The rust is gone, and now the Abbotsford Pilots are on a roll.
Since suffering a 10-2 blowout loss to the Beaver Valley Nitehawks in their opener at the Keystone Cup, the host Pilots have reeled off three straight wins at the Western Canadian junior B hockey championship.
The latest, and easily the most entertaining, was a wild 7-5 triumph over the Manitoba champion Selkirk Saints on Friday evening at Abbotsford Recreation Centre.
Now, the Pilots (3-1) just need to win their final game of the round robin – against the Saskatoon Quakers at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday – to lock up a berth to Sunday’s title game.
“That layoff was a killer,” Pilots coach Jim Cowden said, reflecting on the five-week break his team had between its loss in the Pacific Junior Hockey League semifinals and the start of the Keystone Cup, which had a major influence in the host team’s slow start to the tourney.
“But the guys are coming. We’re playing together as a unit.”
The Pilots began the day with a 5-1 win over the Thunder Bay Northern Hawks, behind a two-goal outing from Brad Parker and 26 saves from goalie Zachary Station.
Their evening tilt with Selkirk wasn’t exactly a clinical performance – Cowden termed it ugly – but they got the job done.
The Fishermen opened a quick 2-0 lead, but the Pilots rallied to take a 3-2 advantage heading into the first intermission.
The fireworks continued through the second period, with Abbotsford taking a 6-4 lead into the final frame.
Selkirk’s Cory Balcaen struck on the power play with 7:55 left to get his team to within a goal, but Pilots forward Jared Virtanen salted the game away when the puck took a strange hop in front of Fishermen goalie Jordan Liske and landed on his stick. With a yawning cage in front of him, Virtanen made no mistake.
Kolten Grieve (2), Dylan Cusmano (2), Jarrett Martin and Clayton Lake also scored for the Pilots, while Jeremy Pachkowsky and Cale McBride notched two goals apiece for the Fishermen.
Saskatoon Quakers 3, Selkirk Fishermen 0
In the first game of the day on Friday, the Saskatchewan champs got in the win column thanks to goals from Scott Kary, Jordan Henri and Kent Walchuk, and a 33-save shutout from Hunter Jackson.
Beaver Valley Nitehawks 5, Blackfalds Wranglers 1
The undefeated Nitehawks are in the pole position for a finals berth – they notched their third straight victory behind two goals from Taylor Stafford and singles from Ryan Edwards, Hayden Chase and Kyle Hope. The Wranglers’ Jared Guibault scored late in the third period to spoil Brett Clark’s shutout bid.
Thunder Bay Northern Hawks 4, Saskatoon Quakers 3
The Quakers battled back from a pair of deficits to knot the score 3-3 on Henri’s goal with 5:53 left in the third period. But just 1:01 later, Thunder Bay’s Joshua Reid struck on the power play to lift his team to victory.
Beaver Valley Nitehawks, 3-0
Abbotsford Pilots, 3-1
Thunder Bay Northern Hawks, 2-1
Blackfalds Wranglers, 1-2
Saskatoon Quakers, 1-3
Selkirk Fishermen, 0-3
Saturday, April 19
Blackfalds Wranglers vs. Thunder Bay Northern Hawks, 9 a.m.
Beaver Valley Nitehawks vs. Selkirk Fishermen, 11:45 a.m.
Abbotsford Pilots vs. Saskatoon Quakers, 2:30 p.m.
Selkirk Fishermen vs. Blackfalds Wranglers, 5:15 p.m.
Thunder Bay Northern Hawks vs. Beaver Valley Nitehawks, 8 p.m.
Sunday, April 20
Bronze medal game, 10 a.m.
Gold medal game, 1 p.m.