Storm thundering through the season … so far

It’s almost two-thirds of the way through the current VIJHL season, and the Campbell River Storm sit atop not only their division, but also the league’s overall standings – and a few individual players have been having banner seasons thus far, as well.

The Storm head into this weekend’s games against the Nanaimo Buccaneers (tonight, Friday) and the Oceanside Generals (Sunday) 12 points ahead of the Buccaneers in the North Division and one point up on last year’s Cyclone Taylor Cup Champion Victoria Cougars in the overall standings.

So what has put them there?

“I think it’s our depth, for sure,” says Storm head coach and general manager Lee Stone. “We’ve lost three different defencemen to Junior A this year – which is awesome for them to be able to make that jump, but obviously that leaves some holes to fill and I think we’ve done a remarkable job of having guys step up and fill those roles.”

Speaking of filling roles, one of the season’s stand out players has definitely been goaltender Chris Smith, who currently leads the league in wins – he’s 19-1 – and goals against average (1.89) and has the second-best save percentage in the league, sitting just behind Saanich’s Bryce Schiebel, who has only seen action in 12 games, compared to Smith’s 22. He also has two more shutouts and has been on the ice for the more time than anyone else in the league.

Smith was acquired this past off-season in a deal that sent defenceman Joe Gage to the Westshore Wolves so he could enter a trades program being offered at Camosun College – a deal that Stone says worked out well for everyone.

“[Smith] is a guy who had expressed an interest in coming to Campbell River in the past, and for a variety of reasons we just couldn’t make it work, but once it did it ended up being a really good trade,” Stone says. “Rarely do you see trades, player for player, that work out as well as this one has for both teams. I mean, I think [Gage] is their captain now, and you can just look at Smitty’s numbers to see how he’s worked out for us,” he adds with a laugh.

One of the reasons Smith is having success with the Storm, Stone says, is his work ethic.

“He’s totally on board with what we’re doing here,” Stone says. “He came from a team that maybe wasn’t on the ice as much as we are, and for some guys it’s a bit much to handle, but he came up here and works with the coaches on the ice every day, and he’s really thriving in that environment.”

But goaltending, Stone says, “is a team position.”

“There’s no question that Smitty has made saves to bail us out, and, alternatively, there have maybe been one or two times where he’s let one in that he maybe shouldn’t have but the boys come back and get one back for him. That’s the beauty of having a really family atmosphere in the dressing room. They want to go to battle for each other.”

But keeping the puck out of your own net is only half of the equation.

You also have to put the puck into the other one, and no one has been better at making that happen over the past few years than Colin Blake, who is once again on pace for another 80-plus point season.

“I don’t have to say much about Blakey,” Stone says with a laugh. “Fans in town know exactly who he is. He’s in his fifth year with the team and I think he’s only 34 or 35 points away from breaking the all-time Storm record for points. Earlier this season he broke the all-time assist record. He’s such a high-end offensive guy,” Stone says.

Which can actually make things difficult, in some ways, for his coaches.

“We’re still trying to find someone to play on his wing,” Stone says. “It’s hard to find someone who sees the game the same way he does. He’s on another level in that way, for sure.”

But it’s not just his scoring prowess that makes Blake so valuable to the team.

“He’s really taken a leadership role over the last while,” Stone says. “He shows up to the rink and puts in the work, and does the little things outside the rink, too, and guys like that see those things translate to success on the ice.”

So what do the Storm have to do to finish out the season strong and head into the playoffs with a chance to win a second Cyclone Taylor Cup in three years?

“I don’t think there’s a specific area that’s a really gearing need or any specific goals for us going forward,” Stone says. “I think, talent-wise, we’re right there with the best teams in B.C.”

What’s important in hockey is for teams to “get hot” when it’s important – right before playoffs start.

“Two years ago, we got hot at the right time and really came together in February, March and April and were able win it all,” Stone says. “Last year, I thought that we maybe peaked a little bit too soon. I think our best Hockey last year was in January and February, and come April, we weren’t ready for the provincial tournament. We’d slowed down a little. You find at all levels of hockey.

“Even in the NHL, you sometimes see an 8th seed make it to the Stanley Cup finals and you think, ‘how does that happen?’ Well, regardless of skill and talent, you need to peak at the right time and be working together well at the end of the year, and if you are, you’re probably going to be pretty darn successful.

“That’s what we’re going to be looking for.”