messages from hockey buddies saying that the guys didn’t give up or quit. I haven’t had to get on this team about working hard.”

The challenge now is for the players to find a way to keep their mojo up over a span of 23 days between games.

“It’s a big break for us,” Whiteford acknowledged. “It will be tough. I think it’s a good time for a break; the guys needed a break. But as a coach, it’s not the ideal time. We’ve been playing some of our better hockey the last little while.”

The Kraken will be off until Jan. 9, when they play host to the Campbell River Storm at 5:30 p.m. That will be followed by a string of four straight road games.

VIJHL