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Sockeyes win first battle of PIJHL heavyweights

Shutout streak ends at six games impressive start leads Richmond to 5-3 victory over the Delta Hawks

For at least one night the Richmond Sockeyes were pushed to the limit with the game's outcome hanging in the balance until the final minute of play.

Don't be surprised if it doesn't happen again until Nov. 5.

That's when the Sockeyes and Delta Ice Hawks meet again for round two of their season long war and it's a good bet the defending Pacific International Junior Hockey League champions will be bringing a perfect 13-0 record into that tilt.

After destroying its competition and producing an unthinkable six consecutive shutouts, Richmond was at last tested in a 5-3 win over Delta in front of over 500 fans last Thursday at Minoru Arena. The hosts jumped out to an early 3-0 lead but needed an empty net goal with 10 seconds remaining from captain Patrick Hunter to turn back an impressive Ice Hawks' comeback.

"Obvious the start to our season has been fantastic and this game gave us a good idea of what we need to work on," said Sockeyes head coach Judd Lambert. "We certainly know what to expect against them. It's no secret they are going to try and be physical and we have to get use to playing that style of game."

The problem for Lambert and the rest of the Sockeyes is no one has come close to providing the kind of challenge the Ice Hawks threw at them. Perhaps the Abbotsford Pilots are also capable, but the rest of the league appears to be miles behind and that's a concern with 35 regular games still remaining between now and midFebruary.

"We play who we play and we have to stay focus on what we are doing," continued Lambert. "I don't know what the answer is but for sure we would like to see the league more competitive. It doesn't do us or Delta any good winning games by six or seven goals all season."

The Sockeyes looked to be on their way to another lopsided win after first period goals by Matthew Wagner, Rudi Thorsteinson and Hunter opened up a comfortable lead. Aaron Merrick finally broke Richmond's shutout streak with a power play tally but Justin Rai's second period goal restored the cushion and chased Ice Hawks starting goalie Doug Birks.

The visitors settled down and battled their way back into striking distance. Captain Cody Smith scored just 17 seconds after Rai's tally, then pulled his team within a goal when he converted a nice feed from Spencer Traher, seven minutes into the third period. The Ice Hawks came close to equalizing, including a Traher blast hitting the base of the goal post.

"I thought we came out sluggish for the first 10 minutes then made some adjustments that allowed us to really take control at times," said Ice Hawks assistant coach Bayne Koen. "You are bitter with the result but happy with the effort.

"All eyes in the league were on this game tonight. Richmond came out prepared and give them credit.

We at least have some things to build on."

The loss snapped the Ice Hawks' six game win streak but they too should be feasting on their opponents before seeing the Sockeyes again.

"I saw the same thing (in the B.C. Hockey League) when I was coaching in Prince George," said Koen of the disparity. "The big thing is recruitment and where guys want to go. These are the two organizations that (players) have their mind set on and they want to play."

For the Sockeyes, Lambert was happy his young players got to, at last see, the real challenges of junior "B" hockey.

"We talked about (what to expect) before the game but talk is cheap and you don't really get a full picture until you get out there and see how big and aggressive they are.

"We were good at times and other times ineffective. It just wasn't our young guys too. We just hadn't played a team yet with that kind of size, aggressiveness and the skill that they have."

The Sockeyes return to action on Thursday night when the Grandview Steelers visit Minoru Arena at 7: 30 p.m.