Pilots settle for second, face Panthers in first round of playoffs

The Aldergrove Kodiaks overhauled the Abbotsford Pilots for first place in the final week of the regular season.

Pilots goalie Riley Parker makes a save on Delta’s Aaron Merrick on Friday.

Pilots goalie Riley Parker makes a save on Delta’s Aaron Merrick on Friday.

As his Abbotsford Pilots prepare to embark on their playoff drive, head coach Jim Cowden is facing a conundrum.

On one hand, he’d dearly love to see his team make a run at the Pacific International Junior Hockey League championship.

But at the same time, the Pilots are already assured of a berth in the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial tournament, by virtue of the fact they’re hosting the event at MSA Arena from April 12-15.

And with the unprecedented run of injuries the Pilots have weathered this season, Cowden says he’s focused on protecting his players’ long-term health for the provincials, as opposed to going all-out in the league playoffs.

“It’s funny – if you’d asked me at the beginning of the year, I’d have said it’s very important for us to go through the front door,” said Cowden, whose team opens its first-round playoff series against the Port Moody Black Panthers on Monday. “But having said that, with all the injuries we’ve had this year, we just want to stay healthy for the Cyclone Taylor Cup.”

The Pilots have gotten healthier in recent weeks, as key forwards Kevin Lourens and Brandon Daase have returned to the lineup. But four players are still sidelined currently.

“It’s tough,” Cowden noted. “We haven’t had our two goalies (Aaron Oakley and Riley Parker) healthy at the same time for more than three or four games this season.”

“Other years we had to go for the gusto in the playoffs, because second place meant the end of the season. This year, we’d still rather win. But we’re not going to risk injuries to do it.”

In the final week of the regular season, the Aldergrove Kodiaks overhauled the  Pilots for first place in the Pacific International Junior Hockey League’s Harold Brittain Conference.

The Kodiaks came into the week trailing the Pilots by one point, but they had three games remaining compared to just two for Abbotsford.

Aldergrove won twice early in the week, putting the pressure on the Pilots. The local squad took care of business on Thursday, beating the Mission Icebreakers 5-3 behind multi-point outings from Chris Vinette, Kevin Lourens and Riley Lamb. But on Friday at MSA Arena, they dropped a 7-1 decision to the Delta Ice Hawks to hand the division title to Aldergrove.

That meant the Kodiaks’ Saturday finale against North Delta was meaningless, and they fell 4-3.

The Pilots face the Black Panthers in the first round of the PIJHL playoffs. The schedule is as follows:

Game 1: Monday, 7:30 p.m., Port Moody Arena

Game 2: Tuesday, 7 p.m., MSA Arena

Game 3: Friday, 7:30 p.m., MSA Arena

Game 4: Saturday, 7:45 p.m., Port Moody Arena

*Game 5: Tuesday, March 6, 7 p.m., MSA Arena

*Game 6: Wednesday, March 7, 7:30 p.m., Port Moody Arena

*Game 7: Friday, March 9, 7:30 p.m., MSA Arena

*if necessary