Although one could have asked for two slightly more inspiring hockey games, one couldn't ask for a better result for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, as they took both games of their two-game weekend mini-series against division rival PEI. On Friday night, Cape Breton outscored their opponent 7-4 in a powerplay-filled game dominated by the referees, and on Saturday night, Cape Breton snuck away with a 4-3 victory in a game that perhaps shouldn't have been as close as it was considering the 43-19 shots advantage and overall territorial advantage held by the Eagles. The most important fact is that Cape Breton started the weekend eight points behind the first-place Lewiston MAINEiacs, but finished the weekend just four points behind the division leaders.
The big storyline to take away from Friday night's game was the play of captain James Sheppard. In his first game since the disappointment of being left off of Team Canada's WJC selection camp roster, Sheppard came out like a man possessed. He scored three goals and an assist, hit everything that moved, skated through the Rocket like a hot knife going through butter at times, and overall played by far his best game of the season. After his surprising omission from the Canadian roster, James could have sulked and let it affect his play, or he could have taken it as a challenge to step up his game and prove a few people wrong. While this weekend was only two games, it seems so far like he has adopted the latter attitude. In any event, it certainly was nice to see James get a few breaks around the net after having so much trouble scoring goals so far this season.
In a game with a ridiculous amount of powerplays (so many that there was little to no flow in the game), Cape Breton made theirs count, finishing the night 5/13 with the man advantage. In conjunction with this, the Eagle penalty killers also had a great night, limiting PEI to just two goals on ten powerplay opportunities, and you can almost throw out one of those goals as it came on a six-second-long PEI powerplay; not exactly a "true" powerplay with sustained pressure and the like, in fact the Rocket player who was in the penalty box wasn't even back in the play.
To use a badly overdone cliche, Cape Breton's best players were their best players in Friday night's game. In addition to Sheppard's big night, Cam Fergus had two goals and two assists (his second goal being his 30th of the season), JC Sawyer had three helpers, and Paul McIlveen assisted on three goals. However, the win wasn't just about the team's stars. Credit call-up defencemen Spencer Corcoran and Maxime Gervais for filling in capably on the blueline, as well as Robert Slaney for dropping back to defence for hopefully one last time this season and doing a fine job. Credit Scott Brannon for a rambunctous effort that saw him land many big hits. Credit Chris Culligan for yet another excellent game on the PK; he has quietly developed into one of our best penalty killers. Credit Nick MacNeil for a very strong return from a long absence due to a bout with mono; he scored a great goal in the game's late stages. It was unfortunate that the game was so dominated by special teams, as it robbed many young third and fourth-line players on both teams of a chance to play very much.
All in all, Friday night's game was good in that the team won and in that the fans got to see yet another dominating offensive onslaught from the Eagles (7 goals, 50 shots), but the fact that the game was so lacking in intensity and flow was sometimes hard to ignore, from an entertainment standpoint. As mentioned before, the two referees had a lot to do with this problem.
The Eagles received some good news heading into this one, as defenceman Charlie Pens would finally return to the lineup after missing a good month and a half or so with a concussion. Pens ended up playing quite capably in his first game back. He was solid defensively and picked up an assist. Whether or not he'll be able to truly return to the bone-crunching physical game that he loves to play remains to be seen, but he certainly played capably in his return on Saturday night and it was nice to see him back.
Cape Breton dominated this game for the most part (final shots 43-19) but surprisingly only snuck away with a slim 4-3 victory. PEI hardly looked like they were interested in playing at times, but they somehow continued to hang around in a game they had little business being in. Perhaps the Eagles were a little bit guilty of letting the Rocket back into the game on a couple of occasions. For example, the second goal against was a result of Cape Breton's top line getting too fancy in the offensive zone and an ill-advised drop pass (and two guys' failures to pick it up) resulting in a breakaway the other way. The boys got the two points, and dominated the game for the most part, but it was surprising that the outcome was still in doubt during a pretty tense final minute.
The outcome was mostly decided early in the third period. With the game tied 2-2, Cam Fergus came up with yet another excellent snipe at a key time, shelfing one glove side on PEI goaltender Ryan Mior, who played excellent and kept his team in the game almost singlehandedly. Shortly afterwards, Francois Gauthier came up with a great shot of his own, letting go of a rocket of a slapshot that seemed to go right through Mior. Brad Gallant and Dean Ouellet also scored for the Eagles. Gallant's goal was a rebound off of a good solid point shot by Jason Swit, and Ouellet's goal was a one-timer (a bit of a knuckleball) into the top corner off of a nice feed by James Sheppard.
It should also be noted that Cape Breton perhaps caught a break early in the second period, as PEI had a goal waved off.
The Eagles could soon be without the versatile Robert Slaney for a short while, as he may be facing a suspension for his hit from behind on PEI's Chad Locke in the third period of this game. The illegal hit saw Slaney receive a five minute major and game misconduct, and set off a bit of a melee that involved several players on the ice; it was the first real fireworks seen at C200 in a long, long time.
Once again, a lot of credit has to be given to the defensive corps and the team's defensive game as a whole. For the third consecutive game, the Eagles limited their opponents to very few shots despite having so many injuries on the blueline. All in all, great to see the Eagles pick up all four points on the weekend, although it was disappointing to see so few fans in the stands both nights, and neither hockey game was the most entertaining one we've seen at C200 this year.
I would just like to throw this out there for fans to respond to with their viewpoints. What do you think of the trend of back-to-back games against the same opponent that the Eagles have seen so many times (both at home and on the road) this season?
When the schedule came out and I noticed how many back-to-back games we had against the same opponents this season, I figured that either (1) It would be great, it would feel like a mini playoff series, and would really help foster intense rivalries (2) It wouldn't be that great, would be bland for the fans to see the same team two nights in a row, and the teams would have more trouble getting up for the second game against the same team than they would if they were playing against somebody different. Another concern would be that it could have an adverse effect on attendance, as many fans would see two games against the same opponent and would choose to go to just one, figuring (perhaps correctly) that the two games would be pretty much the same thing.
Respond away with your own opinions, but I think I have made it fairly clear what I think of these back-to-back games.
ROUNDING OUT THE FIRST HALF
This weekend's games were the last Eagle home games prior to the Christmas break. The Eagles posted an extremely impressive 15-3 home record during the first half of the season, and scored goals at a rate never before seen over such a sustained period of time by an Eagles team on C200 ice. Thanks for the entertainment boys, have a great Christmas and we'll see you on the 28th!
Before going home for the holidays, Cape Breton finishes out their first half schedule with four road games; back-to-back this Tuesday and Wednesday at St. John's against the Fog Devils and back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday at Halifax against the Mooseheads. Tuesday night's game starts at 6:30 AST and can be heard on CJCB AM 1270.