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Plenty of storylines as high-flying Eagles take on ornery Grizzlies in Round 2

Series opener goes Friday night in Surrey
Malcolm Green and the Grizzlies visit Surrey for Game 1 on Friday night. (ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST)

Hockey may seem expansive in Canada but it is actually a small, contained world.

Head coach and GM Cam Keith, who led the Surrey Eagles to the best record in the B.C. Hockey League this season, faces in the second round of the playoffs the team he once played for in the BCHL.

The best-of-seven Coastal Conference semifinal between the Eagles and Victoria Grizzlies begins with the first two games tonight and Saturday night in Surrey with the third and fourth games set for The Q Centre on Monday and Tuesday nights.

The 43-year-old Keith played in junior for the Grizzlies, then know as the Victoria Salsa, with future NHLers Matt Pettinger and Greg Zanon and other future pros such as Sean O’Connor and Martin Kariya.

Following an NCAA Div. 1 career at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, Keith embarked on a lengthy pro career in the AHL, ECHL and Germany, which included some arch ECHL battles as a forward with the Alaska Aces against the rival Victoria Salmon Kings that he remembers well.

Keith’s connections in the upcoming series go even deeper as he played with Grizzlies assistant coach Geoff Grimwood on the Salsa and played for Grizzlies head coach and GM Rylan Ferster in the BCHL with Trail.

“I have so much respect for them as coaches and what they have accomplished with the Grizzlies,” said Keith.

But there is no denying the Eagles go in as heavy favourites. The NCAA Div. 1 Merrimack- and Quinnipiac-bound Surrey pair of Caden Cranston and Aaron Schwartz ran away with the BCHL scoring race with 86 and 81 points, respectively. The next closest was Felix Caron of West Kelowna with a distant 69 points. NCAA Sacred Heart-bound Ajeet Gundarah has been outstanding in goal for Surrey, making it a wash in the crease battle against the Grizzlies’ standout NCAA Div. 1 Colgate-bound 2022-23 BCHL rookie of the year Oliver Auyeung-Ashton.

“The trade [to acquire ­Gundarah] has been impactful for us this season,” said Keith.

“He is a 20-year-old who has had lots of success in this league and who took Langley to the league final as a rookie.”

Surrey topped the Coastal and BCHL regular season tables at 44-8-2 while the Grizzlies were fourth in the Coastal Conference at 29-22-3. Victoria beat the Coastal fifth-seed Nanaimo Clippers 4-1 in the opening round of the playoffs while Surrey got past the spirited conference eighth-seed Cowichan Valley Capitals 4-1.

“We have success in a free-flowing format, especially on our Olympic-size ice at home, and are more skill based than hard checking. But in the playoffs the game changes and it is not as free-flowing hockey,” said Keith.

“Cowichan Valley played old-school playoff hockey and it was the perfect series in which to get battle-tested in the playoffs and to get us ready for success in that kind of hockey.”

Playoff-style hockey is the great equalizer for the Grizzlies in the series because that’s how they play all the time.

“Victoria is a team built for the playoffs — big, heavy and defensive,” acknowledged Keith.

The Surrey assistant coach is Eagles alumni Scott Gomez, NHL rookie of the year with the New Jersey Devils, ECHL MVP with Alaska and career 1,000-game NHLer.

“Stories and experience … we have that covered,” said Keith.

“We have both been through it and try to be relatable to our players about the process and how your game has to adjust every step along the way. And where you really grow your game is in the playoffs.”

The other Coastal Conference semifinal series also begins tonight on the Mainland and features the defending-champion and third-seed Alberni Valley Bulldogs (33-20-1) against the second-seed Chilliwack Chiefs (32-17-5).

The Bulldogs rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the opening round to eliminate the sixth-seed Coquitlam Express in seven games while the Chiefs swept the seventh-seed Langley ­Rivermen in four games.

In the Interior Conference, the Penticton Vees host the ­Vernon Vipers tonight in Game 1 of their series, and the West Kelowna Warriors host their series opener tonight against the Salmon Arm ­Silverbacks.

LOOSE PUCKS: Grizzlies forward and leading scorer Chase Pirtle was named Thursday to the BCHL’s All-Rookie Team. Pirtle, who is NCAA ­committed to Cornell University, had 25 goals and 27 assists in 54 regular-season games and his 52 points was ninth best in the league.

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