The Innisfail Eagles are not intimidated by the role of underdog.
They just finished dispensing of the Okotoks Drillers in five games in the Chinook Senior Hockey League semifinal.
Now they have the daunting task of taking down the Bentley Generals who lost one game all regular season and also beat their semifinal opponent — the Fort Saskatchewan Eagles — in five games.
The winner of the best of seven series advances to the Allan Cup in Clarenville, Nfld.
“I can’t wait to get started, with a passion,” said Eagles head coach Brian Sutter.
“I know Bentley’s a heck of a team, but they didn’t all come down from heaven on a rocket ship, they’re not the best thing that God ever brought to this earth; it’s contrary to what everybody talks about with them.
“We know what we’ve got to do and I have respect for what they can do and that has a lot to do with what we should be doing too.”
The Eagles stumbled through much of the season with an injury riddled lineup, but have become healthy at just the right time. Back from the injury ward are Mark Bombersback, who had 20 points in 18 games before getting injured; Connor Shields, who had 24 points in 22 games last year for Bentley; and most importantly, starting goalie Steven Stanford who has been out with a lower body injury since November.
Stanford took over the Innisfail net following their 4-1 loss to the Drillers in Game 1 of their series and rolled to four straight victories, including the last two by shutout. He hasn’t allowed a goal in the last 131 minutes and 26 seconds.
“He’s a top end goalie and he should be playing pro somewhere right now but he’s not, and the only reason is because of injury,” said Sutter.
“He had a tremendous junior career and an outstanding college career and he had hip surgery a couple of times … he’s back and he’s healthy, he’s an outstanding individual and an outstanding goalie.”
For Sutter, getting ready for this series against his former team began last summer after the Eagles were eliminated by the Generals in four games in last year’s final.
“You build a team with quality people and you have to win off the ice before you win on the ice and we’ve taken some tremendous steps in that direction,” he said. “We know what we’ve got to do and we know how we’ve got to do it and now the players just need to come and play.”
The Generals enter this series with a keen eye to what the Eagles just did to the Drillers.
Head coach Ryan Tobler says they are ready for a tough final against their arch rivals.
“I expect a hard working team and a difficult series,” said Tobler. “We’ll be prepared for anything and everything. We expect their best game and best effort and we know Brian will have them ready to go but we’ll be ready ourselves.”
Bentley also received a boost to their lineup prior to their first round series, when they added to the roster after he spent the 2013-14 season split with the American Hockey League’s Manchester Monarchs and the Central Hockey League’s Denver Cutthroats. In four semifinal games, Gale scored six goals.
“He’s a good player with a good resume, he’s a great guy and he’s fit in,” said Tobler.
Adding Gale was like adding another rifle to a weapons compound, the Generals were still lead by Torrie Dyck (10 points in five games) and Cam Maclise (eight points in five games), while Kyle Sheen, Eric Schneider and Don Morrison were also among scoring leaders in the playoffs.
They did however, suffer a surprising loss to the Chiefs in the semifinal, but as much as anything that served as a walk-up call for the Generals.
“We lost Game 3 there and came in Game 4 in there building with a determined effort and had the chance to close them out in Game 5 and wouldn’t be denied,” said Tobler. “We didn’t underestimate Fort Sask, they’ve got some skill and their power play gave us some fits at times, we made some adjustments and you need to do that in a series.”
The Generals are moving their home games for the final to the Red Deer Arena after playing the semifinal in Eckville. It is a move they have made for the last several years and the club feels comfortable in the bigger rink.
“It’s a great place to play and we’ve had some success there and we look forward to the move and the finals,” said Tobler.
Game 1 goes Saturday at 8 p.m., with Game 2 also in Red Deer at 6 p.m. on Sunday. The series switched back to Innisfail for Games 3 and 4 the following weekend at 7:30 p.m. on March 21 and 5 p.m. on March 22.