The Langley Rivermen kick off their first ever division final series Friday night in their “home away from home”. George Preston is the temporary home for the Riv who host the Coquitlam Express in a first-ever post-season meeting between the two teams.
Despite a 23 point gap between them in the regular season standings, the similarities are striking after both advanced to the division final after knocking off their first round opponents in six games. While the Rivermen were expected to come out of the first round, not many expected the division semi-final with Surrey to be as close as it was, at least through the first four games. As for the Express, they managed the upset, taking down the Prince George Spruce Kings whose offence failed them while significant injuries took their toll. But credit the Express for a well-deserved victory, and if there’s anything the Rivermen learned about Coquitlam this season, it’s to respect their high-octane offence and ability to quickly change the momentum of a game.
The Rivermen took the very tight eight game season series with the Express 4-3-0-1, outscoring Coquitlam by a 36-29 margin. But throw away a 12-2 Riv win over the Express at the LEC in October, and the numbers get even tighter. While three of the eight games needed extra time to solve, including a double overtime thriller in September with Kevan Kilistoff potting the winner in spectacular fashion, four were blowouts with the victor winning by three goals or more.
It’s werid how certain players have particular success against certain teams and this match-up is no exception. Tony Bretzman scored all three of his regular season goals against the Express. Tyson Witala has four goals in four games against Coquitlam this season. As for the Express, defenceman Marc Biega scored six of his 17 goals on the season against the Rivermen.
By the Numbers
This series pits two high power offences against each other, for the second straight time in the case of the Rivermen this post-season. The Express finished the regular season as the highest scoring team in the BCHL with 226 goals, 26 more than the Riv. Coquitlam also had the rare feat of finishing with a goal differential of zero, allowing 226 against, a full 71 more than the Rivermen, more than a goal per game more in fact.
The Rivermen enter the series as the highest scoring team in the playoffs with 27 goals (Penticton’s goals per game average is higher), while the Express boast some of the best team defence so far this post-season allowing just 12 goals against through six games compared to the Rivermen’s 17.
On the power play, it’s been a bit of a role reversal compared to the regular season as the Rivermen boast the second best man advantage in the playoffs clicking at 29.2% to Coquitlam’s 4.2%, 12th of 12 post-season teams. Before playoffs began the Express had the BCHL’s sixth best power play at 19.2% to the Riv’s 14th at 17.3%.
Both teams continue to pride themselves on a powerful penalty kill. The Rivermen and Express finished the regular season fourth and fifth respectively in league PK. The Rivermen enter this series with a 79.4% success rate on the kill, fourth of 12 first round playoff teams while Coquitlam has the second best at 93.3%. Oddly enough, the Express scored just once on the power play against Prince George while allowing just two goals against while shorthanded in their series. But it’s while shorthanded the Express can be at their deadliest. Coquitlam scored a league best 19 shorthanded goals during the regular season and have three this post-season, all of them coming in the same game.
While still boasting a balanced attack, the Rivermen have three of the top ten playoff scoring leaders heading into this series, led by Matt Ustaski who with six goals and three assists is tied for second in the league. Austin Azurdia and Jakob Reichert, both with three goals and four assists, are tied for eighth.
Goaltending is sure to remain a big topic in this series as Brock Crossthwaite has been nothing short of stellar in his last two starts, stopping 61 of his last 62 shots. Both he and Coquitlam starter Gordie Defiel boast one playoff shutout and have been a big reason why their respective teams have advanced past the first round. Defiel leads all playoff goaltenders with a .944 save percentage and a second best GAA of 1.90. Crossthwaite is fifth best among save percentage with .918.
There are several familiar faces on both sides of this series including Rivermen Associate Head Coach and Assistant GM Jon Calvano who was the previous bench boss in Coquitlam. Express defenceman Mark Whiteley was traded from Langley to Salmon Arm early this season before being dealt to Coquitlam. Whiteley played 65 games in a Rivermen jersey over the last three seasons. Will Cook joined the Riv just before the season began in September after spending his rookie year with the Express.
The season series between these two clubs was certainly entertaining for fans. If that was any indication of what lies ahead in this best-of-seven series to determine the division champion, we’re sure in for a treat.