Azzaro Tinling celebrates with teammate Tate Coughlin after scoring the opening goal in last Sunday’s 5-2 Cowichan win at the island Savings Centre. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)

Caps eke out win in ‘best-of-seven series’

Looking for motivation as they headed toward Christmas, the Cowichan Valley Capitals framed their last seven hockey games before the break as a best-of-seven playoff series.

After winning just two games all season prior to that stretch, the Caps ended up winning the “series” four games to three. They were up 3-1 going into the final three games last weekend, but fell to 3-3 with losses on the road against the Victoria Grizzlies on Friday and Alberni Valley Bulldogs on Saturday. Down to their last chance, the Caps clinched the series with a 5-2 victory over the Prince George Spruce Kings on Sunday afternoon.

“It took us to the last game, but we took care of our home games, and we were pleased with that,” Caps head coach Brian Passmore said.

“I know the kids were thinking about going home for a week. Some of them were probably packed already and left as soon as the game was over. But our leadership group and the kids bought into the idea of going away to Christmas break with a win under their belts.”

Both Cowichan and Prince George were playing their third game in three days when they took the ice on Sunday, and both had done their share of travelling in the preceding days. It took the Caps about half a period to get their legs going, but from that point on, they led the way.

“I thought other than the first 10 minutes we played a solid game,” Passmore said. “Our penalty kill was good, we worked hard; full credit for the win.”

Azzaro Tinling got the Caps going with a powerplay goal at 11:58 of the first, and they led 1-0 at intermission. Cowichan started the second facing 4:46 of a five-minute charging penalty to Marshall Skapski. The Spruce Kings tied the score at 1:39, but Pochipinski restored Cowichan’s lead with a shorthanded marker 36 seconds later and Nicholas Wilson added to the Capitals’ lead less than a minute after the penalty expired. The fourth period saw two goals by Ethan Scardina, including an empty-netter, sandwiched around another by Prince George.

J.J. Pichette made 23 saves to pick up his fourth win of the season, while defenceman Andrew McCann had two assists.

The Caps’ losses in their two previous games were a study in contrasts as they lost 5-0 to the Grizzlies and 4-2 (including an empty-netter) to the Bulldogs.

“I think on Friday our play in Victoria wasn’t very good,” Passmore said. “It was one of those games where we had won three in a row, and maybe the guys thought they were coming easy.

“Saturday was the complete opposite. They were very determined. They worked extremely hard. It was probably our best road game of the year, but we didn’t get any bounces. It was very frustrating; the guys were really upset about that one.

“I told the guys, if they work that hard every game on the road, giving themselves a chance, we can be OK with the losses. The message is to go out and play, work hard and let your instincts take over. They’ve been doing that at home. Now it’s a matter of flipping that switch on the road.”

Pichette started on Friday and lasted 33:20, allowing four goals on 19 shots. He was replaced for the balance by AP Parker Swanson, who stopped 15 of 16 shots in his B.C. Hockey League debut. Kurtis Chapman made 30 saves at the other end of the rink to pick up the shutout.

On Saturday, Alberni went up 2-0 in the first, before the teams traded goals in the second, the Caps getting theirs from Scardina. Cowichan got within a goal from Ty Pochipinski with just over five minutes left in the third, but Alberni sealed the deal with an empty-netter in the final minute. Tate Coughlin assisted on both Cowichan goals, and Pichette made 29 saves in the loss. Chemainus native John Hawthorne was the game’s first star as he stopped 33 of 35 shots in the Alberni net.

Especially perplexing for Passmore as his team heads to the break is the vast difference between their records at home and on the road. The Caps have six wins, six losses, two overtime losses and two ties at the Island Savings Centre, compared to an 0-18-1-0 record on the road. They’ve scored 57 goals at home and allowed 47, but away from home, they’ve been outscored 106-30.

Passmore has never seen anything quite like it.

“Not in my time, being around hockey the last 30 years,” he said. “It blows your mind how we can be that different at home than on the road.”

He plans to alter the way the team prepares for games away from home.

“We have to change things up with how we approach road games,” the coach said. “In close games like we had on Saturday, you know you’re going to get bounces and win some of them.”

The Capitals have nearly two weeks off before they return to action with a home date against the Nanaimo Clippers at 7 p.m. on Dec. 30.

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