It hasn't been an easy fall from the top for the Northeast B.C. & Yukon Trackers, who have fallen from first to fifth in the Northern Alberta Midget Hockey League's Bear Slashing Division.
The team hasn't won in approximately 10 of their last games, and even though they went 0-2 this past weekend at home and on the road, the team has seen plenty of improvement in a number of ways, and are trying to stay positive.
"The puck's just not going in and our power play has dried right up," said head coach Brennen Giroux on Sunday. "In terms of competiveness though, they're trying to do all the right things day in and day out in practice, and it'll come I think. This team's going to come out a lot stronger and a lot more skilled and everybody's going to improve individually.
"[Saturday] night's game was unbelievable, the change in our game and the improvement for everybody was amazing, so in terms of a record, I'm not looking at it. It's just a game, and these boys have improved tremendously. We'll start winning."
The Trackers lost to the Peace River Royals 6-2 at home in Dawson Creek on Friday, then hit the road to take on the Grande Prairie Storm on Saturday, where they also lost 5-1.
"In power plays we we're really flat right now, and I think [the Royals] got a couple power play goals and that killed our momentum," Giroux said, "Then they really put the pedal to the medal and came out with the win.
"We're not moving our feet in terms of forechecking well or pinning a guy up in the corner in our own end or supporting the puck well, little things like that," he added. "You can see the body language and almost see the players give up on themselves because we're 0-10 or 0-11 right now."
Confidence has been an issue since the start of the season for the Trackers, Giroux says. The team is very talented, he says, but the players often don't believe they're as good as they are and it affects their performance game after game.
One thing the team does have, however, is a lot of camaraderie, which is something Giroux didn't see as much on the team last year.
"This year everybody is playing playoff style hockey, and the competitive level I've been searching for and challenging my players for the last month, we've finally got it, and in terms of that, I'm really happy," he said. "We're losing games, whatever, it's Dec. 1, and we've got three months to go.
"Every player was red cheeked and sweat soaked after each game. Everybody is playing like veterans and playing playoff hockey. The Trackers team is hungry, I have never seen this kind of passion in my four years of coaching."
And even though the Trackers lost on Saturday as well, what Giroux saw from behind the bench didn't give him a lot to worry about, despite the score.
"It was a great game, I was very surprised by how much the boys improved," he said. "We literally dominated the play for 60 minutes.
"We came out strong and matched Grande Prairie. It was 1-0 after the first, and it was a fluke goal. Our guys got distracted by a play and lost sight of the puck. They got three in the second and it was basically the same thing -- something big happened and no one really thought about their positioning or somebody forgot to dump it in or couldn't get it out of our own end, and one mistake led to another. Those three goals weren't really strong goals, but we matched their play the whole game. I thought we played well."
There's one particular player who's standing out for Giroux right now, forward Ryan Friesen, who has his eyes set on playing Junior hockey next season and is starting to prove why.
"Ryan Friesen has taken the team on his shoulders and has literally changed the dressing room's energy. He's such a key player in the dynamics of our team," Giroux said.
"He showed his leadership [this past weekend] and was barking at our players, getting guys motivated from the first second to the last second, so he's coming around in leadership and meeting my expectations of where he should be. His line mates are feeding off of that, too."
Losses aside, the Trackers are trying to ignore their recent record and concentrate on the NAMHL playoffs this spring. That's what really matters, Giroux says, not the standings.
The Trackers will hit the road this weekend when they'll travel to Alberta for a three-game weekend. There they'll take on the Camrose Vikings, the Leduc Roughnecks and the Sturgeon Mustangs.
Giroux is hoping his team can cast their confidence issues aside and play like they know they can, and get some points while they're at it.
"I truly believe they're going to go far this year. They just need to figure out how to start scoring and get that winning attitude. They're working hard and are trying to overcome the frustration," he said.
"We took a baby step forward [in Grande Prairie], and we'll take it."
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