Graham Dugdale shook a gorilla off his back Saturday night, scoring his first-career KIJHL goal in his 45th career game to open the scoring and set the tone as the Kimberley Dynamiters went on to a 3-1 victory over the Fernie Ghostriders in KIJHL action at the Kimberley Civic Centre.
“Oh man, that’s a huge weight off my shoulders,” Dugdale said with a smile Saturday night. “It was in my mind up until this point. It’s nice to play a little lighter after that.
“You’re looking forward to the Fernie game all week because you know it’s going to be a hard-fought battle.”
The 18-year-old native of Vulcan, Alta., took a feed from Keenan Haase before ringing a sharp shot off the post and in behind Ghostriders goaltender Brandon Butler to give his team a 1-0 lead midway through the first period of play.
With one goal and five points to his credit this season, Dugdale’s greatest value has come in the form of tireless work ethic and physical play. Saturday night, he was finally rewarded on the scoresheet for his efforts.
“He probably led the team in hits last night [in a 3-1 road win over the Spokane Braves] and it came to fruition tonight,” said Jerry Bancks, head coach of the Kimberley Dynamiters, Saturday evening. “That’s kind of how it goes. It’s important these guys realize that sometimes the little things make a difference.
“I know [Dugdale] has been appraising himself a lot and getting down on himself because he doesn’t score, but he can be a huge contributor just by finishing his checks, being strong on his stick and he did a good job of that [Friday] and he was one of our better players tonight.
“It’s a good time of year to do that if you want to get in the lineup in the playoffs.”
It was a busy opening 20 minutes for the Nitros fourth-line grinder. On the shift following his first tally, Dugdale took a run at Ghostriders forward Dan Burgess, levelling the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jaffray native with a heavy hit in front of the Fernie bench.
After serving a two-minute interference minor for his indiscretion, Dudgale returned to the play and blocked a shot in his own end of the rink to negate a Fernie scoring opportunity.
On his next shift, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound pest collected the puck once again, going down the left wing before sliding another great opportunity in on Butler, who was able to squeeze the pads to keep his team within one.
As busy as Dugdale was in the opening 20 minutes of action, only Butler was busier. The 19-year-old native of Calgary faced 15 shots in the opening period, including a handful of odd-man opportunities.
The 5-foot-8 puckstopper was on his game early, making critical saves on Tanner Wit, Brodie Buhler and Sawyer Hunt.
Though he was stymied in the first period, Wit managed to extend the hosts’ advantage only 4:30 into the second period.
From below the goal line, Eric Buckley filtered a nifty pass into the slot without a Ghostrider in sight, allowing the 5-foot-11, 190-pound forward to step into a heavy blast. Few goalies would’ve had a chance on a shot like that as Wit found the back of the net for a 2-0 Kimberley lead.
“Eric Buckley is a great player and he has a way of luring in the ‘D’ man,” Wit said, recounting his ninth goal of the season. “I was lucky enough to be on the ice as he was luring those two ‘D’ men towards the net. I hollered his name and he gave me a glorious opportunity.”
Wit, 19, has grown into a key presence for the Dynamiters since coming over from the Golden Rockets in a exchange for a player development fee just prior to the Jan. 10 trade deadline.
“He is a good, character kid, a real quality kid,” Bancks said of Wit. “He wants to do well and he’s been paying attention really well. It’s nice to see him get rewarded with some points. He’s going to have a big role in the playoffs. It’s nice to see him playing as well as he is right now.”
For Wit, the prospect of post-season action is an exciting one after slugging through a tough start to the campaign in Golden. He’s thankful for the opportunity the Rockets’ coaches and staff gave him when they traded him to Kimberley, but he knows his new Dynamiters squad can still elevate its play.
“There’s definitely another gear to hit,” Wit said. “Jerry [Bancks] likes to say, ‘It’s not a switch.’ You can’t flick it on or off for the post-season.
“We’ve got to come out and play as hard as we can every game from now on. The challenge was to be our best and get ready for playoff hockey and I think we’re getting there. We’re not there yet, but we’re definitely getting there as a team.”
Despite allowing Wit’s goal to start the period, Butler continued his stellar performance as the Dynamiters controlled puck possession for the bulk of the proceedings.
Butler got the best of Wit on a few more opportunities in tight, before making a great kick save with the right pad off a Hunt howitzer as the Dynamiters enjoyed a power play midway through the period.
At the other end, Zach Befus got the visitors back in the game with a power-play goal.
After George Bertoia was sentenced to two minutes in the penalty box for holding, the 6-foot-1 Befus found himself with time and space at the top of the right circle, sending a laser over the shoulder of goaltender Tyson Brouwer, off the bar and in to make it 2-1 with 11:48 to go in the second period.
Haase added an insurance marker in the third period, once again with no fault against Butler.
After turning aside a couple great chances from Buckley, Butler was down and out with little help in tight, leaving Haase, the California product, to deposit the 3-1 tally into the back of the cage.
Butler, serving as backup to veteran Jeff Orser for the second consecutive season, was given the green light between the pipes after Orser made 42 saves in a critical 3-2 victory over the Columbia Valley Rockies Friday night.
By the end of Saturday’s contest, Butler turned aside 34 shots, while Brouwer was good on 13 of 14 at the other end, claiming his league-leading and career-high 30th victory of the season.
With the win, the Dynamiters (39-7-0-4) inched ever closer to the KIJHL regular season title. Having already wrapped up the Eddie Mountain Division title and Kootenay Conference belt, the Dynamiters can guarantee themselves the league crown by winning out to finish the season.
“We want to be the team we want to be for the rest of the year going into playoffs,” Dugdale said. “We want to be a hard-working team and we want to make sure we end the season on the right foot.”
For Fernie (27-18-0-4), the loss allowed the Columbia Valley Rockies (29-21-0-0) to pull back into a tie for third place in the Eddie Mountain Division playoff race with a 4-3 triumph over the Golden Rockets (4-42-1-3) Saturday night.
Elsewhere, the Creston Valley Thunder Cats (30-14-2-2) locked up second place in the Eddie Mountain Division with a 6-3 victory over the Grand Forks Border Bruins.
The Dynamiters wrap up the regular season next weekend with the final home game of the slate coming Friday against the Rockets. The last date on the calendar is a Saturday meeting with Ghostriders in Sparwood.
Notes: With F Austyn Moser serving the second of a two-game suspension Saturday and D Justin Meier (lower body), captain Jason Richter (upper body), D Trey Doell (hand) and D Tyler Van Steinburg (undisclosed) still unavailable, the Dynamiters dressed two APs — D Chase Leroux (1998) and F Rylan D’Etcheverrey (1998)… The Ghostriders were without a handful of key players as well, with C Cole Keebler (upper body) and F Justin Peers (undisclosed) out due to injury, while LW Alex Cheveldave served the second night of a three-game suspension… Announced attendance in Kimberley was 842…