CHILLIWACK - As opening weekends go, this past one was a winner.
The Coquitlam Express thrived at the inaugural B.C. Hockey League Showcase tournament in Chilliwack, racking up back-to-back shutout victories over the Victoria Grizzlies and Cowichan Valley Capitals to kick off the 2012-13 season with a 2-0 start.
Behind the rock-solid netminding of second-year veteran Cole Huggins, the Express edged Victoria 1-0 in overtime on Friday, and followed that with a 3-0 decision on Sunday over the Capitals.
Both games were decided on breakaways, with Brady Shaw bulldozing a rebound past the Grizzlies' Brady Rouleau in the opener, just 59 seconds into the extra session.
In the second win, Mitch Fyffe skated in and buried the puck past Cowichan netminder Derek Dun.
Huggins, who played a huge role in the Express' playoff run last year while sharing the netminding duties with Khalid Devji, looked to be in midseason form. A native of Englewood, Colo., Huggins turned aside all 74 shots and earned the BCHL's first Player of the Week honour for 2012-13.
Coach and general manager Jon Calvano said the goalie has put the playoff loss to Surrey behind him and picked up from when he was at his hottest last season.
"We had faith in Cole coming out of the gate, that's why we prepared our season with him as No. 1 in mind," said Calvano. "With the way the playoffs ended last year, we kind of forgot about what he did during our big run _ Cole's work ethic both on and off the ice is one reason why he's such a competitor."
Huggins turned back Victoria's Leo Fitzgerald on a point-blank shot from just above the crease in the second period, then held his ground in the third when the Grizzlies began to display some cohesion on offence. Both teams struggled to create sustained pressure, as the forward lines appeared to be slowly emerging from the preseason routine.
But with more 100 college and pro scouts in attendance - a main reason behind the league hosting the Showcase Event -Ea handful of Express players stepped up with strong efforts.
Newcomers Marc Biega, who hit Shaw with a 100-foot pass to set up the winner, Sam Majka and Zac Pryzbek enjoyed breakout weekends. Pryzbek counted the team's second goal on Sunday, and delivered a couple of solid hits over both days.
Getting his first Junior A taste as an affiliate call-up was Coquitlam native Mathew Barzal. Slated to skate with the B.C. Major Midget Hockey League's Northeast Chiefs this season, the highly-touted 15-year-old centre didn't register a point but created a number of chances and appeared eager to demonstrate that he could handle the bigger, faster game.
Returning forwards Jace Hennig, Mitch Nardi, John Siemer - who also scored - and defencemen Mark Begert and Jason Bird delivered some standout shifts.
Unfortunately, Bird suffered a separated shoulder on the final shift of the first game that will require surgery, costing the club one of its stronger stay-at-home blueliners.
"[Bird] is a veteran who has a presence and leadership that we were counting on," said Calvano. "Unfortunately this is how hockey goes."
The club was also without forwards Luca Leone, Adam Rockwood and last year's top rookie Alexander Kerfoot, who was sidelined with an injury but could be ready to play in Friday's home opener, 7 p.m. against the Langley Rivermen.
Winning that home opener is a major motivator, Calvano said, but the prime focus will be to provide an intense, quick-paced effort.
"The style of hockey that got us into the playoffs last year was kind of fire wagon, lots of offence," he said. "It's entertaining and we have to remember that we're in the entertainment business. That's the brand of hockey we want fans to think of when they come to (Poirier)."
Tickets are available at myexpresstickets.com, by calling 604-936-4625, or at the Poirier Sports Centre prior to the game.