The New Westminster Salmonbellies took it right to the last game but accomplished their main mission of the 2019 Western Lacrosse Association season, clinching a berth to the post-season.
Just when their playoff hopes looked as dashed as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, New West picked itself up and burrowed its way through a crowded field to find a seat at the table. By beating the Victoria Shamrocks 13-7 in a carnival shooting gallery-like game on Thursday, the 'Bellies also gave notice that it's going to be difficult to out-score them in an offensive free-for-all.
Mitch Jones counted five goals and five assists, including the team's first three tallies in the opening period, to lead the charge on a night where the focus was on getting the job done. While they still could have qualifed even with a loss to Victoria, depending upon a result from Burnaby on Friday, the 'Bellies insisted on making it on their own terms.
"We've had an up-and-down year to be honest, but we really believe in this group," said Jones, who now sits atop the WLA scoring race with 90 points, nine more than Burnaby's Robert Church. "We knew going in that these were two big games, we wanted to win both. We didn't look ahead but did what we needed to do to prepare for that. ... Moving forward, we're going to put in the preparation. Our coaches do a great job of getting us ready, and we want to build on this momentum."
The Shamrocks opened the scoring just 21 seconds into the contest, when trade-deadline acquisition Tyler Pace buried the first shot of the night past Alexis Buque. But that would be the only time Victoria would lead. Jones responded with a pair of his own. Pace would deadlock the game midway through the frame, but once again Jones hat trick-tally put the hosts back ahead.
Before the period ended, New West widened its lead on back-to-back tallies from Logan Schuss to make it 5-2.
In the second period, the home team continued its run, with Kevin Crowley wiring a shot from the crease just 55 seconds in. Jones, with his fourth of the game, and two by Austin Shanks, lifted the 'Bellies to a 9-2 advantage before the period was eight minutes old. Victoria would trim that lead down to five, thanks to two more off the stick of Pace, and kick off the third with goals by Marshal and Jesse King in the span of 28 seconds.
Suddenly, it was a 10-7 game with lots of time on the clock and a murmur of angst among the crowd at Queen's Park Arena.
But New West, led by Buque, put the brakes to Victoria's comeback attempt and regained the upperhand on markers from Shanks and a pair by Jordan McBride. The defence was able to stem the avalanche of shots during the final few minutes, although the 'Bellies netminder did face 19 in the final period, and 56 overall.
"Buque played great and that was his best game of the year for sure," remarked New West coach Rory McDade. "Victoria's a great team. There are a lot of great teams but they made some big deadline acquisitions in (Connor) Robinson and Pace. They have a star-studded team up front so they're going to be a handful."
It's possible the two may draw each other for the best-of-seven semifinal series, although the final standings won't be determinted until the last two games are played -- Burnaby hosts Nanaimo on Friday (7 p.m.), with the winner securing a playoff spot and the other being eliminated. On Saturday, Victoria will try to lock-up first place with a win over Coquitlam at the Poirier Sports Centre.
Having to battle right down to the final game for a playoff spot may sound like a knock against a highly offensive roster like New West, the only thing that matters now is that it's accomplished, said Schuss.
"We're gelling at the right time. We've got Crowley back now and he's a big presence on the right side. As long as we can get everyone contributing and we score our goals, we'll be a tough team to play against," Schuss said.
"I think on paper this is probably the best team we've had in many, many years. It's just if we come together at the right time, and that's now."
Of course, last year's disappointing upset loss in the first round to Maple Ridge, after rolling convincingly into first place, offers a point of reference.
For Jones, while the method it took to get to this stage wasn't preferred, it has served a purpose of sorts. The past two games were the only time that the lineup included both Crowley and Schuss, with the former playing the minimum four games to qualify for playoff action, while last year's league scoring champion missed 10 games due to injury.
"I just tried to prepare my best but we were disappointed," Jones said of having to earn a playoff spot in the final game. "I didn't want to think about it, didn't want it to creep in my mind that we could miss the playoffs. But this is a proud organization, a lot of tradition and the people supporting you gave us that extra fire to prepare as best we could to be here.
"We have all the work ethic, we're on the same page. We have the right character, the right skill but our preparation needs to be top-notch. If it is we're ready to play anyone."
New West has set the standard for offence this season, tallying 202 over the 18 game schedule. The playoffs are another animal, however, and it is often defence, goaltending and shutdown details that make the difference. McDade said he's confident in his crew being prepared for whoever -- with Maple Ridge or Victoria the options -- they have to face in a best-of-seven series.
"We had (Anthony) Malcom play some defence and he's made the sacrifice to take on a new role and it makes a huge difference. We're working things out on offence. The guys have been swinging the ball great and we should have had 20 goals (Tuesday) in Langley, but Fryer stood on his head.
"We're happy to get in here and that was everyone's goal to start the year. Now we have to wait and see who we're going to play. It's just about preparing and being ready to go," said McDade. "This group has, when times were tough, showed up. I'm pretty confident with the guys in here and I believe they'll come out just as they did today."
The league will unveil the playoff schedule on the weekend following Saturday's game in Coquitlam.