COQUITLAM — There will be no playoff beards this year for the Coquitlam Express.
The B.C. Hockey League squad saw its last ditch chase for the final playoff berth in the Mainland Division end Sunday with a 5-4 loss to the Salmon Arm Silverbacks at the Poirier Sports Centre.
Coquitlam saw a 4-1 lead evaporate under a strong march by the Silverbacks, who scored the game winner with just 23 seconds left in regulation. Salmon Arm is in a playoff battle of its own, fending off the Trail Smoke Eaters for the final spot in the Interior Division.
Even had they won, Coquitlam would have been eliminated with Langley’s win in Prince George later Sunday.
“It was definitely deflating. We knew we had to win that game but they had a lot of momentum in the third period,” said Coquitlam goalie Cole Huggins. “We kind of felt crushed after the game. Maybe a couple of those goals I should have had, but it just seemed like they were pushing it right to the end.”
The Express built up a 3-0 lead on goals by Justin Georgeson, Marc Biega and Brandon Morley in the first period, before Salmon Arm put one on the board with 10 seconds left in the first.
Georgeson, who would finish with four points on the day, cashed in a powerplay tally four minutes into the second to restore the three-goal lead. The Silverbacks replied with a powerplay goal of their own, then made it 4-3 with 1:19 remaining in the middle frame.
Midway through the third, Salmon Arm tied it, with Steven Iacobellis capping the comeback with 23 seconds left.
The Express, who had blasted Cowichan Valley 7-2 on Friday, had won five of its previous six games before Sunday. That stretch demonstrated how well the players had bonded since the Jan. 10 trade deadline, Huggins said.
“It’s been a pretty good run, obviously winning makes things easier,” he said. “I think a lot of the guys bought into what we were trying to do, but we just fell short.”
On Friday Malcolm McKinney, a fourth-year veteran, became only the fourth player in Express history to pot four goals in a game — joining Rich Manley, Tyler McNeely and Kyle Turris, who did it twice.
Georgeson added a pair and affiliate callup Jackson Cressey scored once. Picking up three assists each were Adam Rockwood and Adam Rossignol.
For head coach Jon Calvano, the disappointment in missing out on a playoff spot — a first in his coaching career — was balanced in the knowledge that through a string of tough losses, a heavy injury toll and a shortened bench, the players pushed it to the limit.
“I’m definitely proud of my boys and how they played and competed since Jan. 10,” Calvano said, referring to the trade deadline where the club dealt three of its top scorers to get younger.
“They never gave up, they never threw in the towel but instead they dug deep and found another level.”
Things truly turned the corner after a pair of losses to Penticton and Langley where Coquitlam was outscored 18-1 and were in the thralls of a 3-16 slide since early December. In the past four weeks, the club has gone 5-2 and maintained a playoff hope that seemed extremely dim a month ago.
Huggins, who will be moving on to Minnesota State on a scholarship after the season, said it has been a tough year but he’s enjoyed the workload, which has seen him start the last 12 games and play in 49 of the club’s 54 games. He began the season with back-to-back shutouts, but injuries to key players like New Jersey draft pick Alexander Kerfoot, defenceman Marc Biega and McKinney, among others, created a big hole to climb out of.
“We had a lot of good chemistry, especially in the last month guys just weren’t going to give up,” said Huggins, 20. “I came to (the BCHL) three years ago and didn’t get a lot of ice time in the first year. But since then I’ve played a lot and gained a lot of confidence fighting through the little battles.”
The Express close out the season with a pair of games against Surrey, including Friday’s contest (7 p.m. at the Poirier Sports Centre) that begins with a Terry Fox Foundation Awareness event, featuring a pre-game barbecue (starting at 5:30 p.m.) by Mr. Mike’s Restaurant and appearances by Port Moody native and Corner Gas star Fred Ewanuick and members of the Terry Fox family. Coquitlam will also honour its graduating players and hand out its team awards prior to faceoff.
The Express, who sit last with a 23-30-1 record, end the season Saturday in Surrey.
TRAIN TRACKS: The Express are holding a spring Bantam Hockey Camp, April 26 to 28 at Coquitlam Planet Ice.
This selection camp is for players born in 1998-99, and has limited space available. For more information or to register, go to www.myexpresshockey.com.