A fair assessment of the Coquitlam Express' 2011-12 season wouldn't be punctuated by frustration, tears or disappointment.
A year that began with management rebuilding the blueline and the team earning a top-four playoff spot by winning 14 more games than the previous season should only be called a huge step forward.
Friday's heartwrenching 4-1 loss to Powell River, which wrapped up the B.C. Hockey League's Coastal Conference semifinal in six games, was a singular blemish on possibly a great platform for things to come.
However, the pain of defeat couldn't be avoided. "We knew coming in (to the series) that it was going to be a real battle, they are a real physical, big team," said an emotional Clinton Atkinson. "Every time they came down the ice they were hammering us and it was tough to deal with. That was their strategy and it worked."
It was an evenly played first period, with tallies by Powell River's Chris Williams and Coquitlam captain Alex Petan coming in quick succession.
The Kings pressed ahead with their physical style and took the lead when Evan Richardson cashed in a three-on-two break early in the middle frame.
Searching for the equalizer, the Express had two glorious scoring opportunities - by Brad Shaw and Cody Michelle - turned aside by Powell River netminder Sean Maguire late in the period.
Midway through the third, Teal Burns converted a powerplay chance to give Powell River a two-goal lead. Then, with a late powerplay chance and netminder Cole Huggins on the bench for an extra attacker, the Express attempted to close the gap but instead turned over the puck for Daniel Schuler's empty net marker to end the comeback hopes.
"The last five minutes we were getting pretty emotional on the bench," said Atkinson. "We weren't getting frustrated, but we were almost getting worried. Just having a young team puts a lot of pressure on a lot of guys. I know we didn't give up at all. I think we're pretty proud of that."
Head coach Jon Calvano was unavailable for comment, having to catch a flight to Toronto immediately after the game for his grandmother's funeral. In his stead, assistant coach Grant Kerr said the players had no reason to hang their heads after the loss.
"We gave it everything we had, we had four to five guys out every game with injuries and the guys got worn down by the end," remarked Kerr. "In the third period, down by two we had two or three great chances and their goaltender came up big for them."
A day earlier with the series deadlocked at two wins apiece, Coquitlam struck a 2-0 advantage on tallies by Alexander Kerfoot and John Siemer. However, the more veteran Kings stormed back with three unanswered goals and a 36-save performance from backup netminder Jonah Imoo to win 3-2 and put the Express on their heels.
"We kind of shot ourselves in the foot and made a couple of mistakes, but that's hockey. Mistakes happen. They capitalized and we didn't. It was a long trip home," said Kerr.
For 20-year-old veterans Nicholas Wong, Rajan Sidhu (injured), Atkinson and 19year-old Petan, who is off to Michigan Tech on a scholarship, Friday's loss closes the book on their junior A careers.
"It's a great group of guys and I'll probably be friends with a lot of them for the rest of my life, which is pretty cool," said Atkinson, who led all defenceman in scoring in the Coastal Conference. "Alex Petan getting a scholarship, being part of that and helping him achieve that is awesome. Hopefully Alexander Kerfoot can get drafted (in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft), it will be cool to be part of that.
"Everybody in the dressing room was a core contributor, everybody is happy to be part of helping another guy move on to the next level."
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